Touring and Merch
People often feel artists can make a living by hitting the road and selling merch. There is obviously some truth to this claim, but generally, it is a lot harder than it sounds. Making money on merch is difficult because it is a lot of work with very slim margins. The most obvious thing to sell on the road is music. It is good to have both vinyl and CDs available when ever possible. Most clubs do not try to take a percentage of “plastic”, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, unless you released the music yourself, you’ll need to keep really good records of what is sold for your record label and sound scan. If you sell a CD for $10, you probably are giving the label half of that. You’ve also got to lug it in and out of the van every night. None of this is exceptionally hard, but it isn’t as simple as just showing up. You are running a mobile store that get set up and torn down every night.
T-Shirts are another obvious merch item to bring along. Shirts are a little easier in that you usually paid for them, so unless you want to keep really accurate records, the book keeping is a little more lax. That said, a shirt printed on a name brand blank with a few colors can be pretty expensive. We’ve seen people spending anywhere from $5 to $15 per shirt depending on the design and make (ie American Apparel vs. Gilden vs. Anvil, etc). T-Shirts are also a little harder to sell simply because not everyone wears band t-shirts. The bill of the show also makes a different. The crowd might be older and into heavy music, in which case you might need more larger sizes on black. If the other bands draw a younger audience, more color and smaller sizes could be better. In either case though you never really know.
The hardest thing about shirts is keeping them organized. If you have 2 designs with 5 sizes (Ladies, Small, Medium, Large, XL) that is 10 different “buckets” or “stacks” you need to maintain. If they are all on black shirts, keeping things organized can be a pain in the neck and you might not find the size someone wants and lose a sale. We’ve come up with a simple system of keeping shirts in plastic bags according to size. We usually have different colored shirts for different designs as well. We’ve been able to keep our shirts reasonably organized where we don’t have to spend all night hunting through a big sack of t-shirts for the right size. Shirts also take up a lot of space. Again, a big duffle back is helpful b/c it lets you stuff it into non-standard spaces in the van. We are able to keep our merch with our gear for this very reason. Selling merch on the road is a necessary part of being in a band, but it is not trivial. When you consider you are setting up amps/drums, maintaining instruments, and setting up a small store every night, the money you make from merch is hard fought. The more organized you make things the better as it helps to make it faster to sell, easier to pack up and simpler to move. You’re not as likely to get to the next gig and realize you left all your larges back at the last venue.
It is not all blood sweat and tears though in the merch booth. The merch is where you meet fans and they have a chance to express what they thought of the show. You sign autographs and pose for photos and most importantly you have a chance to see your music connect with someone. Even though it is hard work, in a way, it is one of the more intimate ways to get to know your fans.