Ian Hopkins discusses Rocksax’s approach to developing unique music merch

Start Licensing’s Ian Downes speaks to Ian Hopkins, Director at Rocksax, about the blossoming world of band licensing – and what genres of music are best suited to his company’s product areas.

Hi Ian. For anyone new to you guys, could you give us a brief introduction to Rocksax?
Rocksax is our new music merchandise company focusing on specific gaps in the market we’ve identified, spanning fashion accessories, travel goods, luggage and homewares.

We have signed multiple licenses for acts ranging from Billie Eilish to The Rolling Stones, Metallica to Eminem, Wu Tang Clan to Iron Maiden. We have products currently for over 60 acts and are growing our roster all the time.

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

Rocksax sells mainly via distributors and larger retailer/e-com sites but also via its own website at www.wearerocksax.com. Initially we started selling to UK companies, but we’ve increasingly ventured further afield. With the backing of our license partners in agreeing the appropriate licensed territories, we now wholesale export to EU, Australia, Japan, USA and Canada. For North America, we have a subsidiary, 3PL warehouse and distributors in place for certain sectors of the market.

Our passion for Rocksax came from both my own and Stewart Ebbins’ background in music merchandise, on the retail side and seeing opportunities to develop a unique set of branded music merchandise products.

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

Licensing based on well-known music acts seems to be growing. Why do you think this is?
I think there are a number of drivers, but a few I feel are the most important…

As digital is by far the dominant medium to digest music, the younger market don’t possess anything physical to show off their affiliation with a band or genre to their peers. They can now use iconic artwork from their favourite acts to do this. In Ye Olde Days, that would have been showing off your vinyl collection. Nowadays – although vinyl is on the rise massively – band merch is one way to do this. Maybe in a few years it will wane, as kids grow massive vinyl collections again – everything circles around in time!

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

Another key drive is nostalgia. As with many other licensed properties and consumer habits, the sense of nostalgia and buying of this type of product tends to become more prevalent in difficult economic times – and it could barely be worse over the past few years.

There are also trends of old consumers buying our products as they reach middle youth… Baby boomers reliving past glories and aren’t ‘old’. Music does go into the core of us in some ways. Who doesn’t remember that gig or that festival; merch has its place in celebrating that person you once were – or still am!

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

All great insights. What else do you think pushes these band brands to the forefront when it comes to licensing?
Technology has helped massively, both in terms of the creation of products and in the ability to access them commercially. Print on Demand has no doubt changed the landscape by offering a much wider choice of products and artists, but the internet has enabled not only the 20 best-selling acts to be bought physically in stores, but the many thousands of acts that create the ‘long tail’ of music merchandise.

Also Covid… The last two years, as we all know, has seen a lack of touring and festivals, so the retail delivery of music merchandise has been increasingly popular with consumers and an increasingly important revenue stream for acts. It’s been a win/win.

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

Are there particular genres of music that are better suited to your products than others?
There are and aren’t – sorry!

You tend to find rock music is more popular, but is that because iconic rock albums and artwork have been around longer? Will Kanye’s Graduation or Ed Sheeran’s latest become iconic in years to come? Or is it because many of the urban acts don’t do traditional licensing deals on merch and prefer to collab with brands? Or is it that in a digital world, acts rely less on the appeal of the classic album and therefore invest less time and money on the creation of a cover artwork to ‘sell’ their wears? I think it’s some, all and more!

On the flipside, what – or who – doesn’t work?
Well, for some acts, merch just doesn’t seem to work full stop.

Take U2… One of the all-time greatest rock acts – with great covers – but if you did a top 100 best-selling bands in merch, U2 wouldn’t be there. Sometimes, it’s difficult to fathom, you just know!

Where does music licensing fit into retail-wise? Are there certain retailers or categories that are more supportive?
Music seems to come and go in fashion across retail in general. There are the obvious music merch retailers – traditionally stores like HMV for whom ‘merch’ is a given staple. But in the wider retail environment, the trends ebb and flow yearly and cyclically.

Four or five years ago, every retail fashion chain had music merch from traditional rocks acts like The Stones, Guns N’ Roses, Iron Maiden… Then this had its day and rock music wasn’t so popular in fashion. Two years later, the Nineties revival came along and hip-hop star like Biggie and Tupac became popular, along with the whole Madchester Oasis and rave acts.

Many of the larger retailers work directly with the music merch licensors on apparel. We’ve created products that are more difficult to manufacture, therefore there’s a big opportunity to work with the larger fashion chains to broaden their product selection and offer the consumers something new and unique.

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

How do you keep on top of design trends within the genre?
Spotify, Spotify, Spotify… And endless listening, reading music mags, trade shows, networking, speaking to contacts in the music industry and retail chats all feed into the melting pot to be honest.

Likewise, how do you decide on the product mix for each band. Do certain bands create unique product opportunities for you?
The size of the offer and type of product is based on a bit of alchemy; a little bit of this and a little of that! It’s not an exact science, but it’s generally a mix of market opportunity based on the popularity of the band. You would do more product for Iron Maiden than for Madness for example.

Do certain bands and their artwork match our products? For some, the band’s artwork is mainly photographic images of the band, which is hard to work with when it comes to our products. Would you make a bum bag for a thrash metal band? Mmmmm, maybe not!

We also listen. Retailers, licensors, distributors are great in feeding back ideas and opportunities – one of the benefits of being a little older is that you learn to ‘listen’.

In the main, uniqueness of the products comes down to the artwork. We do huge murals for example. They look amazing, but only if you have iconic artwork like God Save The Queen from The Sex Pistols or Dark Side of The Moon from Pink Floyd.

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

Speaking of The Sex Pistols and Pink Floyd, what makes a band ready for licensing? What factors do you take into account?
We use our inbuilt music knowledge to help us navigate the opportunities, then add in licensor information. They are great at providing market info as they generally know if a band is blowing up, and we always consult our retail partners. Sometimes they have specific artists they see as opportunities. This is market info from the ground up, and that’s becoming more and more important as we tread a path into export markets. For example, I have no idea what band is popular in Chile or South Africa, so local knowledge is vital.

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

Are there new band brands emerging that will make an impact in licensing?
Ah, that would be telling! Keep an eye on my LinkedIn or our website to find out!

But seriously – the Nineties rave and Madchester fashion have been around now for a while and it’s still there if the latest streetwear fashion shows are to be believed. I think this will move into a resurgence of grunge over the coming couple of years.

The Brand Radar, Ian Hopkins, Rocksax, Ian Downes

Hip Hop acts have become a more mainstream offering, and this too is set to continue and grow, both for legacy acts – yes Tupac is legacy! – and for contemporary artists. K-pop is also blowing up big time, but rights are few and far between… Something we are on the hunt for!

One last question before we let you go: If you could work with one band or artist, past or present, that you don’t currently work with, who would it be and why?
Good question! Probably some of the most commercial opportunities are the urban acts like Kanye and Stormzy. Also BTS – the retailers, distributors and consumers want their products… Sorry, it’s all about the money!

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