Artists Push Back to Keep Their Merch Table Money
BJ Barham of American Aquarium on the 2022 Outlaw Country Cruise (photo by Larry John Fowler)
Something new popped up on American Aquarium’s merch table last week.
Amid the array of the band’s T-shirts, vinyl, and CDs at shows in Lawrence, Kansas, and Oklahoma City was a sign, simple black type on white printer paper, announcing an increase in prices and the reason behind it:
In the spirit of transparency, we want you to know that [the venue] will be taking 20% of all merchandise sold tonight. To offset this, we have been forced to raise the prices of all merchandise by 20%. We are truly sorry for the inconvenience.
The signs, which bandleader BJ Barham posted on social media as well, are an effort to let fans in on a common practice known as a merch split (also called a merch cut or merch percentage). That arrangement, usually spelled out in venues’ performance contract with the artist, gives venues a share of the merch table sales for the evening — a cut of every T-shirt, vinyl, koozie, and sticker — even if they provide nothing but the space for the sales to happen.
And at small to midsize venues relevant in the roots music world, that’s usually exactly what they provide. Merch splits at bigger clubs and arenas might come with staff to work the merch tables and handle inventory, but bands in smaller spaces either sell the merch themselves or hire their own seller. Sometimes the venue doesn’t even provide a table or lighting.
“I am a-OK with someone getting paid for a day’s worth of work,” Barham says. “So if there’s people who are actually earning that 20%, awesome, fantastic. I want them to get paid and they deserve to get paid out of the stuff they sold.”
But that wasn’t the case at American Aquarium’s recent shows at the Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kansas, and the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City, he says, or at countless other venues that have required merch splits during the band’s many tours.
“We loaded everything in ourselves. We set everything up. Not a single employee came over, counted, helped set up. We sold all night, we broke down, and then at the end of the night they come up with their hand out and say, ‘We want 20% of this.’”
In a seven-minute video posted Saturday on social media, Barham explains that he knows merch splits are part of the contract the band signs far in advance with venues that have that policy in place (though he often asks, usually unsuccessfully, for that wording to be removed), and once a deal is in place, he always pays his percentage to the venue. But while he honors the contract, he’s far from happy with it.
“I think that a lot of those clubs are really trying to make money wherever they can just to recoup the loss of two years,” he says. “But I don’t think that that recoup should come at the cost of someone else that had to sit out of the game for two years and is struggling to keep their head above water and struggling to stay on the road and keep doing what they love. When venues and artists team up, it should be a symbiotic relationship.”
Old Policy, New Reality
Barham says merch splits are more prevalent in the post-lockdown touring landscape, but they’ve been a common practice for decades. Like many policies that become “just the way it is,” though, no one’s quite sure where the concept came from.
Many trace it to the early 1980s, when all-ages shows became popular, and also when the straight-edge strain of punk, whose fans abstained from alcohol, took root. With patrons who couldn’t or wouldn’t order alcoholic beverages, venues needed something to replace that lost bar income and looked to the merch table, where T-shirts were starting to become a standard item, and one that fans were willing to buy at almost any price.
Decades later, merch splits are entrenched in the music business, and venues factor that money into their operations, with a few hundred bucks a night adding up to a lot over the long-term. That money is especially hard to part with now, as venues struggle to stay alive after a two-year shutdown and amid a sagging economy. But artists, too, are struggling, looking for new ways to stay on the road that was bumpy even before the challenges of the pandemic and spiraling inflation.
“Now that we’re kind of in a different age, the digital music age, merch sales are more important for artists than ever, just because access to free music and free streaming is everywhere,” observes Jeff Whitworth, owner of talent and events company Worthwhile Sounds and a talent buyer for several venues and festivals across the Southeast. “So those people out on the road are relying on their T-shirt that they paid $8 to print selling for $20. That’s how they’re making ends meet, and that’s how they’re able to tour in a lot of situations.”
Merch sales outpace the money American Aquarium gets from ticket sales some nights, Barham says, and he calls fans’ purchases of CDs, vinyl, T-shirts, and other souvenirs “the purest way to support the music you love.” Preserving that purity is what motivated him to shine a light on the practice of merch splits. He wants fans to understand why the prices on merch might be higher some nights, and that their money isn’t always going solely to the band.
“It has made the promoters very upset, it has made the clubs very upset,” Barham says in his video to fans. “We have gotten calls, we have gotten emails, we have gotten threats, we have been told to take down our tweets, that it’s causing a ruffle in the community that we entered into. And I just want to let you guys know that if your business practice is brought out into the court of public opinion and people decide that is it unfair enough to where they tag you on the internet and let you know that they don’t think it’s fair, maybe you should re-examine your business practices.”
Management and bookers for the Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kansas, and the Tower Theatre in Oklahoma City, where Barham first started posted signs alerting fans to the merch policies, did not respond to No Depression’s requests for comment. As American Aquarium has continued its tour in the American heartland this week, it has continued placing signs about merch splits among its T-shirts and albums and posting social media updates — mostly to point out to fans that the venue is not taking a percentage of the sales.
As Barham launches his campaign to make fans aware of how money moves in the live performance ecosystem, a larger effort is underway to challenge venues to let artists keep 100% of their merch sales at shows.
Last January, the UK’s Featured Artists Coalition trade organization started a “100% Venues” directory to highlight performance spaces that do not charge artists a commission on their merch sales, and the idea has spread to North America with the #MyMerch campaign, launched last month by the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) and Toronto-based rapper Cadence Weapon. So far, 82 venues in the US and Canada have joined the #MyMerch database, making their no-split policy known to artists, agents, and fans.
“It’s one of those things that artists, we all kind of whisper to each other and talk about, and we’re just like, these are totally unfair,” says Rollie Pemberton, who performs as Cadence Weapon. “They say it’s because I’m on their property that they take this merch cut, but why don’t I get a cut of the alcohol sales when I bring the entire audience to the venue?”
He’s encouraged by the response to the #MyMerch campaign so far, crediting it for having “ignited a conversation.” While many of the venues that have signed on so far never took merch splits in the first place, he acknowledges, some seem to have decided to end the practice as awareness of it has grown.
The Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, is among the clubs that have signed on to the #MyMerch database, proud to proclaim that merch splits have never been part of its contracts, except in cases where the artist opts to use a venue-provided merch seller.
“We’ve always advocated in favor of the artist,” says Whitworth, who was Grey Eagle’s longtime owner until 2015 and still serves as its talent buyer. “We understand the importance in maintaining and building relationships.” Forgoing merch splits is something that makes an artist feel at home in the venue, he says, which in turn keeps bands — and their fans — coming back.
The #MyMerch campaign could help other venues “turn the corner on that,” he says.
That’s Pemberton’s hope as the campaign continues to gain traction.
“We just need more collaboration and harmony within this music ecosystem. We’re not at odds,” he says. “Musicians need venues to play in, venues need musicians to perform to stay open. We just need a more equitable situation that works for everyone.”
Barham is aware that bringing attention to merch splits night by night, venue by venue, is going to “ruffle some feathers,” and he’s expressed love for the venues he’s visited so far on this tour even as he holds them publicly accountable. The Tower Theatre, he says, is “the best sounding room in Oklahoma City,” and he hopes to play there again next time he’s in town. “I just hope that by letting people know what they’re doing, it makes them take an internal look at what they’re doing and ask, is this right? Is this worth it?”
Just hours after Barham posted his video about merch splits, he said on Twitter that the next band playing at Tower Theatre, country duo Muscadine Bloodline, had told him that the club was not going to take a cut from them, a development Barham celebrated. And on Wednesday, the Tower Theatre returned its cut of the merch to American Aquarium. Barham told the band’s Twitter followers on Thursday that the venue will not be taking merch cuts moving forward. Despite a deluge of questions and comments on the venue’s social media, it has not commented publicly on its merch split policy.
“I need venues to do my job,” Barham says. “And I’m very sympathetic to the fact that they were closed down for two years. I played a lot of benefits for most of my favorite venues. I got on Zoom calls and I played songs to raise money for a lot of my independent venues that I really, really love. I’m on the side of the venue. I usually have their back on just about everything. I just don’t think it’s fair to expect me to accept you taking 20% of something that I do when we won’t even open the discussion for me to take 20% of something you do.”
Deep into the band’s career and on comfortable footing as they tour midsize and large rooms all over the US, Barham is prepared for the consequences of speaking out — a level of security American Aquarium didn’t have 10 years ago, and many roots bands don’t have now, when they needed every dollar and every speck of goodwill from venues to make sure they could get from town to town.
“I made the video [last weekend] just to let folks know that we are going to get blacklisted from some clubs and we are going to ruffle some feathers,” Barham says. “There’s going to be some clubs that tell us that we’re not allowed back because they don’t approve of us doing this. And I’m luckily at a point in my career, and I am secure enough in my profession, in my ability, and the strength of our fan base, to take that chance.”
Fans, in fact, just might have the most power in this situation, because it’s their dollars — spent on tickets, drinks, and merch — that fuel the entire performance ecosystem. And as concertgoers learn more about how their money is split between artists, venues, and others in the industry, they can direct their spending to where they feel it does the most good.
Pemberton encourages fans to tell their favorite venues about UMAW’s #MyMerch program and to let them know that it matters to see the venue’s name in the database. “This is a grassroots thing,” he says. “It requires collaboration between fans, promoters, venues, and musicians.”
That kind of collaboration, Barham says, requires transparency, and fans deserve to know about business practices like merch splits that affect both the venues and artists they love and want to support.
“It’s more about shedding a light on it, and if clubs want to keep doing it, I’m going to keep posting my sign every night,” he says. “Every independent band out there that is at a point where they can do it, I encourage them to do it. I encourage the big artists to do it. If the little artists are willing to lose a couple extra hundred bucks a night in merchandise, if you can afford to do that, do it. Let your fans know. Let the consumer know what is going on, and let them decide.”