Analysis

Tips for independent artists to make the most of merch


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From signed CDs and topical t-shirts to snapbacks and fire-starting jigsaw puzzles, merchandise is a vital income stream for independent artists.

How to make the most of it? A panel at AIM’s Indie-Con conference in London this week offered advice and anecdotes from a panel of marketers and managers.

It included Iris Gomez from Raw Power Management; Kevin Douch from Big Scary Monsters; Gabrielle Nicot-Berenger from Music Glue; David Riley from Plan It Music; Achal Dhillon from Killing Moon; and Cimone Fagan from Hospital Records.

The moderator was Absolute Radio’s Danielle Perry. Here’s our roundup of some of the most useful advice from the session.

Physical music is merchandise in 2017

“Merch is everything that’s not a digital download,” said Nicot-Berenger. “CDs, vinyls, all that goes in to merch… and most of the revenues that we see come from merch.”

“When they’re first going out, we’ll probably find that the highest-quality ‘item’ that emerging artists will have is their music,” added Dhillon.

“For us it’s proven to be quite a big revenue stream in terms of live and in terms of selling the music itself directly over the counter. At a live show, you’re finding yourself in a room full of people who want to get to know you, or who do know you, so they are more likely straight afterwards to spend money on you.”

“Manufacturing companies will fulfil this very quickly: it’s easy to package it up for a specific show or a specific event. Turn the music itself into a merch item.”

Personalisation can mean more than autographs

Personalisation is a big factor. Dhillon of Killing Moon said that John Joseph Brill went on tour with Daughter in 2016.

“Repurposing certain catalogue releases for him and branding it specifically for the purposes of that tour was beneficial,” he said. “New fans found it a very unique item: we manufactured some CDs and called it the ’Tour Version’ of the album. In conjunction with the signing, that seemed to create a nexus between fan and artist.”

Simple autographs are a winner. “What sells the best? Between a CD and a signed CD, signed CDs shift massively,” said Nicot-Berenger, who backed up Dhillon on the customisation idea.

“We also see a lot of t-shirts dedicated to specific events. With print-on-demand, you can create your t-shirt without any cost: create designs specific or a gig in Manchester, in Brighton… Fans start buying the ones they can connect with.”

Iris Gomez agreed with the personalisation aspect. “Keeping it personal is something really, really important. Loads of smaller bands, when they do the merch themselves, it’s always a great tool to have to get closer to fans,” she said.

“You can put special items in there [when they order online] or a handwritten note saying thank you for buying this. Nowadays, with how the market is, when kids buy a record, they know they’re basically paying the record label. They see merch as more of a direct way to support the artists.”

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Get topical with your t-shirts

“You have to keep track of the trends and see what people like ‘this month’ rather than ‘this year’,” said Gomez, which sparked a discussion about topical merchandise.

“You have to be very reactionary with it. We made quite a lot of money from t-shirts, which I’m not going to talk about too much as it was blatant copyright infringement!” said Kevin Douch.

“Off the back of TV shows or just memes. It doesn’t have to be tacky or stupid: you’ll be surprised at how many of them you’ll sell.”

He cited an example he’d spotted from another store: a t-shirt blending Taylor Swift and Sonic Youth. “That sold huge amounts. Sometimes you have to be quite observant, spot things going on around you, and jump on them quickly.”

Tie merch in with your overall campaign

“The aesthetic has to be right. For your campaign, why does the merch look like this? Tie it in with your album cover, with your tour poster. Why would people not link it together and have a cohesive campaign?” said Kevin Douch.

“It’s a brand. People don’t like that word, but it’s what you’re doing. When you see something from The 1975, you know it’s them straight away.”

Tying merch in with a campaign isn’t just about how it looks. Nicot-Berenger talked about how bundles can be big sellers for fans.

“We do a lot of bundles: that’s one of the things that sells the best. When you do a preorder campaign with an album, one in two people who buy the pre-order will also buy another item,” she said.

“If you create different bundles at different price ranges, you allow for everyone to be able to access something, be it from a CD and a t-shirt to the £100 bundle with all the vinyls, exclusives, meet’n’greet… Experiences do really well.”

Get out there on the merch stall yourself

Dhillon said that fans love to meet artists after they play, so the benefits of an emerging band getting behind the merch stall to meet their public (not just to sell them t-shirts and CDs) are considerable.

“Certain artists, particularly I’ve found in the electronic space, are not so used to talking one-on-one with people. They find it particularly strange because their main mode of interaction is social media,” he said.

“I’m sure they will get over that if it means they can afford to operate as a business and as an artist though.”

Douch said that artists shouldn’t shirk this chance. “Bands should work on the merch table! We’ve seen times where the venue is trying to kick people out, and the queue is still 20 people long,” he said.

“Take half an hour out to do it. These people have taken their time to come and see the gig. You should embrace it.”

Hanging on to your online rights can pay off

“We’ve got an artist, a slightly bigger artist admittedly, who had a deal with a merch company. But we managed to keep the rights for an online store,” said Iris Gomez.

“That let us have an advance that let us tour the US twice in a year… but by keeping the rights to your online store, you can keep the steady flow of money going to the band’s accounts. Loads of bands signing to bigger merch deals do lose those rights, and the steady revenue.”

Nicot-Berenger said that one of the big advantages of retaining control is access to data on the fans that have bought merch.

“We have to start thinking long-term. You might start with a free track to get more people to your store, into your environment. Then you start building a mailing list and getting your marketing reports,” she said.

Riley told the tale of musician Scroobius Pip, whose control of his online store means it fits seamlessly with his other activities, like his podcast, but which also lets him have some fun.

“One of my favourite things last year: on Black Friday, everyone else is doing email-outs and giving money off to make sure people buy on Black Friday,” he said.

“Scroobius Pip said ‘I’m turning my store off. Go out and enjoy yourself! Do something else with your money and maybe come back tomorrow’.”

Respond to fan demands, but don’t overload them

“A lot of work with product is making sure we’re producing merch that fans are interested in. If it’s not connecting with your audience, it’s not worth doing,” said David Riley.

He also warned against the dangers of over-squeezing a fanbase and making them feel exploited. “The fanbase is where you can draw 90% of your money from. Look after it, don’t try to exploit it for quick gains and short amounts of money,” said Riley.

“Having a yearly or two-yearly merchandise plan in place can be really beneficial: making sure you’re not asking for too much money in too short a period of time.”

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Don’t be too cheap

Bands may be on a tight budget, but cutting some corners with merch risk annoying fans.

“I get really frustrated when I quite want to buy something from a band, and the t-shirt dissolves in the wash,” said Dhillon. “If you’re going to do it, I would like you to do it properly.”

Gomez said quality should extend to the online marketing of these products. “When you see a bad mockup of a t-shirt… An actual photograph always sells better, when you display the product in a good way.”

Hoodies for dance fans, t-shirts for indie fans?

It’s always a bad idea to stereotype an entire genre’s fanbase, but the Indie-Con panel did point to some differences between communities of music fans.

“With electronic artists, people tend to pay a lot more for something, shall we say, a bit more high-end than in the indie or rock space, where usually for me I find it’s t-shirts and CDs,” said Dhillon.

“They aren’t lower in quality, but they are a bit more affordable. Maybe it’s to do with the age? But dance music: they like hoodies, they like jackets, they like something they can wear a lot more permanently.”

Riley said The Prodigy have seen differences according to the musical focus of the festival they are playing.

“The black ‘band’ t-shirts sell really well at [rock festivals] Sonosphere, Download, the Rock-am-Ring shows. And the lighter t-shirts sell more at the dance festivals. But the merch sells better in general at a rock-based festival than a dance one.”

However, Dhillon said that online, dance fans are big spenders. “With the online fanbase that dance-music and electronic artists seem to have, it’s almost like they’re waiting for the next t-shirt run to happen,” he said.

Pop-up shops aren’t just for Kanye and Bieber

From Kanye West and Justin Bieber to The 1975, pop-up shops are becoming an increasingly-common tactic for big artists. They may also have potential for independent labels though.

Big Scary Monsters has been operating one in London this year, for example.

“For someone like The 1975 who’ve got a good brand, where people want to go and buy their stuff, I’d imagine it’s very lucrative for them. For us as a label it was a little bit more of a stretch,” he said.

“We were relying on our artists to sell it for us: we did a lot of in-stores, exclusive products, signings. We’ve got beer and screen-printing. It’s a very interesting experience in terms of meeting the people coming in.”

“Some people are coming in spending £100 a time buying records because they can’t find them anywhere else in London. Overall, it was a very rewarding experience, and something we want to do in the short term in more UK centres, and then go worldwide. I’d recommend it to labels, bands, all sorts of people really.”

Don’t underestimate the appeal of snapbacks… and puzzles!

The panel were asked about the favourite and/or bestselling piece of merch they’ve worked on. Cimone Fagan talked headwear.

“Snapbacks! They just sell so well when we take them to our festivals. They’re £25, we’ve got our own boxes that we’ve made for them, and stickers. They’re really popular,” she said.

Riley, meanwhile, reminded the audience that The Prodigy aren’t afraid to try some extremely unexpected merch categories. “My favourite thing we put online? A thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle!” he said.

Enjoyed this? Read the rest of our Indie-Con coverage here

Stuart Dredge

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