It’s been a good year in merchandise. Across the globe this holiday, fans of singer-actress Zooey Deschanel and songwriter-producer M. Ward (collectively known as She & Him) used limited-edition rolling pins to make cookies adorned with insignias of the band and even decked the halls with She & Him stockings celebrating the duo’s new Christmas Party album. In August, Thirty Seconds to Mars fans attended the band’s Camp Mars mini-festival in Malibu and left adorned in specially designed merch. The spring saw a re-invention of brand and product for online sports entertainment group Dude Perfect, who enjoy the loyalty of almost 37 million social media followers. Just this fall, hardcore band Underoath launched an innovative line of gear in conjunction with a new tour. Most notably, there were two waves of merch from folk-rock instigator/savant Josh Tillman that seemed to troll Kanye West and Moon Juice founder Amanda Chantal Bacon.
All of that happened with help from a group of Tampa-based designers and merchandise lifers addicted to the idea that band swag — and the processes surrounding its inception, production and delivery — should be as inspired and progressive as the music the artists themselves are creating. The year-old Rivals Group (stylized “R I V A L S // G R P”) operates out of Tampa, but they’re constantly crisscrossing the U.S. to help clients evolve their brands without sacrificing the culture they’ve built within their fanbases. In conjunction with Merchline (a 14-year-old, Tampa-born screenprinting house and online fulfillment provider), the merchandising and branding needs for a carefully curated roster of artists ranging from Justin Bieber to Skrillex and even Father John Misty all get some level of attention in the Bay area.
“There’s a bit of a smirk that comes across my face when I answer and say that we’re in Tampa. I can hear puzzled looks on the other end of conference calls when we say it, but it’s great,” says Nate Murray, founder of Merchline and principal at Rivals. He says the decision to stay in Tampa — Oldsmar, specifically — was a practical one; Merchline started in his bedroom, moved into the garage and now operates out of a 10,000-square-foot warehouse. “It’s also a nod to our rebellious roots — to doing things on our terms and rising to the challenge of not being in New York or L.A.”
Not being in bigger markets doesn’t mean Murray is immune to a changing economy. After processing over 100,000 orders last year, he was faced with a dilemma as to how to keep up and keep growing. This year, after months of vetting, Merchline pivoted and partnered with an online inventory and shipping operation in Michigan. They also merged their own already high-level print shop with Trust printshop in Texas and acquired Superette, a New York creative branding and product development company. The moves give Merchline and Rivals (which will combine in 2017) the ability to keep shipping rates low and execute with 99.9 percent accuracy. They now have 250,000 square feet in storage space and what is arguably the best screenprinting operation in the country, but they’ve also had to downsize from 45 employees to 15 as a result. The growth hasn’t been easy on Murray, and he says 2016 has been a rollercoaster because of decisions that affect his closest friends.
“There’s people that say ‘oh that’s just business,’ but I don’t believe that,” Murray says. “We are who we are all the time, whether we’re at work or at home, school or church. This was hard for me; and it may look like it’s a story of small businesses becoming smaller, but it’s actually a small business becoming more agile.”
That agility — built around a simple ethos of wanting to make brands successful and delight customers — is what seems most promising for Rivals and Merchline. The Superette deal came with Philly-based industry vet Matt Geyer, who is now the director of production at Rivals. He joins a small team that includes Underoath’s Tim McTague, plus other merchandising and entertainment sea dogs like Joel Cook, Trevor Erickson, and Jay Vilardi. The group assembled at Rivals — which also includes Brandon Rike and Nathan Murray — have more than a century’s worth of collective experience in music and merchandise. They seem excited to dive headlong into a changing, unpredictable industry.
“The labels are notoriously slow to react to change while the musicians and artists have always been the fastest,” Geyer, 37, told CL. “That's where I see Rivals living — in the space between where the artists are creating and the rest of the industry is reacting.” And at the bottom of it all is this innate need to create and do innovative work that redefines the industry.
“The music and entertainment world is a wild one. It’s tough, but rewarding,” Cook, 36, told CL. He most recently was creative director at VF Imagewear where he worked with brands like Vans, North Face and Major League Baseball. He also preaches this idea of helping artists advance their approach to merchandise and delivery. “Artists and musicians invest so much to create their art they share with the world. They just haven’t historically invested the same efforts when creating things their fans wear. We obsess over products and strategy so the artist doesn’t have to.” As 2017 approaches, the potential of seeing Tampa Bay influence the global music industry is exciting, and it’ll be interesting to see if Rivals’ strategy pays off.
[DISCLOSURE: CL Music Editor Ray Roa and Managing/Online Editor Scott Harrell both formerly worked with Joel Cook on music publications Suburban Apology and REAX.]
“It's tempting to get bigger, right?,” Murray asks when we talk about the company’s recent changes “We’re continually fed a methodology where success is measured on a bar graph of things always growing ‘up and to the right,’ but, in many cases, that path is worse, particularly when you can leverage reliable systems that are cheaper and faster and more stable elsewhere.” Murray seems to measure stability and, more notably, success by other metrics anyway.
“The act of creating and making something out of nothing is a feeling that reverberates within us all,” Murray added. “One thing that [this team] agrees on is that doing good work is good. That doing excellent work is meaningful, so let’s do all things with excellence.”