How to make big money by selling merchandise at gigs

As income for musicians from recording and gigging has dropped over the last decade or so, the importance of merchandise (or ‘merch’) as a revenue stream has increased. Piracy of the music itself may be rife, but fans of the bands and producers making it are still more than willing to shell out serious money marking their tribal identification with a T-shirt, poster or anything else with a logo on it. And all you need to do to get started is come up with a design (which could, indeed, just be your logo), then find a manufacturer to fabricate your items of choice with that design printed on them.

We’ll not get into the specifics of ecommerce here, but bolting an online shop onto your existing website may or may not be a trivial undertaking, depending on the platform on which it’s built. No technical acrobatics are required to start selling merchandise at gigs, however, so as soon as you’ve got yourself a van load of goodies ready to punt, you can start bringing home the bacon.

Basic merchandise ideas

At the most basic level, your merchandise need only comprise the stalwart T-shirts, posters, badges and stickers to be considered a ‘catalogue’. The next stage might be to add albums on artwork-adorned USB sticks, vinyl pressings, beanie hats, jackets, etc. For those with the vision and budget, though, there’s really no limit to how far the concept can be taken…

Take Manchester rock demigods Elbow, for example, who not only found a novel way to promote their brand but also potentially started a whole new business in itself with the launch of their Build A Rocket Boys! beer in 2012. Sadly, after selling 750,000 pints of the stuff, last orders were called on the 4% brew at the end of 2013; but as well as winning the Best Marketing and Communications gong at that year’s Society of Independent Brewers awards, it also raised over £40,000 the Oxfam East Africa appeal. Nice work.

Garvey and co aren’t the only musos to have dipped their toes in the turbulent waters of alcohol retail recently. In 2011, behatted joy-monger Pharrell Williams introduced Q Qream, a liqueur “to celebrate the beautiful, independent and sophisticated women of today”, to the bars of America. Whether it was the drink or the condescending tone of its marketing that was to blame, it bombed, and the manufacturer, Diageo North America, pulled the plug after 18 months, resulting in Williams suing them for $5m.

Or you could go plain weird, as Eminem did earlier this year when he started selling bricks from the house in which he grew up for $300 each, and Rammstein (as if they weren’t weird enough already!) surely take the prize for with their Dildo Box Set, released to promote their Liehe Ist Fur Alle Da album of 2009. Just… eeeuw.

Being rather more realistic in terms of fiscal outlay, perhaps inspiration can be taken from Taylor Swift’s apron and oven gloves, The White Stripes’ sewing kit, One Direction’s toothbrush and toothpaste, or GWAR’s barbecue sauce. And if you just don’t want to spend any money at all, you could try offloading locks of your own hair, as Danish punk outfit Iceage did in 2012.

What’s a good merchandise profit margin?

Whatever you decide on as promotional merchandise, obviously the most important thing to think about beyond manufacturing quality – and the only element over which you have complete control – is the graphic design and/or photography. Get a professional designer involved if you possibly can, or at least an art student mate. Don’t just have a go at it yourself because you ‘know a bit about Photoshop’ – your merch is part of your brand and image, and needs to be taken every bit as seriously as your music. You wouldn’t let someone with no experience of music production mix your tracks, after all…

While physical quality and great design are crucial considerations, so, too, is their counterbalance: cost. The idea with merchandising these days is to actually turn a profit, rather than just have it serve as a break-even promo, so be sure to shop around among manufacturers and printers to get the best deals you can without compromising on materials more than absolutely necessary. The more you order, the cheaper your unit cost will be, so always think (cautiously!) ahead in terms of future sales. Ultimately, you should be aiming for a profit margin somewhere in the region of 50%-60%, and certainly no lower than 30% – if you can’t achieve that with your current merchandising plan, take it back to the drawing board.

The art of sales

When it comes to selling merchandise at gigs, don’t just turn up with a cardboard box full of T-shirts and a handwritten price list. This is a real opportunity to present the professional side to your act that’s absolutely required if you want to actually make money out of music. Taking the time to set up a good looking, commercially functional sales ‘area’ (even if it’s just a table) with clear signage and branding at every venue you play is in no way selling out – it’s something fans genuinely like to see and will always be impressed by.

Don’t forget to bring enough change with you to be able to handle customers carrying nothing but notes, and round your prices up to the nearest pound or dollar. Fiddling around with pennies when you could have just made that £6.99 poster a £7 poster will be irritating for all involved. Offer discounts on combination buys, too: £12 for a T-shirt, £7 for a poster, or £16 for both, for example. Oh, and make sure you can accept credit cards – there are numerous very affordable card reader solutions out there, including Square and Paypal Here.

Obviously, you need someone who’s not in the band manning the stall while you’re doing your thing on stage, but do make the effort afterwards to show your own face – nothing beats pressing the flesh for making a good impression, and it could result in a few extra merch sales, not to mention a general feeling of goodwill that’s always worth cultivating.

Finally, remember to actually tell the audience that there’s merchandise for sale at the venue! Don’t make it the first thing you shout as you bound on stage, but do give it a quick sting in the interval, if there is one, and a full-on pitch right at the end. Again, you’re not selling out by doing this – your fans really do want those T-shirts!