It takes a lot of guts to take to Twitter and announce to your whole fanbase that your merchandise offering is terrible and you know it. This is recently the case with the wildly popular entertainer, Doja Cat, who is known for her catchy tunes and viral videos. Unfortunately, she is not alone, there is a growing trend of poor design in music merchandising that may be detrimental to a music artist’s already limited revenue streams.

dojacat twitter post

The decline of quality design in music merchandising

As a designer and a music consumer, my heart breaks a little every time I see a square photo slapped onto the front of a shirt with a bit of text then sold for upwards of $40-50. I think of the vintage shirts that became so popular years ago because of their enduring coolness and design excellence. Artists back then had far less technology and a lot more skill, because they had to.

During my own time as a Creative Director in the music merchandising world, available imagery was limited, so we had to do quite a bit of manual work and problem-solving. Figures were painstakingly removed from their backgrounds. Badly cropped photos would sometimes be completely re-illustrated. Cropped-off hair was extended and finished. We wouldn’t be caught dead slapping a square photo on a shirt and calling it a day. That would be an insult to the artist we were supposed to be representing, as well as to our own craft.

Even the biggest selling album in the world couldn't escape a terrible anniversary redesign using a cheap $16 dollar font in some bizarre attempt to "reach a new audience." I'm not even kidding, this is real.

Understanding production techniques and thinking “outside the box” literally.

These days, print production skills aren’t at the forefront of content creation, so most newer designers are primarily designing for digital content created with pixels that live in a floating box. However, shirts and other products are 3-dimensional, tangible canvases that require “out of the box” thinking and understanding about how these items actually get produced and used. Most apparel is mocked up on a flat surface, but it ultimately has to flow across a human form.

Years ago, I had a rather lively conversation with Mariah Carey on the effects that breasts can have on a shirt design. She gets it.

Beyond aesthetics in product development

Many other considerations go into product development beyond what looks good on paper, for instance:

  • Image reproduction on cotton, plastic, or metal comes with a number of printing challenges. Which design will be best suited for which canvas? I’ve seen attempts to reproduce a full-color photograph in a 2-inch area on a cotton thong. Huh?!
  • Water-based inks have come a long way, but the more ink you use, the more a shirt is going to feel like He-Man armor. Large areas of ink will eventually crack and ruin any detailed image or photo, and not in a good vintage-y way.
  • Multiple prints like odd-placements and sleeve prints add costs and setup time. Is the shipment going to make that show in Murfreesboro tomorrow night with 5 separate prints on it? Will fans even be able to see those details when standing 30-deep in a crowded pre-show line?
merchandise design

The threat of bootlegging and DTG knockoffs

Bootlegging has also become pervasive across the internet. Poor quality, unauthorized merchandise sometimes outsells official merchandise because 1.) it’s available and cheap (but scarce) 2.) it looks better. (or at least it appears that way in digital thumbnails), resulting in impulse purchases that could have been satiated at the artist’s own official shop.

(My own fan art is often stolen, defaced, and bootlegged, which requires a lot of time and energy to keep in check to protect both my rights and the entertainer’s.)

Go beyond the “novelty effect” to grow long-term brand reputation

Merchandise companies seem to be pulling back on quality design because it eats at their profit margins. In my experience, company leaders often rely on the notion that fans are hungry for anything new and will just consume whatever is put in front of them. This strategy is short-sighted and leaves a lot of money on the table when there could be repeat sales and wider opportunities like retail, collectibles, partnerships, or other types of licensing that allow the ability to serve fans at any level of economical means.

That mindset is also harmful to the artist’s reputation if fans feel that the merchandise is a quick money grab and doesn’t live up to the quality of the artist they love. Kanye West was obsessed with turning his concert array into an upscale fashion line. It’s hard to agree with him on much these days, but for better or for worse, he understood the value those products would have on his larger legacy.

A call a return to thoughtful design and craftsmanship in music merchandising

Hopefully, this trend is short-lived and there is a return to thoughtful design and the craftsmanship that made concert tees so cool throughout the decades. Find and compensate artists who are both skilled in design and understand production techniques so that you can maximize the benefits of your offering and revenue strategy.

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TLDR: Product and apparel production design are very different from designing for digital content in a floating square. Entertainers who rely on merchandise revenue need to understand the difference and work with knowledgeable designers and production partners to protect their brands, grow their revenue streams, and satisfy their fans.

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