By: Amanda Epstein
Going to a concert, you expect certain things. Lots of people, loud music, a certain vibe, sometimes alcohol. There is something else tucked into a corner that people may overlook. Something that is important to the life, and livelihood, of a musician. The merchandise stand.
As a concert goer, many people do not think about the business side of the live events. Sure, the performers make a portion of the ticket sales and some venues may even give them a percentage of alcohol sales. While this is a source of income, the percentage the artist gets is very small. Some venues use guarantees to pay their artists, rather than a percentage of sales. On average, without a guarantee, the artist gets 45-90% of the ticket sales. From that, they have to pay their teams, along with food and travel expenses. The profit from merchandise sales is where the majority of their profit comes from.
Some artists man their own booths and are very hands on with it, while others hire people to be there and sell the products for them. They both have their pros and cons.
Being at their own merch shop can be huge for artists when it comes to networking and interacting with fans. Independent artists and the smaller acts will use this opportunity to meet their fans, autograph purchases, and take pictures. When standing at the table with the artists, concert goers are more likely to buy more memorabilia than if they were to just be at the table. The ability to have their purchases autographed, ask questions, take selfies, all increases the likelihood that fans will purchase merchandise. Being able to meet the performers and have those interactions will only make the memories of the event that much more special and meaningful.
Larger artists may not have the time and ability to do it for themselves. The larger the artist, the larger the crowd and following. Can you imagine Pat Benatar or Jimi Hendrix standing at a folding table with merch? They would never get to leave and have an end to their night. The mobs would be never-ending. They lose out on having one-on-one time with fans. Fans of larger artists like that, though, usually go to the shows with the intention of buying something. There is always someone there to man the booth, though. This person can be a friend or someone hired specifically for that reason. Some bands, like Delta Rae, have fans behind the table to run the shop at each tour stop.
The staple item that is present at just about every artist’s merch table is the classic t-shirt. Many different, and creative, things can be done with a simple shirt. Tour shirts have the dates and locations somewhere on the shirt. Usually they are listed on the backs, but some musicians have opted to put them in more unusual places, such as the sleeves. The other thing that will be at most, if not every, table is the music. This could be presented in many ways. Patrons could have access to download cards, CDs, vinyl records, thumb drives, among other options.
Some artists are taking the standard items and kicking them up a notch. They are getting creative in the things they offer. From puzzles and pop sockets, to hats and beach balls. New and innovative items will keep fan engagement higher. Guitar pics are something that can be used by the fans or worn as jewelry. One of a kind items draw in the people who are not usually merch buyers. T-shirts with creative designs, such as Alestorm’s Darth Vader design, can make the viewer look twice. Sometimes the artist can go completely outside the norm; such as the tarot cards from Delta Rae.
A recent poll showed that more than 60% of people wanted t-shirts when they go to concerts. A current increasing trend is the collection of stickers. About 15% of responders look for something unique and different at the merch booths. Posters, hats, keychains, and hoodies were among the other items on people’s wishlists.
Being able to sell merchandise beyond live shows has become another vital part of their business. There are a few ways to be able to offer products to fans outside of attending live shows. Artists often have a store on their websites for people to visit. Non-tour shirts, as well as other items, are available directly from the musician's webpage.
With the lack of live music and touring right now, artists are relying heavily on their merchandise sales to bring them income. Many are offering stores on their own websites and sharing things via social media to increase awareness and traffic. At a live show the artist can pitch their merch to the entire venue, much like a captive audience. They now have to compete with many other things for people's attention and money. That $25 t-shirt may not seem like a lot, but to an artist, it can mean the difference between making money and losing money.
There is a limit to the amount of things that can logistically be offered on the websites, though. Whether it be shipping, storage, or availability, there are barriers that are hard to overcome. Thanks to technology, there are new ways to sell more merchandise online. Websites like RedBubble and Store Frontier take the pictures uploaded by an artist, create the products, and sell it for them. The uploaded images can be put on many things, and allow fans more flexibility. Some of the options include blankets, leggings, shower curtains, stickers, and technology accessories. These are great options for the performers because they get a percentage of the sale without having to store the merch and drag it with them.
I reached out to a few independent artists to get their view on the sale of merch. Here is what they had to say:
"Merchandise sales are fun. I feel so good when I sell something that I've created and/or made to one of my music believers. We both help each other out this way. Plus, this extra little income during the pandemic has saved me at times!" ~ Carrie Welling
"In this digital era, music can be easily accessed online for free leaving us musicians with very little income accruing from our songs. You can't, however, download or stream physical items like T-shirts or other merch, so we are in control of the value of each and every product and more easily able to turn a good profit. Plus, fans get to take home physical reminders of the bands they love." ~ Tia Mayhem, Bassist of Stormstress
"Over the last twenty years or so, physical CD sales have plummeted to an all time low, and the artist’s main source of income started to shift from physical music sales to live concerts and merchandise sales. Now, with the coronavirus, live concerts aren’t occurring anymore, so merchandise is more important to a musical artist than ever before in modern history. Please support artists in any way that you can!” ~ Melody Kiser, HeyDreamer
"As an opening act, you generally make more from merch than you do from your actual performance fee. Live show merch sales is a massive part of a touring artist's income" ~ Raye Zaragoza
"Merchandise is the bulk of my income, and it's been the lifeblood of my career for 15 years now. I'm constantly cycling in new designs and new merchandise, and at a minimum my merchandise table has five or six t-shirt designs on display at a time. I offer jewelry, an organic signature blend of coffee beans, and other miscellaneous items. For the serious, full-time touring musician it's 'go big or go home' with merchandise!" ~ Sarah Peacock
“So merch sales have been around at concerts for a long time. And most times people think it’s just for the artists to earn a few extra bucks, and in the past that was true, but nowadays it’s actually where the majority of our money comes from. Without merch sales there is no way to record, there is no way to buy new equipment for shows when you’ve blown your amp up (which has happened) from rocking too hard for a crowd’s entertainment. There is no way for us to give our art to the people. If people haven’t noticed most things keeping them sane during these crazy times are art and music. Nothing brings people together like the two. So to be able to share a song, share a t-shirt, share whatever with the people not only helps our merch sales, but everyone’s sanity and sense of togetherness as well.” ~ Alex D’Amico, Lead singer of X’ella