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“How do you make money from music?”
Ask most gigging musicians this question these days, and they’ll probably give you the same answer – “tour, tour, and tour again”. What they’ll no doubt neglect to mention is that, while on tour, you need to be selling a boatload of merch if you want to see a return.
For young bands, the amount of merchandise sold at a gig can make the difference between breaking even and turning a profit. In my experience, this is as true at a local level as it is on the touring circuit.
Merchandise can be a nice earner for your band. But, it has to be done right. Unfortunately, there are many groups out there who fall at the first hurdle when it comes to merch, putting out poor quality, badly priced, and uninspired products that end up doing more harm to their brand than good.
Whether you’re thinking about investing in some merch, but don’t know where to start, or you have merch, but aren’t sure why it isn’t selling, check out my top five tips for maximizing your merchandise sales.
1. Make Sure You Have Merchandise from Day One
There seems to be a pervading myth that bands aren’t supposed to have merchandise until they’re ‘established,’ That is to say, you should work on building up a fan base before you try and sell people anything. I’ve always found this approach bizarre. In fact, I’d argue that having merchandise is a hugely useful tool for getting people to be fans of your band.
There are two strands to my train of thought here. The first is that always having merchandise available is a good habit to get into. When you’re starting out, merch sales won’t matter that much to you. But once you start touring, how many t-shirts and CDs you sell will have a major impact on how well your tour does for you financially. Get in the habit of selling merchandise now, and it’ll come a lot easier to you when it really matters.
Secondly, having merchandise from the get-go makes you look way more professional than the average band on your local scene. Even if you’re just selling some stickers, badges, and demos, it shows that you’ve got your shit together and that your band could be going places. People like to back a winner, and having merchandise on sale from your first gig shows that you mean business.
2. Go for Quality
It’s one thing to have merchandise, it’s another thing to have merchandise that doesn’t look like crap. If you want to maintain a professional appearance and, y’know, actually get people to buy your stuff, you need to get your merch done properly.
Bands often balk at this idea because it requires an initial financial outlay. But, as they say in business: you’ve got to spend money to make money. A factory pressed CD with professionally printed, full color artwork is always going to be much more appealing to your fans than a CD-R in a Xerox’d sleeve with your band’s name scrawled across it in Sharpie.
Fortunately, there are loads of great websites out there that offer good deals on CD replication, stickers, and badge production and t-shirt printing, so you don’t need to break the bank to have a quality product. And, provided you follow my next tip, you’ll make a return on your initial investment much sooner than you’d think.
3. Don’t Undercharge
Undercharging for merchandise is an easy trap for bands to fall into. For some reason, there are many people seem to believe that charging lower than the average for their CD or t-shirt will make more people want to buy them.
Sure, people like to get a good deal. But when you’re selling your band’s full-length album for under $5, the message you’re sending is that your product isn’t very good and not worth paying for. It suggests that you don’t have much confidence in your music, and it actually puts people off buying it.
As an example, a few years ago, a friend of mine was on tour with a band that was selling their t-shirts for $10. While they thought that they were giving their fans a good deal, they found that they’d shifted few units by the end of the tour. As an experiment, they doubled the price to $20 at their final show. The result? They ended up moving double what they had sold all tour at that one gig.
The lesson to take from this is that people don’t mind paying for a quality product, which brings me on to my next point…
4. Make it Interesting
If you want people to buy your merchandise, then it needs to stand out from the crowd. To put it another way: no one will buy your t-shirt if you’ve just slapped your band logo on it!
The bands that do the best from merchandise sales are the bands that make their merchandise interesting. They utilize cool designs, unique packaging, and generally create products that look better than what other bands are offering. As was astutely pointed out to me recently, these are products that look so good that you’d still buy them even if they weren’t affiliated with the band.
If you’re not a design-minded person, then you may need to collaborate with an artist or graphic designer to achieve this. Again, this is an expense, but one that will pay off in dividends. It can also lead to a great relationship with an artist who comes to form look of your brand. Think Derek Riggs and Iron Maiden, or Roger Dean and Yes. Merchandise sales may be your lifeline while on the road, so make sure your stuff is as appealing as possible.
5. Think Outside of the Box
Of course, another way to stand out from the crowd in terms of merchandise is to produce items that no one else is making. T-shirts, CDs, badges, patches, and stickers will always form the core of your swag, but there are plenty of other options out there if you want to take a different approach. I’ve seen a weird and wonderful range of unusual band merchandise over the years – from tie-in graphic novels to branded condoms; beachwear to signature bourbon. And, from my experience, the uniqueness and scarcity of these items means that they tend to sell well.
If you’re thinking about going down the unusual merchandise route, you need to ask yourself two questions. First, “Is producing this item cost effective?” And second, “Does this item fit in with my band’s ethos and music?” If the answer to both is “yes” then you’re probably on to a winner.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alec Plowman is a SplashFlood contributing writer. He is writing a PhD thesis on liveness in rock music at the University of East Anglia. He is also a freelance media journalist and the frontman of Norwich-based hard rock band Monster City. For more info, visit http://www.splashflood.com