The Importance of Buying Band Merch

Having held“avid gig-goer”status for a few years now, I’m well-versed in how to prepare for a night in the mosh pit. Gearing up for a show is an almost ritualistic experience for me these days, and it necessitates the use of a mental checklist: Do I have transport to and from the venue? What time do doors open? Will a pint cost more than one of my vital organs? There’s one question, though, to which there is no straightforward answer. It’s one that will find me – ten minutes before I’m due to set off – tearing frantically through my wardrobe, yanking out drawers, or else scouring the washing basket for an article of clothing I’m not sure I even owned in the first place. That burning question – What T-shirt should I wear?

When you buy tickets for a gig, it often feels as though you’re implicitly agreeing to wear a uniform. Adhering to this dress code usually means donning a T-shirt with a band name emblazoned on the front. This is where things get interesting. You see, your T-shirt – in the same way, perhaps, as any answer you provide in a Buzzfeed quiz – says a lot about you. It is a personal and political statement, a declaration of the values you hold dear. Your T-shirt screams“THIS IS WHO I AM” or, at the very least, “THIS IS WHO I WANT TO BE.” In the few hours spent in that cramped, sweaty venue, your T-shirt defines you.

Some can be found in the queue, hours before the doors open. This shirt will ineveitably have been purchased on one of the artist’s previous tours; bonus points awarded if the garment pre-dates everyone else’s, and was bought before the band achieved commercial success. It is a cotton emblem of loyalty. Then there are those who scurry over to the merch table immediately, eager to snap up the latest design. The tee then becomes a souvenir, a reminder of a fantastic night. In years to come, you will look at it fondly, as though it’s a collector’s item. Finally, we have people who, at gigs, will proudly display the logo of another artist on their chests. During a FIDLAR show last month, I noticed artists ranging from Eminem to Judas Priest adorning the torsos of spectators. Such a practice may indicate that a person a) has an eclectic music taste, b) wishes to advertise their favourite, possibly lesser-know, band or c) has been dragged along to this show by a friend, unwillingly.

It’s easy to be flippant about this. The importance of band T-shirts, however, is not to be undermined. Not only do they conjure up happy memories or encourage conversation, they are a prime source of cash for artists who, in the current climate, may be struggling. CareersinMusic.com states that“with physical music sales in a constant decline—with the exception of vinyl, of course—these days fans are more likely to spend money on a cool new T-shirt design”. Music site Rock Sound have also published an article in which Tonight Alive’s Jenna McDougall insists “With music piracy so prevalent, music practically comes for free; so much so that you have to offer fans another way to support your band.”

Emerging Glasgow-based outfit Akrobat spoke to me recently about the importance of selling T-shirts and other items at shows. Although maintaining that their use of merchandise is“really just to help promote the band”in its early stages, they acknowledge that merchandising is vital for a lot of up-and-coming acts. “For many bands it is the only source of income and is an important part of promotion”, they tell me. They also mention that the income generated through merch can, on top of ticket sales, help to facilitate“the overall running cost of the band, i.e. studio costs, recording, more merch”.

While streaming and piracy does reduce the intake for many fledgling groups, it’s not the main obstacle they face; many struggle to even make it to the recording studio. Natasha Jokic, writing in The Guardian, asserts that “high tuition fees are killing off student bands”. With access to higher education having become increasingly expensive over the years, many students now can’t afford to invest their time in anything other than uni work. “Missing lectures for practice isn’t quite as easy when the haunting figure of £9,000 looms over you,”says Jokic.

The expense of equipment and recording space proves yet another obstacle for budding musicians who face tuition fees and rising living costs. What’s more, student unions often have difficulty investing in PR campaigns, according to Wikoria Muryn’s qmunicate article, meaning that student bands may not be getting the exposure they need to get themselves off the ground. Start-up bands need all the help they can get, and merchandise provides a solid means of financial support and guerrilla PR.

The staying power of the band T-shirt is astounding. BBC Radio 6 Music now hosts an annual “Wear Your Old Band T Shirt to Work Day”. Several decades after they arrived on the scene, these shirts can be found everywhere from university lecture theatres, to pubs, to investment companies on Casual Friday. Why? Because they help express whats important to us; because they unite people with common interests; and because they allow people to continue doing what they love.

Morgan Laing