I consider myself a mild Future fan. Outside of the pennies that he’s made off me in streaming numbers, I’ve never supported him by attending a show or buying one of his albums outright. Yet, just hours after passing by his pop-up shop in SoHo last August, I found myself on the official Freebandz online shop, pondering if I could squeeze into a medium “FBG” hoodie—something I never considered prior to witnessing a 200-person line waiting to get one of their own.
A blog post and curiosity compelled me to take the long way home past the Freebandz pop-up, which, in turn, had me on their website with my credit card out. These pop-ups are onto something.
Marketing to music fans is a tricky science. Over-commercializing will turn fans off, and maintaining a sense of exclusivity is essential. Only the most hardcore fans will go out of their way to drop $50 on a hoodie, and only around album or tour time. In the age of blazing fast news cycles and social media, the pop-up shop has emerged as the most potent weapon of exposing hip-hop brands to more casual fans without resorting to traditional marketing tactics.
As big of a scene as pop-up shops make in their physical presence—highbrow SoHo-ites were perturbed by “Blow a Bag” thundering down the streets—their biggest impact is felt in the online space. Pop-up shops market themselves; blogs and websites will cover them on their own, providing free, unbiased marketing. Passersby, eager to showcase their presence at exclusive, in-crowd events, make Instagram and Snapchat posts that find their way to virality, as block-long lines drive interest as to why fans are splitting from work at 3 p.m. to snag a Drake “REVENGE” hoodie.
The intrigue and mystery of a store spontaneously opening up mid-afternoon caters to the mentality of music fans that generally don’t like operating under societal norms. Going to a pop-up shop is a rare event in itself, while the exclusivity of something being offered at just a few global locations is irresistible. Only a lucky, local few are able to physically visit the shop, but anyone across the globe has the chance to head over to octobersveryown.com in hopes of getting the same product, or at least to eyeball a shirt to pick up the next time Drake comes to town in concert—something many would never have done if a pop-up shop didn’t come across their news feed. At the very least, these shops are an opportunity to establish a brand, reinforcing logos and revealing new designs.
Kanye West’s “I Feel Like Pablo” merchandise is the shining example of pop-up shops driving a brand. His pop-ups prior to the Saint Pablo Tour created such a scene that major news sites were compelled to cover the chaos and intrigue of a store created by Yeezus himself. By September, the “Pablo” brand had become more popular than the Pope to MSG-goers. The mass marketing of the Kanye’s Pablo “style” has elevated his merchandise from concert souvenirs to a full-fledged clothing line of its own.
The success of pop-up shops is a reflection of how quickly news spreads on social media and 24/7 news cycles. In 2011, a pop-up shop story is buried in the corner of a blog; in 2016, it is a recurring headline that decorates a timeline or news feed from every music outlet without the obvious baggage that comes along with traditional advertisements.
Kanye has been utilizing pop-up releases since 2011’s Watch the Throne release. While they generated local crowds, social media was in its infancy compared to how quickly a viral story moves in 2016 to an array of platforms. Late in 2013, his Yeezus collection was sold in select Pac-Sun stores; while this maintained a sense of exclusivity, putting some t-shirts in a mall is not nearly as attention grabbing as stopping traffic in the heart of Manhattan. As a result, the Yeezus skeleton-themed apparel was more a cult hit compared to the smashing success of the “Pablo” line. Social media had advanced, but the intrigue of a pop-up was not there to match it.
Meanwhile, Drake has done a masterful job crafting the October’s Very Own (OVO) brand in recent years, in large part thanks to his use of pop-ups. In 2014, he used them to not only generate revenue from merchandise but to double as publicity for his upcoming OVO Fest. That same year, he shamelessly launched a Valentine's Day “Heartbreakers Club” line of shops in partnership with Nordstrom. Subtly announced—with a hint of arrogance that they will draw crowds regardless—Drake’s OVO brand embodies the mysterious exclusivity that surrounds these shops.
Drake went on to continue this tradition into 2016, hosting pop-ups for both his album release in spring and for his late-summer tour. Future, who joined him on the highly publicized Summer Sixteen Tour, piggybacked on the idea and had shops of his own.
Fellow A-listers have taken notice of the pop-up success of Drake, Kanye and Future in 2016. With an album coming within a month, The Weeknd is trying to have similar results with his “XO” brand. A month away from his album release, pop-up shops have already been announced. Within a day of announcing next week’s shops, product is already starting to sell out.
Pop-up shops are no longer reserved for the chart-toppers. Ty Dolla $ign put one together for his mixtape this year, while YG had a pop-up “art installation” ahead of his sophomore album’s release in June, along with another last month to promote his tour.
In the streaming era, album sales are becoming more irrelevant by the week while merchandise sales take their place inside the financial pie. The growth of pop-ups figures to elevate competition for these valuable merch dollars, which in turn will push the quality of merchandise forward in search of the next viral “Pablo” line. Slapping an album cover on an American Apparel T-shirt won’t fly anymore amidst an increase in competition.
In time, the novelty of pop-ups will wear off and there will be a stronger focus on the actual items for sale. After all, if you weren’t impressed by Drake’s $158 owl sweatshirt, The Weeknd is bound to have something of slightly better value for sale (especially if he launches a hair product line).
Fans are looking for new ways to bring their favorite artists into their life and artists are searching for new revenue generators in a relentlessly changing industry. Pop-up shops are feeding the interests of both fans and artists and figure to become even more prevalent with the biggest releases of 2017 and beyond.
By Ryan Alfieri. Follow him on Twitter.