Rock and retail meet in the booming business of swag merchandise

August 11, 1994|By Martin Booe | Martin Booe,Special to The Sun Sun Fashion Editor Vida Roberts contributed to this article.

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, it 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 had been seasoned in a nest of killer bees.

Somehow, these trifling collectibles came to be known as swag. The name fits, conjuring an image of pirate booty that seems in keeping with the spirit of rock 'n' roll.

Mitchell Shaivitz, 26, who clerks at Record & Tape Traders in Pikesville when he's not busy with his own band, No Presents for Christmas, has quite a swag bag of his own. He has his favorites -- Yes, Roger Dean, Pink Floyd. His Pink Floyd shirts may be considered among the most desirable because the band practically never tours.

There's also the coolness factor of which T-shirts to wear at a given concert, he says. "It depends on the band and the audience. Sometimes wearing an unknown or disbanded or splinter group's shirt has more status," he says. "My band -- I'm the drummer -- has a shirt, too."

As for rock shirts becoming collectors' items, the possibilities are rather limited, says Garth McDonald, T-shirt buyer for Record & Tape Traders stores.

"People wear their favorite T-shirts," he says. "A shirt from the Stones tour in the '70s could be a collectible if it has been maintained in mint condition. Pricing depends on supply and demand, and after so many washings there are not many left from the old concerts."

The quality of shirts, however, has seen a marked improvement. "The younger generation has access to more money. When you have $200 tennis shoes, what does a $26 T-shirt really mean?" he says. "So the more expensive merchandise such as heavy flannel shirts with embroidered logos does move."

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 and, by several estimates, is a billion-dollar-a-year industry.

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.

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 new.

Bill Consolo, a Los Angeles-area writer, has a lot to show for his two decades as an Eagles fan, including a drawerful of pristine T's 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 who attended the concerts.

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 Mr. 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."

It was Mr. 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.

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