Not Bootlegs: Two T-Shirt Shops Selling Officially Licensed Underground Merchandise
We (or at least most of us) love band T-shirts. They're an opportunity to represent something beyond our physical or digital music collections on our person in the real world. It goes beyond the idea of being a billboard for a band and more like… connecting with the artist. You want to show that you enjoy and support them in a way which is literally on your person. Of course, the metal world is no stranger to bootlegs, with some as outlandish as Metallica shirts featuring famous cartoon characters to the more innocuous like using an album cover and the band's name in Gothic script as the whole design.
T-shirts run the gamut, and the underground has a real bootlegging problem, but there are the few (and very proud) shirt designers and makers who go the distance and officially license merch from bands and labels, giving the world a new look at old merch, or maybe even a classic look at new bands. Portland-based T-shirt overlords Labyrinth Tower and Earth in Sound bring an air of legitimacy to the classic art of "the metal T-shirt." We spoke with both Labyrinth Tower and Earth in Sound about the T-shirt game at large, as well as what it's like to not be a bootlegger.
Founder: Calvin [Redacted]
Features: Lamp of Murmuur, Celestial Sword, Old Nick, and more
"I personally really love a good album art shirt," says Labyrinth Tower proprietor Calvin, "as a kid before I ever even heard metal I was drawn to the album art of Iron Maiden and Sepultura in the record store, shopping based on album art once even led to a very disappointing purchase of a Molly Hatchet record at 14 that made me reevaluate the process."
Labyrinth Tower, which operates on a preorder-on-demand and semi-perpetual printing business model (these are not limited printings), tackles a unique part of the underground, namely the rawer end of the black metal spectrum, but presents such intentionally crude music with a sense of class and clean design. Featuring shirts by such hyped artists as Lamp of Murmuur and Celestial Sword, the duality between Calvin's designs and the music presented is definitive, but fitting. Aesthetics are king in raw black metal, and a really solid shirt displaying the intent of the artist you want to represent as well as their aesthetic choices is really key.
But what is it like to work with such hermetic, exceedingly anonymous artists? "They're just normal people who want to be left alone to work with other creatives for the most part," Calvin explains. "It's really fun working so closely with the artists because these individuals tend to be such endless fonts of creativity that a design will typically be the result of us bouncing ideas back and forth excitedly til some really cool stuff comes out of it. [...] It's a really great interaction of high collaboration and a really refreshing break from the mundane isolation of quarantine life."
And what of bootlegs? "I wanted shirts for obscure bands and I wanted designs that I like," he says. "So often there will be like one shirt for a really great band and it will be either just the logo or some crappy unauthorized bootleg."
He continues: "Honestly, having high quality, officially licensed designs widely available for the bands that I love the most is something that I have wanted for as long as I have been into music. So many times I search and search for any sort of shirt for a band that I love and more often than not either come up empty handed or find shirts that are poorly designed or are bootlegs, so I'm really happy that I'm at least able to start bridging that gap for not only my customers, but myself as well! I never print a shirt that I don't want for myself which is honestly how this whole thing started, I was booting one off single shirts for myself through those crappy print on demand sites where you upload your art which led to friends who are artists asking if I could make a shirt for their bands and the rest is history."
Earth in Sound
Founder: Jason Walton (Snare of Sixes, ex-Agalloch, ex-Khôrada)
Features: Nuclear Death, Ras Algethi, Disharmonic Orchestra, and more
Filling in a different part of the metal merch niche is Jason Walton's Earth in Sound, dedicated to the stranger end of the metal (and related) spectrum. Boasting classic and new designs for such legendary acts as late-'80s/early-'90s proto-deathgrind act Nuclear Death and avant-death metallers Disharmonic Orchestra, Earth in Sound's initial presence is one of "the classics," though Walton very quickly plans on moving forward into the present.
"I’ve been wearing band shirts almost my entire life," Walton reminisces. "I’ve noticed for years now that the quality and availability of shirts from bands I like has been on the decline. Every now and then I’d search for classic designs but was put off by shit quality, bootlegs and shipping from Europe. I want to make designs that I want to wear. I think there is a massive hole in the market and I want to change that. I can’t be the only one that wants a Ras Algethi shirt."
As an artist whose work has been affected by bootleggers, Walton's stance is staunch: "I think it’s inexcusable, and cowardly." He then goes on to explain his licensing approach, highlighting the mundanity of the process: "Usually it just starts with a question: are they interested? I explain my idea and vision for the line and collaborate with them on what they want, what I want and we work it out from there. In the end we get a product we are both happy with. Each band has their own logistics as far as licensing and what they want but I try to make all parties happy. No real interesting interactions aside from a few bands being very surprised I want to invest in their art."
There is a tenderness to Walton's work, too. "The other night I was hanging with my family and my two daughters and I were all wearing Confessor hoodies," he says. "Comfortable, well made, nice looking Confessor hoodies. I have always wanted a Confessor hoodie. That moment and that fact is what makes it worth it for me. I am producing the band merch I’ve always wanted. That and making items that have never existed before, from bands I love."
What comes next for Earth in Sound? "I don’t feel comfortable revealing ones that aren’t set in stone," Walton explains, "but I can say that I am working with James Plotkin right now on an Old Lady Drivers design featuring never before seen artwork."