Build Your Business:

Dreams Become Reality on T-Shirts

May 2, 2016

“They know us by the T-shirts we wear.” These lyrics by Derek Webb tell how a printed tee can reveal what otherwise may go unnoticed. The unstoppable rise of the imprinted tee began in the ’60s, and today is a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Social and cultural anthropologists couldn’t have foreseen what the designs people display on their chests and backs would expose about society. Current happenings in music, entertainment, politics, and more are revealed on T-shirts; what’s imprinted on tees can influence society. Social media has become a popular medium for sharing likes, interests, affiliations and political views in the last decade, but despite the addictive and uncensored freedoms that drive us to blog, post, share, and Tweet regularly — printing on garments is still thriving.

The music business established strong markets for the imprinted garment industry. Merchandising is a successful means for generating revenue for musicians and unlikely to fade away like the faces on a vintage Grateful Dead shirt after umpteenth washings. Most people own and love printed tees, and they’re happy to share stories behind their favorites. Ask around, many will admit that at least one concert tee is cherished as sacred. But, did you know musicians also reference coveted concert shirts in lyrics? The Stones, Allman Brothers, Bob Marley, Van Halen, Zeppelin, Skynyrd and others are just some of the band tees noted in songs throughout the past decades. Songwriters also have been known to creatively illustrate a social or political perspective, make a point, motivate, or express an idea with a description of a printed tee.

The frequency that an imprinted shirt makes it into song lyrics across musical genres may surprise you. Artists including Amy Winehouse, Snoop Dog, The B-52s, and Kenny Chesney have used the decorated tee to effectively impart emotion or make a statement. The Barenaked Ladies wrote: “Some day I’ll find the secret to your social chemistry. Then I’ll print it on a T-shirt, and it’ll make you want to be with me if I wear it.” The English rock band Shriekback in their album Sacred City gave us these words: “Every dream turns into something on a T-shirt.” The opening lyrics in “I’m With It” by Aer say: “Only gonna remember her T-shirt with David Bowie.” Countless lyrics reference the divine printed tee including songs by The All-American Rejects, Steely Dan, Lady Antebellum, Good Charlotte, Racal Flatts, and many others.

Free Speech for the Price of a Tee
Song lyrics have included T-shirt references about cultural events or movements such as the “just say no” campaign against drugs started by former first lady Nancy Reagan. Censorship, sex and religion are other notable topics. Famous figures such as Charles Manson, John Wayne, Michael Jordan, the Virgin Madonna and Satan adorn T-shirts mentioned in the lyrics of great musical artists. Ray Stevens wrote about T-shirts with “I Hate Musicians” printed on them in “The Haircut Song”. As artists there are rewards beyond obvious monetary gain when you appreciate their crafted lyrics. If communicating powerful messages didn’t matter to the artistic community we’d be inundated with do wah diddy (sorry Exciters and Manfred Mann) type lyrics and not more poetic language like “But for now only our T-shirts cry freedom, and our voices are gagged by our greed”, written by Fish.

Hip Hop recording artist and producer Kanye West sold “Yeezus” Tour T-shirts with the confederate flag on it. His response to the controversy it generated was: “The Confederate flag symbolizes dehumanization, injustice and pain. It is a stark reminder of an era in our history that was defined by the abhorrent practice of slavery. And it is representative of a mentality that looked upon Blacks as inferiors who needed to remain in the shackles of subservience. If you don’t believe me, ask family members of those that were beaten, castrated and lynched under the guise of that Confederate flag.” A music mogul that can opportunely use media and merchandising to excite a social firestorm is impressive, regardless of how our personal opinion compares. Kanye exercised freedom of speech, or better yet, freedom of the squeegee.

In 2012, the Stones gave us the lyrics “Let’s go play in the water, you can borrow my Rolling Stones T-shirt. Happy drunk in the afternoon, don’t take it off.” In the same year, Victoria Justice sang, “I’m just trying to make it in America. Only thing to my name is an old T-shirt faded 1985 from the Stones concert.” Songwriters and performers hope you know who and what they reference in their music. Steely Dan wrote, “They got the booze they need, all that money can buy. They got the shapely bods. The got the Steely Dan T-shirt, and for the coup-de-gras.”

Band members from the Sex Pistols and Anarchy among others have even worn their own band T-shirts on stage. Unlikely actions of the odd behaved or conceited, more likely a statement to society that includes the middle finger. You decide.

With all the interest surrounding concert shirts, when it comes to price, it’s about the musical influence of the artist — the greater their impact, the more you’ll pay for a shirt. A vintage or rare shirt could cost thousands. A David Bowie tee once sold on eBay for around $2,000. With the artist’s death in 2016, the value of that shirt has likely risen. Can you put a price on something as desirable as a lost rock legend’s vintage concert shirt?

The music and imprinted garment industries are united in the lucrative process of decorating garments with musician’s names and faces. Wear a band T-shirt and you’re a fan, wear one with tour dates and you were there, produce songs about them and you give anthropologists a unique look at society, screen-print shirts and you’re in an honorable profession. I’ll leave you with these lyrics by Catalyst “It’s more than a T-shirt. It’s more than a tattoo. It’s more than a phase. This is how I was raised.”

Laura Franco is vice president, director of sales and marketing reseller manager, for Freehand Graphics Inc. Email Laura at For more information, visit