The Best Hip-Hop Merch in the Age of Disappearing Album Sales

If you want to make it as a rapper in 2016 you better be making t-shirts that are just as dope as your albums.
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Once up on a time there were more multi-platinum plaques hung in studios than platinum teeth in the mouths of rappers. That time is long gone. It doesn’t take a Steve Jobs hologram to tell you that the big money isn’t in album sales or even streaming anymore but publishing, touring and merchandise. But while we discuss music sales and streaming numbers all the time, we only rarely look at the mainstream and independent artists who are mastering the art of fueling their career by selling enticing product.

Chance The Rapper has become the face of independent hip-hop. What he has been able to accomplish without the backing of a major label is Steph Curry’s overtime performance against Portland, the kind of miracle you wouldn’t believe unless witnessed with your own two eyes. It's noteworthy that Chance has built an ironclad foundation through excellent music and impressive live performances, but his merch is also handled with the same thoughtful brilliance.

He’s done shirts, sweatpants and varsity jackets, but what caught my attention was back when he was touring the colleges. He had specific shirts made for the universities he would be attending during his short tour. Cal Poly Pomona, St. Louis U, U of Kentucky, and all the others were presented personal shirts with designs that paid homage to the school and was still attached to Chance’s brand. He knows how to make merch into a moment. And currently he’s selling 10 of his album posters for $20, encouraging fans to plaster his posters all across their respective cities, turning the artwork into a group project for his fans and profit in his pockets.

UPDATE: Chance just launched a new line of interactive merch around his Coloring Book album that allows buyers to customize the color and design of their shirts. (Get it? Coloring Book? You can choose your own color? This is what a well coordinated music-merch roll out looks like, we told you the man's merch game is next level. 

Chance may be the modern posterchild for independence at the edge of the mainstream, but Tech N9ne and Strange Music has built their entire kingdom in the underground. Their fans, a cult of supportive connoisseurs of all things strange, are devoted enough to purchase music, pay for touring tickets and still buy merch. The Strange Music site is stocked with not just apparel but an extensive amount of accessories. There’s watches, jewelry, bandanas, slippers, gloves, almost anything you can imagine can be bought. What's key though is that they have their own warehouse with a printing press and their own distribution. That’s nothing but profit since no third party is able to reach into their pot. This kind of operation takes merchandising as an additional source of income and turns it into a separate business. Not only is Strange supplying the demand but creating more than enough options to satisfy any fan that wants more than a shirt or a sticker. You could fill your home from room to room with a touch of Tech N9ne.

Part of Curren$y’s resurgence and success is due to how well he’s been able to brand himself and translate that into a nice amount of revenue. Being the fly stoner is a fairly basic aesthetic, but what Spitta did was turn his lifestyle into a way of life for others. When J.E.T. Life became bigger than a hashtag, bigger than a lyric, he was able to monetize through clothing. One of his coolest products is the Small Ash Tray bundle - it comes with an ash tray, rolling papers, two lighters and a rolling tray. Everything of course carries his insignia and the actually ash tray is built as an actual jet plane. Wiz accomplished the same kind of branding with Taylor Gang, he has his own smoke essential pack that comes with a tray, his own rolling papers, raw cones, and a Santa Cruz Shredder. Along with all the other merch that the two offer, for people that smoke and want to embody that lifestyle, they’ll spending the money without a second thought.

On a major scale, we are seeing more artists maximize their brand into bigger clothing lines that are fairly reminiscent of how big Roc-A-Fella and Sean John were in the early days, except they aren’t distributed through Macy’s and won’t be found in malls. For example, Tyler’s Golf Wang is a full-fledge clothing brand. He’s releasing a new line of clothes every season and no matter how absurd his graphic and color schemes might be, they continue to sell out. He once boasted he made a million dollar off socks - imagine what he’s made now.

OVO is doing something similar with their merchandise, from head to toe you can be draped in the latest Drake. Before Views could be heard across the country popup shops showed up for a day and fans swarmed the locations, don’t be surprised if you see owls all summer-sixteen. Metro Boomin turned his infamous tag into a small release of t-shirts that sold out faster than iPads on Black Friday. I’m not the biggest Travis Scott fan but the time and attention that went into his merch for his Rodeo tour was really impressive. The details of the MA-1 bomber jackets was worth the overprice. I’m not fond of Kanye’s expensive Pablo shirts with the J.R.R Tolkien font, but I did enjoy the imagery of the Yeezus merch. I think I might’ve liked the graphic on his shirts more than some of the music.

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No matter how much album sales dwindle, the music will always matter most. No one would buy a Dreamville shirt if they didn’t believe in J. Cole the emcee. Who cares how cool the design for Logic's merch is if no one is showing up to hear the album. You can’t have one without the other.

These are dire times for artists, believing that selling music alone will catapult you into a lavish life is a dream. The music will make people care, but it’s the touring, the publishing, and the merch that will ascend you to the next plateau. How many millions of Spotify streams will it take to equate a single sale of a $50 hoodie? A $75 Jacket? The simple truth is that if you want to make it, your art now has to extend far past headphones.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to finally make those Yoh Momma t-shirts I've been thinking about for years. 

UPDATE: As fate would have it, shortly after we posted this article Tyler spoke to Complex Music about his merch: 

"For one season we tried to sell to stores, but the distributor and I had different goals so I pulled everything out of the stores and kept it on my website only," he told Hypebeast. "It’s been that way for two years now. Sometimes things sell out in 10 seconds, sometimes they don’t at all. To this day, the fact that people fuck with the brand is still amazing to me and it only makes me want to make it better–'better' meaning different stuff, making sure the quality is good, putting 100 percent into everything. Every time I get word that something sold out, I legit smile. I hope I never lose that."

By Yoh, aka Yoh Da 5'11", aka @Yoh31.

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