Merch is Dead, Long Live Merch

Merch is Dead, Long Live Merch

On Tuesday, GQ ethered my entire identity with a thinkpiece entitled "The End of Merch." In it, fashion editor Samuel Hine argues that the era of the graphic tee, the dad hat, the branded mug, is over, with these shallow signifiers of one's cultural taste ripe to be replaced by clothing that's not emblazoned with logos and/or screenprinted images. He argues that this period "when graphics were the language of style and fashion embraced souvenirs and novelty" started in 2013.

Every day I wake up, open a dresser drawer, and put on a band/musical artist shirt. I do own other tops, including a decent array of collared, non-branded ones, but my days nearly always begin swaddled in something I got at a show or on Bandcamp or from a bootlegger on Instagram. Today it's my bright yellow Fleshwater shirt that I bought from their bassist at a show last year. Yesterday it was a much more subdued, abstract cream-colored shirt that came with Destroyer's last album when I pre-ordered it.

This has been my life ever since I started going to shows as a teenager. I've always thought that it's a good way to support artists while also boosting my style, but I suppose there's also an element of identity formation at play too. Hine quotes artist Andrew Kuo saying that merch "signals people who are like-minded," and Online Ceramics cofounder Alix Ross saying, "Not to get too philosophical about it, but we're all brands now." This makes my skin crawl, but maybe that's because it reveals a truth about myself that I've been unwilling to face.

I care about my appearance, but I wouldn't consider myself fashionable in a trend-conscious sense. I have not been described by The New York Times as a "Dimes Square fixture," as Hine's GQ bio touts. But even if I'm 100% comfortable pooh-poohing that, seeing the country's leading men's fashion publication declare the death of my entire wardrobe makes me question myself and wonder if I'm a 33-year-old living in Neverland.

So I've solicited an opinion from someone I trust more, whose background in music and merch dovetails more neatly with my own than that of someone who thinks putting the MoMA logo on a Yankee hat "turns an iconic accessory into a style statement." I'm talking, of course, about Jay Papandreas, whose website lists his experience as a "radio host, podcaster, music journalist, clothing designer, video director, creative director, tour manager, merch slinger, and project manager." Sheesh!

I know Jay as a longtime Twitter mutual who writes the hardcore-focused newsletter Listen Up, Nerds and who knows a thing or two about merch. To better understand the larger cultural machinations at play behind the GQ trend piece, I picked his brain about the history of merch, its under-discussed connections to subculture, and its looming (?) death.

Inbox Infinity: Ok so first off, what are you wearing right now?

Jay Papandreas: What am I wearing? That's a great question to open an interview. First of all, you've got to take me out to dinner before you start asking me stuff like that. But I am wearing an old Turning Point shirt—the straight edge band, not the conservative media thing—

Has it ever been mistaken for the latter?

No, I've gotten lucky in that regard. And then just like, black jeans. I'm around the house so, Crocs. I was wearing Vans slip-ons earlier. But yeah, just an old Turning Point—I think this is a bootleg actually, I don't think it's an actual vintage shirt. There was some guy in Italy for years who was making bootlegs of Turning Point shirts, and that was like, the guy, but everybody's made rips of this at some point. So that's the story behind this shirt, so to speak.

And you are quite involved, would you say, in buying and selling shirts?

Yeah. I've always loved merch designs. I co-ran a bootleg shirt company for a little bit, I've designed merch for people, I've sold merch, I started collecting a lot of vintage merch at some point. It's not like I'm involved in the community, so to speak. I was a little more involved when I was selling bootlegs but like, I've just been around it and done it all. I've always really liked merch, I guess. 

So the bootleg company is Night Gallery, but who did you design merch for?

I've designed merch for [emo band] Camp Trash. I've done stuff for friends' companies that have been small landscaping crews, or irrigation. I've done small business stuff, I've done my own merch, I've done peoples' website merch, stuff like that. 

Kendrick Lamar wearing a Night Gallery Oasis boot (via Twitter)

One of the things that initially struck me about this GQ piece—I don't this is actually that controversial, but because of my music-world bias and personal wardrobe, I always think of merch as pretty specifically music or maybe movie-related material. But the definition they supply is "any branded item of clothing or accessory that is distributed to promote something," and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, I guess that's actually what merch is,' and what you're talking about applies too.

Yeah. Personally, I think it has to be publicly available to count as merch. Like there's a diner here in Denver called Pete's Kitchen, and they'll sell you a mug but if you want the shirts they have you actually have to work there. And I've joked about trying to pick up a shift just to get the Pete's Kitchen shirt, and then ghosting first day on the job. But the publicly available thing is my only strong feeling on that. It's my only qualm with how they defined merch in that piece. 

Before we get into your other qualms with that article, is there anything else that you think that they nailed, or had a good take on?

I really think they nailed it with the Kanye stuff. Like obviously I don't agree with anything he says politically, but aside from that, he's always had a really sharp eye for fashion and he's always made that an extension of who he is as a rapper, from the whole "Louis Vuitton Don" thing, to being the guy who wore polos, and that extends into what everybody else is wearing. When he made the Yeezy clothing line, I remember him saying, 'I want everybody in the world to be dressed like this, I think this is how everybody should dress.' And he's kind of put that into his merch. Like yeah, if he wants everyone to wear stuff that says "Ye" on it, that's obviously an egomaniac thing, but that's also interesting that he has this vision where it's like, 'If you're going to buy this shirt, you are going to want to wear this all the time.'

I'm curious about the Yeezus stuff specifically, because that's what they single out as the fulcrum point. I definitely share some of the same opinions about how forward-thinking, or at least how good of an eye Kanye has for fashion. But like, the Yeezus merch, really? That's the one? Like, there's the controversial element of it with the headdresses, Confederate flag—

And there's one with a Klansman. They left out the real controversial stuff. 

But even beyond that, I remember at the time being like, Is this that cool, really? I don't know, I wasn't into it. 

I wasn't either, because I thought the Yeezus logo, with the Metallica-ass sharp points, I found that a little derivative. That kind of reincorporates into bootleg stuff now, because so many people will do a logo flip on something, and you're like, 'Oh yeah, it's an old logo, but it's for this new thing.' That's a trope that carries throughout this stuff. But yeah like, it was popular, it was on celebrities, but I'm with you in that it's kind of gauche, like Ed Hardy/Affliction-ish without getting too close to it. 

Yeah, I thought the Pablo merch was cooler. 

The Pablo merch was huge. I thought that was cool too, and that felt very much to me like the real shift point into merch. Pablo, and then Chance The Rapper with the "3" hats, that felt like a really big American culture shift to merch. There's that, you have the subculture thing of Dead bootlegs starting up around then too, because that's when Online Ceramics starts. But I agree with you that the Pablo stuff is cooler, and I think there's a DIY thing to it, because anybody can go get the Cali Thornhill Dewitt font, because that's everywhere, and you can throw it on a shirt, and people will automatically understand that it's a Pablo reference. Also, people were getting pissed off because it was all printed on Gildan tees and they cost 60 bucks. Like, that's kind of the life, but people were understanding that this is a hustle, and it is a little bit more of a moneymaking endeavor. It's always been a moneymaking endeavor, but there's a bit of a hustle element when you're selling people Gildans. 

The 2016 Kanye merch boom was also the first time I remember seeing merch and its popups covered in places like Hypebeast and other streetwear-oriented spaces. They may have covered merch as something like those Yeezus shirts but the popups gave people a chance to get the merch without seeing the show, and coverage of the popups/merch was something you could separate from the experience of the show. For years, people stood in line to buy Supreme and Jordans but this was merch. Kanye also wore the merch all the time and the merch was inseparable from the Pablo rollout, like the Chance 3 hat was inseparable from Coloring Book.

So when you say "shift to merch" around this era, I'm curious what that means in relation to the GQ piece. Also in the sense that people have always sold merch and at least within music fandom, identified themselves via merch, when you talk about it more largely in the culture, what does a "shift to merch" mean?

You and I come from a background where this is nothing new, this is just what you do, but you have people who are like, 'Oh, well it's easy for Kanye to make merch so I can make merch and also rip off the Kanye thing.' You start seeing YouTubers and content creators, people like that, shifting to making their own merch, and you see the rise of—not that they weren't around before—but stuff like RedBubble, where you can make print-to-order stuff. You find that pretty quickly. But the big shift that ends up creating the big merch bubble that wee have right now, where there's too much shit, is COVID. Like, I love this restaurant and the only way I can actually support them right now—you can donate to a GoFundMe for staff, but everybody wants something in exchange for money, and merch is the easiest way to do it. So people saw how the Yeezus or Pablo merch came together and thought, 'Well I can do this too.'

GQ also published that list of the most iconic items of the "peak merch era," and it's all high fashion brands and museums, not bands. It's weird to see it from that lens, like this guy clearly hangs out in Dimes Square all the time, and like you tweeted, never goes above 14th Street. It was jarring to see it talked about like that. 

Yeah, it's not like I've never bought a Supreme t-shirt in my life, but you're almost expected to make merch when you're a fashion company. It's not even merch at that point, it's a product. 

Right, how are you even making "merch" as a company that manufactures clothing? That's too meta. 

To me, merch is an ephemeral thing. You're buying it as a commemoration of your experience. So a t-shirt from a clothing company, that's not speaking to an experience except for, 'I was online when when this shirt dropped so I was able to get one.' That's an experience, I guess, but it's not one I look back fondly on. It is meta, but it's also like, of course you made merch for your store, no shit. You're a clothing company, that's what you're supposed to do. 

Something else you mentioned that frustrated you with this piece was the lack of mention of the subculture of it all, especially as it pertains to one of your main interests, hardcore. What does the inclusion of that history bring to this discussion?

Well I see it from the hardcore lens of, this is a hustle and an easier way to make money. Going back, bands have always had merch as a way to make money because records don't pay enough, shows don't pay enough, et cetera. But even further than that, the guy who started Stray Rats and ended up designing that Drake merch that I mentioned, that has real obvious ties to ripping off school and college merch, and that links back to the earlier Youth Crew movement of wearing athletic stuff to go to a hardcore show. That guy obviously has roots in hardcore, the guys from Online Ceramics are not unfamiliar with that idea, the guys that were selling "Yankees Suck" t-shirts back in the 2000s, those are hardcore guys.

Really?! My dad had a Yankees Suck hat back in the day.

Yo... So there's a great Grantland piece about that. It's all Boston hardcore kids that were slinging all of the Yankees Sucks shirts back in the day, and they were making tons of money doing it. So I see it from that lens, but I know that this has always been a hustle for people, and this has always been a way to sell something that has a high profit margin so that you can fund other things that you actually want to do. When you talk to people who are in bands nowadays, they understand it as a necessary evil. I don't know that there's a band that can pull the Fugazi, 'We don't sell merchandise thing' today, outside of people that have stable jobs. But you're not gonna be touring full-time, you're not gonna be a full-time band without selling merch the way that Fugazi was. They built up everything over time, and there's a lot of context to it, but at the same time, you're not gonna become a full-time artist in this day and age without selling merch. 

I had completely forgotten about this, but right in the middle of you talking about hardcore guys doing Drake merch or Yankees Suck merch, I remembered that I wrote this thing in 2016 about rappers adopting metal aesthetics. I interviewed this guy Mark Riddick, who designed the Rihanna metal logo, and rappers like Robb Banks and Denzel Curry who were early adopters of that. That feels similar but kind of different, because it was just the co-opting of an aesthetic that, in retrospect, seems pretty fleeting now, but do you think there's something deeper than just the aesthetics of hardcore? Maybe the hustle too?

I think there's more of the hustle borrowed than the aesthetic of it. I can point at the 2016-era merch, but it's not like everyone was ripping off hardcore shirts. I think it's just the idea that there are hardcore kids who became graphic designers, and the same thing happened with metal. Especially when it comes to stuff like that run from 2010 to 2016, where everybody had a metal logo, or a black metal version of the shirt—

I bought a shirt at a Young Thug show in 2017 that says "Thugger" in a black metal logo.

Do you know the band Antichrist Demoncore?


They're a Bay Area grind band, and they put out merch for their band but they were also screen-printing and making shirts that were cultural references. I had a shirt from them that was "No Gods But Based God" with Lil B on the front. But that aesthetic is definitely easier to manufacture and traffick in because it's more widely known, and hardcore merch is not as much of a cultural touchstone as someone saying like, 'Oh yeah that's clearly a metal band shirt.' 

It lends itself more easily to juxtaposing, like it says "Rihanna" but it's written like it's Blood Incantation. I see what you're saying though, there's no one easily definable hardcore visual aesthetic. 

Yeah, but you can borrow stuff from it. Kind of the same thing that happens with skateboarding, where it's borrowing other cultures, doing logo rips and turning it into merch for your skateboarding company. Skateboarding itself does not make a lot money. The profit margins on bolts and wheels and decks, those are all pretty thin. When it comes to printing, you're not gonna make money, but you're gonna make money making a t-shirt. Hardcore and skateboarding have that mentality, 'Let's rip off something and make it our own,' where metal has more of a visual presence. It's much more intimidating and scarier-looking and it's easier for people to parse because metal bands have been more popular than hardcore bands have over time. 

It's similar to a horror aesthetic in movies, where if you have enough ridiculous campy shit, or blood and gore, it's obviously horror. But other genres are harder to define. 

Yeah, that's something that you can create, rather than something you have to borrow. 

So when we're talking about "the end of merch," like GQ did, do you think that has any resonance outside of the high fashion/hypebeast world? 

I think that people are seeing how much shit they buy. Shit like Shein and all the fast fashion stuff, that gets people to start thinking about all of their shit going into landfills. And not to open this can of worms, but there is a misogynist, 'Women be shoppin'' bent to stuff like that, versus nobody looking twice if some guy spends $200 on a band shirt. Again, not that I haven't done this, but it's printed on a Gildan or Comfort Colors blank that was bought for, I don't know, four bucks? Do you think that the labor practices are ethical when it comes to that? Do you think that this is ethically sourced cotton? No, it's the same thing, the same fast fashion stuff.

As we get to where people are making less money, people are in a bit of a crisis across the board with the economy, people are getting more conscious about where they're spending their money, and that probably has some ramifications for merch, which seems like an extremely disposable thing. You know, you don't need a Blood Incantation shirt. You need shirt to go out in polite society, but it doesn't need to be a Blood Incantation shirt. I think there's a little bit of reckoning when that's involved, but I don't think this is gonna stop people from making merch, the market's not gonna shrink up. But I think when it comes to it being a hustle for you to make a bunch of money, I don't think that's plausible any more. I've thought about going back and starting making bootlegs again, but the market—it's not that it's not there, it just seems like everybody's fuckin' doing this. Why am I gonna throw my hat into this? A new bootleg merch Instagram pops up every week. There's no audience for this. 60 people saw this band one time, get real. 

Makes you think...

So this is what's leading you to say "'merch' isn't dead but graphic tees and 'bootlegs' are very much dead"?

Definitely. I've seen enough people make fun of dudes wearing graphic tees lately that—not that it speaks to everybody—but when you start getting older, it's like, 'Maybe I'm not wearing the Turning Point shirt out, maybe I'm wearing a plain t-shirt.' I feel like the graphic tee thing is dead in a lot of regards. Like, a movie that I saw once in 1993 is now a shirt that 20 people want to buy, but you have to find those 20 people, and that's much harder than making the shirt. It's just been run into the ground. It feels like people have remade the Hot Topic shirt wall. It's dead from a style perspective, and it's no longer cool or subversive to have this kind of stuff, so why would I continue to own it? Or not continue to own it, but I'm not gonna continue to buy it? Because anybody can do it, and because everybody has started to do it, if you are a person who is inclined to support a subculture or show off your taste via your clothing, it's much less of a thing you're gonna want to do if normal people also have these things. Like, everybody has a "rap tee" now, everybody has made and has purchased these shirts that look like an old bootleg but it's not, or it's got your dog on it. I'm not talking shit on the design, it's just like, everybody has this so it's no longer a subcultural thing, this is a monocultural thing.

Yeah, but that's just gatekeeping, man!

And I'm staunchly pro-gatekeeping! It's funny, because I always think back to when I first heard 'gatekeeping,' and it was very like, people aren't booking shows with minorities or women on them. And now it's like, 'Oh, you didn't tell me where you bought that sandwich, that's gatekeeping, bro.' Even if it's a joke, the word has devolved so much. Like, we do need to gatekeep some things from some people, very much so. Not everybody needs to know everything. 

Yeah, it's gone the way of 'gaslighting,' as far as words go... Okay that's all I've got, anything else you need to get off your chest?

I think, in the grand scheme of things, COVID really changed how we bought things, and it has changed how we see merch. Merch, at one point, was a publicly available thing, but like, buying merch at a museum or at a show, you look back at that moment and you'd say, 'Hey, I bought that when I was doing this.' I was looking through some shirts the other day, trying to figure out what to sell, and a lot of the stuff that I find myself getting rid of is stuff that I bought during COVID that I have no sentimental tie to. And it's like, I'm keeping this Regional Justice Center shirt because I remember how I felt going to this show. I'm not even a sentimental person, but when it comes to the stuff I'm trying to get rid of, it's stuff that I have no ties to. Stuff that I'm buying, is either stuff that I buy in the moment from an experience that I'm having, or I have a personal tie to it, and that's why I'm buying a vintage thing. I think as people become a little more conscious with how they're spending their money and getting older and realizing we have no clue what's going on with the economy, it's probably gonna have a trickle-down effect. But hey, it's not happening now, so you might as well make a shirt. 

Jay just made shirts for his newsletter, and you can buy them here. Through the end of the weekend, he's sending all of the proceeds to Palestinian relief efforts.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #30

Very abbreviated playlist this week; my apologies.

Chow Lee & Flo Milli - "swag it!" (Remix)

Location: NYC, Alabama // Genre: sexy drill // RIYL: "Fisherrr," hearing a man call himself "Mr. Vagina"

Ethan Beck & The Charlie Browns - "Does This Bus Stop at Douglas Street?"

Location: Pittsburgh // Genre: power-pop // RIYL: Teenage Fanclub, Fountains of Wayne // From: "Duck Hollow," out today

Margaux - "What Could I Say?"

Location: Brooklyn // Genre: synthy folk pop // RIYL: early Angel Olsen if she was a member of Elephant 6 // From: "Inside The Marble," out 6/7

MCVERTT & 41 - "Hate The Real"

Location: New Jersey // Genre: spaced-out Jersey Club // RIYL: Oneohtrix Point Never producing a Bandmanrill song

MESSIAH!, MAVI & Ovrkast. - "silent heel"

Location: Charlotte, NC // Genre: jazzy posse cut // RIYL: a North Carolina version of that Niontay, Earl Sweatshirt, El Costeau, and MIKE posse cut from last year

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

Subscribe to Inbox ∞ Infinity

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson