Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Few Thoughts on T-Shirts

The core of all music merchandising is the T-shirt.

And yet, when I went to look for examples of great music T-shirt design, I found remarkably little. There are some classics, like the Rolling Stones tongue logo, but a lot of the designs, even the famous ones, aren't particularly good art. They have become famous because of the bands or the shows, not as free-standing art.
Why are some a hit and others a bust within a similar category? Matt Hautau, vice president, licensing and marketing, for Signatures Network, believes it's difficult to pinpoint why. "We've always found that album sales have absolutely nothing to do with the ability for an artist to really build and support a merchandising program. We have artists who have sold, and who sell, tens of millions [in record sales], but for whatever reason, the connection with that artist is about pure music—not about who that artist is necessarily. Then [there are] other artists whose album sales are good, but they've got that extra offering that seems to resonate with the consumer."

Defining that "extra something" image wise, to whom it relates and translating the two to an actual product or product line is the formula that goes into today's music artist branding. Like all brands, some are well thought out and executed, and others are disastrous. (Although for many music artists, disastrous can simply translate to mediocre junk.) "Selling Branded Merchandise in Music Industry,", 6/6/05.
Which opens up a lot of opportunity for music T-shirts. Make your shirt designs particularly memorable and chances are people will buy them even if they haven't heard your music or come to any of your shows.
According to Impressions, a clothing industry trade publication, Americans spend around $40 billion a year on decorated apparel. At CafePress, a Web site that lets anyone customize and sell merchandise, users sold more than $100 million in goods in 2007—pocketing $20 million in profits—and overall sales are growing an average of 60 percent a year.

As you might expect, the T-shirt economy is a long tail phenomenon, with comparatively few people making a full-time living while millions earn only a few hundred or thousand bucks a year. On the high revenue end, you've got companies like BustedTees—an offshoot of the funny-video portal CollegeHumor—which, with a staff of eight, expects to clear a 20 percent profit on sales of 350,000-plus shirts for 2008. In the middle are outfits like RightWingStuff, which hawks T-shirts mocking the left. And on the far end of the tail are people like David Friedman, a New York photographer who cooks up three or four witty ideas a year—like his series of T-shirts adorned with fictional corporate logos that are blurrily 'pixelated,' as if on reality TV—and makes just enough money to cover his hosting fees, plus a bit of pocket change. "Clive Thompson on How T-Shirts Keep Online Content Free," Wired, 11/24/08.
To give you some ideas, here's a list of top T-shirt designers.

The most logical place to start for your first T-shirt is your band logo. Hopefully you've picked a good one.

The next logical design might be based on an album cover. Not necessarily a duplicate of the cover, because that might involve more than one color printing, which can get expensive. But perhaps a simpler design using the cover as a theme.

If you have minimal graphics skill and don't want to hire a designer, you might look at royalty-free clip art. Dover carries a nice collection of designs.

Another way to get some creative T-shirt ideas is to invite fans to contribute them. Amanda Palmer has an extensive clothing page on her website. The first T-shirt on the page, Beach Ninja, was designed by a fan. Another example: the T-shirt for Danielle Ate the Sandwich was designed by a fan.

There's considerably more to explore if you plan to make T-shirts a major part of your music income. Here are a few resources.

  • How to start a Clothing Company
  • T-Shirt Magazine
  • Tee Biz
  • PopCultureTees

  • Suzanne Lainson
    @slainson on Twitter

    UPDATE, 7/31/09
    To inspire you: ThinkGeek :: Meh Hoodie

    UPDATE, 11/28/09
    "47 Essential Resources for T-Shirt Designers," GoMediaZine, 11/24/08.

    UPDATE, 10/23/10
    Read about someone who started out making pins and working part-time in a silk screening business and record shop. Then he started designing t-shirts for bands and was in a band himself. Eventually he went full-time into creating his own t-shirt company that sells his branded cupcake t-shirts nationally. Johnny CupCakes / Story


    1. Many thanks for this post. I have been looking into having a few shirts made, more from a markteting angle. The cover for Scattered Hearts is beautiful and while it will be expensive to put on a shirt, the cover will garner attention.

      If this begins conversation that is a win. Toss in a few sales and we have a win-win situation. I think I just convinced myself.

    2. why am i just now finding about your blog?! great, great info.

    3. Thanks for the comments. Internet has been causing me some problems for a few days and I haven't been online as much as usual.

    4. Hey - thanks for your comment at my blog - I would have replied by email, but I couldn't find an email address - yes, of course, parenting causes all sorts of different reactions to health care, and I too am guilty of taking the small one to the doctor for a virus that will go away on its own.

      (PS- the only rock band T-shirt I own is from Springsteen's 1984 tour - it's got his denim-clad ass front and center.)


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