Merch, Or It Didn't Happen

There’s no denying that “Hamilton,” the musical, has taken the nation by storm, with an ever increasing fanbase. However, considering that only theater-goers can witness the musical in action, it leaves the rest of the fans scavenging for clues about what the show actually looks like on-stage. Forty-five devoted fans took what details they could glean from promotional images and information from attendees, and created a 46-page book of illustrations for each of the 46 songs on the musical’s soundtrack. 

While copies of this fan-made artbook were given exclusively to the cast and crew of the show, it left many fans wondering if the books would be sold. The answer was no, but this brings us to the question of today.

Bands and solo artists have long been producing their own merchandise for concert tours and new albums. So, what impact do fan-made creations have on sales of merchandise from the artist themselves? Let’s take a closer look at the world of music and merchandise.

The Big Picture

Artists nowadays are constantly striving to one-up each other while out on tour: bigger sets, more backup dancers, selling out the biggest venues. Artists want to give fans the most extravagant experience they will ever see, and for many it’s literally a once in a lifetime chance to see their idols live. 

But more than the stage selfies, even more than the Instagram pics of tickets, it’s the band merch that is now becoming the social statement. Proof that you were there. There’s an online meme with the phrase “pics or it didn’t happen” and the sentiment can now be felt for merchandise too. Take as many pictures as you want, but if you didn’t buy the tour shirt? Than you’re not a true fan. 

Hopping on this trend, many artists aren’t just selling shirts anymore. There’s crop tops, temporary tattoos, sports bras, bracelets, baseball caps, socks, leggings, and show props. 

Unfortunately, these clever items aren’t cheap. 

Fans vs. Artists

Prices for exclusive concert items can range from $30 to over $100. These aren’t just arbitrary numbers, but are the result of an economic balancing act that promoters and band managers must take into account when calculating sales. For many of these artists, merchandise is their main source of revenue. Cheaper tickets mean more fans, with potentially more money to spend on concert merchandise. If a venue charges high-priced tickets, it could translate to less attendance which hurts sales, so they make compromises where they can. 

But comparing a $30 tour shirt to a $20 T-shirt online, it’s easy to see how attractive fan-made merch would be. Many fans are turning to sources like Etsy to create or market their own fan-made merchandise. 

A few artists have started fighting back, including Taylor Swift in early 2015. She made a stand against Etsy sellers, with her legal team citing trademark infringement on items that sported certain lyrics from her songs. While no lawsuits were thrown, many sellers were sent cease-and-desist letters, prompting some to feel bewildered. 

One unnamed Etsy seller told BuzzFeed, “That same day, we saw that Taylor was attempting to trademark a variety of phrases and trying to get them blocked from being sold. After seeing that, we grew a little angry and felt targeted by her camp. It didn’t seem like much of a coincidence anymore.”

Swift’s actions are just one example of a rift developing between artists and their more creative fans. This event was hot on the heels of Swift pulling her music from Spotify, and taking more control of her brand image. While most may consider her moves to be business-savvy, it still left a lot of fans confused about how exactly they were threatening her sales. 

An Alternative Alliance

Well, if one can’t afford merchandise direct from the source, and fan-made items are disappearing from online sources, what’s a fan to do? The answer may lie with companies like Creative Allies.

Creative Allies is the result of a fusion between two once-opposing forces: fan art and royalties for bands/musicians. Through their website, Creative Allies creates a platform for bands or other pop culture icons to hold design contests, whether it be for exclusive T-shirts, logos, phone cases, posters, or animated GIFs. Fans vote on their favorites, and the first, second, and third place winners get cash prizes, with the potential for their designs to become exclusive or even sold through the Creative Allies shop. 

This approach has allowed bands and artists to become more in touch with their fans, co-creating items that benefit both sides. Profits are split between the bands and the designers, and fans get access to merchandise that they helped vote for online. 

The Takeaway

As networking evolves, and fans become more involved in the lives and work of their favorite artists, we can only expect things to get more interesting. While copyright and trademark infringements may dampen the spirits of a few devoted fans, platforms like Creative Allies offer a neutral solution that benefits both parties. 

However, this doesn’t mean that fans should not make their own fan items or forgo artist merchandise completely. It’s important that they keep in mind about what they’re paying for. In an industry where fees and royalties are split between the label, the promoters, managers, and venues, it’s often the merchandise that is the band’s sole source of direct income. Fans should not feel guilty about painting their own T-shirt, but understand that buying the exclusive tour shirt benefits the artist that they love.