Ah the merch stand, where the band desperately hopes to move at least a few bucks worth of product in order to be able to afford getting to their next tour stop. In a world where so many of us are struggling to buy gas to get from venue to venue it’s a hard thing to get people to come to your merch stand – especially in economically disadvantaged areas or places where fans don’t really want to spend that much on music. Yet – I have seen bands who are good at merchandising to move up to double their guarantee worth in merchandise. How do they do it? By having a variety of products available, with both loss leaders as well as products that make your band a lifestyle.
Loss leaders in the music industry are fairy easy to come across – even at the merch stand where traditionally margins are highest for the band. On that comes to mind right away is patches – an item that are notoriously high priced wholesale but that you can rarely charge too much for. That being said – they make for an effective advertisement that your fans will use every day. Other loss leaders that it might be worth investing in are obvious, like free stickers or buttons. As a general rule your loss leaders should be things that will really help to get the band name out there – anything that bears your logo and can be easily disseminated or put in easily accessible places is going to be worth it.
One might even argue that CD’s are an effective loss leader – I think that this kind of depends on the band though. If you’re selling CD’s at five bucks a pop then your fans are going to be much more likely to want to buy an extra one to share with a friend. The counterargument to this is that I have seen some bands make serious change on CD’s. It really depends on what your fans want and the kind of purchasing power you think they have. The best compromise might be to heavily discount your back catalog (Or even include it for free with a purchase of your latest record) in order to entice people to come to your merch stand and at least pick up something.
The real money though is in lifestyle products. I’ve seen some bands, like Yob, pick up huge margins on custom pedals, whereas others sell unique merchandise. For example my clients in Mongolian metal band Tengger Cavalry have tendency to make an absolute killing on custom bracelets and other products made out of Tibetan silver. In France, where smoking is much more prevalent than it is here in the States many bands make a pretty penny selling custom lighters. Womens underwear is another product that I have seen do well across a variety of markets. With all of these products though you need to be careful how they present your band though and make sure they fit into the narrative you are trying to create.
As with anything in the music industry you should be using your merchandise to help cultivate the story of your band and so the products you sell should help reflect that. That’s why stoner metal bands take the time and effort to sell their own bongs – it’s a type of merchandise that is funny to have on your table but also that helps to establish who you are. That’s part of why bands who offer music lessons on the road tend to do so well – it provides a source of revenue but also establishes who the musicians are, approachable dudes who know a lot about music.
Part of why having a lot of these products on your table is important is not so much that they sell but rather that they get the fans interacting with your merch booth. For example – a band who sells a bong probably isn’t going to sell that many on a tour, but they will probably get a few dozen fans a night coming over to the booth just to check it out – and if the merch guy is any good at their job then they will be able to turn that initial interaction into a sale of a smaller ticket item. Stuff like that also gets fans talking – maybe they, nor any of their friends are going to buy that bong but they sure as hell will bring it up next time they are talking about music with their buddies in their favorite bar and as well all know – in the social networking generation word of mouth is crucial.
Simply put – Merch is important because it can be a very organic way to develop a physical interest in your marketing campaign – something that we don’t get nearly enough of in this day and age. It helps to establish who you are and what your band stands for and provides an effective step forward in this industry. Merchandise should be a consistent and reliable source of income for your band and you should do your best to cultivate it no matter what. Don’t just cultivate it though – make sure it is contributing to the larger narrative and that way you will be able to help bring your entire band, and brand along for the ride.