Screen Play Nashville Thrives in Music Merch Business

It’s estimated that some 25,000 people in Nashville earn their paychecks through the music business, and many folks outside Nashville don’t understand how that figure can be so high. But that employment number doesn’t mean that 25,000 people have record deals. For every recording artist that makes CDs and goes on tour, dozens, if not hundreds, of people reap the financial benefits of that artist’s success.

Money that comes into Nashville through music publishing royalties, tour coordination revenues, corporate sponsorships, instrument purchases and much more helps support thousands of accountants, lawyers, administrative staff, instrument builders, studio musicians and others, making it possible for people who couldn’t get a record deal in Nashville to at least work in the music industry on some level. Another area that benefits from the success of artists like Toby Keith, Hank Williams, Jr., Gene Watson and others is the multi-billion dollar merchandising business. Screen Play Nashville, Inc. is a leading company in the production of T-shirts and other fan memorabilia for those artists and more.

Jay Jackson, owner of Screen Play, Inc., with some of the company’s products.

Founded in 1985 and owned by Jay Jackson and his son, Jay II, Screen Play is the choice of many major recording artists when it comes to the production of their tour merchandise, especially T-shirts. The elder Jackson got into the business after working for a similar company for the late country superstar Conway Twitty. Jackson said his success is based on word-of-mouth and a simple business philosophy: The customer is king.

“When we started out,” Jackson said, “our business plan was basically one line: ‘We treat each customer as we would like to be treated.’ It’s as simple as that, and it’s worked for us.”

In addition to country artists, the company also works with stars of bluegrass and Gospel music. “We do shirts for a lot of bluegrass stars, like Ralph Stanley, Rhonda Vincent, the Grascals, quite a few of them,” he said. The company has also manufactured product for such Gospel acts as the Crabb Family, the Roys and the Isaacs.

One of country music’s greatest legends, Hank Williams, Jr., has been a mainstay in the company’s success. “We run Hank Jr.’s fan club,” he said, “and if you go to his website () you’ll see some of the types of products we make. I’ve known Hank since he was a teenager. He had that name to start out with, but what he’s done has been all about his own talent. He’s got that image that a lot of people think of him, and he’s a great entertainer. But at home he’s just like anybody else. We’re really glad to work with him.”

The company produces more than just T-shirts. It also manufactures caps, key chains, tote bags and more. “We can do all kinds of stuff, just about anything the customer may want,” Jackson said. And once upon a time, it seemed like a good idea for Jackson and his son to get into the tour merchandising business as representatives on the road with the artists. But that idea didn’t pan out too well.

“We did that for about a year with Daryle Singletary,” he said, “but we had so much trouble finding people who would go out and sell the merch, stay on the road, that I finally said, ‘No, this just isn’t for us.’ It’s just better for me to stay home and make the product. The merch people come pick it up in semi trucks, pickup trucks, whatever, depending on who the act is.”

From a long line of preachers, Jackson is originally from Oklahoma, and grew up in California, Arkansas and other places, the son of a father who planted churches and, once they were up and rolling, moved on to the next church plant. Jackson came to Nashville the early 1960s with professional musical aspirations after having been a member of a California Gospel group. But, like so many, he found himself having to do other things to make a living. “I eventually had a restaurant in Hendersonville for about 15 years, but I never seemed to be able to get completely out of the music business,” he said.  

Jackson said that one of Screen Play’s steady accounts is not a singer or a band, but a downtown Nashville institution. “One of our best customers is Tootsie’s (Orchid Lounge),” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how many T-shirts they go through! And they’ve always been the best people to work with, too.”

Jackson said that he stills plays a little music himself from time to time, and says it’s something that he’ll probably never completely be able to give up.

“I’ve probably got 50 guitars,” he said, “and I still pick a little from time. Just enough to remind myself that I was a picker.”

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By Rick Moore

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