Business

Niche No More: Band Merch Companies See Surge in Demand for Artist-Branded Face Masks

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an uptick in the production of apparel items like masks and bandanas.

With the touring industry at a standstill because of shutdowns around the coronavirus pandemic, the music-merchandise business has found some salvation in online sales of some typically niche apparel items: face masks and bandanas.

Thanks to the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation that cloth face masks be worn in public to slow the spread of the virus, this accessory has suddenly become an unexpected priority. And with mask and bandana manufacturers coming back online amid the pandemic, merch businesses are able to produce even more on top of their existing stock.

"Weirdly enough, we were already making a lot of masks," says Tony Holiday, president of Toronto-based Kt8 Merchandise Company, whose clients include Bassnectar and its hometown Veld Music Festival. "A lot of our acts are EDM and in that scene, bandanas and face masks have been popular at festivals for years because of the dust factor. So with the recent demand in face masks, we were already set up to deliver."

Holiday reports that "30-40% of our artists are making face masks now," and that his company has been selling about 500 masks a week -- far more than usual. Kt8 has been donating some of the proceeds from face mask sales to its local hospitals and charities helping frontline workers who tend to COVID-19 patients.

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"Some people might feel like it’s weird to make money off of this," Holiday says. "But at the end of the day, people want to not walk around feeling contaminated. If wearing masks becomes a regular part of daily life, having it associated with something you enjoy might make it more appealing."

Other companies have been shifting to face mask protection. Ernie Ball, the California-based guitar-accessory company, has been producing and giving away 400 cloth masks per day. And the Virginia-based apparel manufacturer Custom Ink (which has worked with acts ranging from Adele to Guns N’ Roses through its Sidestep subsidiary) has expanded the "Health and Wellness" page of its website to offer more face mask options.

"Custom Ink is working on customization options including different colors and design so businesses can provide branded masks and individuals can create personalized masks," says company spokesperson Andrew Weinstein.

Other companies are donating old merchandise to be repurposed for masks. Virginia-based Red Star Merchandise, which handles Dave Matthews Band and Alabama Shakes, has been donating some of its stock of inactive T-shirts to a local seamstress who turns them into masks and head caps for hospitals. DMB is also selling face masks, donating net proceeds to celebrity chef José Andrés' World Central Kitchen.

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In addition to donating some of its old T-shirts for new face masks, Red Star act Thursday (a post-hardcore band from New Jersey) had a very successful recent promotion selling new branded cloth masks.

"We sold like a thousand masks with their logo on it in no time, sold out the run," says Red Star CEO Alex Stultz. "We paired it with a puzzle. You can’t seem to find certain things anywhere, and puzzles are one. People are hunkered down at home."

Red Star has been working with some of its other acts to develop similar promotions with face masks and bandanas -- or at least spotlight those products in its web store.

"Some bands seem pumped to push them," says Stultz. "But others are more like, 'Make sure people know they're available, but we don’t want to do any social blasts about it.'"

Indeed, no one wants to give the appearance of taking advantage of a worldwide tragedy.

"There’s a new pet rock every year," says Norman Perry, CEO of New York-based Perryscope Productions. "I'm not being glib. We’ve sold bandanas for years. They’ve been a staple for Megadeth, Metallica, Poison. The idea of mask as artwork can be good, but it’s a personal decision for each band. I don’t think most bands want to look like they’re jumping on a bandwagon."

"That said," Perry adds, "one of our more successful shirts lately is The Police, 'Don't Stand So Close To Me.'"

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