Musician Merch: Pros, Cons, and Sound Advice by Clarence Charron

This is a guest post written by Clarence Charron of Pop of Colour Music.

I have had the pleasure of getting to know Clarence over the course of the last year. He's one of the best writers, music brand marketers, and all around good people I know. We are excited to have him in our Indie Band Connect FB Group and even more thrilled he's taken time out of his crazy schedule to share this in-depth article on merch options! ~Leonard

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Let’s talk about merch, darlings.

As a musician, you’ve probably noticed that you earn more by playing live shows than you do receiving quarterly royalties from streaming services. So then, what is the best way to scale your income at the shows you’ve already booked? Selling merch, of course!

Artist merchandise can range from the classic band t-shirt, to anything a band can slap their logo on. This article is going delve into the logistics of ordering merch, and compare different options emerging artists have, as a way to help you make the soundest choice for your budget, fanbase, and closet storage space.

Front-Ordered Merch, AKA “The Classic Way.”

This is the way merch has always been created on the DIY scene: you go on a custom t-shirt website, drag and drop a cool design together (or hire an artist friend to be your fashion designer). You order the quantities per size, and a big box gets delivered to your doorstep within a handful of business days.

Pros:

Your merch can be sold at live events. Because you merch items are delivered to you first, it’s relatively easy to pack a couple t-shirts in a duffel bag before heading out to the gig. Fans are more likely to impulse buy a souvenir from your show while riding the emotional high your music made them feel.

Fans can see them in person before buying. If you’ve ever shopped for clothes online, you’ve likely experienced a situation where the garment in the picture did not look as nice or feel as comfortable when it arrived in a box. If your fans can see, touch, or size gauge a merch piece in person, they’ll feel much more confident about purchasing.

Your merch can be signed or personalized. Does your fan want you to autograph their merch baseball cap they just bought after you sang the national anthem? Do you want to include a handwritten thank you note, confetti and stickers in the online order? Since in between gigs, your inventory is stored in your basement and you are in charge of shipping items fans buy from your website, you have the freedom to make your fans feel super special.

Cons:

It’s a large upfront investment. While most custom printing companies offer increasing discounts on larger orders, you still need to come up with that initial chunk of change. For an indie musician, it may seem risky to drop several hundred bucks without a guarantee of when to expect one’s money back.

Inventory issues. If you live in a small apartment or share your living space with someone, you need to think through where to store your merch in between gigs. Will your wife have a problem with stacked boxes in the bathtub? Are you planning on storing those enamel pins in the fridge (your roommates would that have to find them first, but that requires opening the vegetable drawer)?

Which sizes? Which styles? If your music is the kind to cross all sorts of boundaries, congrats! However, you’re in for a more difficult time ordering merch than other artists with niche fanbases. The pre-teen girl is likely to wear a different size and style of band shirt than her dad. You’re going to have guess which designs will sell and which won’t, and order sizes carefully so as not to always run out of the more common ones (usually S-M-L) and be left with far too many 4XL’s.

Best Practices:

  • Have an awesome merch booth. Your live shows are the place to make bank. Lights, photo opportunities, display mannequins, the ability to accept credits cards and enough change in your cash float will make a world of difference. 
  • Personalize online orders. If a fan cares enough about supporting you to seek out your website and make a purchase, this is your chance to shine in ways no online clothing store can. Write a personal note, throw in extras, wrap the order up nicely, seal with a bow. Make your postage as Instagram worthy as possible, and encourage them to tag you in photos when it arrives. 
  • Don’t order more than you can handle. While it may seem tempting to order a larger quantity of merch in order to reach that bulk discount, if your fanbase is too small to sell them all, they’re going to be taking up storage space in your apartment for a long time. 
  • Survey your fans on which designs they prefer. Not only is this engaging social media content, but your fans are more likely to buy and wear a design they love by a cool artist, as opposed to one they don’t. 

Drop-Shipping Merch, AKA “The Want-repreuneur Way.”

Drop-shipping has come up in popularity in the last few months, particularly among the crowd of 20-somethings who put the word “entrepreneur” in their dating profile bio as a fancy way of saying “unemployed, but my ideas are worth millions!”

Basically, drop-shipping is business model of a small, online retailer not having any inventory. It’s only when a customer purchases a product at the retailer’s markup that it gets shipped from its warehouse location.

While the want-repreneurs of the world have soiled this concept by using it to call themselves CEOs simply for setting up an online store that sells cheap Chinese-made knockoffs, the idea has merit for original designs that just need to be duplicated, such as band merch.

Pros:

Lower upfront cost. It’s significantly cheaper to sell merch via drop-shipping, as you don’t need to order any inventory up front. The items are only made once a fan places an order, and you keep your markup while the costs of creation are docked.

No inventory, storage, or transportation issues. Due to not having any physical merch on hand, storing unsold items in between gigs is not an issue. Nor is having boxes take up space in your car while on tour, or dealing with ordering too many of an unpopular size.

Endless designs, minimal risk. Since you are not paying to order items up front, you can design as many merch pieces as your heart desires. A blue shirt or a yellow shirt? Why not both! With more options, more chances that fans will see something they like.

Cons:

You can’t sell at events unless ordering them yourself. The downside to not having any merch on hand is that it’s a slower process. Fans who had the time of their life at your bar gig can easily hand over cash with drinks in hand - they’ve been doing it all night. However, asking them to line up and punch their credit card number and expiration date into an iPad adds a barrier to impulsivity, and might lose you the sale.

Requires more online selling/marketing skills. If you are not the kind of artist who is big into social media, digital marketing, a mailing list analytics, UX, etc… Setting up merch this way is not going to change you overnight. No matter how excited you are, the learning curve needed will tire you out and leave you frustrated. Internet marketing skills are something to build up slowly, before money is on the line.

Best Practices:

  • Drop-shipping is best suited for artists that don’t play live gigs as much as they do live streaming, Patreon, and build their community online. 
  • Don’t limit your merch options to simply logo designs. This is your chance to get experimental! 
  • Create a personalized, automated thank you email to go out to customers after purchase. If you cannot personalize the shipment, there are other ways to make fans feel special. 
  • Sometimes, distractions can happen at the most inopportune times. Set up a tracking cookie to remind fans about your merch if they accidentally abandon their online shopping carts.

Hybrid Options

DIY screen printing. Run the entire drop-shipping from the comfort of your home. Buy a screen printer, some solid colour canvas bags, t-shirts, whatever your heart desires, and control the entire process start-to-finish. Since you are preparing the orders, not a factory overseas, you now have the ability to personalize the packaging.

Partner with a local printing company. This is what I do for my line of merch! Since the warehouse is based in the region, I pick up the finished items and take it from there.

Fans do the customization. Tie-dye afternoon at an outdoor summer gig?! Why not! Sell white merch shirts and set up tie-dye buckets. Fans can join in a unique experience and have a custom item at the end!

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Thanks for reading! If you found this article helpful or have any questions, please reach out to Clarence and sign up on his email list to get some (awesome) freebies! - Leonard


Clarence Charron runs a boutique music marketing agency. His weekly blog articles and music industry late night show talk about the music business in bright and colourful ways. 

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