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Merchandising: How Musicians Can Make the Most of it

Merchandise is key to marketing your music and represents a significant chunk of live revenue. Here’s how to make music merch work financially and ethically.

Last updated: 20 October 2020

There’s an apocryphal music industry tale that indie-rockers James survived entirely on t-shirt sales in the late-80s. In modern times, that wouldn’t be so hard to believe. While music sales remain negligible, a 2019 study by Licensing International concluded that global sales of licenced merchandise reached £226 billion in 2018. Meanwhile, reports from the UK circuit suggest that merchandising typically accounts for 20-30% of a band’s live take. “Merchandise is the backbone to many bands’ success,” says British bluesman Danny Bryant. “It can be the extra bit of money that keeps the van on the road, or the much-needed income that subsidises the occasional necessary low-paying show.”

Band merchandise: be unique and innovative

Effective merchandising starts with the right products. The trusty T-shirt is still a banker, but with major bands thinking more laterally with their merch, musicians further down the chain stress the importance of standing out. “Be different,” says singer-songwriter Jack J Hutchinson. “I love bands like the Black Crowes and Blackberry Smoke, where you instantly recognise their merch because it’s unlike other bands. Everyone has black T-shirts, but I went for bright red and sold loads. You can spot them a mile away.”

“The possibilities with merchandise are endless,” says Scottish alt-troubadour Dave Arcari. “My signature bottleneck slides are a big seller: players want the same slide as you and non-players buy them as gifts, or to keep because they’re unusual and funky. I do two different crystal whisky glasses, both with my logo engraved. Download cards for albums that are no longer available in physical format go well, especially with a promo keyring attached to add some kind of physical value. I also have Dave Arcari signature sets of guitar strings for sale.”

Make your mark with striking design and strong branding

By diversifying, musicians give themselves scope to offer merch at a variety of price-points: with premium vinyl and hoodies offset by smaller items like stickers, badges and bottle openers. Ensure the design is strong and your band name and logo is prominently displayed across your merch range, turning a one-off sale into a sustained marketing campaign, advises Bryant. “Generating publicity and an income stream from merchandise is the top goal. Financial income is very important, but when you can get your fans to pay you to advertise your band, it’s a win-win. Creating attractive merchandise is important, so your fans will not only wear a shirt to a show, but will want to wear it out to the pub or doing the shopping.”

How ethical merchandising can work for you

There’s a bigger picture to consider. In a live industry aware of its environmental and social footprint, ethical merchandise has grown from a buzzword to a burgeoning industry. Julie’s Bicycle is a London-based charity that supports ethically sound creative projects, and project manager Chiara Badiali has helped bands produce merch that is both saleable and environmentally savvy.

“It’s good to think of your merchandise as an extension of you as an artist,” she says. “Everything about it is a display of who you are and what you stand for. That should include how it’s made and what from. For clothing, look for certified organic cotton fabrics that incorporate recycled post-consumer waste, or clothing made from more sustainable fibres like bamboo or hemp. Look for things like Fairtrade cotton, companies that are transparent about their supply chains and brands that are members of initiatives like the Fair Wear Foundation, which work towards improving working conditions. For posters, ideally print on post-consumer recycled paper – or FSC certified paper if recycled isn’t possible – and work with printers that have environmental policies.”

Eco-friendly options

Most musicians would agree with those points in principle. But with profit margins often on a knife-edge, there remains a perception that ethical merchandise will be prohibitively expensive. Acclaimed indie-folk songwriter Novo Amor (aka Ali John Meredith-Lacey) believes wider adoption will help musicians address the big issues without compromising their bottom line. “When an artist starts out making music,” he notes, “I don’t think they expect to be printing thousands of vinyl, T-shirts and such. But when the time comes, the environmentally friendly and ethical options aren’t usually at the forefront of the options offered. I’d say this is mainly due to price. Using eco-friendly materials for clothing can be a bit more expensive, but the quality is better and the reduced impact on the  environment is worth it. If more artists went down this route, I’m sure the prices would decrease with the demand.”

Meredith-Lacey proved the viability of ethical merchandise with the campaign for his debut album, //Birthplace//. “If there’s going to be audience demand for me to create merchandise,” he says, “then I feel a responsibility to do it in the least wasteful, most environmentally responsible way possible. I do this – where I can – by using Fairtrade and organic cottons, water-based inks or salvaged  materials. My new record is pressed on recycled vinyl, which means the manufacturers sourced unused colour vinyl pellets to create new vinyl. This was actually the cheaper option. It meant that every piece of vinyl will be slightly different in colour, as all the pellets get mixed together to create the product. I love that it adds originality to the product – and it’s something that more artists could easily be doing.”

Strong sales with socially aware music merch

Another artist enjoying strong sales with socially aware merchandise is Lucy Rose, who has previously offered jam made using food waste and tours with her own chocolate. “Everything with the chocolate is sourced ethically and handmade and wrapped,” she says, “so it’s time-consuming, which puts the price up. But it’s important to sell great products, as they represent me in what I’m trying to do, which is make the best music that I possibly can. Paying a little more for a much better product is always the best route, in my opinion.”

With a little imagination, adds Aaron With of Chicago power trio Volcano!, ethics don’t have to cost the earth. “The first time we made band shirts, we didn’t want to buy sweatshop T’s, but we also didn’t have money to buy union and didn’t know if we could sell shirts for $15 to make that make sense. So we went to a bunch of thrift markets and grabbed around 100 shirts for $0.50 to $2. We’d pick the ugliest ones we could find. They’d have community charity run designs, old sports team logos, 80s bands logos and classic thrift stains. A great artist named Oli Watt designed us a silkscreen, and we printed directly on top of whatever logo it already had, often clashing in ugly and indecipherable ways, but occasionally creating an interesting or funny combination. Except for the most unsalvageable ones, they sold out fast – maybe because we sold them for $5.”

How to avoid over-ordering your merch

With the product decided, the challenge shifts to production. Using a local company will reduce the shipping costs and carbon footprint, and you may be able to negotiate better prices using the prospect of repeat business as leverage. Ordering in bulk will also cut costs, but keep your figures realistic, basing your projected merch pricing on that

of other bands at your level, and gauging demand based on gig attendance and social media interest. “Don’t order too much,” warns Hutchinson. “I know bands who have wasted thousands of pounds on koozies and drum skins. Most of it is still in boxes in their garage. I asked my followers on social media what they would most likely buy, then I produced merch based on that.”

“The most important thing is not to over-order,” stresses Badiali, “especially if designs are time-limited. Excess merch is a waste of money and resources. Some merchandise companies offer print-on-demand services, which is less useful for touring merch, but

very useful for your online store.”

Online opportunities for marketing your merch

Likewise, it pays to think of the Internet as a shop-front that never closes, and to use your social platforms to funnel fans towards an intuitive merch page on your website. “Artists sell merchandise via websites and artist profile pages on sites like Bandcamp and Big Cartel,” says MU Live Performance Official, Kelly Wood. “But crowdfunding platforms have really opened up opportunities for artists to appeal to their fanbase to buy weird and wonderful things, often on the back of a forthcoming album. However, most artists report the majority of their merch is sold at gigs, where fans are excited about the performance and able to get items signed.”

Merchandising commission: remember the venues will want their cut

It is important, however, to be clear upfront about the cuts that will be taken by the venue and the services they will offer in return. “Larger venues almost always charge a commission and 20-25% is fairly standard these days,” continues Kelly. “In some scenarios this seems disproportionately high, but this generally includes staffing. Most small venues don’t take a commission, as they understand that the profit margins can be tight and that artists need to supplement their gig earnings in this way. Venue owners possibly also appreciate that a merch table, particularly when operated by the artists themselves, can keep an audience in a venue buying drinks.”

Always carry cash and a card machine

Also give some thought to payment facilities. The cash float still has a place, but you’ll also need to cater for the punters with cards and smartphones. “Have a contactless credit/debit card machine and an Apple Pay reader,” Arcari notes. Unfortunately, these only work

in the country where your bank account is based, but outside the UK I get round that by getting folks to PayPal a payment to my PayPal email address via their phone.”

Strategy and technology certainly help, but there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned retail smarts. “Make sure the merch table is well-sited and someone is in attendance as soon as the doors open,” says Arcari. “Have merch available for folks to pick up and look at, with clothing on hangers and good lighting. We carry a black cloth to cover the merch table. I see a lot of artists with everything in a small case and while it’s convenient, I don’t think it shows the merch off in the best light.”

Promote your merchandise from the stage

Above all, remember that every band member should combine their musical responsibilities with their role as a salesperson. Don’t be shy about mentioning your merch from the stage, and make your presence known at the merch table, as this personal touch will attract punters for a chat – and perhaps a purchase. “As the artist, make sure you make the effort to get out to the merch desk and meet the fans,” says the acclaimed roots-rocker Rosco Levee. “It gives fans that interaction they crave, helps you seem more human, and gives them a feeling that you made the effort. People remember these things…”

Check all merch deals with the MU

If all goes to plan and your live profile reaches the next level, be ready for the attentions of a professional merchandising company and the contract that allows them to licence your merchandising. The golden rule here is to negotiate a short-term deal (allowing for renegotiation as your career progresses) with clear royalty terms and payments made as early as possible. But don’t forget that your MU Regional Office can enlist a specialist solicitor to examine and amend the small print. “When a merchandising deal is offered to an artist,” says Kelly, “we’d recommend that they bring it to us prior to signing, so that we can get our lawyers to review it.”