Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

How & Why To Love Your Merchandise (after all, one day it may be taking care of you!)

Written by Joe MIchelini, singer and guitarist for River City Extension, an 8 piece touring band from Toms River, NJ. When not on tour he is guest blogging for

Ok, merch is pretty weird. We all know it.

A few years ago, myself and the band were at a music conference in Delaware. It's set up like this- during the day, you and a bunch of other bands drink and eat free food and walk around and listen to speakers from Sony or whoever get together and talk about the bands they like, selling merch, records, whatever; there's a panel for pretty much everything. In the evening, all of the bands play shows within a block or two radius of the panels, and the "panelists" walk around and watch the bands, secretly critique, etc. It's open to the public in the evening so you never know who is in the crowd that's watching you play.

One of the mornings we went to a panel put together to educate bands on how to sell merch and what merch to sell at what show. For the sake of this blog post, we'll be referring to the panelists as "suits." This will be funny later, only because I'm going to tell you not to listen to them, and everyone likes sticking it to the man. OK- anyway, at one point some suit (:-D) is talking about selling t-shirts, and she says "if you don't have t-shirts at a show, it's like the show didn't even happen."

This is not the case (at least, it's not the case all of the time).

It breaks down like this: there are only certain types of shows where a fan is going to walk in and NEED to leave with a t-shirt. Examples include (without breaking any one individuals balls) The Warped Tour, DIY gigs where the audience will be looking for some way to support the band, and then it's pretty much a genre vs. genre thing that I'm not going to get into. The point is, you don't need t-shirts. The show certainly still happened without them. Ok then, what is this whole thing about? Why print merchandise? Well, the answer is I don't have the answer, no one does. I just have a perspective. Perspectives are your friend, get as many of those babies as possible. That's more important than any one thing anyone says to you (including what you are about to read).

So why print merchandise? Well, why are you in a band?

To offer you one perspective, I'm going to have to assume a few things about the reader. The first thing I'm going to assume is that you're in a band because you love music, and you are a creative individual. You're not interested in the whole "corporate world," you'd rather "just rock." Fair enough.

But you need merch for two reasons:

1. You want people to be able to walk away with something. A live show is great, and if they go home and download your record on iTunes, that's great too. These things are maybe the MOST important things, BUT- you still want your fans to be able to hold onto something, or rep the band in one way or another if they want to.

2. You're broke. Remember that. Everything in the music industry works as a recoupable (this is basically a loan without interest). Labels give you money to make your record, and then you "recoup" these costs through record sales. When you sell a $10 record, better believe the team that made it possible is getting a cut. Unless you get wrapped up in what's a called a 360 deal, your label will more than likely not be taking a cut of anything but CDs. Vinyl, CDs, or any other medium you are using to sell your music is typically referred to as "hard merchandise." The rest of it- shirts, hoodies, and anything else you might be selling is commonly referred to as, you guessed it, "soft merchandise." Soft merchandise is where you make your money, because it's all yours. You buy it from a merch company like, say, and then you sell it for a slightly marked up price at your merch table, and reinvest the profit in fixing the van, buying more merch, or whatever you might need it for.

Ok, well what kind of merch do you print?

This is cool, and you might not realize it now, but it's a chance for you to really describe yourself and make an impact creatively on your fan base. If you make music, you already know that your records and live show are the focus of your creative efforts, but what happens off the stage? What happens when the headliner goes on? What happens when the venue closes, the potential "fan" goes home, and doesn't remember your band name? What happens if they show up to the merch table, and your merch looks exactly the same as the band you're opening for?

Well I'm sure glad that you asked!

This is where creative merchandising comes in. Not only do you want your merch to be different than the next guys, but you want to make the best effort you can to represent your band in a way that others enjoy and is visually pleasing to them. This means you need to do more than just slap your logo on a t-shirt and sell it for $15. Sure, some people (your friends, family, some supporters) will buy these things no matter what, but that's not very exciting. You're in a band, you guys are good, you deserve to be playing MSG and selling hundreds of thousands of records, right? Because you're one of a kind, and you want this to be reflected in your merchandise. Fans of your band will be looking for something new, new fans will be looking for something exciting, and late-comers will briefly be checking out your merch table in an effort to get a feel for a band they have never seen or heard, so you want this to be good. Luckily, due to recents advancements in the world of FuTuRe MeRcH, it's way easier to get what's in your head into production than it has ever been in the past.

Without getting into it too much, you need to explore your options. If you're a new band, keep your costs down. Print something that you can give away for free. Not only that, but one of the best things you can do is print practical merch. Both of these ideals come together with something like guitar picks. Didn't know you could print your band name or logo on guitar picks? Well, you can, and it's cheap. You can eat the cost on something like that, and still get the word out about your band. Stickers are the same way. Have them at the merch table, and don't be afraid to apply them yourself! Even if you're not selling them, they're small, easy, and affordable. Please don't use your own guitar picks dude.

If you have a little more money, keep in mind that you can screen print on pretty much any piece of fabric. Are your fans "real punk rockers?" Well don't stop with boring old patches, get them printed and self apply them to some cheap flasks (that you ordered in bulk online). Bored with a poster? Get your logo printed on a flag, and tell your fans to hang it up their bed room, basement, rehearsal space or wherever. The point is not to do these things exactly, but just do something that no one else is doing. Make something your fans are excited about. Make something your fans are going to use after the show.

Your merch is a reminder, so why not make it a practical reminder? It's a placeholder in peoples minds. Your name, your sound, your image, are all going home to seamlessly integrate into someone's t-shirt collection, hang on someone's wall, or sit in someone's cabinet (pint glasses are sweet & affordable!).

The old stand by's are NOT bad. T-shirts sell, hoodies sell, posters sell, this is true. Be conscious of your artwork though, and your approach. Even though the band is on your mind 24 hours a day, for the folks in St. Louis, it's on their minds for 30 minutes every six months when you come to open for the band that they are actually there to see. Git it?

Yer merch is yer face, man. Take it srsly, srsly. It will keep you afloat.



Written by Joe MIchelini, singer and guitarist for River City Extension, an 8 piece touring band from Toms River, NJ. When not on tour he is guest blogging for