What is it about certain merch — the ubiquitous band T-shirt is the example here — that drives motivated buyers to decide not to buy, and what role do apparel decorators have in helping customers specify a more successful product? Two seasoned apparel decorating professions help us find the answer.

Drawn from Experience

When asked what makes for bad band merch, Lon Winters, founder and managing director at Graphic Elephants (Elisabeth, Colorado), who is both an apparel decorator and a consultant to the segment, says the problem is often “garbage in/garbage out.”

He says a bad composition is never going to make for a great shirt. File quality, Winters says, is often the biggest problem. Those new to designing shirts — for bands or otherwise — are often inexperienced with the process and provide low-res, sub-standard artwork. Often, he says he can print the design out at the intended size to illustrate the need for a better file.

He adds, however, that customers learn from experience and the process becomes easier over time. Winters occasionally receives artwork for wrap-around or over-the-shoulder designs that are more technically demanding than the customer’s expected cost per unit will support.

For Eric Solomon, owner of Night Owls Print Shop (Houston, Texas), the quality of supplied files is also an ongoing challenge, as is a lack of understanding on behalf of the customer about what will work for a T-shirt (for instance, a huge print on a small shirt): “We work with them to scale the design to look the way they want it.”

Solomon says that the jobs his company has been producing lately include a lot of simple, single-color work, and an increasing number of what he refers to as “insane full-color work.” Popular bands, he says, are using more color. He adds that he expects to see a resurgence in all-over printing — even over-seam work — in the next year. Further, he is also seeing increasing requests for heavier shirts, which he says harkens back to the “blocky” look of the 90’s.

Winters is seeing the increased influence of DTG and hybrid technologies, which are changing the work his company does, with a drive toward photo-realism. He says as print quality becomes more detailed and realistic, music artists are becoming more concerned with how they look on their merch. In terms of garment color, Winters confirms that while black shirts comprise a vast majority of the shirts sold as band or music merch, some artists — particularly women — will also specify an alternate shirt color. This, however, is usually a small percentage of the larger order.


An engaging design, well executed, makes merch more attractive. Help your client be their best. Courtesy of Night Owls Print Shop

A Better Product

When asked how apparel decorators can use subtle upsells to provide a better-quality product while still respecting the low cost-per-unit goals of the merch sales model, Solomon says he has those conversations with the clients, but it’s really up to them. “With bands,” he says, “that’s difficult because it’s commodity driven.”

Bands are often strongly focused on what’s most economical, Solomon says, especially given the importance of merch in realizing the profitability of a tour or performance. In some cases, he adds, the customer may want a product that is more-or-less disposable. “Merch models and retail models are very different,” he advises.

Winters says that he uses a “good, better, best” approach with his customers to provide them with viable options. He says it is relatively rare for customers to choose a rock-bottom product, noting a slightly better product provides improved margin and a better customer feeling about the finished product.

What makes for a truly compelling shirt? According to Winters, “Hybrid printing is shuffling down to the customers, and now customers are beginning to ask for continuous tone output.” He says his company has seen success with specialty applications, including elements such as special-effect inks. He adds, however, that given supply chain challenges, “Specialty products are hard to get right now.”

Being Something More

One reality here, however, is that many apparel decorators are printers, not designers. Your job, in theory, is to take the art the customer gives you and, in this case, print it on a bunch of shirts. Who are you to tell a customer what to do?

The answer may be in the presence (or not) of return business. When a box of shirts printed and delivered becomes a box of shirts — minus a few — thrown away a year later, that does not bode well for reorders, or for your company getting orders for the band’s next tour. From a sales standpoint, ask yourself if your approach is purely transactional, or is it consultative — where do you work to help customers achieve their goals.

Finally, there are value adds — those services outside the core (in this case, printing shirts) that increase value for the customer. Solomon says his company has had good success by handling logistics, such as taking on shipping of printed shirts venue-to-venue for instance, to ensure there is always supply to meet demand.