By Robal Johnson of PUMP Merch.
In the last ten years we have experienced the simultaneously terrifying and invigorating evolution of recorded music and collectively bore witness to the ups and downs of technological progress and innovation. The entire major and independent music establishment has struggled to find new ways to make an honest living in this ever-changing market. Yes, it has been scary at times, but the impassioned and determined among us will never be deterred because this music game isn’t a phase, it’s a way of life.
While many focus on the negative – i.e. the consolidation of major corporations gobbling up the little man – I like to highlight the opposing side: a growing middle class of industry professionals offering quality goods and services at an affordable price. There are boutique PR firms, media companies, management groups, and independent record labels popping up across the globe. From the ashes, we are seeing a rebirth of a music business run not by boardrooms and shareholders, but by music lovers, artists, freaks, and outcasts because we all know that in order for this industry to evolve and succeed, music must once again be the driving force.
In the steady decline of physical and digital record sales, I saw an opportunity to make a career shift. And so should every artist out there. I started PUMP Merchandising as a vehicle to help young acts learn to support themselves. I view merch like an old school A&R or record label president, investing in smaller acts and making up those losses as my roster grows. I want to instruct acts in ways their fans can support them without begging friends and family for donations or reprimanding potential customers for file sharing. Most importantly, I want to teach musicians to efficiently market their brand and monetize their band.
In my opinion, physical albums have become another form of merch. We are living in the digital age and there is no going back. If people won’t buy your record, offer it digitally along with a t-shirt. You’re still selling your music, but the tangible product has simply changed form. Let me repeat that: you are still selling your music, but the tangible product has simply changed form. If this transaction is handled correctly, you can make just as much money - quite possibly a whole lot more - than you would have with a physical record. And you can do it on your own, oftentimes without a label.
Take it from my friend, Chachi Riot, drummer for rock band Pop Evil, “In today's ever-changing music industry, it seems like it's more and more difficult for musicians to reach the financial pinnacles set from past musicians. Rock music has been all but exiled from top 40 play, limiting musicians like myself to a much smaller, less powerful group of stations. Less stations means less reaching power - less audience - less tickets - less money. These hurdles, combined with the struggle of illegal downloads and the struggle of LP sales leave touring musicians with fewer options. This is where merch comes in.”
Every October I wander the streets of New York City during CMJ and each spring I travel to SXSW in Austin, TX along with thousands of other industry professionals and artists. In recent years the same topic of conversation comes up wherever I go: Merchandise sales have become the most important revenue stream in the business. It fills the gas tank and puts food in bellies. T-Shirt sales can be the difference between sleeping in the van and getting a motel room for the night. If you’re a full-time musician, merch pays the rent and keeps the lights on. I know this not just from listening, but because I have managed acts and I have toured the country with bands.
Where to begin? Start small, be patient, and analyze your early merchandise investments. Have an artist friend design your logo: pay them in drinks and guestlist spots. Be conscious of your audience: determine what apparel and accessories are trendy. Understand the demographic: ask how they consume and share music, which can easily be done via social networking. Acknowledge your environment: if its hot, tank tops and ballcaps are essential; if it’s cold, hoodies and beanies are a must. At first, focus on selling more for less: keep designs to 1-3 colors, buy the inexpensive option, and charge fans as little as possible. Remember, you can always upgrade later.
Don’t be afraid to be aggressive. You’re not bothering anybody at the show. I guarantee most of the people there will be excited to meet you and honored you came up to talk to them. They know you’re just doing your job and they actually want to talk to you. I have approached the bar in a small town in Mississippi and sold $10 T-Shirts. I have wandered a club in Nashville asking folks if they’d like to buy $5 CDs. Merch is a souvenir purchased to commemorate a notable experience. Every music fan enjoys the pride that comes with seeing an act “back in the day” and you need to offer them something to take home that night.
Once you have decided on the right products to sell on tour, your next focus should be on convenience. If you do not accept credit cards while on the road, you are leaving countless dollars on the table. Just ask Laura Keating, Melissa Garcia, and Emily White of Whitesmith Entertainment and Readymade Records: “We have been taking credit card payments in some form or another since 2005 and it always doubles our sales at the merch table.” Now THAT should motivate the hell out of all of you.
Companies like Square and PayPal Here have made it extremely simple for you to accept all major credit cards as long as you have a smartphone or tablet. If you have not already, stop reading this right now and order one of the FREE card readers from either of those companies immediately. It will take you a few short minutes and the results are literally priceless. I can not stress the importance of this enough. In this day and age, you MUST accept credit cards. You will not only sell your merch to more people, you will sell even more items.
And because Hypebot is a global newsletter, it is important to note where these services are available outside of North America. At this time Square is only offered in the United States, Canada, and Japan. PayPal Here is available in the US, Japan, Hong Kong, and Australia. For acts touring the United Kingdom and Europe, Team Whitesmith/Readymade suggests using iZettle for your credit card processing needs. iZettle is now live in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, the UK, Germany, Spain, and Mexico.
Third on your to-do list while gearing up for tour should be organization and accounting for your merchandise while on the road. For decades this was done by either the merch guy or the tour manager in a looseleaf notebook with pencils and a whole lot of mistakes. Then came Microsoft Excel, which we ALL love to hate. But I have seen the future of tour merchandising and it comes to us via Orange County, California in an app called atVenu. These guys are changing the game and every single touring artist needs to take note.
I spoke with co-founder of atVenu, Ben Brannen, and he shared his story of what drove him and his partners to create the service. “While on the road, I experienced first hand the inefficiencies of existing methods by which we track and settle our touring merch. Too much money is lost due to inventory issues, poor nightly settlements, limited analysis, or one broken cell in an Excel sheet. atVenu solves these problems by empowering merch reps with a mobile app designed for their needs which syncs to the artist's web-based account where merch company and management can login and easily access a robust suite of real time analytics and reports.”
This is a game-changer for many reasons, but most importantly it is something that will save artists time and money on the road. As a merch rep myself, I can attest to the great many headaches that go along with inventory, accounting, and restocking of products while a band is touring. It is all about organization and communication. With a system in place that knows when you’re getting low on the green v-necks in small and medium and your merch guy gets a notification, imagine how much money you’ll save on those rushed deliveries from halfway across the country that will hopefully make it to the venue on time. Envision how much easier it will be to do reorders for the next tour because you know exactly what you sold, when, and where.
My buddy Randy Nichols of Force Media Management, who represents The Almost and Bayside, among others, also works as Strategic Music Industry & Product Advisor with atVenu. He sums up the app perfectly, “A tool like atVenu shows me real time forecasting data for my tour so I can both improve my profit margins and be sure to maintain a healthy stock of my in demand items. This can easily mean the difference between 10 boxes of merch in the drummers garage at the end of the tour vs an extra $10,000 in profit.”
These are three simple, yet efficient steps in improving your career through printed merchandise and promotional products. The bottom line is that you need to trust your merch guy and make him or her an integral part of your team. You also need to prioritize and learn how to monetize. I hope this piece has helped give you some tips for a successful merch operation. I also hope that it has inspired you to get creative with your merch.
This is a new day and merch aint just t-shirts any more. You say you are broke and I say that I can help. Start small and build up your brand. You are never going to make a living without giving people a tangible reason to support you. If a band does their job, makes great music, and markets their products creatively, accessibly, and efficiently, there is no reason they can’t start making money. Hell, eventually, some of you may even earn a good living!