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Essays

They’re With the Brand

Music and Merchandising (or, You Can’t Download a T-Shirt)

Rush Bobbleheads Ever since The Rolling Stones first printed their lips-and-tongue logo in 1971, the music world has been rife with super-successful branding, from The Ramones’ American eagle to Motorhead’s armoured skull to Public Enemy’s human target. And yet, with very few exceptions — most prominently, Rush — Canadian bands have historically resisted forging a design identity, or simply haven’t been much good at it.

Over the last few years, however, they’ve started to catch on — witness Metric’s insignia in bold, fractured capital letters, DJ/producer deadmau5′ s cute but somewhat sinister mouse head, and synth-pop singer LIGHTS’s stylized comic-book self-portraits. Such branding offers artists a new creative outlet, and the source of an increasingly important revenue stream.

"A lot of the time now, merchandising is an artist’s bread and butter," designer Tony Holiday says. The east Toronto warehouse space of his company, Kill the 8, is rammed with boxes upon boxes of music-related products, from Metric water bottles to deadmau5 "Mau5pads" to cheeky Dragonette scarves in the style of Dior and Louis Vuitton. Holiday sells these items for artists online and to retail, and supplies them for tours. An explosion in merchandising products — or "merch" — has become inevitable, he says. "With music being downloaded free, you have to give the fan something else."

Holiday got into the business seven years ago, just as the CD boom was starting to go bust, but "before record labels started dipping their fingers too deep" into merchandising. He’s built his business with independent artists and labels alike, collaborating with artists on designs, and then manufacturing and selling just about anything: "It goes off into as big [a spectrum] as their budget is and as big as their imagination is. Mini-speakers, flip-flops, sunglasses, beach towels, waterproof bags that you can put your iPod in — everything you can think of that you can brand, we’ve done."

Increasingly, such "added value" products are presented in the form of "bundling," where an album is sold together with other items. For instance, Out of Our Minds, the new album by Montreal singer and bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, is available in a deluxe "Full OOOM" package including a tie-in comic book and DVD, a signed print, a T-shirt, a sticker, a button, a tote bag and more. When a musician becomes involved in all facets of such a project, Auf der Maur explains, her creative focus changes. Songs are dreamed up without an audience in mind, but not so the merch: "When it comes to packaging the content, I think of it as, ‘What would I want to be able to have in my hands?’ I use myself as the model for a potential customer."

Having played in two of the most successful bands of the ’90s (Hole and Smashing Pumpkins), she says she finds the new reality of the music business presents a "new puzzle to figure out. … On a visual scale, it requires the maker to be forward-thinking, harder-working, strategic, experimental — you have to fit into a very slender doorway, and that means that I am working harder than I’ve ever worked."

These days, you’re as likely to find Auf der Maur in a comic-book store signing her work as performing on stage. Out of Our Minds, as a fantasy concept album, lends itself to development in other media, and to her expanding her fan base in unpredictable ways. At one signing in New York City, she found some "young comic book people" were baffled by her picture vinyl. "They were like, ‘What is this?’ ‘It’s a record; it plays music. Do you want one?’ ‘No, I don’t have a record player, but can I take a picture? I can’t believe this plays music!’ Would they buy the vinyl? No. But they gravitate to the comic book."

For major labels, bundling can be a means of sustaining the business of selling CDs. In 2007, Universal Music bought the successful merchandising company Bravado; they imported its clients from other labels (e. g., Nickelback, Green Day), and recently, they’ve been devising a host of tie-in products for their own roster in-house. The new Justin Bieber album, for instance, was bundled with T-shirts of various sizes in retail stores.

"My kids went crazy for this," says Randy Lennox, president of Universal Music Canada. "We sold quite a lot of them that first week." Lennox says he wishes he and his company had caught onto bundling and merchandising earlier: "Look at the opportunities that have been missed. … The contracts we had for the last 30 years were really antiquated! Virtually every deal that we’ve done in the last three or four years has had other rights in it."

These "other rights" include a cut of merchandising, which traditionally was the artist’s province alone. In return, Lennox says, the label provides "manpower and expertise and services." Nowadays, the practice of fostering a new artist’s career can involve a label’s paying just about as much attention to the merchandise as to the music. Lennox cites the case of Edmonton pop-rock band The Stereos, who signed with Universal a year ago. "We went to them and said, ‘We’ve got a whole bunch of stuff from keychains to toe rings to stuff that goes under your thumb for your iPod.’ The band loved it. I look at the revenue that their CD sales generate, and I juxtapose that to the revenue that the merch generates, and they are dangerously close to each other."

The question arises: Is the explosion in merchandise directly related to a downturn in sales of recorded music? Are fans who download music for free then using the money they save to help out bands in other ways? For Chris Taylor, Toronto music lawyer and founder of Last Gang Records (home to visually clued-in bands such as Metric and Crystal Castles), "it’s realistic to expect that that might be the case at least some of the time. … When people feel strongly enough about an artist to identify with them, they want to wear that T-shirt or hat as a badge of honour and a form of support for the act."

As a lawyer, Taylor finds that major labels are negotiating merch rights "pretty much 100% of the time now, whereas three years ago it would have been 75% of the time. Unless it’s a very extraordinary situation, like a Drake [who is Taylor’s client] –someone who has increased their bargaining power independently on a significant level — you’re probably going to be putting merch into the deal."

And while some musicians frown on the way labels set up such "360 deals," Taylor says having help with merchandising can be advantageous: "It can provide fuel to the bottom line, for these labels to go the extra mile and put more marketing money into projects, to help these artists achieve their dreams."

The labels are clearly learning as they go along, sorting out what sells where, and why. For instance, says Lennox, "Urban merch is not doing the business that we thought two years ago it might do," whereas "the harder the rock, the more the merch — it’s unbelievable." Rush are particularly successful, he finds, because they "managed to jump the tennis net" from the progressive rock into the hard rock world "just in time."

According to Lennox, Quebec’s love of heavy metal makes it a particularly merch-loving province. But the best place in Canada to sell music-related stuff, Holiday says, is in the prairies. "Calgary and Winnipeg kill it — by far. People there really support the artists; everybody wants to get a shirt. You can do Calgary-specific designs and sell them there. It could be the economy; it could be that Toronto gets so many bands that come through it, your merch gets diluted."

But wherever you may find yourself as a band, he says, certain rules always apply. Don’t put a guy’s face on a shirt (unless you’re a country band or a teen-pop act); don’t assume your fans want to look just like you ( "Sometimes the fan thinks, ‘This is really awesome, but I could never wear it. Where’s the black T-shirt?’"), and once you’ve found a good logo, don’t change it. If you do things right, it might just outlast your band.

Such is the case with the short-lived Toronto sludge rock/dance duo Death from Above 1979, who were signed to Last Gang but split up in 2006. Their T-shirts, featuring iconic elephant/human hybrid heads, remain big sellers. "I still wear them, to this day," Taylor says, "and shed a tear in the morning when I put them on."

GEDDY LEE TALKS MERCH

Fans attending Rush’s Time Machine tour this summer can buy Starman stainless steel water bottles, branded guitar picks, new T-shirts, and more. Geddy Lee spoke with us about his band’s success in merchandising, and what we can look forward to in the future.

People often say that you’re one of the few bands in Canada that’s really succeeded at branding yourselves over the years.

What’s weird about it is that we change our logo almost every album. Most bands come up with some logo, and they beat it to death. Every tour, we come up with a different font, different lettering, different imagery to relate to whatever that particular album is. Despite that, we seem to have not alienated our fans. Certain albums have resonated with fans in a serious way, and those have, over time, turned into recognizable logos, like the Starman, the skull from Roll the Bones, and [the cover of] Farewell to Kings … but it’s not like we intentionally go out there now and use the Starman on every album — it only appears on 2112. Obviously we sell retro merchandise that still has those elements visible on them; fans do respond to that because it might be their favourite album. I think more than anything, the Starman has become synonymous with Rush.

To what extent are you involved with the merch aspect of your business these days?

It’s funny you ask — I’m just finishing a merchandising meeting. We try to make sure that the things that we’re selling are of high quality and that the prices are reasonable. Today we were presented with tons of T-shirt designs, and we have to make sure that we all like them and that they don’t just represent past concepts of tours. There will always be one or two Starman T-shirts available, but the focus is on the current work — there’s all this new artwork that we’re excited about. The time machine [from the band’s upcoming tour] gives us a new idea to explore visually, and we have fun with that, and that’s what’s kept us current, I think: focusing on what we’re doing now.

Is it true you’re selling more merchandise now than ever before?

We sell a lot of merchandise, that’s true, and I think it’s because we have good quality stuff, and our fans are excited when we come out on tour. It’s part and parcel of the fact that we don’t tour every year; we can’t play as many dates as some bands, due to the length of our set and our tender age. … It’s about setting your aesthetic bar pretty high, and you’ve got to oversee it to make sure it filters down to every aspect of the business.

Isn’t it ironic that the Starman’s naked, and yet he’s appeared on so much clothing?

We’ve had some interesting ideas of poking fun at the Starman, ’cause there’s bootleg Starmen floating around — there’s one with a naked Homer Simpson; there’s a famous guy with a hockey stick, so it’s transcended 2112. As a Canadian, I’m fond of the hockey man. … We’ve got some ideas about that, so we’ll see what happens in the future. I think the most important thing is that every once in a while you have to have fun with the material.

— Originally appeared in The National Post, May 28, 2010

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