Rich Howells

‘Shirts for the Scene’ online store helps NEPA musicians affected by pandemic

‘Shirts for the Scene’ online store helps NEPA musicians affected by pandemic
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This year has been difficult for everyone, but those in the arts and entertainment industry have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. For musicians, live streams are great, but they cannot replace concerts in front of a live audience, whether they’re trying to make a living or playing purely for the love of their craft. Everyone working behind the stage to make these shows possible, as well as those in front of it covering these artists, has been affected as well.

This week, radio and podcast host Johnny Popko teamed up with Axelrad Screen Printing in Wilkes-Barre to make the holiday season a little brighter for many those people locally with Shirts for the Scene, an online store featuring 82 print-on-demand T-shirts – and growing.

“We’ve created a store for local/regional bands and artists that hosts a piece of their merch for sale. Proceeds from the shirts sold go directly back to the band/artists. For example, the band Modern Ties has a shirt in the store. If someone who supports them buys that shirt, the proceeds from that shirt go directly to that band,” Popko explained in an extensive interview with NEPA Scene yesterday.

“People have to understand that musicians, artists, entertainment publications, etc. are all being destroyed by COVID-19. Bands can’t play in bars/venues, which means they can’t make money. If they aren’t out playing, they can’t sell merch. If bands aren’t playing, the need for concert photographers goes away, which means their income goes away. If there are no events, what do entertainment publications write about? It really has been devastating, and I just want this to be a bright spot in those lives in the shitty year that has been 2020.”

The shirts, which range from $20-$25 depending on how many colors they have, represent local bands of all genres as well as music publications like NEPA Scene and 5-7-0 Press and venues like Stage West in Scranton. In less than 24 hours, over $450 has been raised already.

Guitarist Michael “Duds” McDonald, a solo artist as well as a member of Scranton alternative rock band E57, said on Facebook, “Shirts for the Scene is a way to support local musicians who haven’t been able to gig this year. I can’t thank Popko enough for all he’s done for the scene through the years, and Axelrad for their part in putting this together. So many dope shirts to choose from!”

“Popko is the man and is truly a great, innovative person in our music community,” added Eric Abyss, vocalist of Scranton metal band Traverse the Abyss.

Scranton indie rock singer/songwriter James Barrett posted, “I’m sure I can speak for the rest of the local scene when I say that Popko is a one-of-a-kind person and goes above and beyond to help all of us out. Support everything he does and like his new page!”

His new page is The Popko Project, a podcast that will feature unedited conversations with local musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and more. It will take the place of his local music show Alt-Natives on Alt 92.1, which was put on hiatus when the Scranton-based alternative rock radio station suddenly disappeared from the airwaves on Nov. 4. Currently playing Christmas music 24/7, Alt 92.1 will switch to a new programming format in 2021, so Popko decided to take matters into his own hands and create his own independent show that he has full control over.

“It seriously happened that fast – faster than I wanted it to, to be honest. For a moment, I felt like it happened for selfish reasons. I thought maybe I needed the local scene more than it needed me. But when it was announced that the show was put on hiatus, the support from everyone was so overwhelming. And so, for selfish reasons, I wanted to continue doing something. And as someone who has been able to give a voice to so many, I wanted to somehow continue to be that,” the 38-year-old Duryea resident explained.

“I don’t have a set format, and I don’t know that I want to have one. I just want to have conversations with people. … Everyone has their own story, and I just want to be a platform for them to tell it on. I especially find it interesting when musicians are more than that. I think we have these preconceived notions that all bands do is play music, get drunk or high, and pass out on people’s couches. I run into a lot of musicians who are very talented and make a conscious effort to play shows and be serious about writing and recording music, but their full-time gig might be as a lawyer or a computer programmer or an accomplished hunter. It’s really cool to pull back the layers.”

Shirts for the Scene serves as a unique introduction and tie-in to The Popko Project, which is set to go live this week in video format on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as well as streaming audio on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, etc.

“There’s a link at to Shirts for the Scene where you can buy your favorite band’s shirt. And if your band or entertainment-based business isn’t in the store and you want it to be, please email a vector file image to and we’ll get it up,” Popko noted.

“Johnny Popko is already killing it with The Popko Project,” said Ed Cuozzo, singer/guitarist of Scranton alternative rock band University Drive.

“He has shirts for sale of almost every band in the area, and every sale will directly support each band. All of the musicians in this area, and everywhere else on the planet, have taken a mighty hit through the entirety of this pandemic, so this is really inspiring to see. What a great thing Johnny is doing.”

This promotion is one of several that Axelrad Screen Printing offered this year to help those out of work due to the pandemic. In a campaign similar to this one where small businesses could upload their logo to be printed on shirts available in an online store, the Shirt Off Our Backs Movement raised $87,550 for 285 businesses by selling 8,755 shirts in just two months. They also printed shirts for “Come Together: A Community Benefit Concert for the Arts,” held in the parking lot of Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre on July 16, which helped local nonprofits, theaters, and performance centers that were heavily impacted by COVID-19. After the all-day concert, they continued printing “Come Together” shirts for a few extra days as the Gallery of Sound auctioned off various items to raise additional funds.

“The ultimate goal [of The Popko Project] is to be a platform for discussion and discovery of arts and entertainment through long-form conversations. I want it to be a vehicle for good, and I think coming out of the gate with Shirts for the Scene proves that immediately,” Popko said.

Read NEPA Scene’s full interview about The Popko Project here.