We use cookies on this site to enhance your user experience.
For a complete overview of all cookies used, please see our privacy policy.

How to Overcome 8 Challenges of Producing Decorated Apparel for Musicians

Home  /  The PRES&S  /  
Business Advice
How to Overcome 8 Challenges of Producing Decorated Apparel for Musicians

he team at JB Promotional recently aced one of their biggest challenges from a prominent musician. Last year, Top Dog Entertainment reached out to CEO Marlene Dowls, saying they had designed and pre-sold 1,000 custom jerseys modeled after the one music artist wore on an album cover.

The kicker? Top Dog needed these jerseys produced within a hectic five-week timeframe. That included finding an apparel vendor to manufacture the jerseys in a few weeks. “We also had a 10-hit embroidery job on those jerseys with nearly 250,000 stitches we translated into twill patches to make it happen.” Ultimately, the team delivered, shipping out finished jerseys to excited fans every few days. “Then, the artist's rep asked us to do the same thing for sold-out letterman jackets, and the crazy process started all over again,” Dowls says.

“Artists will expect you to make a miracle out of nothing regarding their products and the timing. But we’re so proud we can make these orders happen. That’s why we get repeat orders from huge artists.”
Marlene Dowls, CEO at JB Promotional

Diving into the music merch business requires guts and a unique skill set to stand out. If you’re eager to learn the ropes of working with bands, we’ve tapped seasoned shop owners for insider tips on overcoming eight common challenges and becoming the go-to for some of the biggest names in music.

Challenge #1: Very Quick Turnarounds

Bands often have tight deadlines for merchandise production. Culture Studio produces 10 million printed garments annually, with nearly 100% of them for major bands in all genres. CEO Rich Santo regularly receives orders for hundreds of thousands of printed shirts for major artists like the Jonas Brothers, Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish, and the Foo Fighters. His shop specializes in fast turnarounds, often printing and shipping massive orders in the tens or hundreds of thousands to concert venues within 48 to 72 hours. “The challenge lies in the incredibly tight turnarounds,” Santo says.

“In the entertainment industry, everything is last-minute and high-volume. We aim for perfection, ensuring each box contains the correct number of pieces, properly produced artwork and retail finishing.
Ideally, we’d have five to seven days for this process, but we’re often given just 48 hours, sometimes without the artwork. It’s a constant battle to meet the demands of flawless merchandising under such time constraints.”

Create a system that works for you.

To manage these behemoth orders efficiently, Culture Studio built advanced in-house software that consolidates national inventory from various suppliers, providing instant access to stock levels, even for specific shirt brand orders numbering in the tens of thousands.

“Gone are the days when you could track your production for bands on a whiteboard. Our system automates order tracking and production scheduling.”
Rich Santo, CEO at Culture Studio

Supported by a team dedicated to overseeing this automation, Culture Studio operates as a technology and logistics company. The in-house software manages inventory and allocates tasks based on order specifications, optimizing production across the shop’s 200,000 square feet of facilities in Chicago and Florida. “While there’s a big picture, each of our automatic presses has a deeply trained lead and assistants to handle our marathon of orders,” Santo says. “It’s a list we need to chunk down to bite size.”

Challenge #2: Variable Order Sizes

Band merch orders vary greatly, from smaller runs to large batches.

“Tight deadlines are a beast of their own, so you need to know how long it takes you to produce jobs and keep your schedule under control. A good pre-production checklist helps reduce any changes by spotting issues sooner.”
Cory Beal, production manager at Floodway Print Co

Stock up for rush orders.

Upstate Merch, serving bands from hardcore and metal to hip-hop and Christian rock for 15 years, always keeps 5,000 black t-shirts in stock for tight turn times. That way, the team can screen print and ship shirts the same day to meet quick-turn, variable order sizes. “This is one of the best ways to print last-minute orders for smaller artists,” says owner Dylan Gilligan.

“Most band printers I know keep a pretty hefty stock of black tees on hand and have a flexible schedule.”
Dylan Gilligan, owner at Upstate Merch and co-host of the Shirt Show podcast

JB Promotional, serving top-tier and fledgling musicians for 30 years, prioritizes large-volume orders, with minimums starting at 300 pieces for small artists and 1,000 for larger accounts. The team uses a decorator-specific production system to funnel orders to their automatic presses and embroidery machines. “If a smaller artist orders 24 hats, we’ll try to run it on our single head in between other orders,” says Dowls, who’s created merch for the likes of Celine Dion, John Legend, and Lionel Richie.

The production process at JB also includes testing materials before printing to ensure efficiency. With a workforce of around 25 to 30 employees, expanding to 50 during peak seasons, they operate two shifts to meet demand.

Employee skill matching is another critical aspect of Dowls’ operations, where she assigns tasks based on individual capabilities, ensuring that each employee is adept at quality control, packing, and understanding different fabrics and inks. “This level of cross-expertise is essential, especially when dealing with large orders that demand precision and efficiency,” she says.  

Challenge #3: Complex or Variable Artwork

Bands may have intricate or detailed designs that can be challenging to replicate accurately. Merch is often a key part of a band’s brand identity, so it’s crucial to get it right. Working closely with music artists to understand their brand and vision and offer design advice to enhance their merchandise’s appeal is important. Around 20% of the time, bands turn to Upstate Merch for artwork to keep up with what’s popular and create new, cool designs.

“Musicians change with the market trends. When I started working with bands, every design was max oversized. They didn’t care if the design ran off the edge or over the seams. Then, all of a sudden, our bands wanted gold or silver foils, followed by floral patterns on top of their logos. Then, they returned to the workwear look of the left chest and full back.

Be proactive with recommendations.

Gilligan says that to stay the printer of choice, watch trends and offer them to your musician customer base before they ask for them.

"Be the expert on the style before they demand it.”
Dylan Gilligan, owner at Upstate Merch and co-host of the Shirt Show podcast

Bands often show Dowls an example of merch another artist just put out.

“After asking them their vision, we need to come up with a unique take. Sometimes, music clients come with powerful personalities. They can get upset easily if they feel you don’t understand them. That’s why you need to roll with the punches and try to be a good listener.”
Marlene Dowls, CEO at JB Promotional

For newer artists, Dowls takes a consultative approach to artwork and decorating methods. “I’ll say, ‘I know you like this image, but these are your only options for printing it,’” she says. Sometimes, the imprinting method they want on specific items won’t work. So, we’re upfront about what we can and can’t do for them and help them understand how the process works.”

Santo’s team uses innovative decorating methods such as foil applications, mixed media, hybrid prints, heat transfers, custom dyes, and washes to create unique merchandise for bands.

Challenge #4: Working ‘Committee-Style’

Often, many cooks crowd into the band merch kitchen, weighing in on the artwork, imprinting method, and merch styles.

“You can work on a design or project with one bandmate and almost finish it. They show it to the rest of the band, and they hate it. Then, it starts back at the beginning.”
Dylan Gilligan, owner at Upstate Merch and co-host of the Shirt Show podcast

In-band merch sales, where “we needed it yesterday” is often the norm, fostering close collaboration with the band to understand their brand and vision is critical to delivering on time. Dowls has encountered situations where she’s heard different feedback from the artist, managers, and other team members. “Then, you’ve heard 10 takes on the concepts, artwork, and merch samples,” she says.

“You’re trying to please everybody, and we’re reworking a product 30 or 40 times. Ultimately, you need to go back to the artist’s vision and what they want so that you can get the merch approved, printed, and at every venue on time.”
Marlene Dowls, CEO at JB Promotional

Lock in on one band rep for efficiency.

Ideally, Gilligan – whose notable clients include Stray From The Path, Steven Page, Mott The Hoople, Fuel, Icon for Hire, and Ryan Sickler – says you should try to get one point person, whether a manager or a bandmate, to head up merch. “Then, it’s much easier to get things done,” he says.

Dowls also finds that when working with multiple people on a musician’s team, there are often misunderstandings about how specific colors will print. “You need to keep things consistent and ensure everyone understands the result,” she says. Beal says getting suitable artwork files from designers on the artist’s team who try to separate or prepare them themselves can be challenging, so work out a process for that.

Another scenario is following a band’s tight branding requirements. Culture Studio works closely with bands’ creative departments, receiving artwork and creative direction from top-tier artists to create collections for tours or retail stores. “They have an extensive creative department with the band or label,” Santo says, “providing a line sheet of artwork and creative direction on the apparel to create a collection for their tour or a retail store.”

Challenge #5: Limited Budgets

Many bands operate on tight budgets, limiting their spending on merch. That’s why Upstate Merch devised a plan tailored for emerging “garage” bands venturing into merchandise for the first time.

Become their partner and consultant.

They offer a tiered system, beginning with a budget-friendly shirt featuring a one-color print starting at $150. As the band grows, Upstate Merch gradually upgrades them to shirts with two designs on higher-quality fabric. This approach aims to support bands from the outset, fostering a long-term partnership with Upstate Merch for future, larger orders. Similarly, Dowls takes the time to consult with newer artists to set the foundation for that relationship.

“That starts with explaining merch is an investment in growing their brand vs. a profit-maker. They can’t charge what Taylor Swift charges for merch or order from us in those large quantities. We’re not just their printer, but a partner in helping them grow.”
Marlene Dowls, CEO at JB Promotional

Instead, Dowls recommends the best options for t-shirts and decoration methods as a new musician builds their brand. For example, many new artists request white shirts for merch. “I advise them to get black since white tees just don’t sell as well in the entertainment industry,” she says. “They can do a limited edition of white shirts on their site. Otherwise, white tees that sit around for a while turn yellow.”

Help them understand the numbers.

While many established artists know the brands and styles they want for merch, others don’t. Dowls keeps inventory from quality brands like BELLA+CANVAS, Next Level, and Gildan; she already knows how they’ll print. “In case a band doesn’t have a style picked out, they can feel and compare the t-shirts,” she says.

“We also give them profit margin reports to help them understand printing costs and pricing strategies.”
Marlene Dowls, CEO at JB Promotional

Dowls also contends with bands who come in with inexpensive blanks and want her to print them. “We usually tell them we won’t print those shirts because we can’t guarantee the damages like dye migration that can result from that lot,” she says.

Challenge #6: Tour Logistics, aka Getting Things From Here to There

Bands on tour usually require merch delivered to multiple venues on specific dates. “Taking deadlines seriously is the most important part of printing for bands,” Beal says. “Coordinate closely with the band’s tour manager to ensure on-time delivery to each stop.”

Bands always want orders super-fast and cost-effective, so Upstate Merch keeps a stock of blanks that can work for these orders.

“Countless bands reach out at the last minute because they have a surprise show added this weekend... 'so we need 6,000 shirts in Boston by Friday.' You either need these shirts readily available or a strong rapport with your sales rep to pull it off.
For that Boston show, we hustled to get the shirts, stayed late to print, loaded up a U-Haul, and drove them to Boston the next day. We made it in time, and the band relied on us to handle the rest of the tour.”
Dylan Gilligan, owner at Upstate Merch and co-host of the Shirt Show podcast

Los Angeles-based Dowls is also used to getting calls from artists asking for “last-minute gear for their New York show.” “I have one day to print and then send the gear for three days of shipping,” she says.

“Sometimes, we’ve had to drive straight to the airport to ensure they ship out on time. It’s fun if you love the chaos.”
Marlene Dowls, CEO at JB Promotional

Pro tip: Dowls also fulfills merch shipments for artists like the Backstreet Boys to numerous retail outlets, including venues like Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “You need to follow their guidelines, or you’ll get chargebacks,” she says.

Challenge #7: Unrealistic Expectations

Are you ready to work with clients who send you over-the-top requests with almost unattainable deadlines? Sometimes, top-tier artists call Dowls with an offbeat idea that other printers couldn’t do – and she has to decide how to handle it.

“One major artist on tour, with her husband, asked us for a next-to-impossible order at the last minute. We went out and bought equipment because the order was large enough. Our whole team worked round the clock to get the project done. Artists are visionaries and don’t care how something gets done – they expect you to make it happen.”
Marlene Dowls, CEO at JB Promotional

Santo says there are so many reasons why A-list artists come in with last-minute requests.

“They’re trying to predict the weather or see if a show will sell out. No one wants to spend millions of dollars on inventory they don’t sell. Maybe they want to see if a cream-colored t-shirt resonates, and if it does, then they want 80,000 in 48 hours. It’s unrealistic expectations, quick turns, and constant changes.”
Rich Santo, CEO at Culture Studio

Pro tip: Saying “yes” to touch jobs can be a powerful driver for innovation in your shop. “We built our entire business around being ‘yes’ people and having that ‘yes’ culture,” Santo says. However, he also warns against unquestioningly accepting every project without careful consideration. “Don’t order those 10,000 blanks from China or all that glow-in-the-dark ink before you know for sure it’s a go with the artist and your team can pull it off,” he says.

Challenge #8: High Stress Levels

If you’re a printer who wants to serve bands, you need a high tolerance for chaos and a competitive mentality. “This isn’t for everyone, and there’s some bad boy and girl competition out there,” Santo says.

“You could run a shop with two to four automatic presses doing events or festivals, and it’s a great lifestyle. With the big artists and serious high-volume orders, you’re only as good as your last order, even if you have 15 years of millions of successful shipments.”
Rich Santo, CEO at Culture Studio

Santo’s team is also fiercely competitive, but their focus extends beyond that. “Our goal is to construct something of immense value for artists, not just to triumph over rivals,” he says. It’s about consistently striving for excellence, pouring our energy into every endeavor, day in and day out – ingrained in who we are.”

Ultimately, printers in this space also love the rush of success. “We love the thrill of printing for bands, especially when tasked with groundbreaking projects,” Dowls says. “Every challenge excites us. From crafting designs for the Oscars to meeting tight deadlines, the chaos fuels my passion, and seeing our creations come to life is truly gratifying.”

May 12, 2024