By Susan Sliwicki
These days, it’s almost unthinkable to see your favorite band perform in concert or at a music festival without taking at least a little bit of the show home with you, be it a T-shirt, a trucker’s cap or even a tour jacket.
But the items we take for granted that we will see these days in artists’ online shops and on their merchandise tables at concerts weren’t always a given. Concert T-shirts didn’t start popping up until the 1960s, and even then, the focus was less on making a buck from fans than providing shirts for crew members, record label officials and venue employees.
Savvy bands and managers soon caught on that fans would gladly shell out a few bucks for a tangible link to their favorite acts, and the merch business was born.
When it comes to concert T-shirts, buyers tend to fall in one of two main camps, says Jacques van Gool, owner of Backstage Auctions, a Houston-based auction house that specializes in music memorabilia consigned by artists and industry insiders.
"You’ve got one big group that buys them purely as a collectible, and as soon as they get the shirt, they put it in a plastic bag and preserve it together with the other T-shirts they have,” van Gool said. “And you have the people that really buy them to wear them, as a simple fashion statement.”
Van Gool falls in the second camp, with baseball-style T-shirts being a personal favorite. Concert tees often serve as a conversation starter, he said.
“I just love them for their design,” he said. “I think concert shirts are great, and they’re meant to be worn.”
Of course, wearing your band loyalty on your sleeve, so to speak, can be tough to do if you’ve got your heart set on an original-era T-shirt from the ’60s and ’70s. First, such items were made in limited quantities, if at all. Second, enough time has passed that the selection, availability, and quality of the ones that remain is at a premium. And third, the ones that did survive in good condition tend to surface in very select sizes.
“On the crew, you’re hardly ever going to 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.”
Tour and Promotional Jackets
The news about size and availability gets worse if you’ve got your heart set on snagging a vintage tour jacket.
“Any jacket from the ’70s or ’80s is either a crew jacket or a record company promotional item,” van Gool said. “Either the band wanted to do something nice for [its] crew and gave them all a jacket at the start of a tour, or the record company wanted to promote the release of a new album and made X number of jackets that [it] sent out to mostly radio stations or distribution companies. They were always made in very small quantities, literally from a couple dozen to a few hundred, at the most.”
Although it’s common to find jackets amid the apparel choices these days, they weren’t routinely available for fans to purchase until the 1990s. Of course, just because something is available doesn’t mean it’s friendly to the average budget. Last winter, van Gool spotted a leather jacket offered at a Rush concert for $750.
“For a collector, there’s a big difference between an official merchandise jacket, because those were made in much larger quantities and are much easier to get your hands on, than, say, the crew jackets or the promo jackets from the ’70s and ’80s – crew jackets, in particular because very few were made, and most of them actually were worn,” van Gool said. “Those jackets were not built to last. A lot of them just got completely torn and thrown away, or they got so dirty and stained they got thrown away, too. Those tour jackets are definitely a more unusual find.”
If the thought of dropping more than $500 on a vintage shirt or jacket gives you sticker shock, consider another avenue of wearable concert memorabilia: the backstage pass.
The phrase “backstage pass” today tends to bring to mind the image of a laminated card on a lanyard – a format that is both durable and prestigious, because it typically identifies the wearer as someone with access to the artist. But stick-on passes, also known as silk 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.
“In the ’70s, they all looked so different, and it could be that you had almost what looked like a business card with something written on it,” van Gool said. “In some cases, they even used buttons as backstage passes.”
Condition and Grading for Vintage Apparel
Although there’s no official scale when it comes to grading concert and promotional apparel, the concept is much the same as it is with vinyl records, right down to the belief that you’ll never see a truly flawless example that deserves a grade of 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 going to be a flaw,” van Gool 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.”
Common flaws include tiny holes, small food or beverage stains, sweat stains, or another type of wear.
“But shirts severely stained, that have the arms cut off, and shirts where people would cut the neck out or make a V-cut in the neck, anything along those lines should be graded fair or poor,” he said.
Unless, of course, that cut shirt was worn by a rock star, such as one worn by Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth that Backstage offered at 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.”
Assessing Rarity and Value
Just because a shirt is 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 things, too. Determining an item’s rarity comes down to where, when, and how it was 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, in online stores. 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 buy merchandise at a concert. It may have been there, but it was a new thing to buy a shirt or program,” 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 made 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 tour. As a result, those shirts are more readily available than others. But those promo shirts still are scarcer than the concert T-shirts from that same album and era, he said.
At the top of the rarity heap are promoter shirts, 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. Multiple 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 kind of 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 were featured in Backstage’s 2013 Vintage Concert Swag Auction, including a Led Zeppelin jacket from 1977, a couple of Pink Floyd shirts from 1977, and various Rolling Stones shirts from concerts and events in the 1970s.
Color Can Offer Clues to a T-shirt's Vintage
Although color doesn’t define or explain a shirt’s rarity, it can offer some visual cues as to the era in which the shirt was made.
“In our experience, people were more frivolous with colors in the ’70s than they were in the ’80s and on. In fact, shirts past the ’70s have become quite boring; they’re either black or white, and black is starting to win that battle,” van Gool said. “In the ’70s, you had orange and green and blue, and I’m talking about lime green and traffic-light orange, colors that would make your cheeks smack, they’re so in your face. That is a little bit of spillover from the late ’60s, where colors were so much more a part of everything, including music memorabilia.”