Opinion: Merch is Boring. But It Doesn't Have To Be

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For seasons in my life, I’ve found myself as a professional designer. But even outside of that, I’ve been pursuing hobbies in video and photography for some years. In high school, I did pixel art for a few games (which never launched, RIP). Suffice to say, even if I’m not the best at composition, I spend a lot of time with it. I’ve spent hours getting websites laid out properly and edited videos late into the night. I’ve seen things, many of them even.

So, band merch is weird to me. Even if I love a band, I often can’t justify buying their merch. Granted, I life in a place that’s cold much of the year and I would typically wear button-downs and ties to the office and not change after work. If you sell clothes, you’re essentially competing for my leisure time – Saturday, and maybe some of Sunday at best. I’ll easily buy CDs – I listen to them all the time because they fit into the framework of my life. But band merch?

I’m not going to say most designs are bad. I’m just saying most of them are designed so myopically. The stereotypical tee has a band logo and some design behind it. Sometimes it’s just the logo. As cringey as parody designs are, they’re at least a little fun – even if walking around repping Burger King feels inane.

Admittedly, just wearing a shirt with a band name on it isn’t very appealing. It’s not evident to people what the entity being advertised is. Is it a startup? Maybe a coffee shop? Microbrewery? It’s unclear. Typically, brand identity comes before design.

But as a consumer, I care more about if the design is cool, if the products are ethically sourced (not as much as I should, be I’d be more enticed to buy hand-made local goods over mass-produced ones), and if there’s a specific meaning behind. That’s the reason I bought the upside down cross shirt from Convictions even though I barely listened to them. Art makes a statement (and sometimes you’re going through a cagey metalcore phase).

Sometimes I’ve picked up a shirt with a bundle through Kickstarter. Sometimes I buy a shirt when the artist doesn’t have any music available. But usually, I buy the shirt because I just like it. And maybe a guy with dolphin ties and pineapple shirts isn’t the base consumer of band merch, but there certainly are designs that catch my eye. Stemson had some great designs where the artist name was hardly visible. Do I want to downplay the artist by buying unbranded merch? No. But would I feel like supporting an artist by buying more merch if their designs were as creative and seamless to their identity as their music? Unless you’re Jason Derulo, you’re not slathering your name all over your music. Someone hears a song they like out of the blue and they connect with it. They connect with the art. The same goes for film – you don’t need to know who made it to know you like it.

But merch is weird. It feels more like (bad) advertising than another artistic medium. Only a subset of fans will ever buy any merch item because of this. It’s not wrong to brand merchandise, but for smaller bands in particular, it’s presumptuous to think people are dedicated to your brand. More than likely, they care more about you as an artist – your songwriting, your relationship with them. And bland merch does not convey this closeness and vulnerability.

So, what are the components of good merch?

  • Versatile – the item works in multiple settings (the more settings, the better)
  • Unique – it’s the kind of item that that has some sort of rarity – either by being hand-made or simply a unique item
  • Form – if you saw it from a distance and couldn’t make out any branding, you’d want the item

I’m not arguing solely for unbranded merch. If you have a cool logo and have it carved into a mug, that’s a unique and practical merch item. It’s the kind of thing that fits into life, and it’s not something every band sells. Inversely, you could have a hat with lyrics in cursive on it. Maybe it’s not overtly-branded, but it takes the sentiment of an artist and lays it bare. Merch designs tend to be a collaboration with designers. If a producer has  his fingerprints in the album and directors leave their traces in videos, the designs need not be fully-centered on the artist. Design is, in some sense, universal. A mountain is beautiful; a mountain with a McDonald’s billboard in front of it is less so. If the brand isn’t contributing to the overall design, maybe the design can speak for itself – the artist is supported by the merch sale perhaps more so than by people seeing the merch.

I’ve also seen bands tie album sales into creative merch – USB drives inside candy. Download codes with mason jars. I know the industry is always changing how they count album sales, but for smaller artists, this shouldn’t matter. I’d rather attend a concert where the band cooks a three-course meal and plays a few songs rather than buy shirts from them. It’s a unique, intimate experience that can generate some press and social media content from attendees. And that’s what’s missing from a lot of merch – there is no unique experience. The design is uncompelling and doesn’t invite conversation. It doesn’t serve as a multimedia liaison with the artist’s music.

Patreon has helped change this dynamic a bit – where the merch perks tend to be second-nature for those supporting the artist. The support is already there, and the merch is just a nice add-on. Sometimes people won’t even use any of the Patreon benefits at all. Getting email updates and letters from an artist is enough. Online show passes are cool. Song previews let us see behind the curtain on the creation process. These are experiential. That’s why live music is exciting – it’s a performance and interplay between artist and audience. Stage banter changes each show. The live show is unpredictable. Maybe someone will smash a guitar. Maybe a pedalboard will cut out and they’ll finish the show with the audience singing along.

Maybe that’s the direction merch needs to go – more toward experience, relationship-building. Phone calls with the artist. Having a picture you drew featured in a music video. Exclusive, limited-run hand-made merch. Hand-written lyrics. Things that remind us that art is innately human and part of the imago dei. Things that give us a greater sense of dignity for artists in an age when it’s easy for them to become conveniences.

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MrM
MrM
September 23, 2020 11:43 am

I’ve typed up two full responses and lost both of them by accidentally closing the page. Third times the charm! Tl;dr – Merch is usually boring and it shouldn’t be, because it’s still an important connection between artist and listener I love band shirts. I think they’re a great way to support the artist through purchasing their product and by showcasing the band by wearing it. I’d argue that band shirts are usually very unique, outside of a concert experience, I’ve never run into someone wearing the same shirt as me. Most of my shirts have come from online purchases,… Read more »

Brandon the John Ivy
Brandon the John Ivy
September 11, 2020 2:12 pm

I liked buying shirts as a teeanger, as long as they were black or gray. I still would, but I’m a “Tall” now. CDs are good.

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