How to Double Your Gig Revenues by Selling Merch


By Tony van Veen
selling band merchandise
It's a long-established fact: it's easier (and more lucrative) to sell more to your existing customers than to find a new customer. Read any business book on marketing, attend any sales training seminar, and there is no shortage of expert advice on how to sell more to your existing customers. We artists have the bad habit of calling our fans, well, fans, and forgetting what they really are: our valued customers. And customers have this wonderful habit of buying our stuff.

In a career filled with unpaid gigs, gigs for beer money, and gigs for gas money, there is one sure way to make sure you walk away from every performance with cash in your pocket. It's called your merch table — and it's where you sell whatever you have to sell to your fans, ehh, customers. CDs, posters, stickers, buttons, and that most popular and best-selling item of them all, wearable merch. Everyone loves merch, don't they? Your customers love advertising how cool they are because they are wearing your cutting edge brand on their chest (or back, or sleeve, or head). And for you as an artist, what could be better than having someone pay you to advertise your brand?

Of all items artists can sell at their gigs, wearable merch such as T-shirts, baseball or trucker caps, hoodies, baby doll shirts, long sleeve T's, and skullies, sell better than anything else they can sell, even better than CDs. Why? Because your fans feel that your coolness rubs off on them when they wear garments with your name on them. They just become a smidge cooler than they were before as soon as they walk out their front door with your T-shirt on.

The appealing thing about merch is that you don't need any notoriety to start generating revenues. You don't need to be famous. You don't need to have 12 songs recorded (and released on CD). All you need is a desire to perform live, a few gigs booked (where else are you going to find customers?), and a cool design. Once you're performing live, people WILL buy your merch, so long as it's cool. Lame merch is a waste of money. You want your customers to covet the items you have for sale.

Ready to take the merch plunge? There are plenty of merch vendors out there, ranging from local silk screen printers to national companies (in fact, my company, Disc Makers, just introduced a complete range of custom printed merch for artists). There are some tricks to buying merch, so here are a few tips to make the buying experience a breeze:

How to buy merch without getting burned

1. Choosing your item(s)
Who are your fans and what do they wear? You'll definitely want standard T-shirts, which represents 80% of all merch sold. But feel free to add other garment items. Sometimes offering more unusual items will be more appealing to your fans. The greater the variety of Merch you have to sell, the greater your opportunity to generate real revenue. What's better than selling someone a T-shirt? Selling them a T-shirt AND a baseball cap!

2. Design
If you decide to design your Merch yourself, here's some advice: Keep it simple. That doesn't mean "uncool." It just means that intricate designs don't necessarily translate well to silkscreen printing. You want something eye-catching and memorable. Also keep in mind that silkscreening onto garments is not like printing on paper. The more simple and iconic the design, the easier it will translate to a T-shirt or hat. In addition, more simple designs tend to appeal to a larger, more varied audience base. Maximize your potential for Merch sales by offering a design that will appeal to the most people possible.

3. Choose ink color(s)
Choosing ink colors will be based on both your design and the color of the garment you are printing on. Unlike paper printing, it's usually not possible to do full color printing on your merch. Maybe that's why most classic and memorable T-shirts are one or two colors. If you are choosing multiple garment colors, make sure you take the extra time to ensure your ink colors will work well on ALL of the garment colors you choose. You don't want to end up picking a yellow ink and then specifying a yellow shirt.

Three things to know when deciding on ink colors: 1) For every color you choose, there's a screen that needs to be made. Your printer will charge you for that screen. More colors = more screens = higher costs. 2) Your printer will charge you per color. If you print 3 colors on a shirt, it'll cost you more per shirt than a one-color design. 3) And if you want to print a light color ink (say, yellow) on a dark garment (say, black), the printer will often need to first lay down a base of white (known as flashing) before they overprint the yellow. That means a second screen, and possibly a fee for a second color printing (1st color white, 2nd color yellow).

4. Choose design location(s)
On some garments you can print in multiple locations: front, back, and sleeves. While that can look really cool, I'll give you the same advice we've been giving you. Keep it simple: For every color and location you add, there will be an additional cost involved. Check with your printer.

5. Choose garment color(s)
While most printers will let you mix garment colors within the same order (i.e. you can select your 48-shirt order in smaller lots of black, white, red, and pink shirts), you need to keep the ink colors in mind. Red ink on a white shirt will work, and it may work on the black shirt (though white flashing may be required), but it probably won't work on your pink shirt, and definitely not on the red one. Again, simplicity rules. Start with one shirt color. Black is a good start, chosen by three quarters of all artists.

6. Choose sizes for each color
You can usually split your order into S, M, L, or XL for any garment at no additional charge. XXL and larger sizes usually cost more. Check with your printer.

These basic tips cover most of the merch buying decision points. Once you start contacting merch vendors there are other things to be aware of as well. Most will have design templates and recommended design software programs they'll want you to use. And there are many brands of shirts, ranging from cheap no-name brands (stay away from those) to premium (and costly) name brands like American Apparel. Usually a heavyweight 100% cotton shirt will do the trick.

How to sell the most Merch.
Once you've bought merch, you've got to maximize your sales. Fortunately, selling mucho merch is easy Just follow some of these common-sense tips to make the most of every selling opportunity.

1. When you're on stage, mention that you have cool merch for sale at the table in the back. And mention how much — or better said, how affordable it is ("Only $15."). Trust me, if you keep it a secret that you have merch for sale, you won't sell any.

2. Prominently display your Merch at a table in a high traffic area at your gigs. Close to the entrance or exit is often good. Or maybe even on the way to the rest rooms. You want to be in an area where lots of potential customers will see it, and then display your items attractively.

3. Keep prices reasonable — you're an independent artist, not a chart topper (yet) — and be sure to list those prices clearly on or next to the items you're selling.

4. Sell a range of garments: standard tees, baby dolls, long sleeve, hats. The more options you offer, the more customers you'll appeal to. And sell CDs too. Here's where the theory of "it's easier to sell more to existing customers than to find a new customer" becomes real. Make sure that the person working your merch table is a sales person, and actively tries to encourage customers looking at a CD to also take a look at a T-shirt.

5. Offer bundles: If you sell a CD for $12 and a shirt for $15, sell both for $25 (a $2 savings).

6. People love getting stuff for free. Offer something free with purchase — a poster, sticker, or maybe even a copy of an old CD whose sales have cooled off. Tell your audience that the first 50 people to buy a shirt get a free copy of your last CD. Or, tell them you'll be signing CDs at the table later. Anything to get folks to come to your merch table...

7. Accept credit cards. Our friends at CD Baby have an excellent program which allows you to get your very own credit card swiper, which you can take to your gigs and which will help you sell a LOT more Merch (www.cdbaby.net/swiper).

8. Play out a lot. The more gigs you play, the more Merch you'll sell. Just make sure you remind your audience every time that you have Merch to sell.

Disc Makers customer Scooter Scudieri shared with me some other cool tips about selling merch. Here's a few of them.

9. Make sure whoever is selling your merch is also wearing your merch. Nothing looks cooler than a roadie in full gear. Go as far as getting "crew" printed on the back for them — it will get them psyched and work hard for you.

10. Give your merch to whoever booked you into the club. Always cool when the owner is wearing your stuff the next time you come to perform. Same goes for DJs, program directors, and other industry folks you run into.

11. Have friends wearing your merch hang out in front of the venue before the show, and give a couple T-shirts to some attractive girls you meet at the venue. Nothing like creating a buzz before the show even begins, and having folks walk around the venue with your gear on.

12. Don't underestimate the power of friends and family. Spend the money and give away your merch as gifts for the holidays. They will wear your merch to the mall, soccer practice, in school- you get the idea.

13. You are in for the long haul (aren't you?). Give stuff away in the beginning — it will all come back in the end.

Selling merch is as close to a no-brainer as an artist can get, frequently leading to gig revenues more than doubling, merely by having apparel for sale. If you think you can't afford merch, think again. You can't afford not to have merch for sale at your next performance.



Tony van Veen is president of Disc Makers and a drummer. When he was performing and touring, his merch always outsold his albums by a large margin. He finally got the hint and took a day job at Disc Makers, where, after a 20-year career, he is proud to at last have introduced a full line of custom merch services for artists, available at www.discmakers.com/merch.

This article was reprinted with permission from Music Connection Magazine.


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