Here’s What Separates Amazing Band Merch From the Rest

It’s a regular occurrence for Rich Santo, CEO of Culture Studio, to watch his team take an order of hundreds of thousands of printed shirts for a huge music artist like the Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish or the Foo Fighters. It’s also the norm for his team to print these massive orders and ship them to a concert venue within 48 to 72 hours.

Culture Studio annually turns out 10 million printed garments, a huge portion for major bands in all genres from rock to pop to hip-hop. “We understand the music business and are built for speed,” Santo says. “Everything’s super-fast turn, and frankly, a little insane.”

Breaking into the music merch business isn’t for the faint of heart, and requires special skills to excel in this market. However, if you want to know the ins and outs of working with bands, we asked experienced shop owners to share insider tips on how they’ve become the go-to shops for some of the biggest music artists around.


5 Ways to Wow Your Music Artist Clients

So what does it take to be the print shop that’s with all the bands? We run down five tactics, from choosing the right apparel, to the right on-trend decoration, to being able to function at warp speed.

1. Start with the right apparel.

First, you need to have an understanding of the band and their fans. The demographics for each music genre and band are different, and chances are, you’ll work with bands in more than one genre. If you’re marketing to a rap star’s followers versus a country-gospel group’s fans, you’ll find it’s much more than just the artwork design that goes on the merchandise that’s important. The merchandise itself matters a lot. 

First, depending on the fans’ age and style of music, you’ll choose different types of apparel that will fly off the shelves. Older metal fans will appreciate wearing a regular-fit T-shirt that’s a bit oversize, or a zip-up fleece or a dad cap. Younger fans of musicians like Ariana Grande likely want cropped hoodies, crop tops, tanks and other “younger” styles. 

“Punk and hardcore still like boxier-cut tees, and new age or indie rock want softer, fashion cuts,” says Dylan Gilligan, owner of Upstate Merch (@upstatemerch), which has been serving bands, from hardcore and metal, to hip-hop and Christian rock, for nearly 15 years. (Notable clients include Stray From The Path, Steven Page, Mott The Hoople, Fuel, Icon for Hire and Ryan Sickler.) “You need to understand the markets so you can recommend the right t-shirts.”

Let’s face it—one of the best ads for a band is the fan who still wears that iconic tour t-shirt from 10 years ago. But if the shirt won’t last the test of time, or feels rough and scratchy from the first wear, it’ll get shoved to the back of a drawer. “Bands used to say, ‘Give us the cheapest shirt,’” Gilligan says. “Now they want clothing people will wear over and over. They want a better-quality, fashionable, soft ringspun cotton shirt with a custom neck tag. It’s a whole branding experience. They monetize the shirts that continue to advertise their band for years.”

Santo agrees that bands want to be involved in the creative conversation from the get-go. “They’re going to make money on this merch, so it’s our job to give them fresh ideas,” he says. “We give them cool custom ideas, like a cut-and-sew piece we launched, or we show them a new t-shirt silhouette.” 

Culture Studio has built sophisticated in-house software (also available to other decorators at where they’ve aggregated national inventory from most apparel suppliers and mills into one location. “If someone wants a specific Gildan shirt, even in the tens of thousands, we can instantly see what’s available,” Santo says.



2. Choose wow-worthy artwork and imprinting methods.

If you score a license or contract to print shirts for a major label band, they’ll likely give you the images to print on the merch. But, if you’re working with a newer, smaller band, then they’re more likely to rely on you to do the legwork. You’ll have to flex your creative muscles to give them eye-catching artwork that fits the band and their fans. 

For inspo, look at what other bands in the same genre are doing with their merchandise. These designs may include:

  • Headshots of band members
  • In-concert shots of the band on stage
  • Lyrics/song titles or the band logo
  • Full-color images like album covers or images that evoke the band aesthetic
  • White or color prints on white or black shirts.

Both Culture Studio and Upstate Merch usually receive the artwork they need to decorate the merchandise. “Many top-tier artists have an extensive creative department with the band or label,” Santo says. “They provide a line sheet of artwork and creative direction on the apparel to bring together a collection for their tour or a retail store.” 

However, about 15% to 20% of the time, bands ask Upstate Merch to create artwork. “It’s a good idea to know what’s trending out there,” Gilligan says. “Bands need new and exciting designs to sell merchandise. Otherwise, they won’t make money off it.”

Beyond great apparel and artwork, bands look to your print shop for innovative decorating methods. “We’re doing a lot of foil applications,” Santo says. “Also, loads of mixed media, and hybrid prints where we pair digital and screen printing. In the past, everyone wanted softer discharge and water-based prints, and now we’re shifting to a significant amount of heat transfers. We also do a lot of custom dyes and washes so bands have something unique.”

3. Have a way to work with new bands or artists.

“While some bands will pay upfront, others will be short on cash,” Gilligan says. “That can be challenging for your shop if you’re a fan of the band and want to work with them.”

That’s why Upstate Merch created a blueprint for new “garage” bands getting merch for the first time. The first tier is a less-expensive shirt with a one-color print for an investment starting at $150. “Then we scale them to two designs on a better quality shirt,” Gilligan says. “We step the band up levels because if we help them at the beginning, they’ll stick with us for the longer term, with larger and larger orders.” 

Pro tip: If you’re wading into the band world, it’s a good idea to balance those accounts with corporate or educational clients so you keep your cash flow intact.



4. Be ready for tight, tight, tight turns.

Santo and Gilligan agree that one of the most important pieces of the band puzzle is getting the merch the band needs to the venue on time. With huge orders and tight deadlines, that’s no easy feat, especially if you’re serving multiple band clients.

Founded in 2008, Culture Studio considers itself a technology and logistics company first, since the team has built an enviable system that lets them say “yes” to a 600,000-shirt order that needs to be turned around in 48 hours. When the team receives an order, they can first check for that level of inventory via their software. Then, once a team member has inputted all of the pertinent information (including how many units, number of imprints, where they need to be and when), the software determines how to allocate the jobs. 

Culture Studio has 135,000 square feet of production space located across the country, including in Florida, Illinois and Texas, so the program can assign a number of shirts to a specific press in a certain location. The shop offers additional services, like adding an inside tag, a hangtag, folding and polybagging, which Stokkup takes into account to get the merchandise to the right location on time.

“We’re moving products at a huge scale across the country,” Santo says. “What shines through is our capacity and inventory to satisfy our clients so they make money on merchandise.”

While Upstate Merch caters to new or smaller bands, they still work on tight turn times. For that reason, Gilligan keeps 5,000 black t-shirts in stock. “We can make the screen, print and ship the shirts the same day,” he says. “It’s a huge win for us and the band.”

Here are three tips from Upstate Merch on getting merch where it needs to go on time:

  • Get the shirts there as early as possible. “We aim to get the shirts to the venue two to three days early,” Gilligan says. “Build in time for the weather and carrier delays. The band might be paying you $1,500 for the order, but if it’s late, that can mean a $6,000 loss for them.”
  • Consider delivering to a UPS store near the venue. If you’re delivering a smaller order, send it to a nearby UPS location. “A rep for the band can show their ID and get the merch,” Gilligan says. “That way, there’s no chance of the boxes getting lost at the venue.”
  • Label the boxes well. Gilligan serves artist John Mulaney, who needed merch for 60 concert dates. “We printed the shirts upfront and then packed each box, with the shipping date, concert date, venue and what’s in the box,” he says. “We make sure the band merch person knows how many boxes they’ll be getting and what’s in each.”



5. Decide whether you’ll offer online merch stores.

Online merch stores were a bigger thing for music artists during the pandemic, when people couldn’t attend concerts in person. “We’ve seen a significant decline on the e-retail side since the pandemic,” Santo says. “Now, fans want to be at concerts and in stores to buy merch.” 

Upstate Merch fulfills some online stores for music artists. “The name of the game is warehouse space,” says Gilligan, who uses the “fundraiser method”: setting up the store for free for the artists, stocking shelves with designs and promoting the store. “We make $15 per shirt and the band gets $10 per shirt, since we don’t require bands to buy the merchandise. The band gets $10 per shirt. We also require them to buy back the stock back at wholesale if it doesn’t sell. With a store, you’re taking a chance on a band.”

Your Takeaway

Ultimately, only you know whether or not your shop has the chops to work with bands. Gilligan and Santo both had roots in the music industry before opening their shops, so they knew what to expect from the scene. “This isn’t entirely tongue in cheek: Be ready for a little insanity,” Santo quips. “Everything is last minute, under pressure and at extensive volume. Unlike corporate or retail, everything’s based on an event date. Many buyers will contact you 48 to 72 hours before a huge show with an order for tens or hundreds of thousands of shirts. You need to be prepared for that kind of turn.”




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