A tale of woe, dusted with chagrin: in the summer, when Lockdown: A New Hope meant we spent all our Chablis money on things we didn’t need and wouldn’t use again (kettle bells; emotion journals, baker’s spectacles etc.), I spaffed £50 (I think) on a sweatshirt from Haim’s collection of WIMPIII (Women In Music Pt. III) merch. I was all like, “Haim are (is?) great and I love sweatshirts and acronyms and I have spare money because I don’t go anywhere or do anything and the only exciting thing I purchased recently is a pack of Quorn cocktail sausages, so yeah, I’ll buy it”. The sweatshirt never turned up, and the receipt was deleted by an actually-quite-annoying email server before I realised. So now I’m sweatshirt-less and £50-less, but maybe it was meant to be. Haim have since released a very meh song with Taylor Swift and it wouldn’t have fit me anyway, because of all the Quorny bois.
Another tale, if you’ll indulge me. I wanted to buy a cool Christmas present for a cool person and my flatmate recommended the A24 store. Quick as a flash I asked if he was referring to the road from Clapham to Worthing (bloody good road) and through tears of LAUGHTER he said no, the movie studio responsible for Hereditary, Midsommar, and Uncut Gems and I said yeah, I know that, I’m a 32-year-old media goon that lives in Hackney. But this goon didn’t know they had a store!
On it I found loads and loads of cool, weird, tastefully photographed shit that looks great on a laptop screen but might leave you feeling a bit sad if you actually bought it. Like the the Uncut Gems basketball. People will ask you if it’s from the actual film and you’ll say no. They’ll ask if you play basketball with it and you’ll say no. So, what is it, friendo? After browsing agog for half an hour, I went elsewhere and bought my giftee a wetsuit. (Just quickly, I want the record to show that I think Hereditary is one of the most excellent things ever made.)
Merch has evolved, has it not? Merch used to be band T-shirts and Star Wars figurines, and that was pretty much it. At a push you could include the stuff that came free with health insurance or agricultural feed or remote radio broadcasts – hats, keyrings, bum bags etc. – or those weird autograph books from Disney World, but for almost all of human history, only dweebs wanted the former and only smōl dweebs wanted the latter. Now merch is everywhere, all the time. Bookshops have merch (Daunt tote bags), restaurants have merch (T-shirts from Bao, St John), political campaigns have merch (Bernie beanies) and yes, musicians still have merch, but T-shirts are a bit passé.
I got an email this week heralding Nick Cave’s new 'Suck My Dick' Collection’, and well-done, sender, because my attention was piqued right off the bat. As it transpires, Cave Things is a store dedicated to selling goods “conceived, sourced, shaped and designed” by the soigné songman and expert suit wearer. Could it be a tonic to the stagnant live music scene? Probably (and fair enough), but there’s irreverent crockery and a dog jumper emblazoned with the phrase “suck my dick”, so who cares.
How have we got here? How have we got to a place where merch – that is to say, garments and accessories given out or sold by creative entities or companies by means of passive promotion – has merged with homeware, high fashion, hype, collaborations, vintage and basically all the machinations of modern commerce? Is everything ironic, now? Or is nothing ironic? For our office Secret Santa in 2019, I made my colleague a T-shirt with the Aromat logo on the chest, because he puts the flavour powder stuff on everything. I remember thinking at the time that it was both a heart-warming wink to his love of MSG, and a T-shirt that I would genuinely wear. If Aromat made them and got Kendall Jenner to wear one, they would make hundreds of billions of pounds, I’m sure. Pull your finger out, Aromat!
Now I’m questioning everything. Are Yeezys merch? I mean, sure, they're a standalone product not directly related to Kanye’s music, but if he wasn’t involved, would all the teenage boys still buy them? I spoke to Jesse Einhorn, a senior economist at popular resale platform StockX, and he told me about the recent frenzy for licensed goods. (A conversation for a different, much more serious article, I should stipulate.)
“This year we’ve just seen this huge explosion of artist merch from everyone from Travis Scott to Juice Wrld to Kid Cudi, and all of them use the drop method,” he said. “As a consequence, artist merch is now the fastest growing streetwear segment on our marketplace.” In terms of total sales, Travis Scott is second only to Supreme on StockX, which is quite staggering, but also enlightening. Supreme, I would argue, is perhaps why the modern garden of merch is so strewn with disparate stuff. Its last drop of 2020 had a Swarovski crystal-encrusted Zippo lighter, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Inflatable kayaks, bolt-cutters, fire extinguishers, nunchaku, Oreos, chopsticks, air horns, dice, bricks… actual bricks. (One maniacal collector actually sold his parents’ house so that he could buy Supreme bricks to build a Supreme house but the regular house was only worth 26 Supreme bricks and now the family home is just a small red wall. That didn’t happen, I made it up. But it could have happened, couldn’t it?)
Anyway, I think we should make merch crap again. Merch is not an arm of fashion in the same way that those bits of cheese on top of the deli counter at the supermarket are not street food. A pair of £1300 Nike X Travis Scott SBs are very kewl, but not strictly merch, IMHO. But a pair of purple slippers that you stole from a Premier Inn? Now that’s merch, bebe! Vintage Volvo leatherette driving gloves? Merch. Dorset County Fun Run 1996 finisher’s T-shirt? Merch! That Rolex Air King with the Dominos logo on the face? Well, no that’s not merch, but I’ll let you have that one. That slaps.
Merch needs to be something that you win or get free or find at a car boot sale or misguidedly buy when there’s a pandemic on, and you think it will give your life some kind of cultural depth. Next time you’re buying some ‘merch’, think, “will this make me cooler in the eyes of society?”. If the answer is no, then make the purchase.
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