Bravado started out in England in the mid-1990s before it was acquired by Sanctuary Music Group and eventually landed within Universal Music Group. As Universal’s in-house merchandise arm, Bravado handles most of the conglomerate’s major acts including Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish and Eminem. In 2019, Bravado’s revenue climbed 79% to 489 million euros (well over a half-billion dollars), by far the biggest jump of any Universal branch.
Or as Mat Vlasic understates, “We had a really large year.”
Mat Vlasic, CEO
What is the biggest issue that the merch business faces right now?
“Piracy. We are constantly combatting the sale of nonauthentic products, which is a game of whack-a-mole. The guy in the parking lot selling knockoff T-shirts is the least of our problems compared to online.”
Vlasic grew up in the music industry, the son of legendary booking agent Marsha Vlasic, whose hall-of-fame client list has included Neil Young, Elvis Costello and The Strokes. He began his own career on the business side, in the Epic Records finance department, before gravitating toward marketing, artist development and touring. He was running his own company making T-shirts, The Thread Shop, which grew into Sony’s in-house consumer-products and licensing division. From there, Vlasic came to Bravado and has run the company since 2016.
The Rolling Stones’ first flagship store, which opened Sept. 9 on Carnaby Street in London, sells such items as (from top) a Distressed Leopard Tongue crewneck sweatshirt and vinyl for albums like Goats Head Soup.
Over nearly five decades, Furano has seen the merch world change and grow, but says the foundations of the business remain constant: “Everyone still loves their shirts. Even with so many variations of hoodies, track jackets and embellishments, people see that T-shirt and want to turn it over and see their city on the back. They identify with that artist and that city at that point in their lives. It’s still remarkable.”
Dell Furano, CEO
What advice do you give people who want to get into the merch business?
“Start young, right after college, and learn everything you can: artist management, videos, singles. Read books: No One Gets Out of Here Alive, Hammer of the Gods. Become an expert on everything about it. See shows; learn what works and what doesn’t. You have to have incredible drive and stamina and really want it. There’s no other way.”
Red Star Merchandise
Warner Music Artist Services
Ed Aten, CEO
Tom Bennett, CEO
Del Wood, CEO
Norman Perry, CEO
Alex Stultz, CEO
Howard Lau, CEO
Matt Young, Executive VP
Red Star is about partnership, not mega-advances. “If Justin Bieber came to me and said, ‘I’d love to work with you guys; all I need is a $5 million check,’ that’s not really our gig,” says Stultz. A stadium act like Mumford & Sons could have commanded a huge check elsewhere, but liked Red Star’s collaborative approach. “Sometimes they want to sell custom soccer jerseys and footballs, and we’re happy to do that. We’re like a fashion line, developing new merch every season.” That has applied to life during quarantine as well. “We worked our way through the mask hustle, when everybody needed them and nobody could get them, and those are easier to crank out now,” he says. “Rainbow Kitten Surprise has been releasing new merch, too, a lot of it designed by fans. And somehow people are still releasing new music in the middle of all this.”
Del Wood’s career stands as proof that you can indeed go home again. A native of Charlottesville, Va., he worked mostly on the road as an IBM consultant for over a decade before returning to his hometown to be closer to family. In 2004, Wood’s experience in the then-budding field of e-commerce put him on the radar of Red Light Management impresario Coran Capshaw, who hired him to run his merchandise-fulfillment operation, Musictoday.
Live Nation bought Musictoday two years later, and it changed hands a few times before Capshaw reacquired it in 2017. It’s now one of merch’s premier e-commerce operations, operating over 600 online stores while offering platform technology, website design, fan-club management and other services. Scan Musictoday’s Superstore page and it includes current hitmakers such as Camila Cabello and Sam Hunt alongside legacy icons such as Paul McCartney and David Bowie.
The company has around 150 full-time employees, with Wood — a self-described “oddball nerd” — the technical-side expert designing the infrastructure that keeps the trains running on time, and his focus on efficiency should help as Musictoday focuses on e-commerce during the pandemic. “Tour merch was always easier for us,” says Wood. “What we’re doing now is more difficult, especially with the precautions you have to take.”
Much of Musictoday’s business has involved bundling. “We shipped over 3 million packages last year and a high percentage were bundled with an album,” he says. “That is absolutely a driving force for us.” Again, it’s a skill set that has translated to lockdown: “With no real touring happening, artists are able to livestream,” says Wood. “Part of our marketing is putting together stay-at-home bundles with items conducive to that — pajamas, lounge pants, masks. Just making a tie-in available for folks who ‘attend’ the show.”
Norman Perry had the humblest of origins in the merchandise business. In his own words, “I was the worst drummer in Canada, and it all led from there.”
Whether or not he was actually the worst, he was certainly among the most opinionated. That stood him in good stead in the world of old-guard concert promoters like Bill Graham and Michael Cohl, both of whom Perry worked with — most notably on the Cohl-promoted Rolling Stones Steel Wheels tour in 1989-90, one of the biggest-grossing tours of its era, goosed by merch offerings that expanded into then-new product ranges, like skateboards and leather jackets. “The show was spectacular and cutting edge and really raised the bar,” says Perry. “And I tried to raise the bar with the merch, too.”
Nowadays, Perry’s company Perryscope is a boutique operation with some 22 clients serviced by 10 full-time employees and Perry’s personal touch. His client list ranges from heritage acts like AC/DC and Creedence Clearwater Revival to current K-pop stars Ateez.
“Every day I have 19 opportunities to make something happen, and I wake up excited about that,” says Perry. “The merch role connects people to the legends and myths of Muddy Waters, Miles Davis and all the rest. It’s a privilege to be part of that. I’ve never written a song, so I know my role — to make their imagery, legacy and story available to others.”
In April, a few weeks into lockdown, “it looked like the sky was falling,” says Perry, who initially thought the touring shutdown might mean business could tumble as much as 80%. “We did not crater anywhere close to that,” he says. “Online consumption has been robust, and several clients have actually had banner years in the midst of all this. On a global basis, I feel like we’re doing pretty well. Unfortunately, the U.S. is still a large part of the business and that will require crossing some fingers. Toes, too.”
Alex Stultz started young: The first pieces of merch he ever sold were homemade T-shirts, for what he calls “my awful high school band” while growing up in Charlottesville, Va. One night he wound up backstage with some friends of a hometown act on the rise, the Dave Matthews Band. He volunteered to man the merch table, eventually taking over the group’s budding merch operations while still at the University of Virginia.
Red Star takes its name from the Russian history Stultz was studying at UVA, and nearly three decades later, still handles DMB, as well as other high-profile acts from Coran Capshaw’s Red Light Management — Chris Stapleton, Alabama Shakes, Phish and Brandi Carlile among them. In 2019, Red Star sold merch at over 2,000 shows on every continent but Antartica. Stultz logged more than a quarter-million flight miles overseeing it all.
The Sony-owned Thread Shop is growing through both sales and acquisitions. Last year, Thread Shop acquired Araca Group, whose merchandise niche was Broadway productions including Wicked, Urinetown and The Book of Mormon. “That started with me cold-calling the owner,” says Howard Lau. “We met for coffee, and three months later the deal was struck.”
Lau was recruited for a job in BMG’s finance department after earning an accounting degree at New York University’s Stern School of Business. That took him to RCA and Sony, where he managed catalog, synch licensing and finally merch. He notes that while he’s not “a lifelong merch person,” his decades of experience on the business side are crucial: “I’ve worked on the strategic side, with a full gamut of experience that brings me to merchandise.”
Thread Shop works with non-Sony acts including The Beatles and Led Zeppelin — Lau calls it a “label-agnostic” approach. But Sony-related artists do account for the lion’s share of the roster, which has around 60 acts ranging from Lil Nas X to country duo Brooks & Dunn.
One of Thread Shop’s more intriguing projects is a partnership with the New York design firm Barking Irons on a clothing line inspired by Bob Dylan — jackets, hats and other garments based on different looks from throughout Dylan’s career. “It’s sold at Nordstrom and also through e-commerce, very high-quality and limited volume,” says Lau. Higher-end product like this may be lower volume, but new approaches reach new consumers. “That appeals to a different type of fan, who might not want to wear merch that screams an artist’s name, face or logo.” Thread Shop is eyeing similar opportunities for Zeppelin, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix.
In the mid-1990s, Matt Young applied for a job at Roadrunner Records’ merchandise company, Blue Grape. “I said during the interview, ‘I think your merchandise is cheap and cheesy, and the people you have doing sales for it are terrible,’” he recalls. “And he said, ‘You’re hired.’ That was right when Warped Tour and Ozzfest were beginning, and Hot Topic was emerging as a music-merch retailer. It was a turning point for the whole business.”
Working with Linkin Park eventually led Young to Warner Music Artist Services, which he joined in 2008 as the company’s first merch employee. Today it employs around 400 worldwide and works mostly (though not exclusively) with Warner acts on VIP, ticketing and merch-related operations.
Some of Warner’s more notable projects have veered far from concert tees: a Wiz Khalifa “Weed Farm” gaming app; a collaboration between the Grateful Dead and Los Angeles streetwear brand Amiri, featuring $1,490 jeans appliqued with the Dead’s dancing bear icon; a floral-print camo collection for twenty one pilots; and a custom fragrance for Melanie Martinez.
“I believe it was the first time a label or merchandiser ever did that,” says Young of Martinez’s Cry Baby Perfume Milk. “We couldn’t find a partner willing to do the deal, so we created a perfume from scratch. [We] did a big YouTube event with Spotify backing and sold 15 or 20,000 units all on her web store, no retail. Who would have thought?”
The pandemic has meant pivoting from touring to retail and direct-to-consumer. “Retail is just now kind of reopening, but direct-to-consumer has been on fire since April,” says Young. “It continues to be a unique situation. Companies that can be nimble and inventive will be fine, finding new ways to monetize and help artists make a living. What’s the opposite of death by a thousand cuts, survival by a thousand band-aids? We’re trying a little of everything. There’s no one magic bullet.”
How have you been affected by the pandemic?
How have you been affected by the pandemic?
How will the merch business be different in five years?
What are you doing to best serve your acts during the pandemic?
What has worked during the pandemic?
How will the merch business be different in five years?
What is your guiding philosophy?
“There has been a big shift toward e-commerce. I don’t want to say it has been good for us, but we’re happy to be one of the pillars left standing. We’ve seen strong growth, from the beginning of the pandemic to now. Our challenge has always been the supply side, not demand. Even with softening demand, which I think we’ll see as this recession continues and likely deepens, music is still the most beloved of all categories. People will find time and money and ways to support artists they love and buy things they want.”
“You try to make it up with e-commerce. We’re actually doing better than before, but only because a large percentage of our business is based upon retail — much of it positioned in the two biggest retailers in North America, Target and Walmart, which never closed. It’s just dumb luck, isn’t it? One great sign for the business is that, across the board, online merch sales are three or four times what they were last year.”
“The whole industry space has got to get more automated. It’s tricky because this industry tends to flux a bit and sometimes scales up massively in unpredictable ways. We’re looking at print-on-demand and 3D printing for physical goods, and also artificial intelligence. Those are the technologies we have to keep a bead on.”
“When people were getting used to staying at home, rock’n’roll puzzles became a thing. So we made them for Janis [Joplin], Woodstock, Pink Floyd. People were loving them. Every year, with or without COVID-19, there are opportunities. Right now everybody’s trying to figure out their version of the drive-in or living-room concert, and how we can get merch to be a part of that.”
“We’ve done stay-at-home comfort packs with sweatshirts, puzzles, masks, maybe pajama pants, beer or whiskey glasses. Just trying to come up with new and interesting products to keep people engaged. They can’t be at a show but they still want to feel part of the whole thing. We had good success with a Pete Yorn livestream and merch package. It was advertised in the livestream, and he sold more in a day than in a normal five or six months.”
“It will continue shifting away from independent companies. The major music companies are now fully involved in the business, which was not the case 10 or 15 years ago. As more and more music content goes digital, music companies see merch as an important strategic area for maintaining relationships with artists.”
“The artist brand comes first. It’s bigger than just merch, it’s the whole pie — immersive VIP experiences with on-brand merch combined with music to extend the brand, message and lifestyle. Creating moments worth experiencing is our mantra.”
“Stay Human and Vote” face mask
Among Merch Traffic’s clients is the estate of The Notorious B.I.G., for which it has collaborated with brands like (from left) Funko Pop! (Ready To Die vinyl figure), State Bicycle Co. (Core-Line bike) and KITH (classic logo white tee).
Queen + Adam Lambert 2020 Japan Happi coat (left), David Matthews Band Radiate pullover hoodie
Heritage acts adorn the T-shirt merch from Perryscope.
Red Star’s items for Dave Matthews Band include mugs, trucker hats and pocket tees.
Shirts and jackets are part of The Official Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder Collection.
Amiri’s Grateful Dead jeans (left), Wiz Khalifa’s Weed Farm app
As a teenager in England in the 1970s, Tom Bennett was the punk-rock equivalent of a Deadhead, selling T-shirts “to keep going from gig to gig across the U.K.” Bennett went on to work for an array of music and media companies including Sony, PolyGram and AOL. He also co-founded and ran Bravado, which became Universal Music Group’s in-house merch company.
In 2016, Bennett struck out on his own with Merch Traffic, a smaller boutique firm with about 20 employees and 45 acts ranging from Red Hot Chili Peppers and Queen to various estates (the Ramones, Johnny Cash, The Notorious B.I.G., Aaliyah and Michael Jackson among them).
“The idea was to focus on less than hundreds and hundreds of acts,” says Bennett. “With each of our superstars, somebody is really focused on maximizing their opportunities. It’s not just about the money but making sure everything is done really well.” It’s a quality over quantity mindset, although there’s plenty of quantity involved — even if he declines to say just how much that might be.
“A few years ago, I absolutely wanted the biggest piece of the pie because it was much smaller,” he says. “But it has continued to grow and I’d say there’s room for everybody.” Some of that growth is the longevity of both fans and performers. “I worked with Queen on their 1979 tour, and if you had told me then I’d still be working with them 40 years later and they’re bigger than ever, I’d have said you were insane.”
The disruption of COVID-19 is, says Bennent, unprecedented: “This has never happened before; touring has even gone on during wars. Generally speaking, it has been an uninterrupted source of income for artists, promoters, agents, managers and everyone else on down to the T-shirt guy for 40 or 50 years. So the entire business is trying to hang on.”
By David Menconi
The Players Shaping Music Merchandising’s Future
These nine executives are elevating artist brands to new heights, whether it’s a Carnaby Street brick-and-mortar store devoted to The Rolling Stones, limited-edition clothing inspired by Bob Dylan, $1,500 jeans for the Grateful Dead or a weed farming app for Wiz Khalifa. They’ve also weathered the pandemic via innovative e-commerce offerings such as puzzles and stay-at-home bundles featuring pajamas and shot glasses
The San Francisco-based online retailer is a relative newcomer but has come a long way quickly. In partnership with companies including Spotify and YouTube, Merchbar offers over 1 million products from 35,000 artists, reaching over 1 billion fans in 45 countries every month.
“When we started six years ago, online distribution was changing everything in terms of music consumption with streaming,” says Ed Aten. “But nothing was happening for merch. So that was a tremendous opportunity for us, to help acts make more money and fans discover more music.”
While there has been a growing focus on high-end (and high-priced) limited-edition items, Aten says the high-volume appeal of the basics yields rewards: “What we see repeatedly is huge interest in the merch equivalent of a Mickey Mouse shirt — nothing fancy. Priced accordingly, there’s tremendous upside for everyone.”
Music merch fulfillment presents some unique challenges — there are many thousands of artists, compared with, say, the rosters of the NBA and NFL. “Also, factor in different sizes of everything, and we were looking at hundreds of millions of dollars worth of inventory,” says Aten. “I’m good at fundraising, but not that good.” Merchbar’s solution was to partner with hundreds of different merch companies, from big major players to smaller firms, offering their products in an organized and easy-to-browse format.
“The merch space is super-fragmented, so we’ve created one space with hundreds of companies’ wares,” says Aten. “There is literally a world of fans out there. Streaming has broken down borders, and now fans all over the world love a huge variety of artists and styles and want to buy their products. Our single biggest product is less than 0.5% of all our sales. With all our partnerships, we work really hard to be like Switzerland — agnostic.”
Dell Furano is a merch OG, whose career goes back almost half a century. In 1972, Furano had finished Stanford University and decided to take a year off before law school to learn the concert business when he met promoter Bill Graham. He and Graham co-founded Winterland Productions, with Furano overseeing merchandising. “I’ve been doing the same thing as the day I graduated from college all the way to now,” he says.
Winterland became a merch powerhouse, and Graham and Furano sold it to MCA in 1988. In 1993, Furano founded Sony Signatures, which expanded his purview into both film and music. Epic Rights began in 2014, two years after his tenure as CEO of Live Nation Merchandise drew to a close. Epic is owned by Universal Music Group’s merch arm, Bravado, and its 42-act roster includes KISS, Madonna, Billy Joel, Def Leppard and the music festival Woodstock (in a partnership with Perryscope). Along with merch, Epic also handles VIP fan-club business and retail branding.
“I’d watch artists agonizing over details of album packaging, touring and everything else, and then at the last minute somebody would slap together some merch that wasn’t anything you’d want to embrace,” he says. “I wanted to change all that, to help artists with vision create brands that could live on their own irrespective of a tour or an album. We’ve gone from being very much a concert T-shirt merchandiser to one of the biggest brand-marketers and brand-builders there is.”
Vlasic has long been interested in the intersection of luxury fashion and merch, particularly after the success of the 21 pop-up stores Bravado organized for Kanye West’s Life of Pablo merch drop in 2016, which influenced both streetwear and high fashion. Bravado the Label launched in August, featuring $165 distressed-by-hand T-shirts from artists ranging from Bob Marley, The Rolling Stones and The Sex Pistols to Pantera, Slipknot and 2Pac. And in September, Bravado and the Stones opened a store on London’s Carnaby Street. It’s a first-of-its-kind venture — a permanent brick-and-mortar retail establishment devoted to one band, not a pop-up — that will sell a seasonally shifting mix of high-fashion collaborations and more affordable T-shirts emblazoned with the band’s famed lapping tongue logo. “To me, it’s amazing when merch can be a platform for musical discovery,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, big sales are exciting, too. But we’re selling an experience and a brand, not just a piece of memorabilia. That has become the key for me.”
Vlasic: Colin Young-Wolff. Interior, merch: Courtesy of The Rolling Stones/Bravado.
Furano, all merch items: Courtesy of Epic Rights
Aten: Courtesy of Subject. Mask: Courtesy of Spearhead and Manhead Merchandise.
Bennett: Courtesy of Subject. Figure: Courtesy of Funko. Bike: Courtesy of State Bicycle Co. Tee: Courtesy of KITH.
Wood: Jason Richards. All merch items courtesy of Musictoday.
Perry: David Webb. Bowie: Courtesy of MadeWorn. Joplin, Genesis: Courtesy of Daydreamer. Creedence: Courtesy of Perryscope.
Stultz: Glenn Tupper. All merch items courtesy of Red Star Merchandise.
Lau: Courtesy of Sony Music. All merch items courtesy of Barking Irons.
Young: Kacie Rodriguez. Jeans: Courtesy of Amiri. Weed Farm: Courtesy of Amiri and Metamoki.
Def Leppard tees