Bravado: How Merch became big business

Bravado: How Merch became big business

The world of music merchandising has experienced a seismic shift in the 21st century. Where once it would have been unthinkable to find band T-shirts for sale on the high street (HMV apart), it’s now par for the course, with retailers from River Island to Primark boarding the merch gravy train.

UMG-owned market leader Bravado, which reaches 44 countries and territories around the world, says its business is now split roughly 50-50 between live events and retail/online sales. The 40-year-old firm has direct deals with more than 150 artists. Best sellers include The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Ramones, Guns N’ Roses, Justin Bieber, Queen, Bob Marley, Take That and The Stone Roses.

“To rewind, 15 years ago we were just in a field, or at a gig, and all of a sudden retail opened up lots of opportunities,” David Boyne, MD of Bravado International Group, tells Music Week.

“Our growth strategy over the last four to five years has been through retail, originally through HMV, Play.com and the like, and now through fashion retail. We sell to shops such as ASOS, Primark, Top Man and River Island.

“It’s not just about T-shirts anymore, or mugs and key rings,” he adds. “We will explore opportunities with anything that has a merchandisable value - whether that’s in pop-up stores, which are really on our radar this year, or exhibitions, galleries etc. We’re now doing wine, fruit machines, Monopoly sets, health and beauty, cosmetics and hair products.

Retail is really important, as long as it goes within the brand’s psyche.”

As much as the range of products has expanded and evolved, perhaps the biggest shift has been within the consumer base. “Merch at gigs has always been successful, as it has been at, say, HMV, as well - but I always think that’s the fan buying it,” explains Boyne. “What we’ve done in retail is make it fashion.”

The world’s only global, 360° full service merchandise company, Bravado has offices in London, Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo and Sydney, and sells product on live tours, via selected retail outlets and through web-based stores. It is able to leverage global sales and distribution network from its parent company.

Bravado’s road managers travel with touring artists from city-to-city and handle all arrangements regarding tour merchandise. Boyne, who joined the company from clothing brand Ben Sherman in 2005, believes it is only within the past five years that music products have truly been embraced as high street fashion.

He continues:

“I always talk about the fusion between music and fashion as being really cool. Sometimes a guy will go into Topman or ASOS and buy a band T-shirt. They may not always necessarily be a massive fan of the act, they just think it’s a cool T-shirt. That slight crossover between a fan buying a product and maybe a guy wanting to buy a fashion product, has made the whole market far, far bigger.”

In its role as official merchandise partner for The Rolling Stones Exhibitionism merchandise store at London’s Saatchi Gallery, Bravado has taken things to the next level. As well as designing and installing a retail space within the exhibition, the company has collaborated with premium brands including Gandys London, The Cambridge Satchel Company, Pringle Of Scotland, Tommy Hilfiger, Wedgwood and Moleskine to produce limited edition products.

“We have an exclusive deal with The Rolling Stones,” explains Boyne. “We look after them at live events. When they played at The O2 and Hyde Park, we designed and developed their merchandise and, when they came up with the idea of putting the exhibition together, we obviously wanted to participate and put the store together. 

“We worked with all of those exclusive brands to make it special. We had a hit list of 50 brands and I think we’ve got some really cool, interesting brands, some of them well known globally, some of them a little bit less so. But that mix between the brands and the more traditional merchandise products makes it a really interesting store.

“It was really important to do something different, we just didn’t want to put the same products into store. The Exhibitionism logo was completely new and unique, you won’t see anywhere else, and probably 95% of what you see at the exhibition has never been seen before., which is particularly for the super fan, who is always looking for something different.”

All products bear the band’s iconic tongue and lip logo, designed by John Pasche in the early ‘70s. The design was voted the greatest band logo of all time in a 2008 poll. “Mick Jagger asked him to design a logo and the rest is history,” laughs Boyne.

“I’m not sure how familiar the 18-year-old kid, who’s buying a Rolling Stones T-shirt in Topman, is with the Stones, but they have that relationship [with the logo] and they know it’s a cool brand. They’re buying into the brand as much as the band.

“Unlike most bands [the Stones] have such a recognisable logo and that makes our role so much easier. You’ve got the man on the horse [Ralph Lauren] or the crocodile [Lacoste] and within our world you’ve got the tongue logo.

A lot of the Exhibitionism products only feature the tongue logo, yet people instantly know that it’s the Rolling Stones. Like the man on the horse or the crocodile, or the [Nike] swoosh, the Stones’ [logo] is just as recognisable. I can’t think of any piece of Stones’ merchandise we’ve ever done that doesn’t have the tongue logo in some format.”

The Ramones’ famous presidential seal logo, created with New York artist Arturo Vega, has also been a significant driver in the music-merchandising boom.

“We have great success with them because of the recognisability of that logo,” declares Boyne. “If you ask how the whole merchandise thing [exploded], I think it was with The Ramones, particularly when their T-shirts began being worn by celebrities like Kim Kardashian and many others.

The Ramones might not sell a lot of music anymore, but their brand recognition is fantastic.”

Continuing on that theme, how crucial is having a recognisable logo? “It’s really important,” stresses Boyne.

“We work with 5 Seconds Of Summer, for example, at the moment and they have worked really hard to get a logo out because they see that importance. With Justin Bieber, it’s not a logo as such but a recognisable style of font.

“I’d always encourage a band to develop a logo. We have seen with artists that have done it successfully over a period of years, how it makes it so much easier.”

With expertise in managing intellectual property, Bravado licenses rights to an extensive network of third party licensees around the world and is planning more premium collaborations in the future. “Licensing is a fast growing business,” states Boyne.

“We just need to be smart to make sure we do the right thing with the right brand with the right distribution. It’s really exciting.”

And what of bootlegging?

Anyone who’s ever been to a gig will have been confronted with hordes of salesmen flogging bootleg merchandise outside afterwards, so how does Bravado convince fans to stick with the real deal?

“Unofficial product which infringes artist’s intellectual property rights not only takes away an important revenue stream, but takes away creative control from the artist and often gives the fan an inferior product,” notes Boyne, who is part of Trademark and Rightsholders Against Piracy (TRAP), an industry wide body representing many merchandise companies, distributors and suppliers of the biggest artists around the globe.

Other Bravado clients include Kanye West, The Killers, Lady Gaga, Metallica, Adele, Katy Perry, Red Hot Chili Peppers, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne and Johnny Cash. But exactly how valuable a revenue stream is merchandise to an act’s bottom line?

Hard data is difficult to come by, but according to a report by the Future Of Music Organization, it accounted for an average of about 6% of a rock band’s income in 2011, though this is considerably lower for more niche genres, where fans are less likely to wear a band T-shirt. The percentage of the sale an artist actually receives can also fluctuate wildly. 

Heritage acts hold an obvious advantage where brand recognition is concerned, but the new generation is more than holding its own. At the top end, One Direction are said to have pulled in $135 million (£102m in the current, post-Brexit universe) from merchandise.

Billboard estimated Taylor Swift rakes in $17 (£13) in merch per ticket at concerts, while Justin Bieber is setting a searing pace so far in 2016.

“Bieber has been off the scale recently,” confirms Boyne. “We launched a Purpose pop-up store in New York in May. He was in the store for an hour and the queues were unbelievable and the sales were ridiculous.”

All of which points towards a rosy future for the sector, something Boyne is determined not to lose sight of.

“We also look after more contemporary acts including The 1975 and Years & Years,” he emphasises, concluding: “Although the classic acts are really important, it’s also important that we help support the more contemporary acts.”

VIDEOS
Music Week Radar, 26th May 2016

JP Cooper – Tidal Wave. Filmed at Music Week Radar, Under the Bridge.

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