In the steady decline of physical and digital record sales, I saw an opportunity to make a career shift. And so should every artist out there. I started PUMP Merch as a vehicle to help young acts learn to support themselves. I view merch like an old school record label, investing in smaller acts and making up those losses as my roster grows. I want to instruct acts in ways their fans can support them without begging friends and family for donations or reprimanding potential customers for streaming. Most importantly, I want to teach musicians to efficiently market their brand and monetize their band.
In my opinion, physical albums have become another form of merch. We are living in the digital age and there is no going back. If people won’t buy your record, offer it digitally along with a t-shirt. You’re still selling your music, but the tangible product has simply changed form. Let me repeat that: you are still selling your music, but the tangible product has simply changed form. If this transaction is handled correctly, you can make just as much money - quite possibly a whole lot more - than you would have with a physical record. And you can do it on your own, oftentimes without a label.
Every October I wandered the streets of New York City during CMJ and each spring I traveled to SXSW in Austin, TX along with thousands of other industry professionals and artists. In recent years the same topic of conversation comes up wherever I go: Merchandise sales have become the most important revenue stream in the business. It fills the gas tank and puts food in bellies. T-Shirt sales can be the difference between sleeping in the van and getting a motel room for the night. If you’re a full-time musician, merch pays the rent and keeps the lights on. I know this not just from listening, but because I have managed acts and I have toured the country with bands.
Where to begin? Start small, be patient, and analyze your early merchandise investments. Have an artist friend design your logo: pay them a modest fee and promise more in drinks and guestlist spots. Be conscious of your audience: determine what apparel and accessories are trendy. Understand the demographic: ask how they consume and share music, which can easily be done via social networking. Acknowledge your environment: if its hot, tank tops and ballcaps are essential; if it’s cold, hoodies and beanies are a must. At first, focus on selling more for less: keep designs to 1-3 colors, buy the inexpensive option, and charge fans as little as possible. Remember, you can always upgrade later.
Don’t be afraid to be aggressive. You’re not bothering anybody at the show. I guarantee most of the people there will be excited to meet you and honored you came up to talk to them. They know you’re just doing your job and they actually want to talk to you. I have approached the bar in a small town in Mississippi and sold $10 T-Shirts. I have wandered a club in Nashville asking folks if they’d like to buy $5 CDs. Merch is a souvenir purchased to commemorate a notable experience. Every music fan enjoys the pride that comes with seeing an act “back in the day” and you need to offer them something to take home that night.
Once you have decided on the right products to sell on tour, your next focus should be on convenience. If you do not accept credit cards while on the road, you are leaving countless dollars on the table. Companies like Square and PayPal Here have made it extremely simple for you to accept all major credit cards as long as you have a smartphone or tablet. If you have not already, stop reading this right now and order one of the FREE card readers from either of those companies immediately. It will take you a few short minutes and the results are literally priceless. I can not stress the importance of this enough. In this day and age, you MUST accept credit cards.
This is a new day and merch ain’t just t-shirts anymore. You say you are broke and I say that I can help. Start small and build up your brand. You are never going to make money without giving people a tangible reason to support you. If a band does their job, makes great music, and markets their products creatively and efficiently, there is no reason they can’t start making money. Hell, eventually, some of you may even earn a good living!