Anatomy of a Band T-Shirt

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The “band t-shirt” project can be quite enticing for designers and illustrators. Want to know what goes on behind the artwork? Jeff Finley of Go Media shares his personal experiences of the ins and outs of designing t-shirts for bands big and small – on the business side of things.

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This is all based on my own personal experience over the past 5-6 years. I’ve done t-shirt designs for small bands with almost no fans, to insanely huge bands like Metallica, Korn, and Michael Buble. Some of you may be wondering how you actually get to design tees for bands on that level and I’m going to break it down for you.

When designing band t-shirts, we mock everything up on our photorealistic t-shirt templates. You can buy the same templates we use for only $35 at the Arsenal.

Since using these templates, we’ve seen a huge boost in our approval percentage from clients as well as a way to display shirts that weren’t actually printed.

Direct to Band:

When I first got started in 2004, Myspace was just gaining momentum and it was THE place to be. Part of what made it so cool was that bands were on it and they were easy to contact. And they still remain easy to contact today. You can be proactive and seek out bands you like or bands similar to those you like, and show them your portfolio and get in conversation with them about their music and ideas for art. And nowadays, it’s easy to find band members on Facebook and Twitter and reach out to them directly.

If you do a few good tees, the word starts to spread and you should start getting other bands contacting you for work. It’s usually members of the band hitting you up with their ideas and disclaimers about not having any money. Yes, that’s one of the problems with working directly with the band – most of the time they have no money to spare. You’ll also find that there are plenty of “friends” who are willing to do this for free. So chances of making any real money directly from the band are pretty slim, unless you’ve got a name for yourself and are working with more well-known bands on a personal basis.

Pros of working directly with the band:

One of the best things about working directly with a band is the personal connection. You can listen and understand the band’s vision for their art and create something that truly means something to them. Chances are when you design a tee directly for the band, they’ll send you a free shirt and be more inclined to tell other bands they play with about you. From my experience, my approval rates are much higher.

The Cons of working directly with the band:

Like I said above, bands usually have no money. Pretty much the only band work I do these days are for friend’s bands and even with my experience, I’m barely getting paid. I do it to support my friends and to have the opportunity to try new ideas and also be able to use the bands I work with as part of my branding. Another con is that a lot of musicians are flaky and hard to communicate with. They could be super cool in the beginning and then suddenly stop replying to your emails with no warning. They’re also extremely connected to their own image and are sometimes tough to please. If you’re not careful you might get burned or ripped off. You’ll find some musicians are scumbags and feel a sense of entitlement. Try to develop your “buster vision” and avoid these people.

Through Record Labels:

The other avenue that you could take when doing band merch is through record labels. Go Media works with a few record labels and they regularly send us work. Depending on the label, the pay is decent at best, mostly because there is so much competition these days. Labels usually have artists who work in-house so unless you’re one of them, you’re probably one of many designers the label has outsourced a particular job to. For example, if a label needs new t-shirts for one of their bands, they’ll contact half a dozen of their trusted freelance designers and have them all submit concepts. As a freelancer, you really don’t know WHO else could be “competing” with you. Approval ratings are usually lower than working directly with a band probably because labels are more cautious about what they accept and they also have lots of different designs to pick from. You might have a 50/50 shot at getting an approval, it just depends on how good you are and how well you work with that label and how much they trust you.

If you’re looking to work directly with labels, they’re easier to contact than ever. Employees are on Facebook and Twitter and you can always just email them from their website and tell them what you do.

Pros of working with record labels:

Labels usually need new designs all the time for all their different bands. So you can keep busy. They usually pay more per design than your average indie band wants to pay as well. And you’ll likely be able to work with some bigger names depending on the label. This means more exposure for your work.

The Cons of working with record labels:

In addition to the large number of potential “competitors” that are also submitting designs for a particular band, labels don’t always like to brag about what artist did the t-shirt for them. It often goes un-credited and sometimes the band has no idea what artist did their designs. There is not much of a personal connection with the band at all and that can be disappointing. Through working with labels, we’ve done work for some major bands who sell millions of records. But those bands probably have no idea who Go Media is or who spent forever pushing pixels and drawing every curve.

Through Merch Companies:

The third avenue is working with merch companies. A lot of bigger labels use merchandise companies like Bravado, FEA, or Global Merch who are good at taking all of the merch to retail. Their job is strictly to manage the band’s merch and the relationships with retail buyers like Hot Topic. The band merch is officially licensed and there’s quite a bit of red tape involved that I personally don’t even know much about. As a designer in this situation, you’re the very last person in a long chain and often in the dark about the whole process. Once your design is sent off, who knows where it goes and what happens to it. You’re about as far away from the band as you can possibly be. But these merch companies are usually the ones that consistently employ some of the best freelance designers and studios out there.

Like labels, they can provide a designer with a stream of band merch to do and it can run the gamut from heavy metal band tees for Slayer or Slipknot to The Jonas Brothers and Taylor Swift. I’m sure Taylor Swift has no idea that the designer who did her tees likely has also done tees for Insane Clown Posse or Marilyn Manson. Most of the band tees you see in retail stores are from a small number of merch companies. If you’re looking to really take the leap into band merch design, this is where it’s at.

From my experience, it was fairly easy to contact a merchandise company and was able to get forwarded to a creative director. You might have to do a project or two for no pay to “prove your worth” or maybe you’ll get a job right away. It never hurts to try, but you need to have an incredible portfolio if you plan on going this far.

Pros of working with merch companies:

The best thing is that you’ll work on a steady stream of big name bands. This is the highest opportunity for most designers to get their designs to a mass audience. Have you ever wondered who did that new Iron Maiden t-shirt design? It was probably a freelancer working for a merch company. The pay is typically decent at best, but it’s usually consistent. As you can tell, you’re not going to make a lot of money doing band merch, unless you’re a big name artist that Platinum selling bands are asking for by name. In that case, you’ll be doing work directly for the band – but the product will be put through the pipeline into retail stores.

The Cons of working with merch companies:

Like labels, there’s a big pool of freelancers who are also submitting designs and approval percentages are much lower. Chances are even if your design is approved, you won’t even know it until you see it randomly in a store somewhere. And guess what, you probably have to pay for it if you want a sample to have yourself. The other thing that I don’t like about working for merch companies is that most of the work is “undercover.” Meaning I am not even allowed to show off that I did it unless of course it’s been approved and is for sale. It could be a year before that happens. You never know. And there’s a lot of hush-hush going on behind the scenes that designers aren’t even aware of. You can ruin a lot of people’s careers (including your own) if you accidentally leak the design you did when you weren’t supposed to show it. Be careful here. Also, merch companies have their own payment policies and if you aren’t willing to play their game, you don’t play at all. It can be frustrating as a designer who spends years perfecting their own payment policies and structures only to have certain clients (not just merch companies) totally ignore them. You’ll see larger companies tend to do this. Fortunately, you usually get paid, but sometimes it’s months after you’ve already done the work.

Those are the three major avenues for doing band merch. This is written from my personal experience and I’m not claiming this is exactly how the industry works for everyone. One designer might have a different opinion altogether. If you do, feel free to let us know in the comments!

About the Author, Jeff Finley

I'm a partner at Go Media, a Cleveland web design, branding, and design studio. I started Weapons of Mass Creation Fest and wrote the book Thread's Not Dead, teaching artists and designers how to start a clothing company. I'm also writing a new book called Wake Up: The Morning Routine That Will Change Your Life

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