T-shirts and bands go together like bread and butter. Emerging bands need income from T-shirts to fund their tours, recording, and ensure they eat. With the trend away from signing with a label and instead self publishing on outlets such as Facebook, iTunes, YouTube, Soundcloud, and Band Camp, there are more bands than ever before trying to catch a big break.
I got my start in screen printing as a result of my nephew, Cory Lamb. He had a band and my brother asked me to be the tour manager, which I did for four years. Part of my job was obtaining and selling band merchandise, which of course, included T-shirts.
A big challenge I encountered was having to pay as much as $11 a shirt in the small quantities we were ordering, and this did not allow enough markup for the band to make money. Consequently, my brother and I decided to start our own screen printing business where we would print shirts for Cory’s band as well other groups.
If you are catering to this niche, artwork is going to be the biggest challenge. Some bands will want elaborate, multicolor prints but the lowest price, two things which do not go together.
Bands that are moving from another printer to you may have artwork, but most of the time it will be an idea on a napkin. You will have to create the artwork. If you can satisfy the band with something simple that you can create in about 15 minutes from clipart, you can get away with not charging for artwork.
But if you need to either recreate an existing design or create something elaborate from scratch, you must have a minimum artwork charge to make the job profitable.
We also offered photos on shirts, and those were printed using the digital direct-to-garment process but in our case, they never turned out right. The artist was rarely satisfied with the colors, which would have taken more time to get exact, and the band did not want to pay for this service.
In my experience, I stuck to word of mouth advertising because when you seek out a band’s business, there’s more haggling over price. If they come to you, you state your price and do not get into the same back and forth.
We did mostly local bands. One of the bigger bands we did was Hoobastank. They ordered three simple designs. We had to ship it, but for the most part bands picked up merchandise at our shop.
The best way to make the most money is to try and keep designs simple and no more than two colors.
What the bands charge for their shirts range widely based on their popularity, but in general, what I saw was Christian bands selling shirts for between $12 and $15. Groups that did shows in nightclubs might get $20 a shirt.
In order to get national touring acts like Taylor Swift, you have to be a big multi-automatic shop. Those companies have 16-color presses, and shirts will sell for $30 or more. But we only had one automatic so that wasn’t feasible for us.
An average order in our market was for 10 pieces per size, small up to 2XL. Gildan was one of the most popular brands, mainly due to price and that’s what they knew. A common configuration would be 10 of each size except for five smalls and five 2XL.
On average, each band would want two or three designs. I learned from doing merch for Cory’s band that much more than that tended to be overwhelming. They didn’t know what they wanted or what to buy.
It can be a steady market, although at the level we were doing it, it made up about 8% of our overall work. It was worth doing, but should not be your only niche.