THE BEATLES MAY HAVE BEEN BIGGER THAN JESUS, BUT YEEZUS IS BIGGER THAN THE POPE.
Last week Kanye West sold nearly $1 million in merchandise at his Madison Square Garden show, a commercial-religious accomplishment that’s particularly fitting considering Yeezy’s allusions to both Pablo Escobar and Saint Pablo, and the fact that the venue’s previous record holder was the Pope. Rosary beads and crucifixes can move units, but they’re apparently no match for t-shirts and hoodies.
Kanye West’s myriad accomplishments are often covered by the smog of self-immolation that hovers over him, but there’s simply no denying the music industry history he’s been making. At a time when the music itself often brings in a fraction of a fraction of a penny but a $40 t-shirt is still a $40 t-shirt, “thou shall put as much effort into selling merch as thou puts into selling albums” is now a well-known commandment for artists, and no one’s mastered the gospel like Mr. West.
Tyler the Creator’s controlled a booming clothing line for years now, Rihanna’s fans swoop up any uniform their admiral releases and Drake’s pop-up shops have predictably come paired with around-the-block lines, but they’re all still mom and pop shops compared to Kanye’s Wal-Mart.
So how did he do it? The answer is that is he’s been doing it.
they called me crazy and pointed fingers
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) March 22, 2016
but there is no other brand that could sell 1 million dollars of clothing in 2 days from 1 location!!!
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) March 22, 2016
Kanye’s haute couture aspirations have been road blocked by the very people he so desperately wants approval from, drove him into debt and led to at least one legendary explosion. Never forget, the answers Sway didn’t have were about self-funding a profitable fashion line. But while Yeezy’s attempts to supplant Versace on the global fashion stage are still a work in progress, those 10,000 hours spent immersed in the inner-workings of the fashion industry have given him a true expertise.
Kanye doesn’t just know how to stitch a hem, he understands the economics of production and distribution like no other artist. He isn’t studying how to tell shirts at shows, not exactly. He’s soaking in Adidas’ global production expertise in board room meetings, he’s studying how Forever 21 makes all those millions (partly by copying him), and those lessons that are clearly translating to selling a lot of t-shirts at shows.
West’s recent merch mastery proves there’s just no replacement for hard work and investment, but Kim Kardashian is a close second.
and also my number one design rule of anything I do from shoes to music to homes is that Kim has to like it….
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 2, 2016
I’m not so jaded that I believe Kanye and Kim’s union is a marriage of opportunity. It’d be more accurate to say that they seemingly recognize a kindred spirit in each other, spirits that are determined to overpower traditional channels to success by the sheer overwhelming force of their personalities, and the cult those personalities produce. With Kim’s planet-shattering TV, Instagram and Snapchat presence by his side, Kanye doesn’t have to do much more than marketing than the occasional tweet. He’s able to incite a riot with Kim’s mobile phone riding shotgun and create a sense of the moment that brings together thousands compelled to be a part of something bigger than themselves, with the pics to prove it.
Those of us who were in college when College Dropout seemingly dropped out of the sky and into our hearts are now spending our money on daycare and babysitters, not hoodies. Instead, it’s Kim and her extended network that have kept ‘Ye plugged into a younger generation more than happy to hand over their (parent’s) disposable income for shirts that will instantly become the envy of everyone in homeroom.
Chance the Rapper crafted individual shirts for each of his college stops, playing into a sense of the moment. Strange Music makes and distributes all of its own merch, giving them a higher percentage of profit of each sale and enabling them to make more than other artists who sell even a significantly higher volume. Wax is selling barbecue tools around his new Cookout album, the only limits are your own creativity. Hell, even Father John Misty is simply selling his own version of Pablo merch – if you can’t beat Kanye, join him, whether he likes it or not.
A wise friend once told me that today making music is just like owning land. By itself it’s not worth much, it’s about what you build on that land. More people listening to your music, and making that music a part of their lives, means more land to build a publishing deal on, more land to build a tour on, more land on to open up that store and move shirts. Without music none of it is possible, but unless you’re building something on all that real estate, none of it is profitable.
This is how the Saint Pablo tour starts every night. pic.twitter.com/Ux7hgX6j6G
— Only Hip Hop Facts (@OnlyHipHopFacts) September 7, 2016
So whether you’re preparing to play in Madison Square Garden or recording in your bedroom closet, if you’re serious about making music a career you need to be serious about making merch. The path to quitting that day job is not paved with album sales alone, they’re paved with t-shirt sales, and if merch isn’t your thing, you need someone on the team who loves design like you love songwriting. In the squad all things are possible.
Large scale merc success may feel like a promised land that’s impossible to reach right now, but it can be done. When in doubt, just let Saint Pablo be your guide.
[By Nathan Slavik, @RefinedHype)