A Psychological Perspective on Merch Collecting, From Hobbyists to Obsessives
What drives music fans to collect? And what does it say about us psychologically as hobbyist or obsessive collectors?
If you’ve ever been to a rock or metal show, you’ve probably seen the frenzy that happens after the set, when the band starts tossing guitar picks and drumsticks into the crowd. You’ll see people of all ages wrestling over cheap pieces of plastic and wood that often have little to no monetary value. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see similar fervor, though somewhat less violent, when it comes to acquiring other types of merchandise – long lines on Record Store Day, fans arriving the night before for a special poster drop, and panic-clicking to get the limited release items your favorite band just put out.
But what’s the big deal? Why do some people make such great efforts and such great expense to acquire these items? This isn’t the actual music, it’s just stuff, right?
Collecting your favorite band’s merchandise is one of the easiest ways to show your appreciation, and for some people, an obsession that never lets go. The possibilities of what to collect keep growing, especially if the band is really big.
If you want to (and had the cash to do it), you can collect all of the band’s albums in every format available, shirts, action figures, shot glasses, keychains, sneakers, jewelry, hot sauce and all kinds of other stuff. Most of us can keep it in moderation – a shirt here or there, maybe that alternate color variant of the new album – but for others, merch collecting is an unending mission. While it can be fun for most of us, some seem to take it to an unhealthy level.
(Loudwire contributor Steve Byrne is a licensed psychologist and an associate professor of counseling. He is also the instructor for the university honors course The Psychology of Heavy Metal and Punk Rock.)
So Why Do We Collect Stuff at All?
For most people, it’s a sentimental connection to your favorite band. Imagine being a younger person with a terrible home life, for whom music – maybe one specific band or artist in particular – is the escape that they need from depression, abuse or a parent’s addiction. For others, being an outsider, being different, is something that’s now okay because they found their tribe of like-minded people who can connect around the same band.
For the same reasons their music is meaningful, tangible items can serve an identical purpose. Perhaps this music (and the stuff) is a way to remember a friend, a family member or someone else who isn’t here anymore and this keeps their memory alive. When the music really means something to you, the merch is a way to stay connected, to hang on to those memories, and to show others what you’re into. It comes from a good place and especially for smaller bands, it’s a great way to financially support them, since streaming music isn’t exactly lucrative for the artists.
Most people are casual collectors – they just collect stuff they like. “That’s a cool poster – I’ll grab one at the show,” or “they re-released my favorite album on vinyl and the packaging is really interesting – I’m gonna get that when it goes on sale.” Congratulations, that’s normal. Enjoy your stuff. It’ll look cool on your shelf and it’s a pretty neat conversation piece.
For others, even when it starts from a sentimental place, the tendency to be a “completionist” drives it. It’s a goal to have everything the band merchandises, to get everything the band has lent its name to. And maybe it’s not just merch collecting – the same neural system that keeps us engaged in gambling, overeating, video games and substance use wants us to feel rewarded somehow, and having everything is a form of this. Dopamine is a hell of a substance. For bigger bands, such as KISS, Metallica, and the like, this is not financially feasible, but it doesn’t stop some people from trying.
Hobbyists vs. Obsessive Collectors
When you want to be a big time collector, you need a community – people to help you track down some elusive items, other collectors to trade with, and ways to keep track of what’s out there. Reddit forums, fan club message boards and eBay auctions start to become a significant use of one’s time.
You can gain admiration and attention from others by being the biggest/best collector. People know who you are, people want to talk to you, and you get to feel really important. And you get to one-up the person who posts their relatively minuscule collection.
That’s cool if you’ve got the money and the time to do all this, and if it actually enhances your life. You’ve still got meaningful relationships with others, you’re spending what you can afford, and life is otherwise pretty normal.
The danger is when this drive to collect causes real problems – going into debt, alienating friends and family, getting fired from your job because you missed work again to get that “limited edition” poster. Maybe there’s an unmet need somewhere. Does someone focus their efforts on collecting because they lack the skills or the motivation to connect with people in other ways? Do they desperately hold on to their stuff because they never really grieved a loss or dealt with a transition? Or do these things just aid in those processes. One’s ability to keep their collecting in balance is the real measure of how healthy it is.
The Appeal of Different Kinds of Merchandise
In short, when you can’t collect everything, what you do collect might say something about your values.
- Record collections – this is where a lot of people start and often the easiest items to find, because it’s what people most associate with the artist. Sometimes, it’s easy – there’s only a few albums, no different versions released in other countries. But it gets challenging when you want to be the person who’s got all the color variants, that elusive French version with the different liner notes, and one day, whatever that “holy grail” item is that really doesn’t mean anything to outsiders.
- Shirts – hopefully this means that you're repping your favorite band a lot. You want to show others that this band is great and that you’re a real fan. Just try to keep it appropriate – maybe don’t wear *that* Mastodon shirt (you know which one) to your aunt’s funeral.
- Items from a certain era – when you focus your efforts on a certain era or album, it probably means that you’ve got a sentimental attachment to this time – or at least the feeling you had at that time. A lot of us are using this to stay connected to a time when our lives were a little simpler, or trying to recapture the feeling of what that music meant to us at that particular time. When music is a safe haven for us, sticking with the familiar and comfortable makes sense and is a nice contrast to the stress and anxiety of our regular lives.
- Other stuff – maybe you like to be a little more unique. Even if you can’t hang with the collectors who have all the other stuff, you can carve out your niche with more unusual items. Bands have released all sorts of untraditional merchandise over the years including underwear, rolling paper, dildos and Snuggies. Maybe you can differentiate yourself from the normies by rocking that Slayer Christmas sweater to the office holiday party this year.
Conclusion: Just Keep Buying the Stuff
All of this band merchandise is out there for a reason – it supports the band, keeps their name in the public consciousness, and can be a fun way to connect with others.
Remember that these artists are barely making anything by streaming music and depend on touring and merch to keep the band going. When you buy from the band directly (from their website usually), they get to keep the lights on and keep making the music you like.
Are there some merch items that are just a “cash grab?” Sure, so just let your wallet do the talking. Nobody is forcing you to buy it. But if this is something you really enjoy and your collecting is not a problem for you, just keep doing it and keep supporting this community.