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You Say Party, We Say Dye: What’s The Appeal Of Custom Merch?

September 06 2010, 8:00 AM EDT By Emily Zemler


Imagine walking into a venue to see your favorite band. You’ve got an extra $20 in your wallet and you’re ready to do some shopping at the merch table. Now imagine the singer of your favorite band is standing behind said table, silk-screening T-shirts by hand or painting a broken drum head as fans watch. Instead of being handed a mass-manufactured shirt in exchange for your cash, you could walk away with something one-of-a-kind and unique.


Bands these days have a variety of reasons for creating custom merch at shows or hand-making their own CD booklets. It could be a creation of necessity, an endeavor of love or just the way that artist thinks thing should be done. SARAH SATURDAY, the musician behind GARDENING, NOT ARCHITECTURE and the mastermind behind DIY website EarnItYourself.com, fashions all her own merch. From EP covers she’s crafted out of heavy paper and sewn together to screenprinted CD sleeves to handmade shirts, Saturday does it all. During this past summer’s Warped Tour, the musician could be found in her merch tent literally sewing CD sleeves together while paying customers watched. “Aside from it being a really fun, creative outlet and a way to bring art back into music, one-of-a-kind, limited edition, or otherwise unique packaging in today's ‘download it’ culture is also the solution to the problem of declining sales of physical albums,” Saturday says. “When a person is given the option of paying for something that a million other people could possibly have, or paying for something that only a small group of people—or better yet, only they—could possibly have… well, I know what I would choose. A one-of-a-kind item has more value in the longrun.”



Solo artist PJ BOND has a similar philosophy, which came of necessity. “[When I was starting out,] the only way to have merch was to make it,” he says. Since then, Bond has screenprinted CD covers with handwritten lyrics inside, created zines, posters, bags and apparel of all sorts, and offered his own paintings for sale. What was at first the means to an end is now a labor of love and “a gift” that connects Bond with his fans. “I think the piece of merch people have been most excited by were the hand-screened [digipak] versions of the CD [You Didn’t Know I Was Alphabetical] with handwritten lyrics,” Bond says. “As a whole, I was amazed and impressed by how psyched people got when they learned I made the CD covers and wrote out all the lyrics. By leaving a large part blank and including a printed picture frame, I was able to individualize each copy, write people’s names and draw silly pictures. I think it was also special that these were limited to 200 and hand-numbered.”

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A hand-created PJ Bond CD

It isn’t just up-and-coming musicians who invoke these practices, however. JONAH MATRANGA of ONELINEDRAWING and FAR has created a lot of different collectable merchandise over the years including custom-recorded albums. SAY ANYTHING’s MAX BEMIS also offered custom songs to fans for $150 a pop. Back in 2008, Say Anything released an announcement that read, “Max has decided to open the door for a limited time to Say Anything fans to submit ONE to TWO paragraphs about an issue they are having, a serious problem they are going through, or even something they just felt should be written about. Max will take two to three days to deliver an acoustic, full-length actual Say Anything song based on your experiences and what you submitted! Each song is 100 percent written by Max for YOU, the buyer.”

JEFF ROSENSTOCK of BOMB THE MUSIC INDUSTRY!, another group who make all their own merch, remembers going to a Beck concert where fans could take something original home with them for the usual merch price. “I went to see Beck around the time of [2005’s] Guero. He had all these iron-ons at his merch table and you could design your own,” Rosenstock says. “He was selling them for, like, $30 which either meant he didn't have to make that many or they made a shit ton of money.” But for Rosenstock, finance isn’t the driving force behind any aspect of his band. Bomb The Music Industry! offer to print a custom tee for any fan that brings his or her shirt to the show and will burn a CD for anyone with a blank CD-R. That way it isn’t about the band being a product, but rather about creating a dynamic with their fans. In the end, the fans are grateful for the time and effort the band spend making these custom items and give back in their own ways. “It's the weirdest thing, people like not paying for stuff,” Rosenstock says. “We've been doing it for so long that people have started to appreciate it. We get a lot of donations and sometimes people will just walk up to me at shows and hand me $20 and say, ‘This is for all the music.’ Also, at least in our small group of fans, it seems that we've helped to re-inspire the idea that making music doesn't have to be linked with being a business. Can Fake Problems say that?”

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Rosenstock creating a screenprinted Bomb The Music Industry! shirt

Some bands are less devoted to the idea that custom merch is the only kind of merch to make and/or sell. Some bands are forced to come up with creative solutions when their mass-produced merch runs out on tour. Take THE SPILL CANVAS: While on a short tour in June, the band were trekking across Canada and only allowed to bring a small amount of shirts into the country. By the time they reached Winnipeg, they were sold out. The solution? Buy some shirts, spray paint and stencils and quickly manufacture their own handmade tees. JASMINE McATEE, merchandise manager for the Spill Canvas, says the reactions to the new, unusual merch was significantly varied. “At first, the fans seemed utterly confused and asked if that was the ‘real’ merchandise they were selling,” she says. “A few would call the shirts ‘crap’ and walk away, but most asked questions. About two-thirds of people who asked, laughed and thought it was cool and respected the band for trying—but weren't interested. About a third of the people after hearing the explanation, immediately bought a shirt. Some bought two, and many of them put the shirt on as soon as they bought it. The general consensus from people who purchased the shirts were that they weren't the best-looking, but they liked the fact that the band made them themselves, loved the DIY part of it and wanted something to remember the show by.”

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Custom Spill Canvas shirts

Musicians like COLIN FRANGICETTO of CIRCA SURVIVE, ANDY “THE BUTCHER” MROTEK of THE ACADEMY IS…, DREW ROULETTE of DREDG and SHAWN HARRIS of MANIAC have sought a middle ground. Their bands sell the usual merch but each of these musicians, who are also artists, sell or raffle their own artwork at shows. When Circa Survive toured with Dredg five years ago, Frangicetto was inspired by the fact that Roulette did a painting every night and raffled it off to his fans. Now he and Circa frontman ANTHONY GREEN do the same thing. “Anthony [Green] and I each do a piece for every show,” says Frangicetto. “We usually start them when we get to the venue. The raffle tickets are $1, you can buy as many as you want and at the end of our set, the winning ticket number is pulled by our merch guy. If you're the winner you walk with both paintings.”

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A painting by Colin Frangicetto

Roulette says the appeal comes from a similar response to owning any piece of art. “I think with art, especially a painting, the one-of-a-kind aspect is what’s attractive,” he says. “As the owner of the piece, [the value is in] knowing you’re the only one in possession [of it]—being able to see the brush strokes from its creator and cherishing a piece that the creator spent hours with. There is an aura of energy that comes from an original that you won’t see in a print or replication.”

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A painting by Drew Roulette

Does all this mean there’s something wrong with bands who elect to just have some American Apparel shirts printed up with their logo? Depends who you ask, but the general reaction is that merch and the way a band make and sell it should be as unique as the band itself. It comes down to why fans buy merch, as well. Whether it’s to show off a shirt at school the next day or to have a memento to help remember meeting a favorite musician, everyone has their reasons for what they want to buy and why. “For some artists it's just not possible, and that's fine,” McAtee says. “But for many fans, those special acknowledgements and items, no matter how big or small, will always mean more than any shirt they've purchased at a show which could just have easily been purchased at a Hot Topic. They'll remember that. I still have every handwritten setlist and signed ticket stub from concerts I went to as a teenager for bands who have long since broken up while a pile of [mass-produced] band shirts I never wore currently sits in a shopping bag in my living room waiting to go to Goodwill.” alt

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