EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: Madness at the Merch Table
Festival (Destroy Capitalism), Banksy, 2006
After reading my fellow No Depression columnist Isa Burke’s recent column, The Absolute Truth About Post-Show Conversations, I thought it was a great topic that I might expand on with a slightly different perspective. If you aren’t aware, Isa performs with Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin in Lula Wiles, a trio who are touring extensively at the moment in support of their album What Will We Do. It is one of my favorite releases of the year and they appear to be a critics favorite who are well deservedly on the verge of breaking out in the folk-roots music-Americana genre. Here’s a musical interlude from them before I dive deeper into the subject at hand.
Isa’s column speaks to her experience as both a fan and performer, sharing the awkwardness one can feel on either side of the merch table. For the past few years I’ve volunteered at a concert series here in New York, and my responsibilities are usually limited to making sure the table looks inviting, offering suggestions to a new fan on what CD they might like to start out with, handling the finances, and quietly remaining out of the way to allow the musicians to connect with members of their audience. Unlike large venues with bigger name acts, we operate less as a T-shirt and CD superstore and more like a space that provides a continuation of the complete concert experience.
It’s a balancing act for many musicians, as many are somewhat uncomfortable with “selling” or even simply holding a brief but meaningful conversation, but the cold reality is that the evening’s profit or loss will likely be determined at the table. I’ve witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly. The artist who retreats backstage and is either fearful to come out or feels as if their job ended onstage at the final note. Some will focus all their attention and bantering on fellow band members or family and friends, while ignoring the fan holding out a disc or simply their hand to shake. And on the flip side, some fans take zero notice or care of the long line forming behind them and take up too much of an artist’s precious post-show time, when the interest in buying something is at its peak.
In my previous life working in music sales and marketing from the early ’70s until about a dozen years ago, I witnessed the business of music merchandising go from virtually zero to now bringing in over $3 billion dollars per year. What was once a bootleggers paradise out in the parking lot is now likely to be controlled by artist management, who offer services such as design, manufacturing, and licensing in addition to all the other expected functions. And as revenue from music sales has dwindled, larger record labels have transformed themselves by offering a smorgasbord of services that includes marketing an artist’s merchandise and music, of which they take a healthy percentage.
A man who taught me a lot about audiences and merchandising, although not on the level of most Americana-type musicians, was Chip Davis from Mannheim Steamroller. His challenge was a Christmas-based catalog that sells for only six weeks each year, which severely narrowed his window of opportunity. Knowing that most of the people who came to his shows already owned his music, Chip created a broad line of products, from wearables to his famous hot chocolate. He blended a spice rub to create a brand that could be sold year round, and on the table he had items that would run the gamut from a few dollars to hundreds. Knowing that a holiday concert brings out the little ones, he had plenty of candy and kid-sized clothing.
Another person who knew a lot about the buying habits of their audience was Garth Brooks. While you wouldn’t see him after the show, for many years he would do afternoon “meet and greets” at the local Walmart near where he was playing. He had the ability to stay laser-focused on the person in front of him, and he’d take the time to give everyone the opportunity to create a special experience that they’d treasure forever. Unlike some musicians who would only sign an autograph if you bought something, Garth could care less. He knew that the time he invested in people would yield a lifelong fan base, and I also believe that he took from it as much as he gave.
Bringing it back down to the musicians in this genre, most of whom play primarily at small to midsize venues and on the festival circuit, I’ve got a few thoughts based on what I’ve seen through the years.
For musicians: Don’t overcharge for your music. While it may seem to you as if 15 bucks for a disc is a fair price, remember that most of your audience already owns it. And more are streaming it. So they’re looking for a souvenir or maybe a gift for someone. The band that I’ve seen take home the most money on any given night was one that had no price tags on anything. They have a “pay whatever you want” policy, and it works beyond belief. Others do well with a “three for $20” approach on discs, especially if there’s a number of titles in their catalog. And while it varies by audience, unless you’re Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams, or Wilco, you probably won’t sell many expensive wearables. Skip the tees and sweatshirts and think small. More options at lower prices can earn you a better payday.
And for fans: I wish there were an app on everyone’s phone that allowed you to tip a musician or band that you’ve just finished listening to. Instead of just walking by the merch table on your way to the parking lot, you could send them a ten spot and they could respond with that evening’s set list or a link to a private fan page on their website. And for you folks who want to buy something or just simply want to meet the musicians, be polite, keep it brief, know that cash is preferred and don’t keep it buried too deep in your wallet or purse. Time is money, as they say, so y’all please do your part in creating less madness at the merch table.
Thanks again to Isa for the inspiration, and let’s close this column out with another Lula Wiles clip.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.