In the fall of 1983, the British band Frankie Goes To Hollywood released its debut single, “Relax.” You may know it from the brainwash scene in Zoolander. By today’s standards, the lyrics are innocent enough. But in 1984 with “Relax” climbing the charts in the UK, BBC Radio decided to ban the track because of its sexual nature.
As often happens, banning the song only made it more popular. “Relax” went to Number 1 in the UK and stayed there for five weeks. As memorable as the song is, it is also remembered because of the accompanying T-shirts that exclaimed “Frankie Say Relax Don’t Do It” in enormous capital letters. The shirts were the brainchild of record label head Paul Morley and mimicked the style of British fashion designer Katharine Hamnett. The shirts had staying power, even making it into an episode of Friends.
While Frankie Goes To Hollywood was certainly not the first musical act to look at T-shirts as a way to extend its branding, it does provide an example of how a band T-shirt can be more than a souvenir. More than 30 years later, we are seeing a new resurgence in the importance of band and concert merchandise. Artists like Kanye West, Drake, Rihanna, and Justin Bieber have all created levels of hype for their merch to rival that of the music. In fact, with pop-up shops, online stores, and the secondary market, attending the actual concert is no longer a prerequisite for buying a concert tee.
The concert T-shirt has always been a way of saying, “I was there.” Just about everyone can remember the first show they attended and chances are that, the day after the show, you were wearing a shirt emblazoned with the logo of the act you’d seen. It served as both a status symbol and a conversation starter (“How was the show?”), but it wasn’t really seen as a design object. The merch was more function than form, displaying facts like the name of the band, its logo, and the cities and dates of the tour. A month after the show, you probably weren’t wearing it anymore. A year afterward, it had likely been transformed into a rag for polishing your Miata.
There were certainly exceptions, and the current market for vintage rock tees (both actual vintage and recreations of old styles) is a testament to the power of the visual language of bands like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica. Yes, people pay top dollar for these shirts because they love the music, but it’s also because of the attitude the shirts convey. More recently, hip-hop, not typically a musical genre known for nostalgia, has rediscovered the merch gems in its archive, many of which are collected in DJ Ross One’s excellent book Rap Tees.
What sets apart the current slate of concert merch is its standalone nature. Until now, the merch was always closely tethered to the artist and an event. That cord hasn’t been cut, but it has definitely been stretched. When Kanye West staged his Yeezy Season 3 fashion show-slash-The Life Of Pablo listening party at Madison Square Garden, the primary attraction for attendees seemed to be purchasing product, more than listening to music or looking at fashion. That speculation was affirmed when Kanye opened a pop-up shop in New York City to continue selling the wares—including jean jackets and bomber jackets and tees with “Pablo” repeated multiple times in old english script. The lines to get in mirrored that of the most coveted Supreme drops, and West claimed that the venture netted him a million dollars over two days. The artist behind the TLOP merchandise, Cali Thornhill DeWitt, was sought out by no less of a fashion authority than Vogue to discuss his collaboration.
Other artists have followed suit. Justin Bieber worked with Fear Of God designer Jerry Lorenzo on the shirts and other merchandise for Bieber’s Purpose tour. Lorenzo described the collection as “the perfect marriage of Kurt Cobain and Allen Iverson.” (FWIW, thinking of Cobain and The Answer in the same room together puts a smile on my face.)
Whether a shopper is able to see that reference (or care about it) in the clothes themselves, is somewhat beside the point. The very fact that we’re talking about the inspiration behind a concert tee or that we even know who designed it is a sign that the product has become more elevated. It isn’t at the point where people are buying a Justin Bieber shirt because they’re big Jerry Lorenzo fans, but it does appear that they are doing it to say more than “I was there.”
Then there’s the fact that the merch has spawned knockoffs. If the “you’re nobody until somebody copies you” adage is to be believed, the existence of sites that allow you to create your own version of Kanye’s “I feel like Pablo” shirt (“I feel like chicken tonight” is a personal favorite) signifies the merch’s position in popular culture. Kanye himself even ripped off his own design to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant.
I’m not so naive to think that the new state of band and concert merch is solely about musicians creating art for art’s sake. There is clearly a money play here. Merchandise has always been an outlet for singers and bands to generate revenue that ends up in their own pockets at a higher percentage than, say, album sales or streaming fees, where record labels take a bigger cut.
What’s unique is that there seems to be considerably more thought going into the cash grab. It’s more than just silkscreening an image of an album cover onto a crappy quality T-shirt. The garments that artists are creating align well with the style trends that are taking place in the world at large. At the moment that means a clear streetwear influence, but that can (and should) evolve.
Perhaps a Kanye “Pablo” shirt will even make its way into some future Friends reunion.