How rappers and singers use custom merch to build brands

We exist in an age of streaming and piracy, where physical sales are down — and making money from music has become much harder than it used to be. Nowadays, you are expected not only to be a top tier musician, but also an expert graphic designer, a marketing guru, an agent, and an advertising specialist. How were musicians able to establish the timeless baseline of the underground music scene that we still see today decades ago?

Just as was the case before, everything nowadays begins with building a brand. Many people do it, but artists like Wu-Tang Clan and Kanye West had a unique approach that catapulted them into the stratosphere, an approach so simple that you probably haven’t even considered it yet: they used custom merchandise — clothing built to imitate their style — to expand and evolve their brands and turn them into empires. Considering that, it’s easy to see why making your own clothing line and selling merch as a rapper or singer is instrumental in the pursuit of truly “making it.” Ultimately, you want your brand to be a bridge that connects you to your fans. Alongside of your music, custom merchandise acts as another avenue to drive that connection home and bring you closer to them.

All of this hinges wholly on your ability to actually create a solid brand, though. The three main goals of the brand-building process pair beautifully with the use of custom merchandise, especially when you consider that there are multiple angles to approach each hurdle from. These hurdles are:

  1. Develop a brand that represents who you are,

  2. Create and deliver a message that resonates with your brand ideology, and

  3. Create a long-term approach towards securing the future of your message.

This three-part article will take a look at these individual concepts, dive into how custom merchandise can help you with each step, and see how it links back to the roots of music culture.

Part One: Develop a Brand That Represents Who You Are

When you began your musical journey, you probably turned to questions like these when writing lyrics and performing:

“Who am I? What is my story?

What motivates me?

What is my drive, and what are my values?"

After all, who you are, your challenges in life, your beliefs and your convictions are what give life to the music you create, right? While these questions are important for you to answer for your own personal reasons, they are also important because they are the building blocks of brand development that will ultimately shape who you will become professionally and what you will represent.

Think of your favorite musician, and then frame them in the context of these questions - you can probably answer them based off of their lyrics and performance alone, right? That is called brand recognition, and is something that you should ultimately be striving for. While brand recognition does reflect on the core values of the artist, it isn’t just verbal or conceptual; the other important part of brand recognition is visual. Think of the timeless Wu-Tang Clan “W,” or more recently, the A$AP Worldwide Logo. When you look at either one of them, you know exactly who they are correlated to and what those artists stand for, don’t you?

Hand in hand with that, you can probably visualize the way these artists look, whether it be a mid-90’s grunge-esque appearance, or an almost-monochrome vaporwave aesthetic. Both of these observations are trademarks of visual brand recognition.

Once they answered the questions above via their music, they went a step further and phrased a second set of questions for themselves that went something like this:

“How do I show the world who I am and where I came from?

How do I project my beliefs and convictions?

How do I show the world my values?"

By answering these questions, they conceived a visual part of their brands that was integral to their success — and their custom merchandise lines followed shortly after.

So you’ve got a solid brand built, with great verbal, conceptual and visual aesthetics attached to it — now what? How do you develop a solid message that represents your ideals, and how does custom merchandise tie into it? We’ll talk about that next time in Part 2 of How rappers and singers use custom merch to build brands: Create, deliver & drive home a message that resonates with your brand ideology.