Where do bootleg concert shirts come from?
May 22, 2010 10:03 PM   Subscribe

I saw Pearl Jam the other night in Boston (incredible show!), and as we spent 45 minutes waiting to get out of the garage, we saw the bootleg shirt sellers drop prices to the point that one guy just gave them away. It got me wondering about the actual process and distribution system of these shirts. Like start to finish, how does it work?

Who designs them? Who puts up the money? Are they local or do they follow the band (which seems unlikely since they are literally giving shirts away sometimes)? Is there like a bootleg shirt distributor that people order from?

I haven't really been able to find any information with my sometimes weak googling skills, so any information would be appreciated.
posted by speeb to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Those are bootleg. My sister sold concert T-shirts (large, black, color screen printing that covers the whole front and even the sleeves. $50, typically. They had to have one guy shuttling the money out to keep the pile of cash from becoming unmanageable.

Homer Simpson: (about rock show promoting) "The T-Shirts?! That's the sweetest plum of all!"
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:32 PM on May 22, 2010

Um, if you're asking how bootleg shirts specifically get made, I can tell you that I've seen various members of a band **cough pfunk cough** selling their own unauthorized merch at shows. They are usualy white shirts poly blend, single color printing, confined to the front and center of the shirt. Any craft store can set you up to silk screen those in your bathroom.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:40 PM on May 22, 2010

I think speeb's asking who finances the making of the shirts -- and do those people travel or stay put (do they drive around in a van following the tour, or is there like one bootleg t-shirt guy per city and he makes shirts for all the bands that come to his city, and once that specific gig is done the shirts become worthless)? etc.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:46 PM on May 22, 2010

I don't have an answer, but have wondered about this kind of thing ever since I saw the Phillies lose in the clincher game of the World Series, and as we exited Veterans stadium, saw people selling "Phillies WORLD CHAMPIONS!" shirts for $1. So they even make them speculatively for sports events - probably both kinds.
posted by Miko at 11:24 PM on May 22, 2010

A t-shirt screen costs $17, ink to make hundreds of shirts is around $25 for a quart. The emulsion for the screen is $50 for a gallon - and that gallon can last for dozens and dozens of designs. Printing out a transparency is around $1. A cheap shirt made by slave labor is around $3 if you buy in bulk - cheaper if it's just white. So, let's say we make a thousand t-shirts. Other than the shirts, the expenses are negligible.

Make a sure for $3 each, sell at $30 - $27 profit! x 1,000 - $27,000!

That's one color. Another color knocks .50 to $1.00 per shirt. It takes around a minute per shirt to make. 30 seconds if you're good.

So yeah, throwing away a few shirts ain't no biggie.

I run an art studio and do a lot of screen printing. I teach people via the local free school how to have fun and make some shirts. It's a lot of fun
posted by alex_skazat at 11:44 PM on May 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I had a friend who, years ago, was a bootlegger and followed the Dead. Drove all around the country and set up before each concert. One time, leaving a concert in Delaware IIRC, he heard there were roadblocks set up at the border by the police specifically to hassle bootleg vendors.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 4:27 AM on May 23, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, sorry if I wasn't clear. I'm curious more about the bootleg t-shirt industry than anything else. When I walked out of the show, the bootleggers were selling their shirts for $10. We watched them drop the price to $5, then 2 for $5, then finally we saw a guy just throw a couple shirts over a kid's shoulder and tell him to just take them.

So I guess I'm wondering more about who runs the bootleg shirt business, the source of their shirts (art and production-wise) and their employees.

I would think that they would have shirts made in bulk and then travel to wherever the band is playing, but the apparent need to rid themselves of stock confuses me in that case. Wouldn't it be better to just take it to the next show? (Twinbrook8's answer kind of gets at that.)

Also, as far as StickyCarpet's answer, I'm talking more about the full color on black shirts that seem to be mass produced.
posted by speeb at 4:42 AM on May 23, 2010

And those shirts don't look like the kind of thing you can screen-print at home; they are usually full-color designs that look mass manufactured.
posted by Miko at 5:13 AM on May 23, 2010

...like speeb said.
posted by Miko at 5:13 AM on May 23, 2010

You're asking about the inner workings of what is essentially an illegal enterprise. It wouldn't surprise me if no one can answer this question because there's probably no single answer. Think about illegal drug distribution: some weed comes to NYC from Canada via a tightly organized network of people, some of it is grown by some highschooler in his garage on Long Island. Right?

The fact that they were dumping the shirts at the end of the night seems to indicate that they weren't following the band, but instead are printing these shirts locally on a per-event basis. Again, these shirts could be coming from a local screenprinter with lax ethics and connections with people who can move the shirt, they could come from employees of a local screenprinter who are doing this behind the boss's back, and they could come from some talented art school students with the know-how to print these shirts en masse in a studio (though this seems the least likely option). There are a lot of ways this system of production and distribution could be configured.

Even someone who has worked in such a network can only tell you how their particular network works/worked.
posted by johnnybeggs at 7:10 AM on May 23, 2010

I am pretty sure I see the same guys selling bootlegs outside of Constitution Hall all the time. I think they just look at the calendar, and whip up a bunch of cheapie shirts for each show. I'd imagine the investment isn't much, and as far as "art" they probably just download some stuff off the Internet and throw it together.

You used to see the same quality of shirts being sold on the Mall at 10 for $10. They don't survive more than a wash or two.
posted by JoanArkham at 7:16 AM on May 23, 2010

StickyCarpet: It was Krusty, not Homer, who said 'That's the sweetest plum!'
posted by box at 7:26 AM on May 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know someone who did this for a living, sold bootleg merch outside shows. This is in New Zealand though, so not really possible to follow major bands around. I recall he had been to to South East Asia where he initially got contacts and purchased stock regularly after that, usually for whichever band was coming soon. He probably only moved small volumes since we're not a big locale.

I also was into t-shirt printing for a while and it's ridiculously cheap to get printed shirts from Asia.

Also I note that Pearl Jams next gig is in Portugal, and given that it would be difficult to flog bootleg shirts on ebay without getting your account banned I'm guessing these guys were trying to get rid of them to people who would want them, otherwise they'd be stuck with shirts they couldn't do much with.
posted by chrisbucks at 7:58 AM on May 23, 2010

A friend of mine made bootleg merchandising for concerts in Mexico City.
She and her boyfriend learned how to silkscreen in design school. They checked the upcoming concerts for Mexico City (any band) and then they searched online for the logo or some image related to the band or CD. Most of the times, they asked the guy who made the silkscreen emulsions to vectorize it for them.

They went to promotional products wholesalers and bought shirts and sometimes other kind of products, depending on the band. For example, for a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert they found some chili-shaped pens. They silkscreened everything in a spare room at my friend's home. They had about 3 or 4 silkscreen frames, I think.

The day of the concert, they just showed up outside the venue. Eventually, they made friends with other people who did the same thing for a living.
Ocassionally, they had to run away from the cops or bribe them to be allowed to stay there. I think there was even some kind of syndicate that collected a fee to allow them a place.

Part of the money they got was kept aside to be invested for the next production. Sometimes they didn't get their inversion back, but I remember her telling me that they made a lot of cash in a Paul McCartney concert.

At the time, they were in their early twenties and studying design in a public school. I'm not sure why they stopped, but I suspect it was a really difficult way to make a living.
posted by clearlydemon at 10:52 AM on May 23, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers folks, some interesting info.

One day I will learn all their secrets!
posted by speeb at 4:45 AM on May 26, 2010

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