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The Podcast Swag of Tomorrow, Today

“Podcast merch is inherently uncool. That’s just what it is. But I think that from a business and community-building standpoint, it’s a smart decision, and we’re doing our best for the people who are listening to our show.”

I’m on the phone with Chris Black, creative consultant, recommendation-giver, and one half of the older millennial “bro-castHow Long Gone. Alongside co-host Jason Stewart, How Long Gone dabbles loosely in the spaces of fashion, tennis, food, and pop culture, though it can be argued it’s a show where two older, very “hip” men send verbal jabs at each other and special guests, thrice-weekly. On How Long Gone, Black is usually a cynical figure criticizing anything and everything –– the Foo Fighters, pizza, Pete Davidson –– but today, he’s waxing sincere on a topic I’ve been drawn to thinking a lot about over the past few months: merchandising in the podcasting space.

In the last few years, podcasts have widened the variety of show-associated products available in webstores, expanding beyond the simple branded mug and t-shirt. Last year, the coffee-centric Sprudgecast sold their own branded Pogs, while the McElroy Brothers sold My Brother, My Brother and Me 10th anniversary commemorative plates. My Favorite Murder is currently selling a doormat reminding tenants to lock their fucking doors, and elsewhere, Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s? host Brian Thompson self-published a facetious book on how to become an investigative journalist and created his own board game around his absurdist show. Forget the overabundance of textile goods and the trend of pandemic face masks that have taken store space for most podcasts: We’re now living in an age where podcasts are expanding and experimenting with their branding, and frankly, in my opinion, that merch is becoming so much cooler.

Case in point: Here we are in 2021, and Chris Black is talking to me about How Long Gone’s collaboration with Indianapolis’ Tinker Coffee. The two brands teamed up to drop a specially made snapchilled coffee called “mudd,” which officially launched this past Saturday. The brew’s name is a reference to what Black typically calls coffee on his podcast and marks the first official collaboration between How Long Gone and another brand entirely. Black tells me they’ll also be available in restaurants in LA and New York, in Burgerlords and Wildair, respectively. But if you’re planning on grabbing a case online, you’re already out of luck –– they sold out in less than 45 minutes.

Now, this isn’t your typical podcast merch per se, but rather, a brand collaboration akin to something like the streetwear company Huf teaming up with SPAM, or shoe Cole Haan linking up with team workspace app Slack, or Supreme dropping a package of branded Oreos, but obviously, a much smaller operation in scale, and, uh, much more tasteful. In the smallest way possible, it’s sorta-kinda like Travis Scott linking up with McDonald’s to rebrand what is essentially the double cheeseburger. In that instance, both entities put in what they each offer best: McDonald’s has the underlying commoditized food product, Scott offers the hype as differentiator.

In this case, How Long Gone and Los Angeles designer Sam Jayne offer their aesthetics, and Tinker provides the flavor notes. “To me, that seems like a really natural extension of what we do,” Black tells me about mudd. “We like coffee, we talk about it, and Jason [Stewart] has a rich history with the food and beverage community. Obviously, this has a longer tale than a t-shirt or a sweatshirt, but all of those things serve their purpose.”

I might be in the minority here, but as a fan of streetwear and hype in general, I find this kind of collaboration pretty exciting to see in the podcasting space. By all means, give me more podcast-branded coffees, big graphic tees that rival that of clothing brands like Stussy, or heavyweight brand jackets that beg people to ask me, “What’s that about?”

In other words: Give Me More Hype, Please.. And by “Hype,” I mean it in the way Alec Leach explains it their i-D piece on fashion’s obsession with it: a “relentless cycle of drops, collabs, pop-ups…It’s the idea that everything needs to be viral, shareable, a ‘moment’. It’s newness for the sake of newness, buying for the sake of buying.” It’s conspicuous consumption, totally. But make it tasteful, you know? And maybe it makes it all worthwhile.

Shows like TigerBelly and Crime Junkie have embraced aspects of hype, though they may not be representative of hype culture themselves. TigerBelly’s merch releases are usually limited in stock, meaning once they’re sold out, they’re gone, with no restocks planned. In Crime Junkie’s case, the podcast opens a store periodically with new designs and products on a limited-time basis, with early access to the store given to those who support the show directly. If a listener knows something is a timed-release or limited in stock it prompts an urgency along with the thought, I need this now before it sells out.

The hype can sometimes manifest as novelty like, say, a chicken nugget pillow by Travis Scott and McDonald’s, or, in H3 Podcast’s case, butthole-scented candles, a spoof of Goop’s “This Candle Smells like my Vagina.”

“I bought the candle because I’m a huge fan of the H3 Podcast and was really intrigued as to what this candle could actually smell like, and if it was as bad as they made it seem,” Reddit user and H3 fan JamesDana tells me. “The limited run was definitely a contributing factor –– I grabbed one as soon as it was available, even though it was pricey, because limited edition merch appeals to me –– especially for a show/meme that I’m really invested in.” The candles retailed for $75. All proceeds went directly to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Of course, the intersection of hype and podcasting has its own set of grievances. High-end and limited-edition goods, like Last Podcast on the Left’s $800 custom-made cruiser bike or Tell ‘em Steve-Dave’s Vinylcast podcast-on-vinyl pressing, don’t offer much of an alternative for the superfan who might’ve missed out on grabbing the piece of podcast product they wanted. And similar to the space of streetwear, bootlegs are also starting to play a role in the economy of podcast merch. eBay, Amazon, Etsy and Wish are havens for knock-off, cheap quality shirts from shows like TigerBelly, Last Podcast On the Left, and The Joe Rogan Experience. Even Red Scare, the female-led “dirtbag left” podcast that was under fire last year after releasing an ISIS-branded t-shirt, have a bootleg version of their controversial merch available on Etsy, where it’s available in all sizes.

There’s also the inevitable resale market that’s waiting to emerge through missed product opportunities. Right now, there sits a pair of mesh green shorts from the men’s fashion podcast Throwing Fits on eBay for $120. There’s currently 12 watchers of the listing, likely waiting for the seller to drop the price. I asked Lawrence Schlossman, one half of Throwing Fits, what his thoughts are on the attempted price flip.

“The first thing I would say is those are worth more than $120,” Schlossman tells me over the phone. “That short is the best-selling product that Throwing Fits has ever put out and I promise you that if people knew how many were sold, they’d be very surprised. And for good reason because that shit is fucking fantastic. So whoever is watching that should fucking buy it now.”

Schlossman and his cohort James Harris are no strangers to merchandising. Their careers began in 2012 at Complex Media, before eventually recording their initial podcast endeavor, Failing Upwards, in the offices of menswear resale website Grailed. The podcast, which rebranded as Throwing Fits in 2019, is a podcast by guys who are obsessed with clothes, for guys who are obsessed with clothes.

So it should come as no surprise that the duo have led some of the more exciting merch releases of 2020. Those seemingly innocuous mesh green shorts were made-to-order and then tailored down to 5” inseams, because, well, 5” inseam shorts are superior. 2020 saw Throwing Fits collaborate with Italian luxury-shoe manufacturer Diemme to release their own Italian-made boots, and months later, with Brooklyn-based fashion brand Blackstock & Weber to create their own penny loafers. These products, known colloquially to fans as the “podcast boots” and “podcast loafers,” respectively, sold hundreds of pairs. The boots retailed at 299€, with an extra 100€ in duty fees, while the loafers retailed at $295. But Shlossman stresses to me that he doesn’t consider these to be Throwing Fits merch products. They were collaborations.

“It was really about finding great brand partners that make amazing products that we love and we believe in,” Schlossman explains to me over the phone, “to create a kind of thing in the market that we really want, like those kinds of loafers or that kind of boot –– there’s going to be more examples of that coming out soon –– but to me, it’s a different process from merch. The tees, the shorts –– that shit gets TLC from us as well. But I think about it with a dual-track mentality. They’re all garments. It’s not even that one of these things is better than the other, even though some of these things are much more expensive. But to me they’re different.”

“I feel like the brand that we love. I feel like a clothing brand,” Shlossman proudly tells me. “I feel like what Antonio [Ciongoli] feels like at 18 East on drop day.”

When I ask Shlossman about How Long Gone and Throwing Fits leading a sort of collaboration hype within the podcasting space, he reminds me, it’s simply a result of the fashion and hype spaces both podcasts and their hosts occupy.

“Sure, collaborations are in our wheelhouse and all we do is think about jawnz. It makes sense in our space. There are better and bigger podcasts than How Long Gone and Throwing Fits, but it’s not because we’re smarter or we’re working with marketers. We’re just so trained, not just as consumers but from our professional careers. Not to mention working with our friends pays off in ways more than money.”

Here’s to looking forward to more big podcast collabs in 2021.