We're With The Band

Music acts have long turned to screen printers to create the iconic band T-shirt. Here’s how you can make sweet music with your next sale.

Two years ago, indie rock band We Were Astronauts recorded its first album down in Nashville – and wanted screen-printed tees as an economical way to self-promote. Enter John Hansson, owner of Danielson, CT-based Up Top Screen Printing (asi/700799), who met the band through mutual friends and produced an initial run of a one-color reduced plastisol design on Gildan Activewear SRL (asi/56842) T-shirts

“Up Top gives us the best product,” says Antonio Casasanta, lead vocalist and guitarist. “It’s easy to order online, but you can’t be sure about the quality.” The band travels to Up Top for collaboration sessions because “we like to be really hands-on,” he says.

Recently, after the group finished producing an album in Los Angeles, they wanted T-shirts for the release party. Hansson designed a full-front print in both CCI D-white and pink discharge inks on a Next Level Apparel (asi/73867) tee. “People are paying attention now,” he says, “so we have to shoot for the stars.”

As groups like We Were Astronauts build an increasingly loyal fan base and subsequently carry a greater variety of promotional items, one piece hasn’t budged from the offerings: the screen-printed tee. They’re still one of the most prominently displayed products at merchandise booths and e-commerce stores, and continue to play a significant role in marketing efforts.

Although not every band can offer a vast lineup of branded gear, a few screen-printed apparel items can do wonders for both marketing and musicians’ wallets. Screen printers’ designs have appeared at concerts and local gigs alike for decades, and for good reason: They’re a cost-effective medium for advertising, building a following and ultimately increasing music and ticket sales.

Life in the Fast Lane

Screen-printed tees are a staple at merchandise booths, and many screen printers count bands among some of their steadiest business. “We do mostly band merchandise and their independent clothing lines,” says Garrett Kaule, owner of Kaules Screen Works in Pittsburgh. Likewise, Bill Farnan, owner of Colors Incorporated Screen Printing in Santa Ana, CA, says band tees make up about 80% of his business; he keeps them coming by offering standout treatments like foil, glitter, high-density ink and discharge ink.

While some sell direct, others work through brokers to make sure musicians have enough merchandise. “We work with merchandisers that specifically handle music tours and acts,” says Andy Anderson, co-owner of Anderson Studio Inc. (asi/121990), in Nashville, a shop he has operated with his wife for almost 40 years. His long history of screen printing just a few miles from the center of Music City includes orders fulfilled for superstars like Neil Young, Garth Brooks, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift and Scotty McCreery.

Screen printing is undeniably the preferred method of embellishing band merchandise and it shows no signs of relinquishing its top dog status. One primary benefit is the inherently fast production time. When an order comes in, oftentimes there’s very little notice and a lot riding on its fulfillment.

“We once printed an order for our broker on a Monday,” Farnan recalls, “and on Thursday we printed the same number again for a same-night show, or the band was out of $100,000. It’s that quick, and there’s that much on the line. You have to get it done. Otherwise, someone else will do it faster and for less.”

In this environment of super-quick turnarounds, the ability to print swiftly is of the utmost importance. “Screen printing is very versatile that way,” Anderson says. “You can produce a bunch of shirts very quickly, so I don’t see it being replaced by any other method in the music niche.”

Bands can also take advantage of screen printing’s affordability, and the plethora of options it offers in terms of designs, apparel and ink. “Producing merch can get costly,” says Michelle Zarella, sales and marketing director at Asbury Park, NJ-based Bands On A Budget, which specializes in gearing up bands for less. “We keep groups within their budgets while giving them retail-quality merchandise.”

Finally, because screen-printed tees offer a retail style, they give clients the opportunity to ask for a good price. “They’re cheap to buy and easy to sell at a markup,” Kaule says. “Some bands with larger followings develop clothing lines, and during the tour they’ll gradually introduce them.”

Help From My Friends

Establishing a reputation as a quality, reliable screen printer means striking a balance between meeting clients’ demands and operating within the boundaries of viability. Designs depend on budget, culture, demographic and what groups want to express, says Jeff Lapierre, partner/owner of ClassSick Custom (asi/162832) in Pawtucket, RI. “Sometimes one color makes the most sense,” he says. “It’s straightforward and inexpensive. For a higher price point, we offer simulated-process prints. They’re colorful and detailed, and you can give the ink a lightweight feel.”

To keep fans coming back for more, bands often look to printing that parallels retail trends. “One popular look is vintage, usually a faded center-front,” says Bruce Jolesch, president/owner of Pony Xpress Printing (asi/78964) in Garland, TX. “Bands also go for lightweight discharge prints, and oversized prints over the collar and sleeves, or wrapped from front to back.”

Kaule says the popularity of oversized printing stems in part from the eye-catching displays they create at merchandise booths. However, when done poorly, it risks disappointing fans. “With large prints, we stay away from plastisol,” he says. “It makes shirts almost bulletproof and uncomfortable. Lightweight prints increase the perceived value tremendously.”

To complement the soft prints, bands flock to lightweight styles from Gildan (asi/56842), Next Level Apparel (asi/73867) and Bella-Alo (asi/39590), according to Kaule. Some bands still go with boxy-cut tees, says Farnan, in order to cater to a range of sizes and tastes.

“We’ve been getting a lot of requests for soft-hand fabrics from suppliers like Next Level and Alternative Apparel (asi/34850),” Zarella says. “They’re comfortable and fashionable, and they don’t swallow up the budget. Bands are also sticking with simple ink colors while getting creative with shirt colors.”

Rockin’ Art

When it comes to developing art, some shops are full graphic artists from start to finish; others use production-ready graphics supplied by the band; and others do a little of both. “Sometimes, we come up with ideas to present,” Zarella says, “and we prepare pre-made artwork for printing.” Zarella’s team will also simplify a multi-color design for more cost-effective production.

As a contract screen printer, Anderson often works with brokers to come up with the perfect design. “We’ll think of some concepts, and designers may send in ideas,” he says. But a word of caution: Prepare suggestions for clients unfamiliar with screen printing. “They may ask for a size or design that’s too cost-prohibitive to produce,” he says.

Kaule and his team are always ready to offer advice to make the process run more smoothly. “Bands know what they want most of the time, but we also offer our opinion,” he says. “They want an oversized plastisol print, and we say, ‘That’ll make this shirt uncomfortable. We suggest discharge or water-based.’ Once they see what we mean, they’ll usually go with our advice.”

Every Picture Tells a Story

A local group has some sizable shows lined up, and they want screen-printed tees to optimize marketing and cash flow. Screen printers can look like rockstars themselves first by researching popular styles and being open to designing for a slew of genres, like R&B, hip hop, rap, jazz, reggae, electronic/dance and more. Merch tees aren’t just for rock groups or supersized, international acts. Pittsburgh, for example, has an extensive hip hop and rap community, and Kaule takes full advantage of its close proximity.

“They want to go all out with bling, gold foil, and silver and gold ink,” he says. “This differs from a standard rock shirt, with its dark, Gothic look.” For some, oversized neon rules the day; for others, distressed tone-on-tone prints and smaller graphics are the name of the game. Being versatile across genres lets screen-printers look like experts when a client wants to bring a design to fruition.

To keep the reorders coming, establish quality, reliability and affordability from the get-go. Once screen printers have forged strong relationships, satisfied customers will spread the word. “Most new clients come to us after fellow groups recommend us,” Lapierre says. “They produce similar music and concerts.” And this, the “scene” of a given music community, is an integral part of the relationship between screen printers and clients. “You have to be familiar with their scene, including their music, shows and attendees, to establish rapport,” he says. “Larger groups usually focus on merch solely as a source of revenue, but smaller groups with more intimate followings have a certain art and expression to put forth. We have to understand what they represent. That’s really big.”

Producing quality screen prints for music groups is hard work and a lot of fun, and no one knows that better than the screen printers themselves. “We work with passionate and creative people, and it doesn’t get much better than that,” says Zarella. “This is a very important aspect of their lives, and by helping them create the T-shirt of their dreams, we get to live out our own rockstar dreams vicariously.”