The Unspoken Rules of the Band T-Shirt

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I’m in a band. Actually, I’m in four, but that’s a whole other story about my own neurosis and obsessions. But no matter how many projects you’re a part of, it’s nearly impossible to make money as an independent musician by selling music. Being played on the radio and streaming services can result in mere cents monthly—and touring is pretty hard to do while working a day job. Life as an independent musician without a day job has a ton of sacrifices as well—like your grocery budget (though sometimes, quite frankly, your booze budget is a bigger worry). And so, whether you’re working during the day or not, you really have two ways of making money: playing gigs and selling merch. This is where the band t-shirt comes in.

A t-shirt is oftentimes an investment for the band. Depending on quality and count, you’re usually faced with an initial outlay of $100 to $250, and while markup is high,it can take a while to sell off stock unless your design or your band is particularly interesting. With services like Teespring, it’s possible to sell the shirts without having to make an investment, but then you don’t have them to sell at your shows, and unless you’re particularly well-known on the internet, it’s a bit harder to market them. Selling a round of tees can bring in enough money for a guitar repair or a few tanks of gas, or it can put you in the hole if you aren’t careful enough.

Band t-shirts are governed by a complicated set of rules—both how you wear them, and how you sell them.

Despite being a relatively simple way for a band to make a little bit of extra money, band t-shirts are governed by a complicated set of rules—both how you wear them, and how you sell them. First of all, it’s in poor taste to wear a band’s t-shirt while attending of one of their performances. It can make you seem too eager and too obsessive—and absolutely no one expects you to be a fan of the band that you paid to see play.

On a related note, never wear a shirt that you purchased at the merch table immediately after purchasing it. You carry that shirt over your shoulder and hope that you don’t lose it—or else you will definitely not look cool. A great way to expand your wardrobe is to look around for lost t-shirts on the floor where a mosh pit may once have occurred. You’re likely to find at least one shirt in an ill-fitting size that’s stained by being trampled on by dirty shoes.

These rules become even more stringent when you’re part of a band—especially if you happen to be the one tasked with designing a t-shirt. I’ve designed a tee for nearly every project I’ve been a part of. This decision falls on me because I have graphic design experience, and quite honestly I like to believe that everyone is envious of my sick sense of style.

Designing the t-shirt involves debating the color it will be printed on, the cut, and of course the graphic. I always make an effort to design the shirts to be something I would wear myself. Is this shirt wearable for both the people actively going to the band’s shows, and the band members’ mothers who hype their gifted children at the local farmer’s market? It’s a delicate balance trying to ensure that your shirt will in fact be marketable enough to bring in some form of income. Perhaps that’s the reason that there seems to be such touchiness regarding when it’s appropriate to sell or wear these tees. Or perhaps these rules are there to make it harder for everyone.

Right now we’re actively considering a shirt design created by my bandmate where the graphic is a clitoris with a witch hat and a smiley face.

First of all, it does not matter how much money you’re putting into recording your album or paying for gas to play out-of-town gigs—it’s unseemly to try to sell any merch before you’ve released any music. An over-merchandised band seems like they’re in it for the money, and not for the opportunity to share their creativity. You need to prove yourself as an act before you make any money. Think of your first five years as a very long interview process at that stuffy corporate job you loathe the idea of.

Often, the shirt acts as a statement associated with the band. One of my new projects is a band called Witch Lips. Right now we’re actively considering a shirt design created by my bandmate where the graphic is a clitoris with a witch hat and a smiley face. I’m not entirely sure what statement that graphic is making, but it seems like it will be hilariously empowering.

Sometimes it’s simply something that’s aesthetically pleasing and easy to wear. I’ve designed a shirt for my solo project that’s a cat in baseball gear. I don’t even like baseball but it looks cool and it’s endearing. Sometimes it relates to the artwork on your album art. There’s a variety of choices. But no matter what, it’s completely disreputable to wear your own shirt no matter how personal you make it. You’re in the band—you’re not supposed to like the band too. Definitely not your own shirts.

This is contrasted against the fashion industry. If I go into a boutique store and I purchase an item and ask to wear it out – that’s seen as a great compliment. It’s not uncomfortable to wear a designer’s clothes to their show. It’s not curious if a designer wears their own lines. In fact all of these actions seem to celebrated.

A band’s brand, at least initially, is as much about the community that surrounds them as it is about themselves.

Why have these rules evolved in such a way, and why are they so divergent between the two industries? Perhaps it’s about ego management. Unlike the fashion industry, a band’s brand needs to grow from the outward in. It’s not something that feels natural when it’s developed by a marketing department, where that’s often expected elsewhere.

A band’s brand, at least initially, is as much about the community that surrounds them as it is about themselves. If a band tries to project what they want to be to a crowd of local-music-lovers, they’re likely to come off uncomfortably and the crowd is less likely to be receptive to it.

There’s a disconnect between the band’s visual output and their musical output. Bands make music. The visual output of a band, whether it be a tee or even in many cases a music video, comes off as advertising. Advertising makes the youths uncomfortable, even if it can benefit the music community in the long run. We’ve grown accustomed to the image of an indie musician being so devoted to their music that they severely sacrifice their well-being in order to live their dreams. We don’t think of musicians as business people like we do for other self-employed creatives.

Maybe these rules don’t matter. Do I really care about whether people think that I like a band too much? That I’m simply wearing a shirt so that it doesn’t fall on the floor? Furthermore, am I so worried about my image as a musician that I can’t even display the visual art I’ve created, even if it supports my own musical projects? Will breaking these rules lessen the respect that other fans have for me, to the extent that it negatively impacts my career? In the end, it’s about being creative and supportive of the art that I love. This means that I need to ignore the voices of angsty teens and semi-retired punks in the back of my head and start wearing some of those hella dope tees that are sitting in the back of my dresser.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.