The History Of Music Merch

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Originally published in The Music Network – May 24, 2010

As with most things in modern music – it started with The Beatles. Every year the Elvis Presley estate pulls in $40 million in revenue, however Elvis Presley Enterprises, the arm set up to hopefully profit from Elvis merchandising was set up in 1954, and lay dormant for many years, until his death in 1977. Brian Epstein, The Beatles manager was an instinctive musical magnet, however as a band manager he was inexperienced and lacked forethought, which led to both the slew of official Beatles merchandise flooding the early ‘60s market, and the appalling low profits that the band saw from it.

Of course, as with most new business opportunities, few saw the potential at the time. In late ’63 Epstein handed The Beatles merchandising arm over to his solicitor, David Jacobs who in turn handed it to Nicky Byrne who he had met at a party. They issued an official licence to companies in return for 10% of the profits. And so started the onslaught of tat.

The meteoric rise of The Beatles meant that a lot of business deals were not accounted for, and records were shabbily kept, if at all. Their were no clear records of which companies were officially licensed to create Beatles merchandise, and the indiscriminate nature in which licences were issued meant that almost every imaginable product was affixed with The Beatles name or likeness. Press officer Derek Taylor recalls that a US company wrote asking if they could sell their bath water at one dollar a bottle. Elsewhere it was no less crazy.

In 1964, a factory in the US was manufacturing 35,000 Beatle wigs per day, a Liverpool bakery sold 100,000 Ringo dolls in two days, and a Blackpool company received an order for 10 million sticks of liquorice with the Beatles’ name on it. Beatles chewing gum made millions of dollars within a few months, while in New York a ballsy entrepreneur marketed empty cans of Beatle Breath. Of course The Beatles themselves saw little of this money. Seltaeb (Beatles spelt backwards), the largest official merchandising company, sold over 150 different items. NEMS (Epstein’s management company) received 10% of these profits, until August of ’64 when it was raised to 46%.

“Brian Epstein getting robbed was the beginning of the whole global merchandise industry,” music historian Glenn A. Baker notes. Considering that Epstein took a 25% cut of all Beatles profits (the norm was 10% at the time), that didn’t leave a lot for the fab four. In 1965 Ringo summed up his shrewd business nous by remarking, “anytime you spell beetle with an ‘a’ in it we get some money.” By the time The Beatles merchandising affairs were sorted out, the band had retreated in a psychedelic haze, their teen fanbase moving ontoThe Monkees, for whom merchandise was a prime focus, not a muddy afterthought.

The obvious question is, considering the slew of music merchandise available in the ‘60s, why did it take until the ‘70s for the rock band t-shirt, a staple at live concerts for the past 40 years, to gain prominence? The answer lies less in a lack of marketing savvy and more in the fact that t-shirts had not yet come into common usage. The late ‘60s saw tie-dyed t-shirts pop up across drugged-out festivals across America, while sloganeering political t-shirts had been available in short runs throughout the ‘50s, such as the ‘I Love Ike’ campaign of 1952. As a whole these instances were few and far between, and it took the explosion of arena rock, and the shift from the psychedelic optimism of the ‘60s to the satanic rock overtones of the ‘70s music scene to herald the era of the black rock t-shirt. “AC/DC had the first worldwide tour to make more from merchandise than ticket sales,” Glenn A Baker states, “and nothing has changed. Go to one of their shows and count the people who aren’t wearing the red devil horns or the black AC/ DC shirts.” Oddly enough, Warner Brothers were decades ahead of the t-shirt merchandising game, distributing Wizard Of Oz tees back in 1939.

Kiss took rock merchandising to the nth degree. Kiss condoms, caskets, Mr. Potato heads, wine, diaper bags and over 2000 other products are now available (the largest collection of which is housed in Gene Simmons’ abode), making the Kiss name and likeness a billion dollar industry.

Of course, many musicians revolted against such tackiness, which led to a number of bands eschewing major labels, and mainstream promotional methods, instead focusing on short runs of homemade zines, buttons, hand pressed 7-inch singles and other collectable items; strictly speaking merchandise, but with a home spun and personal quality. The NME backhandedly referred to the late ‘80s, early ‘90s UK independent scene as ‘the scene that celebrated itself’ and out of this came a series of bands who were derisively known as ‘T-shirt bands.’ These were bands who designed a massive variation of t-shirts, worn by people in the music scene more as a fashion item than as a show of support for the band. Therefore bands such as 35 Summers,The Farm, and most famously Ned’s Atomic Dustbin (who had more than 80 different designs) became better known as fashion labels than for their recorded output.

In 2010, Merchandise is more important than ever. With record sales plummeting, and piracy rife, merchandise is one of the few remaining physical properties that still has a currency. As Bob Mould from Husker Du said, “you can’t download a T-shirt.” Yet.

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