The Rock God is not the only icon whose demise has been exaggerated. ''Where black T-shirts probably comprised 70 percent of total rock-T-shirt sales in the 1970s and 1980s, maybe it's down to 45 percent today,'' says Dell Furano, president of Sony Signatures. ''But the black shirt is still a staple. It has not gone the way of the LP.''
Spawned from San Francisco's psychedelia scene of the late '60s and the Grateful Dead in particular rock Ts went mainstream with Journey, who sold $20 million worth during a two-year period in the late 1970s. Today, a half-dozen large merchandise companies many owned by major labels dominate the $500 million international market (with the U.S. ranking No. 1 in sales, followed by the U.K., Japan, and Australia).
Merchandisers claim prices have declined, with the venue, the artist, and the manufacturer each seeing a third of the profits from a $25 shirt. Only recently, however, has the fundamental design of the T (which still accounts for two-thirds of all rock merchandise sold) evolved. In addition to colors edging in on the black-and-white monopoly, the look, says Furano, has become ''much more understated. Bands are making the art as obscure as some of their music.''
Those developments owe much to the rise of alternative rock. ''Generally, artists sell the most merchandise when they first start to grow in popularity and have a suburban, 14- to 18-year-old fan base,'' Furano explains. In the past year, that's translated into high in-store sales for Green Day and the Beastie Boys bands that draw young, largely male audiences. But on the road, staples are staples: The Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge tour is expected to surpass all merchandising records when it concludes in August. And then there's the holy trinity: ''Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors,'' recites Howard Schomer, VP of artist relations at Winterland, the rock merchandising giant. ''Those three are always tremendous, year in and year out.''