Interview: Rockabilia Co-Owner Discusses Merch Trends, Covid-19 and Craziest Stories

Rockabilia is one of the largest online merch retailers, stocking merchandise from thousands of rock and metal bands. Their website currently lists over 500,000 pieces of licensed merchandise, ranging from standard T-shirts to wallets, shoes, hats, sunglasses and pretty much everything else you can print a band logo on.

Decibel spoke with Rockabilia co-owner Frankie Blydenburgh about the company’s daily operations, metal’s most iconic T-shirts, the effects of COVID-19 on business and the time he got Anthrax sued for a million dollars.

You’ve been with Rockabilia for over a decade at this point. What do your daily responsibilities look like?
Being a co-owner of a small business, my two partners and I all wear multiple hats. But my daily responsibilities are the fun ones: buying the merch, promoting it—all that good stuff. I am consumed by band shirts every single day of my life, which is just awesome. It’s also pretty dangerous though, because I personally own probably 500 black band T-shirts!

Obviously merch is a big part of the way many metal fans express themselves. Have you noticed specific merch or design trends that come or go over certain periods?
When it comes to metal merch, the same rule still applies: the gnarlier, the better. “Jesus is a Cunt” (Cradle of Filth), “Fuck Me Jesus” (Marduk), and of course anything Cannibal Corpse, are all best-sellers. In fact, when I first saw the uncensored art for Violence Unimagined, I initially thought “OK, they finally did it—no one would actually wear THIS.”

But after talking to their merch company and finding out it outsells the censored version 10 to one, I knew Rockabilia had to have it too. And so far, so good—it’s selling great!

Poking around the site, I see everything from Skinless to Eagles of Death Metal to Avenged Sevenfold and Black Label Society. How do you decide what artists are on Rockabilia?
I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Rockabilia is that we only sell heavy metal merch. I guess most metalheads remember growing up seeing our ads in magazines like Metal Maniacs, so we’re forever branded like that in their minds. Which is fine, but what they maybe don’t realize is that the company was also advertising rock merch in Rolling Stone and SPIN simultaneously with all the big metal mags, so we have always targeted anyone and everyone who would wear band merch.

Rock music is a really broad term, obviously, and we believe our name is too, so we don’t feel pigeonholed and aren’t afraid to branch out. At the end of the day, I want to offer every piece of merch that’s available to us, regardless of the genre, so we do. I love music. Not just metal, but everything. And I want our company to have that same mindset too.

Covid-19 affected pretty much everyone in the music industry somehow, between loss of income, shipping delays, tour cancellations and a general state of panic. How was Rockabilia affected. Do you notice some of those effects at Rockabilia and, if so, how have you dealt with them?
When the pandemic initially hit, we experienced about two weeks of really low sales, so we definitely panicked like everyone else. Then business just exploded, and 2020 ended up being our biggest year ever by far. 2021 is off to an even stronger start, with no end in sight.

We definitely don’t take it for granted though, as we know so many bands and companies in the music business were just devastated. We realize how lucky we are and have tried giving back to our community as much as possible. We did a fundraising campaign with Halestorm last year and donated a bunch of merch to charities throughout 2020.

Right now I’ve been working with Tony “The Demolition Man” Dolan from Venom Inc., on getting his Black Sabbath tribute album, Sabbatonero, released here in the states. He teamed up with a bunch of musicians from bands like Death and Obituary, and all the funds raised from record sales are going to frontline workers at Lazzaro Spallanzani Hospital in Rome, Italy. Italy was arguably impacted the most by Covid-19 last year, and it’s my favorite place in the world too. So, it just feels good to help out such an amazing place with great people, even if it’s just a small bit from our niche industry.

Since you’ve been with the company for so long, I bet you have a lot of stories about working with big-name artists. Does anything in particular spring to mind if I asked you for your craziest or coolest story?
Well, I accidentally got Anthrax sued for $1 million dollars. Luckily, I was able to apologize to the guys in-person a couple years later, and they were super cool about it—we all had a good laugh. Then there’s the time a big-name merchandise vendor of ours stole $100K from us with fraudulent charges on our credit cards for orders we never placed. We kinda blew the whole story open and the merch company soon discovered that this employee of theirs actually stole a total of more than $500K from retailers like us and bands on their roster. The dude ended up confessing to everything and got sentenced to I think six years in prison.

Those are definitely some of my craziest stories. Or at least, they’re the ones I can publicly tell! But don’t get me wrong, most of what goes down here is super cool. And working with artists is usually great. It’s a trip to work so closely to Tony Dolan, who of course fronted my favorite era of one of my favorite black metal bands ever: Venom. I’ve been able to do so much cool stuff with The Misfits, plus Jerry Only and their manager John Cafiero are just the greatest guys ever. Dani Filth and his manager [Coal Chamber and Devil Driver vocalist] Dez [Fafara] are awesome too. I’m also working very closely with Hüsker Dü right now, as we’re about to launch their new merch store that will include a new vinyl record pre-order. Being in Minnesota, it’s pretty much the coolest thing ever to work with the absolute legends of Minneapolis punk and hardcore. So yeah, when we’re not in the middle of some crazy lawsuit or embezzlement scheme, I’m livin’ the dream!