Canada: Are temporary merch stores the new record stores?
t’s the weekend of duelling R&B pop-up shops.
The Weeknd and PARTYNEXTDOOR, two of the city’s biggest R&B artists, are in town for concerts and are hosting respective pop-ups to hawk limited-edition merch items.
Pop-ups are now a staple in the music marketing roll-out plan, with everyone from A Tribe Called Quest and Frank Ocean to Morrissey and Guns N’ Roses setting up surprise retail experiences in cities such as New York and Los Angeles over the past year.
The Weeknd’s Starboy pop-up at Queen and Ossington opened at 10 am on Friday, November 25, with some fans lining up 10 hours in advance on Thursday to score wristbands for a meet-and-greet with Abel Tesfaye ahead of his performance at Bell Media’s Jingle Ball show at the Air Canada Centre. (The pop-up continues through Sunday.)
Meanwhile, OVO Sound-signed Mississauga singer/producer PARTYNEXTDOOR set-up at 5 Brock Events (5 Brock) from 1 pm to 7 pm before his shows at Rebel on Thursday and Friday.
Pop-ups are not a new concept in retail, but are becoming standard in music. This new pop-up merch store model was pioneered by Kanye West, who organized pop-ups for his Yeezus tour in 2013 and Pablo pop-ups to promo his The Life Of Pablo album this year, first in New York City and then in 21 cities globally in August.
Like West’s Pablo pop-up in Toronto, The Weeknd’s Starboy shop took over a gallery-like space at 12 Ossington and was produced and run by Universal Music merchandising subsidiary Bravado.
Whereas West hosted pop-ups internationally on the same date, The Weeknd’s merch stores have been rolling out across the globe for the past month in the lead-up to the November 25 release of his Starboy album.
When I arrived for the press preview at 9:30 am, a couple hundred fans were braving the wet and chilly weather outside the narrow space with a lightning bolt neon sign in the window.
Inside the store, warm red light emanated from a neon sign shaped like a cross and others that spelled out “Starboy” and “The Weeknd.” Items ranged from hats, long-sleeve shirts, bombers and denim jackets sporting designs that included the neon cross logo and an image of Tesfaye in corpse paint. Prices ran from $45 for T-shirts up to $340 for the jean jacket.
As a TV in the corner played music videos, TV camera people, style bloggers and music reporters snapped photos and videos of two lonely looking hats on a giant, lightning-bolt-shaped table in the middle of the room and circumspectly fingered through the racks. The store hadn’t opened to the public, but the staff already looked bored. When I asked a question about the design of the neon signs, label reps seemed caught off guard.
Right, I forgot: this is just a marketing exercise. Back to photographing $55 hats.
After Snapchatting a few photos and videos, I headed to Sonic Boom on Spadina to pick up a limited edition Erykah Badu LP as part of Record Store Day’s Black Friday push. The store was quiet, and even though it had been open for half an hour, I had no problem scoring a copy.
Granted, this low-key spin-off of Record Store Day is pegged to a U.S. holiday and smaller than the main event in April, but the contrast is worth noting: rather than set up in record stores, big artists are opting to design their own retail experiences where they can control everything. And the Weeknd’s shop is tightly conceived to recreate the sinister retro-futuristic vibe of the music vid for his album’s Daft Punk-produced title track.
As Bravado CEO Mat Vlasic suggested to Vogue, pop-ups are “kind of like the record store of the 70s and the 80s.
“What was a record store really?” he said. “It was a place, obviously, that sold music, but it was a place that people went and they started a conversation and they’d learn something and they’d try something new. These temporary stores are really creating a very similar thing, a place to come and listen to music.”
Vlasic was speaking specifically about West’s pop-ups, which featured curated playlists of non-Kanye music. The Weeknd’s shop is only playing the new Weeknd material, so there is little happening in the way of new artist discovery, but he is right that pop-ups provide tangible spaces for fans to congregate.
But is lining up in the rain for hours only to be hustled in and out of a pop-up with a cheaply made bomber jacket really a replacement for a feeling of communal discovery?
If anything, it’s like lining up to buy concert tickets at Ticketmaster before the advent of online ticket sales. Get in line, bond (or commiserate) with the fans around you, buy your exclusive shit, get the hell out and pretend like you didn’t just blow off the first two hours of school or work.
And there is a thrill in doing that. But the pop-up craze is also about money. Album sales have sunk to historic lows – with 2016 the worst year for sales since Nielsen Music began tracking in 1991 – and streaming pays a pittance compared to what artists made selling music back in the day. It’s also about 360 deals that require artists to give a percentage of merch sales to labels.
Either way, if you’re a fan and you love your favourite artist, you will buy their exclusive shit and do the meet-and-greet. But failing a traffic-stopping frenzy, quality product offering or eye-watering experiential design, there is a good chance that pop-ups will lose their lustre – and media attention – if the thrill is eclipsed by mass-market saturation.
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