The band T-shirt has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Its origins are difficult to trace, but it’s thought that the teenage 'bobby-soxers' of the 1940s sparked its creation by scrawling the names of their favorite musicians across their clothes and wearing them proudly. Plenty of the first designs were unofficial – the earliest concert tee was reportedly made by an Elvis fan club in the late 1950s – but bands and promoters quickly noticed the trend and decided to capitalize on it by making official merch. Everyone was happy; die-hard fans got their tees and promoters got their cash.
Fast-forward some 60 years and merch drops are now ubiquitous. Not content with releasing just one design, artists like Travis Scott and Lil Wayne team up with style icons to create extensive, limited edition ranges which usually come bundled with album downloads. When fans redeem these – essentially free – downloads, they add to the artist’s sales, a fact which was highlighted and lambasted by Nicki Minaj earlier this year.
Whether or not we might admit it, plenty of us view our favorite artists as an extension of our own identities. You can tell a lot about someone from the music they listen to, which is why we broadcast our Spotify playlists and geo-tag ourselves at gigs. Social media has given us all a platform to build our own personal brand, and plenty of us do it through music. Before the Instagram grid, the only way to declare your allegiance with an artist was to wear their merchandise. Slipping on a band tee sent a clear message that you were different to other people; the general subtext was that you were rebellious, or an individual.
In quotes given to The Music Network, historian Glenn A Baker says that AC/DC were the first band to ever make more money from merch sales than tour tickets, cementing their legacy not only as a musical powerhouse, but as a cultural one, too. Bands like KISS followed, spawning entire collections of bobbleheads and cheap souvenirs which were quickly gobbled up by die-hard fans. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were among the other bands that crested this wave, escalating their T-shirt sales at an unprecedented rate. The trend may have been blossoming slowly for decades, but it was in the 1970s that the craze for tour merch truly exploded.
As with any countercultural phenomenon that quickly goes mainstream, tour merchandise suffered from over-saturation. Companies hungrily pumped out new designs and gradually increased their prices to profit from fandom, so in came the punks to reinvigorate the political nature of band tees.
Designer Vivienne Westwood tapped into this link between style and subculture, creating iconic punk tees whose messages were unashamedly radical. Not only did she revolutionize the band tee by subverting its blueprint with anarchic slogans and a ‘fuck off’ attitude, she also succeeded in infiltrating the mainstream fashion industry.
Since then, tour merch has undergone various makeovers. Metal Bands including Metallica and Slayer used borderline Satanic graphics to create a blueprint which is now more relevant than ever (more on that later), whereas the burgeoning popularity of a then-nascent rap genre spawned iconic tees by Run-D.M.C. and N.W.A. among others.
Bands like Nirvana, Ramones and even The Spice Girls have proven time and time again that clothing can be even more lucrative than ticket sales, building business empires based largely on their own brands. At the same time, music media was evolving and giving us more and more access to our favourite artists. Cultural obsessions with artists swelled, and promoters were waiting in the wings to reap the rewards.
This is important. Early collectors of tour merch would literally travel the world to pick up tees, and wearing them became an almost religious exercise in fandom. These weren’t just random pieces of clothing, but limited edition pieces of memorabilia whose stories could be traced back to one night in one town for one crowd. Each of them came imbued with a specific history, one which undeniably meant something to the fans who lovingly cared for them as they grew more distressed, moth-eaten and sweat-stained
But now we see these signs of wear and tear as nothing more than an aesthetic. Anyone can now peruse the rails of Forever 21 or H&M and buy a Nirvana shirt without ever having listened to Nevermind and, as a result, band tees have become a hot topic of debate.
The last few decades have seen tour merch go from political statement to cult staple to meaningless mainstream appropriation, so the fact that artists are teaming up with forward-thinking designers and releasing limited, affordable drops is reassuring. A few years ago, it seemed the Jenners had killed off the band tee for good. But a combination of innovative design, clever strategy and – that crucial ingredient – hype have proven that it’s far from dead; it only takes a handful of visionaries to keep its legacy alive.