Music T shirts – state of the industry

The music T shirt biz has been in a state of decline for some time, this is bad news for me because that’s the line of work I’m in. What are the causes of this situation? They are few, and I’ll detail them here.

background

I’ve been working for Masons Music for twenty-four years, selling licensed music merchandise to independent retailers in the UK, across Europe, and around the world so my experience in this field is extensive. Why is it then that I say that the music T shirt business is in decline? The first reason for this is that the wholesale price of a T shirt has not increased in 14 years, let me expand on that: in 1994, if you were a retailer, and you bought an Iron Maiden T shirt at trade prices you would have paid the same price then as you would pay today. According to my records, the last time the price increased was April 1994.

In that time costs have gone up, payroll, rates, rent, insurance, electricity, etc. but our costs have stayed the same. Thought it’s not something that we deal with as a wholesale company, I’m sure the bands royalty rates have not decreased, and nor has the up-front cost of the license. So all the way down the line from licensing company, to retailer, costs have increased yet the profit available from the product has remained static. Effectively we’re all working just as hard for less money. This situation is not sustainable, a point arrive at which something has to give. Either the least profitable companies will cease to trade or the price of T shirts needs to increase.

why haven’t prices gone up?

The reasons for this are two-fold. The first reason is bootlegging. Through the late nineties bootlegging was out of control, every other T shirt I would see was a bootleg, inferior in quality, and much cheaper. Retailers of licensed products tried to compete with the bootleg retailers by keeping their prices down. This was a mistake. Retailers of licensed product cannot compete with those retailers who flout the law and sell bootleg items. The bootleg prices are cheap, so cheap that I have seen T shirts retail for less than the trade price of a similar licensed item. What is worse is that trying to compete devalues the licensed product, it doesn’t distinguish between the quality licensed product, and the shoddy bootleg. By trying to match their price-point you match their quality in the eyes of the public, and this is very difficult to recover from. While the public will happily pay £25 for a fashion T shirt in Debenhams, Next, or TopMan, they think a music T shirt is not worth more than £12-£15.

If retailers of licensed items had not tried to compete, and had, instead increased their prices, they would have instantly separated their quality product from the poor quality bootlegs in the eyes of the public. A price rise would re-enforce the idea that this is a quality product. There would still be those members of the public who would buy a bootleg, these are the same people who buy bootleg football shirts, and Louis Vuitton or Burberry items from a market stall; for them price is the bottom line, quality never enters into the equation and they probably wouldn’t buy a licensed product anyway.

The second reason prices have not risen is competition. The larger, multiple retailers (HMV, Virgin, etc.), are extremely competitive and were constantly trying to beat each other on price. We have a situation right now where HMV is selling T shirts at £10.99 each or two for £20. Whether they treat T shirts as a loss leader, or they are happy to work on small margins I don’t know, but this too devalues the product in the mind of the public. This situation would not be as bad if the retail price of the items was much higher to begin with. In addition, the pandering of big licensing companies to these retailers exacerbated the situation. Giving discounts, over and above those given to distributors, to these particular customers, who are, after all, retailers, enables them to carry on making a profit (though only a small one) while selling a T shirt for the same price an independent retailer is going to have to pay to buy one. The sale-or-return deals demanded by big retailers, and the extremely long payment terms mean that, once all costs are met, the licensing company is making barely any money at all from these customers; not only are the licensing companies struggling to make a profit, they are aiding big retailers devalue their own product.

the devalued product

Producing a music T shirt is expensive and time consuming. After spending tens of thousands of pounds on up-front license fees, and weeks or months in negotiation, the company is given access to some artwork. Screens are produced and samples couriered to the bands for approval. Designs are frequently rejected and new screens have to be produced and the approval cycle repeats until the band is satisfied with the final product – this has to be done for every design produced. Once the licensing company has approval they are then able to produce T shirts, on which a royalty must be paid. Compared with the T shirts produced for Debenhams, TopMan, et al, the margin left for the companies in the supply chain are minimal. A music T shirt should sell for *at least* the same price as a fashion T on the high street.

how it should have been

The first, and most obvious step, which should have been taken decades ago, is to set up a co-operative oganisation to put a stop to the bootleggers. This has been done and we are now seeing the fruits of their labour, but it’s too late, the bootleggers should never have been allowed to get as big a share of the market as they held.

The second step that should have been taken was to raise the level of quality of the product as perceived by the customer. This is done by marketing, packaging, and display. For those retailers who have been selling T shirts for decades, it could have meant an end of that product line for them, but what was needed was new and shiny boutique style outlets, elevating the music T shirt to a fashion item, and not something bought from a market stall for £3.99.

it’s all moot anyway

As a wholesaler, we have no control over production, and we have no control over the retail establishments to which we sell. I’ve seen a huge number of people come into this business and fall by the wayside. I’ve seen people think they can make a fast buck, but they never do. And I’ve seen a few people work very hard and be justly rewarded for it. The position of Masons Music within the market means we can really do no more than observe. The above is both what I have observed, and my opinion on how the situation could have been differently handled.

Ob. Legal: These views are my own, and are not necessarily those of my employer, Masons Music Ltd.