By Susan Sliwicki
These days, it's almost unthinkable to go see your favorite band in concert or hang out at a music festival without taking at least a little bit of the show home with you, be it a T-shirt or a baseball cap. But the items we see today in artists’ online shops and at their merch tables weren’t always so readily available.
That’s part of the reason why Backstage Auctions chose to put the spotlight on concert-related collectibles at its Vintage Concert Swag Auction, which is slated to close April 14 (see the auction house’s website, www.backstageauctions.com, for more information). The event will offer more than 300 lots, which are dominated by concert and promotional T-shirts but also include jackets, programs, backstage passes and tickets for various artists mostly from the 1970s-1980s.
“People buy these shirts for two reasons. You’ve got one big group that buys them purely as a collectible, and as soon as they get the shirt, they neatly fold it and put it in a plastic bag and preserve it together with the other T-shirts they have. And, you have people that buy them to wear them as a simple fashion statement,” says Jacques van Gool, owner of Backstage Auctions.
Van Gool falls in the second camp, with baseball-style jerseys being a personal favorite. Concert tees often serve as a conversation starter, he said.
“I love them for their design,” he said. “I think concert shirts are great, and they’re meant to be worn.”
Of course, if you want to wear your band loyalty on your sleeve, so to speak, it can be a little tougher to do with vintage garments, which often tend to surface in smaller sizes.
“On the crew, you’re hardly ever gonna find somebody in a size small. For the most part, these were manual laborers who were big, beefy, burly guys, who at minimum needed a large or an extra large,” he said. And all the shirts from the 1970s and ’80s, they are by definition smaller than today’s shirts, because people were smaller 20, 30, 40 years ago. A shirt that is labeled large in the 1970s is comparable to a small today.”
Although there’s no official scale when it comes to grading concert and promo T-shirts, the concept is much the same as it is with vinyl records — right down to the idea it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever see a T-shirt in Mint condition.
“If you’ve got a shirt that is spotless, stainless, no damage of any kind, then that usually is or should be graded Excellent. Most shirts are probably graded anywhere between Good and Very Good. When you’ve got a shirt that’s 30 to 40 years old, there’s gonna be a flaw,” he said. “When a shirt comes off the press, it doesn’t get sealed or anything, so there's a lot of human hands touching it, and it’s always going to be exposed to some degree of the elements.”
It’s very common to find tiny holes; small food, beverage or even pit stains; or some other degree of wear on these garments.
“But when you’re talking about shirts that are severely stained, or have the arms cut off and the neck cut out – something that was popular in the ’80s - anything along those lines should be graded fair or poor,” he said.
Unless, of course, the shirt was worn by an artist, such as the David Lee Roth-worn T-shirt Backstage offered in a recent auction.
“We had photos of him wearing the shirt, and he was known for cutting not only the sleeves off, but cutting a sizeable portion of the flank off the shirt, and cut the neck out. Essentially, it was a rag, just hanging off his neck,” van Gool said. “If you or I would’ve done it, the value would’ve dropped to 25 cents. Since he did it, it ended up selling for $600 or $700.”
Just because a shirt may be in well-loved, fragile condition, doesn’t mean it lacks value.
“There are shirts, especially from the late ’60s and all the way into the ’70s, that are so exceptionally rare that you want to have that shirt regardless of condition,” he said.
While condition is a factor in value, rarity plays into the mix, too. And determining rarity comes down to where, when and how the shirts were offered. At the bottom of the value pyramid are the mass-produced, official merchandise shirts offered for sale at concerts, and, in the case of today’s acts, online. But if an artist prints up a shirt exclusive to one particular venue and offers that shirt only at the event, its rarity increases.
“In the ’70s, people didn’t necessarily buy merchandise at a concert. It may have been there, but it was an exception rather than the norm to buy a shirt,” van Gool said. “As a result, concert shirts from the ’70s obviously should be a lot more valuable than shirts from the ’80s, which are in turn more valuable than those from the ’90s and so on.”
Next up in value: promotional shirts that were distributed by record companies from the 1970s into the 1990s.
“Record companies spent a lot of money on promotional shirts, and they were made in varying quantities, but some shirts were made a lot more than others,” he said.
For instance, a variety of promo shirts were made for Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the U.S.A.” album, and as a result, those shirts are more commonly available than others. But they still are rarer than a concert T-shirt from that same album and era, he said.
At the top of the rarity heap are promoter shirts and jackets, which were around mostly in the 1970s and 1980s and typically handed out to people working for the promotional company, at the venue, or, on occasion, to the band. A combination of factors make promo T-shirts incredibly desirable among collectors, he said.
“They were never made for commercial purposes, so they only made 50 or 100 of those shirts,” van Gool said. “And second, they’re great because the design is unique to the promoter, and the promoter more or less had free rein to decide how fancy (or not fancy) to make their shirts. Third, they’re unique, because typically on the back of the shirts, it would print a couple of dates from that tour.”
More than 100 such rare shirts from Bill Graham Presents events in the 1970s will be featured in the Vintage Concert Swag Auction. “There are some home-run shirts in there, like there’s a Led Zeppelin jacket from 1977, and a couple of Pink Floyd shirts from 1977, and there are various Rolling Stones shirts from concerts and events, all from the 1970s,” he said.
Van Gool expects shirts from the Graham collection will be among the auction’s top attractions, and he anticipates that some of the Stones and Grateful Dead T-shirts will break the three-digit barrier for bids.
If your budget isn’t big enough to afford a major rarity, never fear. There are plenty of lots with an opening bid of $25 or less, including unused silk (aka stick-on) and laminated backstage passes in phenomenal condition. Featured artists include Metallica, Paul McCartney, Elton John, Stevie Ray Vaughan, KISS, Queen and Red Hot Chili Peppers, and some passes are autographed, van Gool said.
The phrase “backstage pass” today tends to bring to mind an image of a laminated pass on a lanyard, a format that is both durable and prestigious, because it typically identifies the wearer as someone with access to the artist. Stick-on passes have their own appeal, because they were used for a specific date or venue, which can put them in demand if they were from an artist’s final performance, or if something historic happened during that event.
Silk and laminated passes aren’t the only ways that artists, managers and crew members kept track of who belonged where.
“In the ’70s, they all looked so different, and it could be that you had almost looked like a business card with something written on it,” van Gool said. “In some cases, they even used buttons as backstage passes.”