The rockin’ evolution of concert keepsakes
From her perch at the merchandise booth at the
“I’ve seen a fight out here over thongs,’’ Marshall says with a laugh, standing behind the counter at the T-shirt booth at the harborside concert venue during a recent Peter Frampton concert. As part of his tour merchandise, R&B artist R. Kelly was selling the barely there underwear.
“There were two women, and it was the last one,’’ says Marshall. “The very interesting part about this is, I’m positive it couldn’t fit on either one of them.’’
Thongs are just one of the many additions to the merchandise booths at concert venues ever since artists (or, more likely, their managers) realized they could make money selling mementos as well as music.
Peter Taylor, who runs Vendors Unlimited Inc., which has been the subcontractor for merchandise sales at the
“I can remember my first show was Little Feat [in the late ’70s], and the shirt was $8,’’ Taylor says from his desk at Comcast, where he oversees the merchandise madness every summer. “The industry has changed over the years. Back then there was maybe six or seven shirts, maybe one baseball jersey, a hat, and a key chain, and that was it.’’
At a recent Mötley Crüe-Poison concert, there was a veritable department store of available goods. Mötley Crüe alone was selling 13 different styles of shirts - including tank tops and baby doll tees for women - as well as the various other tchotchkes: beer koozies, cowboy hats, bottle openers, bandannas, shot glasses, fake backstage pass laminates, and, “hot shorts.’’ Rapper Lil Wayne also offered the short shorts at his recent show at Comcast. (Blake Shelton sold slightly more demure gym shorts with the title of one of his hits, “Kiss My Country Ass,’’ emblazoned across the back). The most popular item at the recent Huey Lewis and the News concert at the Bank of America Pavilion was a golf towel, which sold out, says Marshall.
But T-shirts definitely remain number one, especially among older fans. While kids, teens, and their parents might buy glowsticks or programs or teddy bears at a Taylor Swift show - a record-setter for merchandise at Gillette Stadium, says Taylor - boomers and Gen Xers are sticking with the tried and true.
“We’re going to sell black T-shirts,’’ says Lisa McLaughlin, Frampton’s merchandising manager, who stopped by the booth at Bank of America Pavilion to touch base with Marshall. “People at this concert want to hear the old stuff, have a good time, drink a beer, and a buy a T-shirt. They’re not going to buy some goofy crap like a candle.’’
As for the proliferation of such items as thongs or shot glasses, McLaughlin says with a chuckle, “It’s just like the rest of society - things have loosened up a lot.’’
There is nothing loose, however, about the handling of all that merchandise, which represents potential revenue of tens of thousands of dollars for the artists.
“From this chaos, there is organization,’’ Taylor says on the day of the Mötley Crüe-Poison show, surveying the many piles of merchandise cluttering every available surface.
That chaos refers to the flurry of activity as Taylor and an eight-person crew of vendors unload, organize, and inventory the merchandise to be sold in a few hours.
At smaller clubs a band often has an employee or friend sell its stuff, but at the big venues, the job is handled in-house. For Taylor it is his main gig since VUI also has contracts with Gillette Stadium, the Orpheum Theatre, the DCU Center, and the Tsongas Center at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, among others. For Marshall, who is an accountant by day, it is a part-time job with promoter
At the Mötley Crüe-Poison concert, each shirt is piled by style and size, from small to XXL. (“We’re starting to get more and more XXXs,’’ observes Taylor. “Talk about the fattening of America.’’) Then they’re all counted, and recounted, and double-checked. Those figures are then entered into “the bible,’’ the main inventory sheet against which all final figures will be measured by both Taylor and the band’s merchandising agents. All the other trinkets are also accounted for before they are shipped off to the two merchandise booths that will be hopping later with metal fans looking for a sartorial souvenir. (Taylor opens up more booths depending on the size of the show. The biggest by far, at 16 booths, was the Jonas Brothers.)
“The merch component is a lot more complicated than it seems. I think the perception is that it’s simple, but the dollar values are huge,’’ says Taylor. “If you make a mistake, it can cost a lot. For example, today if I misplace or mis-issue a dozen shirts, that’s $420. Unless you’re on top of the game and organized and computerized, you can lose an awful lot of money, awfully quickly. So it takes organization and some expertise to do it. We tend to like irreverent expertise.’’
The irreverence is evident both in Taylor’s gleefully needling demeanor. Whenever one of his crew says just about anything, he replies with, “sounds like a personal problem.’’ He’s fond of calling himself an “old hippie.’’ There’s also humor to be seen on the walls of the booth, which have been festively, sometimes profanely, decorated and graffitied over the past 26 seasons by the merchandising folks who have come through. (One left a pair of panties to hang on one wall. An ancient Phil Collins poster is particularly befouled.)
“It’s never felt like a job. It’s always been fun,’’ says vendor Pete Slattery as he counts Poison shirts. Slattery, like his fellow vendors, is an individual subcontractor for VUI and works on a pooled commission basis. (“So there’s no internal squabbling between busy booth and quiet booth,’’ says Taylor.)
Slattery estimates he has worked 3,000 shows over the past 30 years, often with many of the same people. “We work as a team. It’s like family, so it’s cool.’’
That same family sense pervades the booth at the Bank of America Pavilion, in part because Marshall’s crew includes her daughter Melissa, who has been working at the venue even longer than her mother.
Both Marshall and Taylor have the same advice for potential customers: Be prepared with your order when you get up to the counter.
“The kids are the . . . best,’’ Taylor says of the decisive younger generations. “The freakier looking they are, the better the manners. White hairs like me with our gold credit cards? We suck. It takes forever.’’
Expedience is key if they want to get that last thong without a fight.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.