In the beginning, it was a humble thing, made of the thinnest cotton and printed in somebody’s basement from a crude silk screen.
The front would be emblazoned with a crude approximation of a rock band’s latest album cover. The back might list an odyssey of tour dates, from Madison Square Garden to the Hollywood Bowl. Be it the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, Journey or Pink Floyd, if you were going to see a concert, chances were you’d lay down a few extra dollars for a souvenir to prove it.
The underlying ethic was that you are what you listen to. Your shirt was the equivalent of a Navy tattoo. (You saw the Dead at Rupp Arena? Hey, I was there.) To be truly cool, it had to be good and tattered, looking as if it’d been seasoned in a nest of killer bees.
Somehow, these trifling collectibles came to be known as swag. The epithet fits, conjuring an image of pirate booty that seems in keeping with the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll.
But where swag was once the calling card of the anti-Establishment, best accompanied by ragged jeans, it has evolved into sleek fashion accessories rendered with high production values from quality fabrics--and given price tags to match. The unpretentious garb once peddled out of car trunks has gone to the boutiques (see related Inside Out item, E4) and, by several estimates, is a billion-dollar-a-year industry.
“In the past, rock merchandising was responding to fashion trends instead of dictating them,” says Tom Donnell, tour manager of Commerce-based Giant Merchandising, a wing of Giant Records. “That’s starting to change now.”
Today, computer-generated motifs are embroidered, printed, stamped and woven onto every form of apparel imaginable. T-shirts may have as little as a simple logo or as much as an edge-to-edge print, as in the popular Aerosmith cowhide motif.
Going out for a night of clubbing? Well, slip into your Soul Asylum boxers (although to be truly fashionable, you would want to wear them outside your pants), then don your Def Leppard tank top, Megadeth T-shirt and Screaming Trees sweat pants. And, should the evening take an unexpected turn, don’t be caught without your U2 condoms, although they might be getting a little old for safety’s sake.
Contemporary swag may come in increasingly ambitious forms, but it will always be beholden to two fundamental principles. First: “The black T-shirt is the utter foundation of rock ‘n’ roll graphics,” says Paul Grushkin, national sales manager for Winterland Productions, the San Francisco company that pioneered rock merchandising in the early ‘70s. “And no matter what else you do, you have to have cutting-edge, jaw-hanging graphics.”
It’s true that 16- to-24-year-old metal heads--with their insatiable lust for gore-dripping, flame-throwing specters--remain the industry’s bread and butter. But the encroaching middle-agedness of rock fans across the board has created a demand for something that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable: earth tones.
“Earth tones are really hot right now,” Donnell says. “You never would have seen them a few years ago.” And therein may lie the strongest testimony to rock’s durability: If it can survive mauve, it can survive anything.
The color scheme for the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour, which kicks off May 27 at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, is still coming together. Giant Merchandising is awaiting final approval of its designs, which Eagles members, particularly Don Henley, have personally overseen, Donnell says. Once the company gets an OK, its presses will lurch into production, churning out some 50,000 units of swag in a week. And that’s just for starters.
“We wait until after the first several dates of tour before we commit to a product line in order to see what trends develop,” Donnell says.
He characterizes the Eagles’ reunion venture as the ideal tour from a rock merchandising standpoint. “It’s much more of a novelty than either the Stones or Pink Floyd, because the Eagles haven’t toured in 14 years.”
Bill Consolo, an El Segundo writer, has a lot to show for his two decades as an Eagles fan, including a drawerful of pristine Ts and a letterman’s jacket that circulated during the “Hotel California” tour. “I buy them but never wear them,” he says, noting that he has swag older than some of the kids at the taping for the band’s recent MTV special. “It was a shock.”
By most accounts, the grandfather of swag is Dell Furano, who co-founded Winterland Productions with the late rock promoter Bill Graham. Now president of rival company Sony Signatures, he has overseen some of the most lucrative merchandising events in rock history, including the 1970s Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead tours, as well as the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna and U2 tours throughout the ‘80s.
Swag mania began with the Grateful Dead in 1971, when Furano was managing the San Francisco concert hall where the band played a three-night stand. “It started as a family thing. The wife of the Dead’s drummer had been making the T-shirts and selling them in the lobby,” he recalls. “She got tired of fooling with it and offered to let me take over the merchandising for a royalty. So the Deadheads were the spawning ground for the whole merchandising scene.”
Winterland’s Grushkin estimates that about 30 million Grateful Dead T-shirts are in circulation. The basis for his figure: “‘The Dead has 2 million fans and each one of them probably has 15 T-shirts apiece, half homemade, half bought from merchandisers.”
It was Furano who struck upon the idea of taking merchandise on the road, a practice now as much a part of rock tours as sound checks. Emboldened by hot sales, he approached such groups as Jefferson Starship, Santana and Journey. A watershed in the history of swag came with the 1981 Rolling Stones tour.
“It was the birth of modern-day rock merchandising,” says Furano, 43, whose work uniform still consists of jeans and rock T-shirts. The tour grossed $10 million on merchandising alone.
It is also Furano who has shepherded swag’s steady march to the upscale. If you had told a tie-dyed rocker with a pocketful of roach clips 15 years ago that he might someday buy white button-down oxford-cloth shirts embroidered with the logo of his favorite group, he or she would have passed it off as a bad trip. Work shirts, as seen at Billy Joel and Neil Diamond concerts, are also big.
And Barbra Streisand, who embarked this week on her first tour in 27 years, offered the fans at her sellout New Year’s concerts in Las Vegas silk Jacquard blouses and jackets and limited-edition jewelry, among other items. Merchandise sales broke industry records, averaging $40 per concert-goer.
Although swag sales are based profoundly on impulse, fueled by throbbing backbeats and euphoric encores, the average Joe will not plunk down hundreds at a concert. With that in mind, Brockum Global Merchandising is developing a mail-order catalogue of high-end swag, such as varsity jackets tied to the Pink Floyd tour.
“You’re not likely to sell a $125 leather handbag to a Metallica fan, but for the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd, you’re looking at people in their 30s or 40s, who can afford to buy finer things,” says Steve Gerstman, a former Winterland vice president who consults for Brockum. “It’s a question of the aging baby boomer.”
Meanwhile, the swag of yore is being recycled in what seems a most un-rocklike manner--as Father’s Day gifts. Mulberry Neckwear of San Anselmo, Calif., last year introduced a line of ties based on ‘60s and ‘70s concert posters commissioned by promoter Graham. They feature psychedelic graphics, such as Jimi Hendrix’s famous “flying eyeball"--bloodshot, with flames shooting out of it-- which has been the series’ hands-down bestseller. Company president Henry Jacobson estimates that 100,000 of the $40 ties have been sold, with a new selection on the way for the third Sunday in June.
Swag, of course, isn’t just for the fans. Record companies and concert venues often commission a private stock of finery ranging from shirts to expensive varsity jackets worth hundreds of dollars as tokens of appreciation to band members and roadies alike. Road crews, in fact, are notorious for their swag-hoarding ways. And for musicians and their minions, swag becomes a virtual uniform.
Donnell explains: “On the road, it’s like a contest to see who can get one of every item. Roadies also like to trade with the guys working on other shows as well. It’s a huge part of rock ‘n’ roll.”
And no matter how much swag one acquires, there’s always room for more. “Once we coincidentally had dinner in the same restaurant as Janet Jackson’s band,” recalls one rock tour veteran. “They all had these beautiful, floor-length leather jackets. It was the first time I experienced swag envy.”