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Pins, zines, and of course T-shirts: How bands brand themselves with style

Courtesy of Gigi Berry

Courtesy of Gigi Berry

The first concert T-shirt was apparently created in the 1950s by an Elvis fan club. In the ’60s, the artist Warren Dayton pioneered the usage of T-shirts as an artistic medium.

Cool, fine, whatever. But what’s that got to do with Minnesota? Here’s an anecdote for locals. In the ’90s, Joel Jacobson showed up at the State Fair with a “Brian Oake for President” T-shirt, stumping whimsimcally for the then-Rev 105 radio personality.

“I worked at a place where you could screen-print,” Jacobson recalls. He and his brother printed up a few of the shirts, then visited Oake at a State Fair booth. “I can’t remember exactly what he said, but something along the lines of ‘Thanks, but I’m not sure I’d be the right fit.’”

The T-shirt stood out because the Minneapolis music scene in the ’90s was not exactly merch-forward, according to Jacobson. “A lot of it was flyers and posters. That’s how bands got the word out.  

There were still physical objects to covet and collect: vinyl and CDs and cassettes, of course, and people, Jacobson included, would save ticket stubs. But merch was hardly at the center of the club-going experience.

People still save stubs. And posters and flyers are still necessary, though you’re more likely to see them on a screen than stapled to a telephone pole. But the lines at merch tables have grown, with new designs—and new items—showing up all the time.

The big shift in the merch game has a lot to do with artist’s paychecks. This is hardly breaking news: Physical music sales are down, streaming is in, and if we want to support the people we love we’ve got to buy their shit. Today you can find windbreakers and hats and socks and keychains and candles at the merch table, as well as anything else you can emblazon with a logo.

Locally, Gigi Berry rules her enamel pin empire. She’s made pins for Last Import, Lady Midnight, and New Black City; no doubt new collaborations will be on their way soon. Berry finds a lot of her favorite pieces to be fan-made, with love for the artist at the forefront.

“When I go to shows I buy merch religiously—I like leaving the show with something that says I was there,” Berry says. “Encouraging local bands to invest in merch is important because your fans want it and they’re basically walking adverts. Someone is gonna ask, ‘Hey, where’d you get that hat/shirt/patch/sticker/pin from?’ and they’re gonna want to tell them all about your band.”

Designers like Alexis Politz—whose work can be seen on Berry’s Last Import pin—create these stickers and clothing and posters that show up both physically and on Instagram feeds.

Politz mentions the physical edition of P.O.S’s Never Better as an early design inspiration. She remembers being 14 and ogling the vinyl coverings and tracing paper. “It’s vital to have merch that people can hold and touch and look at while they’re experiencing a show,” Politz says. “It’s important to have good merch because it’ll represent a band in some way. With DIY bands especially—you have to have good visuals to get people’s attention. It’s art helping art helping art.” 

To mark the release of their album Semi-Permanent, Kitten Forever released a zine featuring lyrics and interviews plus a digital download code.

“We liked the idea of a physical object you would sit with and experience in your hands,” says Kitten Forever’s Liz Elton. “They’re a little annoying to tour with since they take up a lot of room and are relatively delicate—they crinkle easily—but it’s totally worth it and they’re a fun merch table conversation-starter.”

Doomtree has onesies featuring their “No Kings” logo. Niiiice has rolling papers. Bob Ross Mob Boss had a hot sauce. The merch possiblities seem endless, even if the supply isn’t. Legacy items like the Rhymesayers windbreaker are still hard to snag; the Bad Bad Hats hats that say “Bad Bad” were sold out until recently.

“Merch is about being able to show off your taste. Being able to support your friends,” Natalie Klemond of Gully Boys says. “Coming out for a band is one thing. But to be able to take something away—there’s something sweet about it.”

Through all this innovation and expansion, though, one item still reigns supreme.

“Bands are a really elaborate T-shirt commercial,” says Klemond, quoting the podcast Creative Pep Talk. She designs all the band’s merch including a particular T-shirt that’s been on my mind: Three weapon-yielding cherubs fly around, rosy and perfect and... dangerous, and the band’s name is rendered in a gothic font. The band also made two new T-shirts available on the first night of their December residency at the Entry.

“It’s always gonna be T-shirts,” agrees career merchandise manager Doug Lefebvre.

T-shirts aren’t cheap—Lefebvre says $35 is a fair price to pay for a shirt when you take into account all that goes into it: the collaboration of artist and designer, the sellers, the printers, the stock. And how sustainable is a business built on $35 T-shirts? According to Lefebvre, very. He would know: He has the data and industry expertise to back the claim up. He’s been on every Atmosphere tour and he’s watched over semi-trucks full of cotton blanks. He can count a stack of shirts in mere seconds and knows exactly what your eye spots first in a display.

And his favorite design? That’d be like asking someone to pick their favorite child, but Lefebvre mentioned Poliça’s collection and the package for Brother Ali’s All the Beauty in This Whole Life album as examples of excellent local merch items, as well as Atmosphere’s ship-in-bottle-surrounded-by-filigree T-shirt.

“It’s about coveting the new stuff and digging up the old,” Lefebvre says. “Merch is alive and well. It will be for a very, very long time.” ç