A post on subreddit for Shanghai residents (r/Shanghai) in March 2017, a HELP tag was issued along with a comment that read: “I’ve been in Shanghai for about a month and I’ve seen at least ten guys wearing the same Linkin Park shirt. Minutes to Midnight. Can you help me solve this mystery?”
Many responded pointing out that this is in fact something they noticed as well. One responder said he felt like he saw at least one per day while pointing out that many are bootlegs, and did not even spell the band’s name correctly, with the bootleg shirts spelling KNKIN Park.
Even a year later, on a completely different subreddits users began to ask again why so many people are wearing Minutes To Midnight shirts. 2 years after that, more posts would appear with users dying for an explanation about the mysterious popularity of the Minutes To Midnight shirts. The 2007 album was Linkin Park’s third (and third most popular) album, and at that point, the band had hardly been in the limelight of relevance for close to a decade and a half. So why the perpetual popularity of the t-shirts??
In 2014 I moved to Beijing for an internship. This turned into a job that I kept for a good part of my formative twenties, as I first worked as a magazine editor, and later, a freelance journalist. I still remember when I first noticed a Linkin Park t-shirt. I distinctly remember walking to work on a wide boulevard that was home to many popular seafood restaurants, and I passed a man wearing a Minutes to Midnight shirt. If that wasn’t odd enough, just two short minutes later, I passed another with the same shirt on. It made me take note not just because I saw two of the same shirts in as many minutes, but because Linkin Park had not been actively popular in well over a decade.
In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, the rock-rap genre of music had hit its peak, and Linkin Park was undoubtedly the leader of the pack. Their songs were not very subtle, but very high energy and extremely catchy. You would recognize the chorus of one of their most famous tunes “In The End” sung by the rocker of the group, Chester Bennington, even if you are not a fan of the genre. Critics were not kind to their style, downplaying their originality and the inspiration behind their music.
But in China, the name Linkin Park persisted on t-shirts. After seeing the two shirts in two minutes, I began to consciously notice the shirts everywhere I went. Even my roommate had one, it turned out! My account on Taobao even featured the shirt on its page listing recommended products. Reddit backed up my observations. Even when I went on a two-day hike in the Chinese-Himalayas, I was sold a Coke by a human at the end of it, and he was wearing the same shirt.
Soon my journalistic obsession took over. I was seeing the t-shirts everywhere and I needed to know why. These sightings were more than just a reminder of home for me, they were also a source of confusion. This led me to create an account on Linkin Park Underground, a message board where hardcore fans of the band exchange thoughts on the band’s underrated tracks, as well as their merits. Once I joined, I dropped some links to the above mentioned Reddit discussions and asked: “Anyone else here noticed the Linkin Park T-shirts all over China?”
I should mention another curious commonality among the shirts I saw. They were all featuring the band name blocky font, backed by a dark purple background with the N in LINKIN slicing through PARK, and the R in PARK seemed to have a dagger sticking out from its bottom below the word. The album title “Minutes To Midnight” also appeared above the band’s name in thin white letters. One would think that while this was not the band’s most popular album, it generated the most popular t-shirt design in the world.
Venturing into a clothing market on the outskirts of Kunming named Luosiwan International Trade City, I encountered a large billboard that depicted one man in four different photos. He wore aviator sunglasses and the same shirt in every picture, all in different shades. You may not be surprised to find out that the shirt read: “Knkin Park Minutes To Midnight”.
The Luosiwan as akin to 10 aircraft hangars staged on top of one another like something straight out of an 80’s depiction of a dystopian future. The place feels endless, sprawls out in every direction, and is utterly chaotic. Almost feels like a physical manifestation of Taobao.
As I made my way through the market’s bottom floor (labeled “fashion wear”) for hours. I never saw the same shop repeat. The place was full of snack carts and stand-alone boxes which served as changing rooms, but more closely resembled porta-potties. While racks of shoes and shirts spilled out of stores, I noted several workers dragging boxes of jeans and shirts behind them as they whipped past me on hoverboards.
Seeing a store with the Knkin Park shirt depicted on the outer wall, I walked in and the owner introduced herself with a card name that read “Beautiful Clothes at Stall F1-166.” I asked about the shirts. She told me she had none left but then asked how many I needed because she could have them made for me at Guangzhou (the Chineses city that serves as a clothing store hub) as most of her customers were looking to stock up their stores with these. She was not pleased to find out that I was a journalist. I asked how she knew about the band depicted on the shirt. She said she was familiar with them, but did say that she could get me high-quality t-shirts in any color I wanted.
When I visited a shop named Everlasting Feeling (one who stocked Minutes to Midnight shirts with the correct spelling of the band’s name) they were not aware that the logo referred to a band at all. They also had no other Linkin Park shirts, nor did they have shirts for any other musical artists. When I headed back home and logged on to Taobao, I inquired with several owners selling the shirts through the messaging portal concerning the same question. They too were not aware of the shirt’s depiction being a logo of a band. To them, it was just one out of hundreds of products they happened to be selling.
I even messaged a few manufacturers at Made-in-china.com, an ill-reputed platform whose scathing reviews reflected that fact. A man whose profile picture was that of NBA star Luka Doncic responded to my question of whether he was a fan of the band with a GIF of a baby shaking his head “no” and I then was spammed with emails (several per day) about various t-shirt deals.
So I decided to try my research from the other end: Linkin Park. I was able to contact the rapper in the rap-rock outfit, Mike Shinoda, who has toured China thrice with his band since 2007. He was not aware that the Minutes to Midnight shirt was such a hot item in China until I informed him, so he had no answers as to why that was the case. He did, however, offer up a theory. He said that the band had a long-standing, massive fan base in China, one of the world’s strongest as it so happened. He was not aware of other markets where ‘Knkin Park’ or ‘Bnkin Park’ shirts were so prominent, and while he could not condone the knock-off shirts, he did appreciate the love for the band. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about how much these people actually knew about his band.
When I contacted Frank Maddocks, VP of Creative Services at Warner Records, he declined to offer a comment short of “Huh, I don’t even know what to say.” The shirt’s design came from Tokyo based artist, Usugrow, referred to the task by Linkin Park’s DJ Joe Hahn. When I contacted him, he checked out Reddit and thought the KNKIN Park shirts were hilarious and said that the logo goes beyond its context and is loved by many, which was a clear indicator that the logo was great. He pointed out that the Chinese had a love for futuristic moods, designs, and tech.
Beyond that, I was yet to get any sort of plausible explanation for the t-shirts’ popularity beyond the design being ‘futuristic’ and potentially cool and modern, as well as the fact that people like to copy things they like. When it comes to copying, the factories in Guangdong are the champions of the realm. Many of the counterfeit products are a result of ‘third-shift piracy,’ a concept describing a manufacturer that claims to work two shifts per day, but then works a third shift to produce knock-off products without their client’s knowledge. In this way, the manufacturer sells this extra product without having to give any of the profits to the client, while continuing to remain technically in legal standing, as they are still a legitimate manufacturer.
This is not a practice solely for Chinese artists either. Wested artists produce merch at manufacturing ‘hubs’ which are some of the world’s most efficient production facilities. Artists who go on tours of China often have their merchandise printed in the country to sell, to avoid hefty import taxes.
The head international of Outdustry (a company that manages music rights in China), Alex Taggart, believes that the Linkin Park t-shirt phenomenon is the result of a combination of a massive surplus, a simple design, and third-shift piracy. He thought the designs were ‘reinterpreted’ as the printing made its way to factories other than the ones intended to print them. The English degraded along with this expansion of production as did the connection to the band the shirt represented.
Mogu (a Chinese fashion app) founder Chen “Shark” Qi informed me that Guangdong factories competition feeds itself. If a product begins to sell well, other factories begin printing it. In China, English words are fashionable and international, so they appeal to many citizens.
While these shirts might have wound up alongside other knock-off products, now manufacturers can simply set up Taobao marketplaces and sell the products on the cheap. Taobao is owned by Chinese merchandising juggernaut, Alibaba, a company suspended in 2016 from the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition. This was due to many high ranking members quitting to protest the company’s inclusion as they were failing to prevent the pervasive marketing and sale of counterfeit goods on platforms like Taobao. In 2017 Alibaba made an effort to sweep out the fakes, the rules established were simple to skirt, mostly by misspelling words of famous brands and franchises. Alibaba has continued to insist that it is working hard on cracking down on counterfeit products, and the IACC acknowledges the fact that great strides were being made. The company did point out that Linkin Park has never reached out to the company with complaints, however.
Tiffany Ap, a correspondent at Women’s Wear Daily told me that the Linkin Park t-shirt phenomenon reminded her of the Playboy brand. While the brand is all but dead in the U.S, in China the logo has been licensed so much that it appears on products entirely unrelated to Playboy everywhere, including cafes.
Much like Playboy and Linkin Park, brands can take on different meanings in different markets, ones completely devoid of the brand’s original association. American hegemony permeates the culture all over the globe, so seeing brands that have nothing to do with their American origins as through a weird prism or into a funhouse mirror.
I’ve watched for years brands I recognize from childhood recast themselves in China. It is very interesting to see the excitement behind “grand openings” of otherwise worn and bland brands to Americans (like Red Lobster, Old Navy, and Cheesecake factory). It makes sense that one’s culture’s icons entering another lets them adopt a greater significance.
This is especially true with music. China did not let in music from the outside world for so long that the only way a lot of Western music made its way in is by being sold off as excess trash in bulk when overstocking costs became prohibitive to the money spent on storage. In the ’80s and ’90s, Chinese fans had to deal with banged-up CDs and tapes that they got through black markets just to hear western music. This caused music that was unpopular enough to not be sold off in the U.S. to become vastly popular in China.
Things are different with the presence of streaming services these days, but the after-effects on how China approaches music and what they find appealing has surely been affected by their history. The approach to Western music in China has in many respects been “out of context,” giving rise to some odd (in our view) choices of popularity.
With regards to Linkin Park, Minutes to Midnight was their third album, but it was the first to be performed in China. The Minutes to Midnight world tour played to 25,000 people in Shanghai in 2007. The band was back in 2009 and attempted to come back in 2011, only to be denied entry when they appeared in a photo with the Dali Lama. Chinese authorities used this as the same reason to shunt Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, and Maroon 5 as well. Due to the perception that Linkin Park was not adhering to the required cultural authority, their access to China was denied until 2015. This was also the same year I began spotting the Minutes to Midnight t-shirts everywhere around me.
When Chester Bennington passed away in 2017, Chinese fans poured their heartfelt tributes to him on Weibo (China’s version of Twitter-style social media). Mike Shinoda even toured there for his solo album in 2018.
In the meantime, Guangzhou noted the presence of a particularly well-selling t-shirt item, so they printed and sold them, which prompted others to see the shirts and to do the same. My quest for answers led me on a trip through warehouses and message boards but I found nothing akin to a conclusive answer. Perhaps it is a mystery not vital enough to be solved. To quote Linkin Park: “I tried so hard and got so far, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter.”
Its weird….they might not even know who they are. Trends are weird. I still can’t explain the teenagers in LA wearing Joy Division and Misfits t-shirts.