Merch was always a linear affair for legacy artists. You sold shirts with your face or album cover on it, slapped some tour dates on the back, and sold them on the way in and out of your shows. It was a system with limited appeal and impact, but Mitra Khayyam, brand strategist and creative director of Midnight Rider, has reimagined that approach and helped older artists appeal to a brand new generation of fans. We talked to her about forging valuable partnerships, selling lifestyles, and how she’s turned on a new generation to artists like Waylon Jennings and Townes van Zandt.
Spotify for Artists: How do you approach refreshing merchandise for legacy artists?
Mitra Khayyam: It can be really tough. You don't want to be redundant. It's really kind of creating a product, segmenting the product for retailers, and then also doing more one-off designs that are going to be available directly to consumers. What we have done is really looked at an artist’s deep cuts for the direct-to-consumer, and then done more generic ideas for our retail program based on common themes or lyrics that have become more so part of our lexicon versus just doing the album covers and things like that. With an artist like Doug Sahm, who was behind the Sir Douglas Quintet and the Texas Tornadoes and part of that cosmic, groovy Austin scene, we looked at a lot of lyrics about Texas and the soul and the heart of that state and people who live there and how we can speak to those people who either want to live the lifestyle of a Texan or someone who is part of the cosmic country scene. How can we reduce him down to one line that speaks to anyone and everyone instead of just the fans? So a lot of my work has been reinterpreting and pulling things to be able to create a brand that's identifiable for fans and to folks who want to wear clothing in that style as well.
It sounds like part of what you're doing is expanding artists’ brand universes a little bit.
With Midnight Rider, what I'm doing is building the universe around these icons in country music and Americana and rock and roll to be able to tell the story of America, in a way, and the music that has shaped us and where we are now.
How do you keep younger folks in the fold with more legacy-oriented artists?
We do get a fair amount of pushback from some of the fans. And that is because of the products that we are creating and the price points that we are selling the products from. A lot of times what we think may be akin to shooting fish in a barrel with someone who's a Tom Petty fan wanting to buy a Tom Petty t-shirt or a Waylon Jennings fan not being able to find those pieces outside of bootleggers or mass market retailers—we end up getting a lot of push back because of our price point. So actually the solution is to go after the folks who may not be as familiar. And for me a lot of that is done through social and branding and finding the story that we want to tell. What we have done is, again, through graphics, through the quality of the products, and the retailers that we work with like Urban Outfitters and Free People, is to create a product that really feeds into a fantasy of the lifestyle that we are seeing as part of a macro-trend of Americana and the '70s and this idea of rural or more simplistic living with a lot of the lyrics that we're pulling from.
Is there one thing you wish you knew when you were first starting to work with artists more?
When you do work like mine, a lot of people want to partner with you because they don't have a lot of resources, or they don't have the resources to do it themselves and they're on to a lot of brands that are servicing artists that have more of a cult following. I think that there's a lot of value to saying no to some partnerships. I’m somebody who's really interested in music and all the genres and the history of American music. It's very easy for me to want to work with a band like the MC5 or work with other musicians. While some of our fans, much like myself, are interested in all genres, I think that in a market that's incredibly crowded, it's important to stay streamlined and specific about the brand and what it is that you are bringing to your audience.
—Spotify for Artists