The Guy Who Made Concert Tees Cool Looks Back on 40 Years of Retail Hits

Furano in 1992.
Courtesy of Epic Rights

Furano in 1992.

"Go talk to Dell.” Those four words, uttered by legendary promoter Bill Graham, changed the course of Epic Rights founder and ­merchandising pioneer Dell Furano’s career. It was the early 1970s, and Furano was taking a year off to learn the concert business before heading to law school. He was employed at Graham’s renowned 5,500-seat Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, where he had worked part time during his ­undergrad years at Stanford University. The then-wife of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann asked Graham whom she should see about selling T-shirts during a show, and Graham sent her to Furano.

“That simple ‘Go talk to Dell’ changed my life,” recalls Furano, who permanently shelved law school to go into business with Graham. Along with Furano’s brother, Dave, they debuted Winterland Productions in 1974, a ­groundbreaking merchandise company with clients ­including Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and, of course, the Dead. But it wasn’t easy in the beginning. “In the ’70s, it was not cool selling merchandise, so we had to be careful,” says Furano. “Groups would say, ‘OK, you can sell, but don’t ­embarrass us. Stand in a corner.’”

Licensing now annually generates $12 billion in ­revenue, according to the Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association, which will induct Furano into its hall of fame on May 23. Past inductees include Walt Disney, Jim Henson, George Lucas and Charles M. Schulz. Though concert tees will always be a staple of the business, Furano has helped usher in a new era of ­merchandising during the last 40 years. Following Winterland, the Nevada native founded and was CEO of Sony Signatures, later renamed Signatures Network, and became CEO of Live Nation Merchandise.

Furano’s latest endeavor, Epic Rights, which launched in 2013, builds ­celebrity brands through a global network of ­retailers and licensees, as well as tackles social media, VIP ticketing, fan ­experiences and trademark consultation for clients such as AC/DC, Kiss, Billy Joel, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Sting, Barbra Streisand, Zac Brown Band, Lionel Richie and the estates of John Lennon and David Bowie. During the last three years, Epic Rights has ­executed more than 500 license deals, including Madonna’s skincare line, Celine Dion’s handbag ­collection, an apparel deal featuring the lyrics of Lennon & McCartney and even Kiss waffle makers.

Furano, 65, and his wife, Kym (a ­partner and executive vp at Epic Rights), live in the Hollywood Hills near their West Hollywood office, where he spoke to Billboard about his 40-year-plus career.

Ethan Miller/WireImage
Billy Idol and Miley Cyrus perform at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on Sept. 23, 2016 in Las Vegas.

Has it reached the point yet where artists can make more from their merchandise and licensing than from touring and record sales?

For touring artists, their main revenue still comes from touring. But they make very substantial merchandise money. It’ll range from 10 to 35 percent of their revenue. Also, artists realize it’s important to have fans wearing your merch. Billy Idol did a radio show with Miley Cyrus last September. She wore a jacket with an airbrushed classic Billy Idol design on the jacket. It blew up all these merchandise sales. Why? Miley Cyrus is wearing it.

How has the average per cap for concert merch grown?

In the beginning, we were very excited if we grossed $1 per head. Today, many artists routinely do $10-plus per head, and many top pop, rock, country and hip-hop artists gross $15 to $20 per head. Kanye West, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber shows gross $300,000 to $400,000 in merchandise. That’s quite an ­accomplishment when you realize that these sales are done over a three-hour ­selling window.

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Madonna in Who's That Girl in 1987.

When did the move into retail happen?

Up into the mid-’70s, it was all tour ­merchandise. The first artist we started selling at retail was Grateful Dead with tie-dye [apparel] and posters. We sold them to Tower Records, Sam Goody’s, Licorice Pizza and the Berkeley [Calif.] head shops. In 1981, Spencer’s Gifts started buying merchandise. Our first retail hit was Madonna. She had the movie, [1987’s] Who’s That Girl, and she wore thrift-shop rubber bracelets, the hair ribbon. That was our first big retail breakout. We sold a lot of those at teen retailers.

Which act really broke the retail ­market wide open?

New Kids on the Block in 1987 and 1988, with a massive tour and the first huge blowout by a boy band at retail. It was dolls, action figures, breakfast cereals, a McDonald’s promotion, sneakers -- all kinds of apparel. We made a big deal with JCPenney, and we took their family members on tour to different stores to host events. New Kids was a watershed artist.

Bettmann/Getty Images
New Kids on the Block joined the ranks of such immortals as Barbie, GI Joe and Pee Wee Herman with the introduction of their own line of dolls in 1990.

You work closely with artists’ ­management. Do they ever veto designs?

We did the Justin Timberlake [FutureSex/LoveShow] tour in 2006 and 2007. We did great business, but he did not want to sell any merchandise that said “SexyBack.” Same thing with Bruce Springsteen in 1984 and 1985 for the Born in the U.S.A. Tour, which set a record for the time in total merch sales. [Springsteen’s manager] Jon Landau said, “You can’t sell any red caps. Bruce didn’t put the cap in his pocket [on the album cover] so he could sell red caps.”

How did the ­Internet shift things?

The first really huge digital breakout year was 1999. I always felt it was ­important to bring more value to the ­artists than just ­selling ­merchandise at their ­concerts, so that’s when we expanded into e-commerce, branding and licensing. In 2000 and 2001, we did our first websites. We were an early pioneer in developing websites for Madonna, Britney Spears, Tim McGraw, U2, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss. Probably 2001 was the first time the ­scalpers started ­putting their tickets online. [To counter], we did huge VIP ticketing.

What trends are you seeing now?

Well-designed apps. We’re doing apps now for Zac Brown, Kiss and Celine Dion. It is the best real estate, and the artist can communicate directly with the fan with no filter. Fan apps and digital print-on-demand e-commerce will be game-changers. The other big trend is international. We do great business in South America, Japan and South Korea. We just did a whole series of deals in Turkey. It has become a global business for merchandising, not just for touring.

Your clients include the estates of David Bowie and John Lennon. What is the first step when an artist dies?

We wait. If an artist dies while you have the rights, you have that initial rush -- everyone buys out of memory. Then, lots of times you pull all the merch back and let the market rest. Then you go back and redesign your products, brand guides and lookbook to reflect an artist’s career.

In February, Celine Dion launched a handbag line. With so many stores closing, is it still a good time for ­artists to create lines for retail?

To build a new brand from scratch costs millions of dollars. So, if you can make the right ­celebrity endorsement, ­retailers all ­recognize that a well-executed, celebrity brand can be hugely ­successful. There’s no fast bucks in the market because everyone’s got too much at stake, and the business has just become more sophisticated, but the answer is yes, it’s a good time for top artists that have huge followings and a sense of style. The most challenging area is fashion, which you have to change every season. That’s remarkably difficult for the best marketers out there, let alone a celebrity-driven line.

Even with the variety of items ­available at concerts and retail, fans still love their basic concert T-shirt above all else. Why?

They loved it in the beginning and love it as much today. They love a name of a tour; they like the year of a tour. They like to see the itinerary because they think, “I saw Justin Timberlake on the 2007 SexyBack Tour,” or “I saw The Rolling Stones on the Tattoo You Tour of 1981 or ’82,” or “I saw Kanye West on his Graduation Tour.” The black ­concert tee has reigned as king for over 40 years. It has become not only a fashion ­statement, but also a ­collector’s item and a ­multigenerational shared experience.

This article originally appeared in the May 27 issue of Billboard.