From the Parking Lot to Backstage-Selling Bootleg Concert T-shirts in the 90's
As usual Guns N Roses was late. They came on late in every city they played. For us, the bootleg t-shirt sellers, it meant that we wouldn't get done until about two or three in the morning. As is common at most shows, people linger in the parking lots afterwards and that meant that no matter how fast we had sold out our shirts (or lost them), we weren't going anywhere. Which meant we got to witness for the umpteenth time, the ritual of the parking lots from a sober point of view.
You know the scene after a concert. If you don’t, it’s pretty much people pumping their favorite jams at ridiculous decibels from their cars who don’t care that there is someone in the car next to them doing the exact same thing. It’s people finishing off what they have left in alcohol. People grilling, again. People randomly arguing and fighting over nothing, it’s drunk and lost people, people passed out, people in no hurry, people that need a ride, people that want a free shirt and of course, t-shirt people trying to sell one more shirt.
This scenario is essentially what happened at virtually every concert/tour I ever worked and I probably did about 200–300 shows over a 5 year period from 1990 to 1994.
I remember the Guns N Roses shows were always dicey before and after the shows. At the time, they were perceived as this dangerous and edgy band, defiantly pushing the limits of authority so to speak, so their fans felt they had to be the same. So there were lots of fights in the lots. Drunk people wanting to fight. Girlfriends that wanted to fight. I remember always having to have my head on a swivel. Jimmy Buffet on the other hand, his post concert parking lot action was extreme, but merely in its drunkenness. To this day, hearing ‘Margaritaville,’ makes me cringe. No offense JB.
A friend of mine and his wife went to a Guns N’ Roses concert a few weeks ago and when they told me about it, it reminded me of when the band was absolutely white hot back in the early 90’s. I can remember how badass I thought the song Paradise City was at the time and the accompanying video as well. It was concert footage and it was legit. That’s how it was.
They weren't the only band or tour that we did, but THAT tour? We tried to follow it across the US, from city to city, selling as many t-shirts as we could before during and after the show.
They were considered a hot tour for a couple of reasons. The primary reason was that you could sell a lot of shirts and make a lot of money. The other reason was that it was not without a significant police presence. So there was some risk. There was heat and with heat there was always the risk that they could take your shirts, take your money and or take you to jail. Some tours could care less about bootleg shirts and others went to great extremes to make sure it did not happen in their parking lots. Shout out to Pittsburgh and Cleveland in that regard. More on that later.
When GNR toured, I had, literally, a front row seat, a back stage pass, and a parking pass to the mayhem that they brought to every town that they played in. I didn't “officially” pay for front row seats or backstage passes. We made fake laminates, (the things that you see hanging around anyone who thinks they’re important at a concert) that allowed us to go anywhere and everywhere throughout these arenas and stadiums. They weren't perfect matches of the “inside” pass or laminate but they were damn close, and very rarely did anyone ever challenge us by looking at the “lam” hard.
We basically came and went as we saw fit. I primarily used the lams to go inside and watch the show while other creative shirt sellers would load up with shirts and sell them inside during the show. I did not have that kind of courage. The reward was not worth the risk.
Before the show starts, the parking lot is filled with all of those people that I mentioned above, in their pre-party concert state. It’s chill, it’s exciting, everyone is in a good mood and everyone has cash. This is what we, as shirt sellers, called the ‘Way-In. We’d go from car to car, group to group. We’d flash the shirt, front and back, tell them the same shirt is $25 on the inside but out here it’s only $10 or $15. Sometimes we’d have to compete against other “vendors.” Some sold shirts others might be selling weed or coke or water or posters or hats, it didn't matter. In Philly, there were usually about 3–4 vendors descending upon the cars as they were pulling into their spots regardless of the venue. I wasn't too keen on Philly. As a seller, you always want to work where you’re the only one there.
For a good tour I could sell maybe five or six dozen on the “way-in.” Bad tours, maybe 2 dozen. At Grateful Dead shows, I was lucky if I sold two dozen shirts for the day! Their fans were more into kind veggie burritos or a miracle. I generally stayed away from Dead shows.
One time at Lollapalooza in Tampa, for some reason, I was the only shirt seller there. I sold 24 dozen shirts in about an hour and made about $4300. Those were the rare occasions but when they did happen, the rush was incredible.
After the show is when we earned the other “half” of our money. This event was called, “The Blow.” The blow is what would happen when a show or concert ends. It is exactly what you might think it is. It’s large amounts of people “blowing” out of the venue.
As shirt sellers we thrived on the blow. We would position ourselves as close to the entrance of the arena or stadium as we could get without being ‘caught’ and we would ‘blow’ out/sell as many shirts as we could. If the show was good and people were pumped, we could sell anywhere from four to 12 dozen shirts in a matter of minutes.
What was the key? There were a bunch. Primarily, where did you have your supply of shirts. Were they in a bag/was it close by? Did you have them stuffed in a jacket? What size were they? Did you have change? Where were you positioned? Who was around you? Was their heat? Was the shirt a sweet “piece?” or did we misspell the city? (that really happened)
There were so many intangibles that went into every concert and tour that we did, that it was virtually impossible to predict success with the exception of the stadium shows. Add to that mix, the cast of individuals that I worked with over the years and it resulted into one of the craziest, most insane “jobs.” I had ever had. We all had reasons for doing the gig, some noble, some not so but I’ll get into that with my next entry.