Beyond Vinyl: Music museums can offer rare memorabilia

This limited-edition box set celebrating Motown's 50th anniversary  is still available in the Motown Museum gift shop.
By  Stephen M.H. Braitman
Music museums are a growth industry. Almost every state has one, from small municipal units like counties and cities to large, international-profile megamuseums.

While there is history, art and pride in seeing (and hearing) exhibitions about local music, it is sometimes forgotten by even the most intrepid collectors that museums are a largely untapped resource for rare music memorabilia — now and for future investment.

Head for almost any music museum of any size and chances are they have a gift shop. And in that gift shop?

Mugs, medallions, cards, books, T-shirts and jackets, CDs and DVDs, photographs, and more are being sold with unique characteristics that make these items instant collectibles. Instant, that is, when they go off the shelves and are no longer offered for sale. Surprisingly, that happens quite often.

Museums that offer branded and logo merchandise — such as the classic Stax records label design or the Experience Music Museum’s distinctive logo — usually order their items from manufacturers who specialize in such items. When stock sells out, they either re-order identical items or make changes. These changes, much like record labels, reflect differences in construction, style, and design.

One year there may be a mug with a rounded handle; the next it is squared off. The logo on a belt buckle may first be raised letters, and then punched in and colored. A brochure may be updated with new exhibit information. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a particular kind of item is no longer available in any version, such as T-shirts and jackets.

There is even music that sometimes becomes rare. The classic example is the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum’s release of the A Song Is Born EP from 1967, a document of the famous RCA Victor’s Studio A. Most museums have music on CD available, and a few offer their own limited-edition recordings. In fact, the County Music Museum offers a compilation of tracks recorded at the equally famous Studio B. Can’t get that anywhere else but the museum.

Carol Januseck, a clerk at the Nashville museum’s gift shop, told us one of their most expensive items was a Porter Wagoner shirt, “black with real bright cactus and rhinestones,” that sells for $150. This huge 4,000-square-foot store has everything, from the inevitable shot glasses to boot- and guitar-shaped magnets. They also have a Sun Records Copley Guitar for $400.

Up in Detroit, the Motown Historical Museum has several rare items from the archives for sale in their gift shop. Cashier Pablo Avilar says there’s a program for the 1967 Motortown Revue available ($100) as well as tickets to both 1967 and 1968 events ($400 each). These were the annual showcases for tops stars like the The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and The Marvelettes — not many left of these beauties. There’s also a unique 50th-anniversary special-edition CD in the shape of the Hitsville House itself!

The Experience Music Museum in Seattle has a particular focus on musicians of the Northwest, you know, like Jimi Hendrix. According to cashier Sean Peters, among the huge number of branded items like the usual T-shirts, hats and mugs, is a set of exclusive bobblehead dolls. Don’t know if these are of Jimi or The Sonics or someone else … but you can’t get them anywhere else. And they don’t have an online store yet!

Outside of Muscle Shoals, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame offers a set of branded guitar picks and a can cooler, among other items. But the real deal, according to Dixie Connell, who heads up their education department, is the 2008 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony DVD, which features performances by reg’lar folks like Tommy Shaw, Kris Kristofferson, Percy Sledge and The Commodores. You can also find on sale a copy of legendary producer Buddy Killen’s self-published autobiography, “By The Seat Of My Pants.”

The Memphis institution Stax Museum of American Soul Music has lots of cool memorabilia, particularly since they are officially licensed by the estates of Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding. Store manager Steve Walker noted a particularly nice Stax-logo leather jacket that is only $229.

The Stax Museum also offers copies of the new, magnificent Big Star box set, Keep An Eye On The Sky, with a unique postcard signed by members Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel, along with Ardent Records founder John Fry, and David Bell, brother of the late, lamented Chris Bell.

Whether it’s the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Honolulu, the Buddy Holly Center in Lubbock, or the Performing Arts Museum in San Francisco, you can be sure that gift shops provide — at least — plenty of interesting browsing. Obviously there are many more reasons to visit music museums than what you can buy, but it’s nice to know that your experience will give you some cool options to expand your collection.

Stephen M.H. Braitman is a music appraiser (, writer, collector, and fan.


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