How to: Making money on tour with Merch

So you’re in a band, you’ve got songs, you’ve got your first few fans, you’ve got a show booked..what’s the next step? Merchandise! Every band needs it, most bands have it, but not everyone is good at it. Having great merch is one of the best money makers for artists, and hopefully these tips can help you make the right choices for merch.

A good design is key.

If you don’t have good designs, nobody is going to buy your merch. Your parents and best friends won’t have a problem buying a shirt with your name slapped across the chest, but your average fan won’t be interested. I’ll show you what I mean here:
Pretend your band is called Chain Lightning (I hit ‘random article’ on Wikipedia a few times and that was the coolest thing to come up). Here are some examples of what you don’t want your shirts to look like.
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Sure, these shirts have your name on them, and they’re going to be cheap to print, but it’s going to be hard to sell a shirt like this to somebody that just found out about your band at a show. Sure, the Red Hot Chili Peppers may have shirts that are that simple, but you’re not the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Instead, aim to have designs that are at least a little stylish.

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Both of those designs also don’t use tons of color, so they’ll be cheap to print, but there’s more to them than just your band’s name. I just threw those together in Photoshop as examples, so you’ll get the idea.

If nobody in your band knows graphic design, don’t be afraid to pay a designer. Trust me, it’s cheaper than you think, and your sales will go up exponentially. If the merch in the top two pictures was being sold by another band, would you buy it?

Select the right shirts/CDs to sell. Quality matters.

Have your merch and CDs printed by a reputable company and use good materials. You may be able to shave a few dollars off of your order by printing on cheap shirts, but that may not be the smartest move. You would be surprised how many people have asked to hold/feel the shirts I’ve been selling at a show. If you can feel the different options at your print shop and compare softness and thickness, do it. You don’t have to go with American Apparel shirts, but don’t go with the cheapest option unless you’ve had a chance to feel the quality.

In terms of CDs, be smart about the packaging. There are three main choices when it comes to album printing: jackets, digipacks, and jewel cases. There are pros and cons to all three.

Jackets have the pro of being dirt cheap. They often go for a dollar or less a unit if you’re buying in bulk. The con is that they’re dirt cheap. They don’t really feel like a nice package and you’re limited to printing on just the front and back of the sleeve.

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Jewel cases have the pro of being the industry standard. They’re also very flexible for printing. Do you want a 4 page booklet? Great, sounds good. Want a one page card insert instead? Can do. Want something printed under the CD tray? Not a problem. The con (which is enough to keep me from suggesting jewel cases) is that they break. If you’re planning on traveling with your CDs in a trailer, you’re going to have to throw away (or give away if you’re feeling nice) a few every night. The plastic covers get cracks in them if you’re not careful, and if you drop an entire box of jewel cases, you better hope for the best.

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This brings me to digipacks, which are what I consider the perfect CD option for touring acts. They have the printing flexibility of a jewel case, but without the risk of cracking. They hold up well on tours and they look great on the merch table. Pricing varies greatly depending on how much printing you need, but if you do a simple design without a booklet, the price isn’t going to break the bank.

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The right CD package, with great artwork, is an easy sell. How well you play each night also has a great effect on CD sales on tour, but we’ll save that for a different blog post..

Have unique merchandise, but don’t overdo it.

Sometimes it can be good to mix up your merch catalog a little. You don’t always have to stick to shirts and CDs. Here are some good examples of other merchandise that you can offer:

Poster:

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make sure you have a good photo for your poster taken by someone who knows what they’re doing, and that it’s printed on nice, thick paper. Bands with younger fan bases tend to sell more posters than bands aimed at adults, shocking, I know. be wary of posters that have dates on them. if your poster says TOUR 2014 and you don’t sell them all in 2014, have fun selling them for a discount in 2015.

Flannel shirts:

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my buddy Cody T picks up vintage flannels from thrift shops and has them printed with cool stuff. the overhead on these is really low, since goodwill always has flannels on the cheap.

Flags:

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this is certainly a trending item lately, I’ve especially noticed it in the pop-punk world. if you can get them printed for a reasonable price and have a cool design, i say go for it.

Any creative item you can come up with to sell on tour could become a big hit, but be sure it’s practical. Rapper T Mills sells socks on his tour that are similar to the popular Stance brand of socks you can get at Pac Sun, and he sells out of them every show. Small items like that are great money makers and easy to bring out. Something like socks, as well as iPhone cases, rubber wrist bands, sunglasses, etc.. can be great high profit items.

As with any other merch item, make sure you can price these sorts of things competitively. Hoodies are cool, but they make a bad merch item for touring bands. They’re expensive to print, heavy to bring on tour, and you only sell them 6 months out of the year. Most people aren’t bringing $50 out to a show just to buy one hoodie. Things like hoodies, board shorts, towels, etc.. are probably not your best bet to bring on tour. Your money may be better invested in a larger run of shirts or CDs.

Have a good sales pitch.

Being able to talk to people is a great way to move merch at a show. However, be genuine about it. Begging someone to buy your merchandise is certainly tacky. I’ve worked shows where the band goes around and tries to guilt people one by one into buying shirts so they can afford to get to the next show. When that doesn’t work, they try to down-sell to a CD or poster, and eventually the customer will buy one just to make you shut up and leave them alone. Do you have their $5 now? Yes. But is that worth making them feel awkward? Probably not. That’s one person that may not want to come see you play again.

It’s not a bad idea to bring a merch person on tour. They can keep inventory, sell during the show, and pack up/settle with the venue** at the end of the show. A lot of merch people also act as tour manager for smaller tours. If you can find someone that’s capable of doing both, go for it. That’s one less mouth to feed on the road.

During your set, make sure you mention that you have a merch table and that you’ll be there after the show to say hi to everyone. If the headliner of your tour will allow it, go out to the merch booth between other band’s sets and meet as many fans as you can (don’t do this while any other bands are on stage, this is considered disrespectful). People are much more likely to buy merch when a band member is at the table talking with them.

**(PS: Sometimes a venue will collect a percentage of your merch sales after the show. Yes, it sucks, and no, there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t give the venue employee a hard time about it; there’s nothing they can do about it, and if they don’t take the venue cut, they could be on the hook for their job. There are ways to fudge numbers and save yourself money on the venue split, but I’m not going to talk about them here. Figure it out for yourself.)

So, there you have it. Way too many words on merchandise and how to get the most out of it. Hopefully this advice can help you make smart choices and a big profit on the road! If you like what you read, take a second to share this post with anything that may find it useful.

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