Erm, so I don’t know if you’ve heard, right, but there’s this, like, really cool indie sci-fi film that just came out called Star Wars and – I don’t know – I just get the feeling it could be, like, the next big thing, y’know?
With the release of Star Wars comes an inevitable and unstoppable tide of related merchandise that will relentlessly stalk you across your social network feed if you so much as mention “the force” in a Facebook message. Merchandise has been a side product of our most popular art forms (music, film, television and video games) for decades and, love it or hate it: be it action figures, t-shirts or ridiculously-overpriced pencil cases, we have all succumbed to a merch purchase at some point in our lives.
I recently took ownership of a small Jurassic World lunchbox. It was my mum’s idea of a hilarious birthday present and a tribute to the Tyrannosaurus-amount of Jurassic Park crap that I insisted on having when I was a child. The lunchbox is actually quite nice, that’s not my problem. The thing is, and I am sure this is the case for a lot of you, when it comes to most merchandise, it literally does nothing.
It sits in my cupboard gathering dust. This tiny piece of plastic tat has even moved house with me, and I still do nothing with it. What’s the point?
Is Merch Utterly Pointless?
Speaking of dinosaurs, the original Jurassic Park presents a far more dangerous consequence to merchandising that goes far beyond sheer pointlessness:
Although this is a discussion on the ethics of science, the scene also acts as a subtle metaphor on the potentially poisonous branding and monetisation of art:
“…before you even knew what you had, you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox”
Art, even with thorough forethought, is an organic and emotional process. The best artistic results often come from a mix of unexplainable stream of consciousness and compassionate hard-work. To take such a profound human undertaking as art and reduce it to a caricature on a sports bottle or backpack before understanding the consequence of what has been created is surely the ultimate bastardisation and corruption of the artistic process.
Merchandise is essentially a parasite, leeching on the good intentions and life force of a moment of genuine and innocent creativity. Perhaps this is why we jump on artists who “sell out”: we know the procedure of monetisation is an ugly and exploitative game, and we hate to feel like we’ve participated in it.
Maybe I’m being over-dramatic.
There is another side to this story. For many, merchandise is a large component in the sense of community that comes with being part of a fandom. Speaking from personal experience, fans of unsigned and underground artists see t-shirts and wristbands as a kind of uniform, a show of support for their “cause”. Wearing a t-shirt goes beyond its cool design; it can be expression of yourself and a memento of the moment you first found the film or band that has offered a resonating impact on your life.
For an emerging artist, the merchandising of their art is anything but pointless. Despite the countless hours that go into the music, it’s often the t-shirts, the beanies and the plastic wristbands that outsell and even go towards funding the musical product.
Do you think the artist finds this notion irritating? Far from it. Every t-shirt sale received contributes towards petrol to the next venue, van hire and ultimately fuels the next batch of creativity; without those precious few purchases, many aspiring musicians, hopeful film makers or indie video game artists wouldn’t be able to do the things they love.
The art of merchandise is clearly a tricky beast. It’s hard to justify the existence of products like the JLS (remember them?) condom. However, for many a simple t-shirt stands for so much: a statement of self, a uniform of support or even a means to pay rent. Perhaps it’s not all quite so pointless after all.