Sometimes, you won’t make any money from your performance. Lots of venues have overhead that they take out of your ticket sales. Sometimes, you’ll hit a city where you just don’t have a big enough draw, or sales at the bar were slim. No big deal, because you sold loads of CDs and t-shirts, right? …Right?
Merch is important. Merch is how you can afford a low-cut night, and it puts you over the top on a night with a great turnout. It gives you an opportunity to connect with your fans after the show when they come to the table looking for something to take home with them. Making and selling merch can be a lot of fun for that reason. It’s another way of giving your fans what they want.
I know there are plenty of groups out there that never get around to making merchandise, but these aren’t the same bands I see grinding it out on the road. Still others limit themselves to CD sales, which is great until you start running into crowds of people who don’t even have CD players anymore. (I make that observation from personal experience. I once performed for a crowd of about 50 high school kids, and at least a half dozen told me they don’t have a way to play CDs.) That lost revenue is no fun.
Merchandise has really pulled its weight for us. We’ve been so successful selling CDs and shirts that we’ve had to re-supply on a bunch of these items on the road. This is good and bad – our tour was so long that we just didn’t properly anticipate how much inventory we’d need, which is a good sign that you’re doing something right; but, had we ordered more items the first time around, we would’ve saved a lot of money on shipping and bulk discounts.
Figure out what merchandise best suits your brand. You might have an audience that’s really into the bar scene, which means custom beer koozies, coasters, or shot glasses might be big-ticket items for you. Maybe you play with a lot of college students, so custom notebooks and pens could be a great investment. Go through a website that sells custom merchandise and get an idea of the kinds of items that are cheap to customize and match up with your envisioned audience.
But I’m way too broke to buy merchandise! Then you’re probably too broke to go on tour. You need to prove that you can successfully sling rad material in your local market waaaaay before you hit the road.
Even so, there are lots of merch ideas that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. When we first got started performing and selling merch, we didn’t have CDs yet, but we made a killing on other cool stuff in the meantime! Here’s my list of cheap-o options.
- Stickers. Stickers are super cheap to get in bulk, especially if they’re one-color. I like to use Stickermule but there are lots of options out there. If you get 200 4”x2” rectangular stickers for $100 and sell them for $2 each, you’ve made a $300 profit.
- Buttons. Again, buttons are another item that is great in bulk and likes to fly off the table. You can get 200 1.25” buttons for $65 at Stickermule, making them 32 cents apiece. Sell those guys for $1 each and you’ve made a profit of $136 bucks.
- Keychains. Specifically, bottle-opener keychains have seen some success with bands playing a lot of bar gigs. At Discountmugs, you can get 100 for $1.28 each, and you could probably sell them for $3 – $5.
- Download Cards. The company that distributes your music will usually offer these at a discounted rate. If you don’t have a distributor, you can get custom download cards from places like Dropcards for less than 50 cents each. Offer your album for $5 on a download card and it’s easy to sell your music even if your fans don’t buy CDs anymore.
Every band should try to have these common staples you see at shows. There are plenty of tried-and-true merchandise ideas out there, but our absolute best sellers are always tee shirts and CDs. These items both have the highest upfront cost, however, so ordering smart is essential.
When ordering shirts, knowing your primary fan base is vital. I could do a whole blog on tee shirts alone, but I’ll try and keep this somewhat concise. When we first started printing shirts, I thought it was really important that we have both men’s and women’s tee shirts on hand. Although I got a lot of positive feedback from women about our lady’s tee shirts online, our sales on those items were pretty stagnant. Turns out, our biggest fan base for sales is men. We unloaded our men’s tee shirts so quickly we had to re-order, but our lady’s tees clung on forever. In fact, I still have some women’s shirts that I ordered two years ago. (Ladies, if you’re out there, please buy these. They’re on sale!)
Figure out the right sizing for your audience, too. When we first ordered tee shirts, we bought too many large shirts and not enough smalls. We added 2XL shirts to our inventory at one point and bought far too many of those, too.
One way to test out what people will buy is to set up pre-orders for certain designs of tee-shirts on your website and advertise pre-orders to your fans. If your audience is more grass-roots, you can even take pre-orders or polls for orders at shows. This should give you a good idea of what kind of inventory you’ll want on hand. Plus, it’ll get people hyped up about your new merch and help offset the upfront cost. Recently, Eric and I had a lot of success on pre-orders for this tee shirt, and we’ve made lots of online sales since we launched them once people who pre-ordered started posting pictures of them.
Get unisex shirts instead of men’s shirts. Unisex is generally somewhat fitted, which looks better on everyone. If you can afford it, get blended tees instead of 100% cotton – soft tee shirts sell much faster than rough ones.
Try and make your design as simple as possible. Full-color designs will cost a lot more to produce, and you can do a lot with 1-3 color designs. They also wear better, and for longer.
Get CDs but don’t jump the gun on vinyl. CDs are our best sellers, but they obviously have the greatest upfront cost if you include the entire process of tracking, mixing, mastering, artwork, printing, and marketing. That shouldn’t give you pause when making an album, though – people want to hear your music, and you should strive to get it to them. That doesn’t mean you have to carry big-ticket items like vinyl, though.
I know vinyl is super trendy right now, but let me explain. Minimum orders for vinyl run from 200 – 500 items, and the pricing is at least three times that of CDs. $4.60 is typically the minimum you’ll pay per unit when you order 300 copies of vinyl – that’s for black and white labels and a plain sleeve. You can sell vinyl for more than you’d sell CDs (and you’ll have to in order to make up for the price), but can you really move vinyl? Only your audience can determine that answer. If you have tons of fans begging for vinyl, it would be worth it to get it pressed. If you occasionally have someone here or there asking about it, I’d shy away from printing vinyl copies. Let the demand dictate your supply.
Keep good records of your inventory and take cards as a form of payment. It’s the future! That means everyone uses credit cards. Do yourself a favor and get connected via Squareup or some other card-reading service. They send you a card reader for free and offer you an account in which to track every sale.
It’s absolutely the best way to keep track of inventory, helps you figure out when you should be re-ordering items, and, more importantly, provides your audience another way to get ahold of your swag. There’s a small fee when you use a service like this for card transactions, but most audiences are totally fine paying that fee. Don’t limit your audience’s ability to give you money.
As an added bonus, sites like Squareup give you a free online store. Selling stuff online has been really helpful for us, and if you’re good at marketing your items from on the road, it’ll be good for you, too.
Stage your stuff in a cool way. I’ve seen lots of bands with vintage suitcases displaying their stuff. A simple card table with a cool tablecloth and a lamp works just as well, even if it’s not quite as compact. Make sure you have lights on your swag for all those dark rooms you’ll be playing in, too. We run around with a big modified steamer trunk that draws a lot of attention to itself.
Talk about your merch from the stage. Make sure you tell your audience that you’ve got lots of rad merchandise for sale, and point to it from the audience so they know where it is. Do this MANY times throughout the show. We’ve had people approach us after announcing that we have CDs for sale, and they still act surprised that we have CDs.
Bring a merch person to your shows if you can afford one. Have someone who is competent at handling your sales system in exchange for tickets and swag, or offer to pay them if you can. This way, you can send people to the merch booth while you’re still on stage and you won’t lose on sales when people have to leave before your set ends.
If you can’t afford a merch person, determine which band member will be in charge of selling merch after your set ends. That person should bounce off stage immediately and hit the table while the other band members tear down your set. Typically, the front man or woman should do this job because they’ve already created a repertoire with the audience, but you can all switch off throughout the tour as well.
Give people a reason to buy the bigger ticket items. “If you buy a CD and a tee shirt, you get a free button!” Encourage people to visit the merch table for selfies. Do your socializing with the audience from your merch table as frequently as you can.
Is there anything about merchandise you’d like me to elaborate on? I could probably do entire posts dedicated to each of these items, and I think I might go into detail about using Squareup and other card processing services down the road. Let me know your thoughts and ideas!