Sahil Makhija: “At some point, a T-shirt will always outweigh a CD”
Indian bands are rolling out merchandise faster than you can say T-shirt. Some are even making more money selling merch than music
It’s rather embarrassing to be seen in a black T-shirt at a metal concert. Try explaining that to Indian metal fans and they’ll probably gag you with their moshpit-sweat soaked Slipknot T-shirts (black with the band logo in red). So imagine Mumbai humor metal band Sahil Makhija’s surprise when he spotted a dozen students wearing all black, but without skulls or dragons or Goth prints on their tees. What he saw from a distance, looked distinctly like a large bird. Could they be part of Symbiosis International University’s animal welfare wing that showed up to protest against his indiscriminate consumption of poultry and pork? Fortunately, the students were Workshop loyalists and not animal activists. All 15 of them wore Workshop’s “Khooni Murga” T-shirts, released in September 2009, with the image a large rooster towering over a caricature of the band. “The students even set up a merch stall for us and made us a poster,” recalls Makhija of his band’s fans at the show that was held in Pune in 2011.
Makhija, who has been releasing merchandise since 2001, says that Indian audiences have always been keen on band T-shirts. “I printed 300 T-shirts for about Rs 200 back then (in 2001) and all of them sold out,” he says, “(Today) People pay 1,000 bucks to see Indian Ocean play at Blue Frog, so what is it for that guy to fork out Rs 500 for a T-shirt?” The enterprising musician, who also fronts the death metal band Demonic Resurrection, even ran a T-shirt design contest for DR’s latest merch in January this year. The band received 61 design entries of which three are being printed and sold by Delhi-based label Nameless Merch’s site. “We are currently getting a profit from T-shirts,” says Makhija. The band’s black “Lord of Pestilence” T-Shirt earned them a profit of Rs 35,000, which was used as prize money for the design contest and to fund DR’s fourth album.
Bengaluru stoner/doom metal band Bevar Sea have released six T-shirts designs since 2010 and have also sold more merchandise than music from their debut album that released in November 2012. “It’s (merchandise) a self-subsistence cycle which keeps us in public consciousness,” says guitarist Rahul Chacko, who also goes by his design avatar Scribble Bandit and has designed all six of the band’s T-shirts, including their most popular one of a hipster-slaying biker, “Abhistu.” Fellow Bengaluru death metal band Inner Sanctum’s bassist Abhishek Michael agrees that T-shirts serve as publicity vehicles for the band. “It’s free mobile advertising,” says Michael. Inner Sanctum has released four T-shirt designs until date, with the latest one titled “Devouring Eye,” out in January. The band feels they earn some profits from the sales “but not enough to say…go record an album,” says the band’s vocalist and T-shirt designer Gaurav Basu aka Acid Toad, whose work is now in high demand.
The math and effort add up to profit. Releasing a T-shirt is less time-consuming (up to six weeks) and is cheaper (between Rs 200 to 300 per piece to design, print and sell a T-shirt) than putting out a new album. Besides, merch brings in bigger profits than CD or digital sales of the album. “An order of 400 T-shirts priced at an average of Rs 500 would make more than 500 CDs priced at Rs 200,” says Eshaan Sood, the 18-year-old CEO of Delhi-based merchandise label Nameless Merch. Last year, Sood signed on 12 bands to retail their merch, selling around 3,000 T-shirts in a year.
Last month, alternative music webzine NH7.in called out to bands and their fans to be part of The Scene, a monthly series of free gigs curated at the Mumbai club, Blue Frog. The Scene also offered bands a space to sell merch. Nikhil Udupa, who is part of the marketing and alliance team at NH7, says that T-shirts will start selling more than CDs in the coming years. Adds Udupa, “Nobody buys music to begin with. I think people would rather buy a great T-shirt or poster.” This also explains why Mumbai alternative metal band Goddess Gagged put out a new T-shirt last month on Nameless Merch. The band has no plans to write or release any new material in the coming months, but their new T-shirt (“Tune In”) certainly helps keep the buzz around the band going. “Our CD came out in November 2011. We’ve sold 450 or so of those so far, but we’ve sold out all 50 of the newly designed T-shirts and 65 of the 100 T-shirts that were first designed,” says bassist Krishna Jhaveri.
The growing appeal of band T-shirts is also evident in the rise of the number of online merchandise stores. In 2010, Delhi-based CD Rack (which was Sood’s first business venture with Indian bands) and Mumbai’s BombayMerch was the first online store to begin selling Indian band CDs and merchandise. Today, there are at least seven merchandise stores such as Redwolf, Headbangers Merch, Hysteria, Nameless Merch and No Nasties selling Indian band T-shirts online.
Of course, metal bands release merch more often than bands from any other genre. Sood hazards a guess, explaining why: “It might be because they (non-metal bands) get more shows and don’t need the extra money.” Sood says he is yet to sign on a rock band to Nameless Merch, considering there is always a manager to deal with, unlike most self-managed metal bands. “There’s always a manager who thinks he knows everything and wouldn’t want to listen to someone (like me). Metal bands are much more open to work with others. That’s been my experience.”
Sood should know. He set up CD Rack, an online store to sell Indian metal CDs when he was just 14, in 2010. Six months into the business, he realized that the money was in merch. “I stopped CD Rack and I started working on a solid plan to build Nameless Merch.” Launched in January 2012, Nameless Merch is frequented by fans of metal bands such as Demonic Resurrection, Goddess Gagged, Inner Sanctum and Skyharbor. DR’s “Lord of Pestilence” and Goddess Gagged first design, “Modern Machines” (designed by Sood) are tied at the top spot of highest selling T-shirts on Nameless Merch.
In the case of Bengaluru-based store Hysteria, it was bands who convinced Ehsan Arif, one of the store’s partners, to set up an online merch division in 2010. Says Arif, “Some bands contacted us because there was nowhere their fans could buy it, except at gigs, which didn’t happen often.” Arif then contacted Kryptos, to sell their merchandise as part of their Coils of Apollyon album promotion and the site now stocks T-shirts by Eccentric Pendulum, Inner Sanctum and Devoid.
With metal and rock ruling the merch space in India, it wasn’t long before Delhi EDM artist Sahej Bakshi aka Dualist Inquiry printed T-shirts to promote his Doppelganger album. After selling out the first batch of 250 T-shirts (priced at Rs 400) launched during the first leg of his tour in March, Bakshi picked Mumbai indie clothing brand Redwolf to take the sales online. Bakshi now has a second batch of tees on sale for Rs 499 on Redwolf, which also sells T-shirts by Mumbai alt/grunge rock band Blakc and electro folk act Bandish Projekt and Mumbai punk rock band The Lightyears Explode.
Online stores such as Headbangers Merch and Hysteria agree that the only reason their merch sales shoot up is because bands promote their online portals. At gigs, Makhija says fans attend with the intent of buying merch. “At some point, a T-shirt will always outweigh a CD. Some bands are, in fact, bundling a free CD with a T-shirt. Stuff like that is the future of merch,” says Makhija.
The future of Indian band merchandise will depending on how many CD collectors are still around, according to Riju Dasgupta, bassist of Mumbai power/horror metal band Albatross. “Every time you release an album, you have a contingent of people asking what the purpose of a CD is in this day and age. But you don’t become a musician with the idea of selling your music,” says Dasgupta. He shows his old school roots when he adds, “I smile wider when I sell a CD than when I sell a T-shirt. You become a fan of the band through their music. Design comes later.”
It’s A Pattern
While black is the most popular color among fans, these are our top picks of band T-shirts out now
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 of Rolling Stone India.