The Fashionable Evolution of Tour Merch

Justin Bieber Yellow Sweater - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of VFiles

Justin Bieber Yellow Sweater - Publicity - H 2016

As stars seize creative control of their merchandise, Justin Bieber sells $1,675 jackets at Barneys and artists move merch a la Kanye without a runway show.

For decades, musicians have churned out a host of branded souvenirs for fans to pick up at concert venues with margins fat enough to furnish as much as 10 to 30 percent of what artists make on the road. But with some artists’ growing ambitions to extend their influence beyond music, concert merchandise is undergoing a remarkable evolution — and fans are responding en masse, lining up not just at tour venues but at pop-ups and retailers even when a tour isn’t in season.

“There are fewer records being sold these days, and [artists] have to come up with improved ways of making money,” says Michael Rego, CEO of Araca Group, which designs concert merch for Beyoncé and Ellie Goulding. “Merchandising, when it works well, is absolutely a way. That means taking it up a level beyond ‘Here’s my CD on a T-shirt.’”

The Pioneer

MERCH: Kanye West Wears Life of Pablo tee. (Photo: Getty Images)

Many point to Kanye West and his 2013 Yeezus-design-heavy product lineup — a collaboration among the rapper, his creative agency Donda and the artist Wes Lang — for transcending earlier notions of what merch could be. It also looked like apparel that West actually would — and in fact, did — wear, featuring grim reapers and controversial Confederate flags on shirts, hats and totes. The products generated a frenzy of demand when they went on sale at concerts and West’s online store, followed by a release of six tees at PacSun that sold out in a day. Many pieces continue to command five to seven times their original sale prices on eBay.

West further raised the bar during New York Fashion Week in February, when he released his latest album, The Life of Pablo, at a fashion show for his third Adidas-collection and introduced a complete lineup of Pablo-themed merch that was sold at surprise pop-ups in New York, Los Angeles and Paris.

Beyond $45 tees and $95 hoodies, the collection included $400 thrift-store-sourced jackets emblazoned with Pablo graphics. Demand has easily exceeded supply; lines have wrapped blocks, and a three-day pop-up in New York alone generated $2 million in sales, claimed West. The free press it has created for his upcoming Saint Pablo tour? Worth even more.

Following Suit

The hip-hop artist isn’t the only one finding success. For this year’s Purpose Tour, Justin Bieber partnered with stylist Karla Welch and buzzy Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo to help create his look — borrowing from ’90s grunge — and complementary merch, which Bieber wears onstage. “We thought, ‘Let’s not make stuff that young teenage girls would like, but stuff that Justin would like, that he would personally wear,’” says Lorenzo.

In addition to wildly successful pop-up experiences in Miami and New York, on July 16 Barneys began selling an exclusive 31-piece Purpose-branded capsule, including T-shirts, jeans and a leather jacket, priced from $95 to $1,675 and designed to capture Bieber’s “total look” during the Purpose Tour — from flannel oversized shirts and kilts to hockey jerseys. Barneys senior vp Jay Bell calls it the “fastest, most successful project we’ve done in the shortest period of time,” with a 64 percent sell-through in the first week. Bieber also announced yet another capsule for early August, this time with Urban Outfitters, and priced far more affordably at $35 to $99.

No Tour? No Problem

What is perhaps most noteworthy, though, is that these successes signify concert merch that is no longer exclusively tied to concert venues (which typically take a 5 to 25 percent cut of sales), offering artists another avenue to connect to fans, including those who can’t cough up money for show tickets. “In the lull period between albums, [artists] can still use it to connect with their fan base,” says Joe Perez, the former lead art director of Donda who designed West’s Yeezus logo. “We’re in an era where there’s a need for new content, whether on the Internet or in the physical world. It keeps people within that culture."

Not to mention, the stuff looks cool. “There’s [a new breed] of personal style where people are throwing together a concert T-shirt, Comme des Garcons pants, and making a look that’s personalized,” says Bell. Merchandise companies have had to step up. “It has changed the way we staff our business, the skill set and the type of people you need to bring to create the product lines,” says Mat Vlasic, CEO of Bravado, which produces merch for Bieber, West and Selena Gomez. The company’s revenue has quadrupled during the past nine years. “Artists are demanding that merchandise rise to the level of, dare I say, fashion,” adds Rego.

Next Up: Chairs?!

In the coming years, experts expect stars to inch further into the lifestyle market. West recently said he would like to partner with Ikea on furniture design, which would enable him, quite literally, to create a Kanye-fied space for his fans to inhabit 24/7. Bell observes of the sea change: “Music artists have to become creative directors, to exert total control over the image of their lifestyle — and customers are responding to that.”  

This story first appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard Magazine.