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Musicians Who Have Mastered Merchandising


January 21, 2020

If you’re a musician and hope to make money selling your music, you better get Marty McFly’s time machine and go back a few decades. Unless your name is Taylor Swift or Adele, making money simply by selling music is almost obsolete in 2016. Multiple streaming services, legal and illegal downloads, and numerous other ways to listen to music without purchasing albums have completely transformed the entire business structure of the music industry.

So how do today’s musicians make their millions? Aside from live performances, product placements, and endorsements, most artists now know that creatively branding and merchandising their band is the best way to ensure the longevity of their careers. 

Some musicians were early players in the merchandising game. Let’s take a look at some of the most successful artists of the last few decades who transferred their names into branded merchandise. 

The Grateful Dead 

Grateful Deadopoly

The Grateful Dead were arguably the first band to realize that if the music is free, fans will have more money to buy concert tickets, concessions, and merchandise. The band not only allowed, but encouraged fans to record their shows. Now, the sale and trade of these recordings has become a cottage industry. Over the last fifty years, their rabid fans (AKA “Dead Heads”) have not wavered in their support. They continue to purchase Grateful Dead items such as tie-dye t-shirts, silk neck ties, ice cream (Cherry Garcia), and sneakers with the GD logo.

The Grateful Dead figured out the model of the “new” music industry decades before Napster, and thanks to their early adaptation, have had one of the longest and most lucrative careers in music industry history.


KISS Kasket

With the possible exception of rappers like Jay-Z and Puff Daddy, no artist has merged art and commerce better than KISS. Since the 1970s, the band has supplied their fans with a head-spinning number of products. Action figures, lunch boxes, pocket knives, board games, wine, and even a “KISS Kasket” (for the eternal fans) are just a fraction of the items they’ve released.

The band recognized early on that fans wanted more than t-shirts, and they were happy to oblige with a wider array of products than any other artist.  For more information on the KISS business model, you can check out any of front man Gene Simmon’s informative and hilarious interviews with Howard Stern.

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson

If the music of the 80s boils down to Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, the merits of each discography can be debated endlessly. The undisputed king of merchandising, however, was clearly the King of Pop.

Michael Jackson appealed to a younger demographic than Prince or Madonna, and exploited that by releasing various other products, including dolls, video games, school supplies, and sneakers.  While not many of these products hold up today (largely due to Jackson’s tarnished image) they are inextricably linked to the era of Jackson’s pop culture dominance.

Run The Jewels 

Run the Jewels

No current recording artist has separated their merchandise from the crowd quite like Killer Mike & El-P.  The group is comprised of two MC’s that have operated out of the mainstream for years and have only recently found widespread success and acclaim.  Because both rappers are accustomed to being “outsiders,” the majority of RTJ merch reflects this aesthetic. Much of the merchandise also focuses on partnerships with companies like Volcom, Adult Swim’s Rick & Morty, and Daylight Curfew. 

Run the Jewels recently collaborated with Marvel Comics on a series of comic book covers that have become some of the most sought after of the year.  While the pair of underrated and formerly underground rappers has finally seen the success they deserved for years, it’s refreshing to see them continue to release merchandise totally true to their artistic aesthetic.  


Create a logo that’s bigger than the band:  Take a cue from Batman here and become a symbol. People falter, bands break up, singers get old, and artists make bad albums. But a great logo will last forever.  

Stay true to yourself: Think about your core audience and produce items they will want, and that you won’t be embarrassed about in the future. 

Look to collaborate:  Wherever you’re making music, there are clothing companies, graphic artists, and designers looking to get their careers off the ground. Reach out to these creative people to find a situation that is mutually beneficial. 

It’s bigger than the merch table:  Use social media and the internet as much as possible.  

Quality over quantity:  Whatever you make, make it good.  Don’t cut costs and leave your fans with cheap merchandise that won’t stand the test of time.  


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