When COVID hit, the concert industry took a massive hit, as did those who produce the branded merchandise for live events. As the summer ramps up, memories of pandemic lockdowns and canceled shows are fading into the past, with artists going back out on tour and live events making a comeback. In the spirit of the revived entertainment industry, we sat down with Carlo Oviedo, chief revenue officer of Culture Studio in Chicago.

As an expert on what it takes to print the apparel needed for performing artists and associated events, Oviedo has a lot of insight and expertise on the subject. If it’s a niche that interests you from a business standpoint, or if you are simply a merch fanatic, you’ll want to hear what he has to say.

Apparelist (APL): What does it take to print and produce concert apparel?

Oviedo: In the music industry, there a lot of hands in the cookie jar; there are a lot of steps in the process, which makes it more complex. As the production house, we’re kind of at the end of the rope — once it gets to us, everything is approved … it’s gone through artists, management, licenses, etc. It’s usually fast — we have one or two days to do the job.

With some of these big artists, you’d think it would get done ahead of time. It does come down to the wire more often than not, though. Sometimes we’re involved on the design side, or sometimes the artist and record label design and we’re just involved in separations and production. Ultimately, it rolls down to us at the end to make the magic happen.

We’ve always been in this space. Our entire process is built for this type of business, so it’s not much of a disruption to work on fast turnaround times. You have to be a little bit crazy to step into the game of entertainment. It’s all last-minute. But magic happens and comes out of it, so being that for your customers is an incredible feeling.

APL: Let’s talk more about that turnaround time. Was it always like that, even before COVID?

Oviedo: The standard is very fast — it’s always been this way, pre- and post-pandemic. The reason being is these are chase orders — the artist is on tour with a truck along with them for inventory. There’s only so much they can carry, and they only want to invest so much on designs in case they don’t sell well. Or if there’s bad weather, they might want to sell sweatshirts versus T-shirts. So you need to ramp up a long-sleeve order for the following day you didn’t plan for.

We say, absolutely we can do that. That’s the magic. There’s the logistics of getting it there, but with supply chain and us having the keys of control, we now handle the booking of trucks and freight and even flights.

APL: What special considerations need to be taken into account when


Credit: Culture Studio

printing concert T-shirts?

Oviedo: It is often very intricate artwork. We make sure we have the right equipment to capitalize on that. It’s a niche, without a doubt. So, artwork and machinery capabilities are a consideration. We’ve always invested in that to be that kind of partner. We use the Digital Squeegee, which has been a good machine. Being able to produce that look on a tour shirt is unique, but even that requires a lot of dialing in.

Your average order might be 2,000 to 3,000, which is different than the digital one-offs that you see. We also have a national list of vendors we use and work with.

APL: Is that number typical of an order in this space?

Oviedo: It’s kind of all-over the place, but it really depends on the artist. If you’re working with The Weekend, it’s different than working with The Jonas Brothers. Even the genre of music, country versus classic rock, will affect the order quantity. But they are typically larger runs. These are the big orders, the big runners.

But it’s not about production, it’s about the fan — someone who connects to you as a fan. Now you not only connect with your experience, you have a T-shirt to remember it by. That’s what merch can do. We’re not really a screen printer. We have the same equipment, but we’re all about connecting fans with good merch. It’s a lifestyle. It’s all about what’s in the closet — I’m more interested in that side of stories and content. There’s so much value there.

APL: Obviously COVID was not kind to the concert and live event industry. What’s that journey been like for you?

Oviedo: It was insane and horrifying. We asked, can it get worse. And it went on for a few years. For any company that’s as crazy as us, it can put you out of business, and a lot of people did go out of business, unfortunately. A bad part of this industry is something like this shuts down all your business.

We found ways to still capitalize on our niche but in different lanes of business. When you have a brand or audience that has a reach that isn’t using live events, they ask how they can still monetize their fans. So, it went to the world of e-commerce, which basically progressed 10 years in one year. We switched our model to, how can we capitalize on Shopify. You can put up a special sale for an artist for three days, and you create this sense of urgency and exclusivity that’s still hitting a massive audience. The consumer was able to still get merch, but in a different way. The difference was it arrived at their doorstep versus waiting in a long line.

APL: Let’s talk equipment. Print-on-demand (POD) technology is taking the industry by storm. Why isn’t POD necessarily the way to go in this niche?

Oviedo: There’s a big segment of business for POD. But just for the sheer volume of live events and music, POD might not be the right technology for it. If you’re doing e-commerce and Shopify stores only, then there’s a huge market for it. I definitely think it’s given the option for more products and more SKUs to be produced. The pandemic fast-tracked that side of the business. One and twos are not my niche, but it’s definitely viable. In a sense, POD is our thing, just in bulk. It’s just not the technology that our industry considers POD!

APL: What else does it take to be successful in the world of decorating apparel for live entertainment?

Oviedo: The technology that we’ve built, our proprietary software, has been one of the only reasons we’ve been able to scale and meet demand. It’s given us an opportunity to say yes so much more because it’s tied to data and real numbers. You need to use true technology — you need to know if you can take a crazy turnaround order. Tying in technology to the true output has been incredible for us. Not just for capacity but also efficiency, artwork, and reorders. Everything needs to be one-touch and automated. You have to start somewhere, then have the mindset and resources to grow.