The Show Must Go On: Printing Concert Apparel in Today's Environment
The live entertainment and events industry has gone through massive change in the last couple of years. When COVID brought everything to a screeching halt, those who print concert, festival, and live entertainment apparel found themselves wondering what would happen to their business. The good news is, many were able to pivot quickly, and now with the live entertainment industry making a comeback, things are looking up.
For those who specifically serve this clientele, printing these T-shirts and apparel entails a few extra considerations, such as working with super-tight deadlines, meeting high expectations, and constantly creating art that speaks to a massive fan group. It’s safe to say this niche presents a variety of differences from a general T-shirt order.
Lightning-Fast Turnaround Times
Today, most decorators are accustomed to fast turnaround times. Thanks to companies like Amazon, instant gratification is the norm. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the live event industry. While the COVID pandemic accelerated this mindset among the general purchasing public, this has actually been the case in the live entertainment industry for a long time.
“The standard [turnaround time] is very fast — it’s always been this way, pre-and post-pandemic,” says Carlo Oviedo, chief revenue officer at Culture Studio in Chicago, of concert apparel. One reason for this is what he calls “chase” orders: tour trucks can only carry so much inventory, bad weather affects purchasing decisions, certain designs don’t always sell well, etc. But that’s just the tip of it.
When it comes to printing concert merch, Eric Solomon, co-owner of Night Owls in Houston, points out that there are a lot of people that must sign off on everything from styles to designs. That takes a long time, thus orders often get to the printer right before they’re needed. That means communication is crucial.
“There are several considerations that must be taken into account [with concert T-shirts],” Solomon says. “First is matching expectations with reality. Communication is king when it comes to this part of the discussion. Second is making sure timelines are communicated, especially since tour merch is usually a very pressure-cooker situation.”
Justin Lawrence, owner of Oklahoma Shirt Company in Oklahoma, notes that communication is crucial to landing on a final design that rocks. “Whether the team creates art from scratch or we have a clear direction, we will always have a back-and-forth with the client or brand manager to flesh out adjustments, redefine direction, or lean into their favorite elements of what we create first round,” he says. Often part of that conversation is the deadline.
“Typically, once we have art approved, we can make a turn happen quickly,” Lawrence says. “Comfortably, we quote customers seven to 10 business days from the start of their quote approval to the completion of their print. That being said, we are always willing to make a deadline work if it’s in our power to attain all the assets for a job in time and do it well.”
It’s All About the Culture
The “pressure-cooker” turnaround time for concert merch printing isn’t the only thing that makes these orders unique. It’s also the audience. Decorators who work in this space understand they aren’t printing for just anyone. They are printing for a personality and an almost-cult-like devotion.
“You’re dealing with artists that really care about their brand,” Oviedo says. “You’re not just releasing a corporate logo, it’s a reflection of someone who has an incredible audience that believes in that brand. It’s not about production, it’s about the fan.”
As such, the artwork needs to be that much cooler, that much more creative, and that much more appealing. “You need to think about the artist’s brand and their fans,” Lawrence suggests. “Is it something that truly represents the artist, and is something their fans can identify with?”
Oviedo points out that this artwork is often very intricate. “We almost never see a one- or two-color print just because they’re artists,” he says. “A lot of times we’re doing album cover art, so we’ll see up to 16-color art.” To execute this kind of print, you need the right equipment, i.e. a manual screen-printing press simply won’t do.
When it comes to equipment, sources agree that, while print-on-demand (POD) might be exploding in the decorated apparel world, screen printing is often the best option for these orders. “POD is great for webstores, it’s not as great for large-scale events,” Solomon says. “Above-the-profit in these larger events is better when you have a pre-printed line, as opposed to printing on demand on- or offsite at the event.”
Since these orders are often done in large print runs and can run once or multiple times, setup is another key to success. “If the sales are through the roof, no matter how much you plan, you’re going to have to reprint,” Solomon says. “If a client is selling out of merch regularly, we need to assess the situation and make recommendations that will help alleviate the situation, whether that’s printing more at once, doing more/frequent shipments, even outsourcing to shops that can help turn out jobs in the city they are playing [in].”
Speaking of shipping, Oviedo notes that Culture Studio handles much of its own, something that most print shops won’t necessarily do for everyday orders. “A lot of items the customer assumes the shipping and we just handle the printing,” he says. “[In the case of concert T-shirts], we like to handle it because we control the outcome, but also because it’s constant … Because of the fast nature of the industry, we might be producing until 1 in the morning. All the big carriers are done by 8 p.m., so we have to use our own freight carriers and use our own lanes of moving inventory.”
This is a point Lawrence says can set you as the decorator apart from the competition. “We do whatever is best for the client or brand manager,” he states. “Our warehouse team will take a completed job and ship or deliver it to a concert venue if turn time is tight, or to a warehouse for the brand manager if that’s the best location for the garments on their journey to fandom.”
A Whole New World
Like everything else in the global economy, COVID took its toll on the world of live events, perhaps hitting it even worse than other industries. “The pandemic for a business like ours and our niche was so bad, I was comparing ourselves to the airline industry,” says Oviedo. “We were in the middle of production for a big artist, and it just stopped.”
This was the unfortunate case for all decorators that print concert merch, and for some, it ultimately led to shutting the doors for good. Fortunately, for many that were able to pivot, they survived and are now doing better than ever. “Our clients are selling more merch than ever, which is amazing, as fans want to support their favorite creatives,” Solomon points out. That doesn’t mean things are back to pre-pandemic operations, however. “Supply chain issues, and shipping/logistic issues make it a lot harder for deliveries to make very tight timelines,” he adds.
But he does have a bit of advice for other decorators trying to make a comeback: “Coming up with plans with the management and artists is paramount to having a successful campaign. Is your package delayed? What can we do to help? Is this style of garment out of stock? Here are some suggestions on what to use as an alternative.”
Lawrence adds that accepting change is a key to survival. “We personally are blessed to print for a variety of clients, businesses, and teams, so with a bit of creativity we thankfully were able to wave the storm, stay afloat, and keep printing,” he says.
That flexibility is crucial to all apparel decorators now more than ever, not just those producing concert apparel. But at the end of the day, to survive in this niche, you must be relentless. “It’s already a cutthroat industry, so you have to ask how to keep that margin on the table,” Oviedo emphasizes. “You have to start somewhere, then have the mindset and resources to grow.”