Bands get more than just printed T-shirts from Shirtysomething – these ‘music industry chaps’ turned printers offer a consultancy service aimed at keeping groups going beyond their first album
In today‘s world of slick marketing, where people are keen to present themselves as ’original‘ yet Instagram-perfect, Shirtysomething is effortlessly different – it really is one of a kind. The website features a picture of someone‘s feet sticking out of the dryer. It‘s also brilliantly written. There won‘t have been marketing meetings on how to present themselves in this way; the people behind Shirtysomething really are daft, clever and irreverent. And, importantly, very good at printing T-shirts.
The Nottingham-based business was founded in 2001 by Frazer Craske and Rog Patterson. Both musicians – Frazer was in thrash band Sabbat, Rog is a singer- songwriter who did sound engineering and tour management on the side – they‘d bumped into each other numerous times over the years. In the 80s, Frazer used to come to Rog‘s gigs. Then Rog‘s first professional European tour booking was to do sound for Sabbat. “We saw each other when we met to get onto the bus, and thought,’Hang on, I know you‘, and we‘ve just been friends ever since,“ says Rog.
“When Frazer‘s band split up he went into the print industry, I stayed on the road. When I came off the road, he‘d just been made redundant. By some coincidence, I can‘t remember how, we just happened to meet up. I said,’Oh, I‘ll help you start a business. I‘ll help out for two weeks, while you get on your feet.‘ That was in 2001 and I‘m still here.”
Rog admits that he knew nothing about T-shirts, “other than trying to blag them from people, and in my capacity as a tour manager and ordering swag for bands on tour”. Having been the person ordering T-shirts for a couple of decades, he was suddenly poacher turned gamekeeper. “Frazer made it very easy for me to understand, because he‘s very, very good at what he does, he‘s a proper craftsman,” Rog explains. “I learnt the trade from a craftsman‘s perspective, rather than a financial perspective.” Setting up a business was something Rog was comfortable with, having been self-employed for years. Besides, the print business was only ever meant to be small, he says, just printing for local bands.
“We found a little industrial unit, local to us both. Very small, about 1,000 square feet, and I sat down with Frazer and said,’Right what do you need? What‘s your shopping list?‘ We started off with the obvious exposure unit, a small tunnel dryer, one six-colour press, a stock of inks and screens, some of which we scavenged from places, some we bought. Everything was secondhand basically, from contacts. Of course, Frazer already had the contacts in the supplier world. Now we just had to set up relationships for garments. It was fun, it was reasonably straightforward to set up.”
Eighteen years later, Frazer and Rog are in a much larger unit and have a few thousand clients and four staff: Loz Kirk, Andy Bell, Rich Stuart and Jay Graham, plus Frazer‘s dad who comes in and cleans the screens. It is – as expected – an anarchic set up: “We‘re a bunch of mates, it‘s a nice working environment. It‘s really not like a proper business at all. We don‘t behave very managerially. It‘s an extremely horizontal structure. We have no hierarchy, we‘re a team of mates getting on with it.”
Andy Bell is a career printer and obsessed with fishing
Jay Graham of Shirtysomething, aka drummer for Ravens Creed
Around three-quarters of Shirtysomething‘s clients are bands, which makes sense given the staff are all musicians (and working musicians at that – Loz is on tour in Germany at the time of the interview), apart from one who is nonetheless very into music, confirms Rog. “We are very keen on not running a business in the sense of, ‘Right, you want a product, how much can we sell it to you for?’ We‘re coming at it from a completely opposite direction. We know what it‘s like to be a small band, thinking, ‘Right, how can we move forwards?’ And now more than ever, merchandise is the only way a band can keep itself on the road. Because there‘s no money in being a musician. It‘s the peripheral services that you can give to your fans, good merchandise, that keeps fuel in the tank.
“If a new client contacts us, a new band gets in touch, we think, ‘Right, what do they actually need to try and achieve with their merchandise strategy? How can we help with that?’ For example, we often get people – a new band, first album – saying, ‘Right, we want six different designs, and we want 25 of each.’ First thing we‘ll say is, ‘No. That‘s what you think you want, but it‘s not what you need, and here‘s why.’ We try to steer them towards a more rational merchandise policy that makes them money. Ultimately, we make less in the short term, but if they succeed, we make more in the long term.” Customer service is, says Rog, the print shop‘s primary USP. “We very much regard our service not as being ink on fabric, but as consultancy, and the ink on fabric is part of it,” he explains. “Because we‘re musicians we speak the same language, we understand what the priorities might be and ultimately, we‘d like to think we‘re nice people.”
Screen printing T-shirts is, as the company‘s name suggests, Shirtysomething‘s speciality, with print perfectionism being its second – and equally important – USP. “We‘ve got phenomenally talented printers who are very quality-centric; we‘re remorselessly ferocious with our pursuit of quality,“ explains Rog. “We won‘t have anything leave the building that‘s not perfect.” They started off in 2001 with a second- hand M&R Chameleon six-colour manual carousel from Dave Roper at Screen Print World and added another Chameleon as the business grew, then a secondhand MHM E-Type 12-station/10-colour auto. They also do vinyl in-house, and out- source embroidery and DTG, but screen printing is what they are known for and, given the make-up of their customer base, it makes sense.
“The music industry expects screen print,” Rog states. “I can only really speak for the parts of the business of which I have a lot of experience, which is the small and medium size. Although I did work with some bigger bands, they weren‘t the absolute top end, stadium headline bands: Rage Against the Machine and Faith No More are my two particularly big ones, and they‘re not that big in the context of the music industry. Up to that level, everyone expects screen print. You can‘t go wrong, it‘s what the punters want, it‘s what the bands want and screen print has a certain history to it, which makes it the expected format for delivery of a band logo.”
All of their work comes from word of mouth and repeat business, they‘ve never had to advertise. They are also not keen on raking in clients for the sake of it – their ethos is much more generous. “We know various other print companies who print for bands and we regard them as our colleagues more than our competitors – we can help out with overflow and we can send people on if we can‘t fit somebody in. The whole point is not to try and nick business, it‘s to spread the business and make sure the business is good business, as in the people who are paying for the shirts get the right shirts and they get more than they expect.”
Most of the T-shirts they use are Gildan or Continental. “We‘re very fussy about where we get our shirts from and we‘re very keen on carbon neutrality, recycling, organic garments and so forth,“ explains Rog. “So, we‘ve been able to push people towards Continental quite a bit over the years. Virtually everything I wear is from them. A, because I‘m an unoriginal, and B, because it‘s good value.” They use the most environmentally friendly plastisols they can get. They have dabbled in water-based inks a few times over the years but haven‘t yet found any that are easy to work with and which they believe have sufficient robustness for the shirts. “In terms of what we can work with and what the customer expects, plastisol is the way for us.” One of Shirtysomething‘s ink suppliers – they use a few – is SISS. “They‘ve just sent us their new gold shimmer, which is fantastic. We‘ve had a gold shimmer crisis over the years with the various other brands we used – they just stopped being any good. This one‘s come in and it‘s really nice, really shimmery.”
Shimmer is coming back into band designs, Rog reports – black shimmer, gold shimmer, bronze shimmer. Ink colours go through phases as much as shirt colours do, he explains. “We had a big thing for earth-tone shirts with various shades of light and mid blue on them some years ago, and that‘s completely gone by the wayside. I can‘t remember the last time I ordered a khaki shirt. Now we‘re back to good old black and white, with various shades of dark yellow.” Four or five years ago, it was all skulls – the team would have bets on how many skulls would be in the next design. The T-shirt designs they get are often very amusing.
“We‘re always keen on the chortle – we‘re not a very sensible bunch, so comedy is always very much up our street,“ says Rog. “There‘s a band called Evil Scarecrow whose lines are always very entertaining. The last one had a giant Arctic slug, it was marvellous.” In fact, all the T-shirts currently on display in the print shop are brilliant, he says. “When I look around all these shirts, what I think about is the people who have ordered them and the conversations we‘ve had with them. I can generally put a person‘s name on each one and that says to me that we‘re doing things the way we wanted to do them, which is, ‘This is a personal relationship, we‘re looking after people, we‘re consulting to people and part of the mechanism is we‘re sending them bits of garment with some ink on them.'”