For independent touring bands, music is only one part of how they make a living—and a dwindling part at that. Merchandise—the T-shirts, tote bags, posters, and other branded goodies that bands make to sell on the road—is becoming increasingly essential for financial and nutritional survival. But how much of a sale actually winds up in their pockets? Let’s do the math.
BY LIISA LADOUCEUR
Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt? Congratulations, you’re contributing to the eco-system of music in the digital age, where artists are told if they want to make a living they had better learn how to sell things that can’t be downloaded. And even as the industry changes one thing remains the same: the importance of having a wicked band T-shirt. From one-of-a-kind shirts screen-printed in the singer’s living room to the myriad fashion styles offered at festivals and arenas, these remain the quintessential item to sell at gigs. The next time you’re considering whether to buy one or spend that cash at the bar instead, consider what goes into the humble band T-shirt, and how much of the price tag is actually going to the artist.
THE $20 T-SHIRT
Cost per shirt: $5-$8, plus a screen-printing set-up fee of, on average, $30 per design. (Women’s, long-sleeve, fashion styles, or special colours will be more.)
Merch person: $50 per show
House cut: 15-20 per cent
Amount to the artist: If all goes well, $10 per shirt sold.
For indie acts at the club level ordering fewer than 100 pieces at a time, a basic white or black T-shirt with one-colour printing on the front should cost under $10. Stu Dead—drummer for A Primitive Evolution and a graphic artist whose company Playdead Cult got its start in part from screen-printing for bands such as Billy Talent, My Chemical Romance and Coheed and Cambria—suggests bands starting out learn to do their own printing. (Local printer Stacey Case at Merch Guy Screenprinting recently offered a how-to workshop, or see YouTube for tutorials.) “I make all our merch and I’ve taught everyone in the band,” Stu says. “You can get the cost down to as low as $3 per shirt if you do it yourself. Keep your design simple enough so there’s room for error and you won’t waste as many. Then you can give more away and you’re getting pretty inexpensive walking billboards.”
On a good night, a band at a small club can make up to $500 in merch sales, more than their performance fee. If they’re smart, they will hire a friend to mind the booth while they are on stage. “It’s an impulse buy and almost all the sales happen right after we play,” says Stu. “And at our level, we have to tear down our gear so someone has to be there or we lose sales.” The merch person will also be responsible for keeping track of the numbers and paying out a percentage to the venue, a practice few consumers know about.
“The house will take a cut 99 per cent of the time,” explains Adam Sewell, President of Riot Rock Management (Lacuna Coil, Saint Alvia) and former vocalist of Monster Voodoo Machine. “It’s about 15 per cent, but it can also be astronomical.”
Once a band graduates to touring as an opening act at larger clubs, they will usually have to match the price of the headliner’s merch. That same $20 shirt will now sell for $25 or more. But a higher price point doesn’t necessarily equal more profits. “For Lacuna Coil, the overhead is so sky high on a support-slot tour, you’re really just breaking even,” says Sewell. “A tour bus, a top-notch crew and a lighting show—those expenses add up very quickly. Also, nobody gives much consideration to the cost of shipping the merch to you on the road. Then you have it on your bus and that adds fuel charges. Profit margins are pretty slim.”
THE STADIUM SHIRT: $40 AND UP
Graphic designer: $300-$350 (one-time fee). At this level, you should be paying a professional.
House cut: 30 per cent. The biggest stadiums and arenas have been known to take as much as 40 per cent. This goes towards staffing all those merch booths and also for the privilege of selling in their venue.
Merchandising company: 25 per cent.
Taxes: 13 per cent.
Amount to the artist: $15 and up per shirt sold.
Most band shirts sold at large gigs and festivals go through a third-party merchandise company, which handles the logistics of ordering the right amount at the best bulk price, shipping it in batches as the tour progresses, dealing with customs brokers, and more. On average they will take a 25 per-cent cut.
“When you start selling out of your merch and you don’t have the time to get more made, so you start losing sales, then you need to start talking to someone,” says Greg Campbell, owner of London, Ontario’s Extreme Merchandising*
, which has provided merch logistics for Simple Plan, Bachman-Turner, The Tragically Hip, and many others. “They’ll know how much to make, the printing will arrive on time, and you won’t have to carry 40 boxes in your van.”
Merchandising companies operate on a “per head” formula to estimate how many shirts to produce. A rock band playing theatres and arenas might make $6-$8 per attendee in merch sales, so a show at the 2,700-capacity Massey Hall could bring in over $10,000 in sales. Campbell, who has toured with top-tier acts such as AC/DC and the Rolling Stones, says teen-pop stars like Justin Bieber or One Direction may even crack $20 per head. “If Justin is playing Rogers Centre and selling out 50,000 seats, he could do a million dollars in shirts in one night.”
THE BOOTLEG SHIRT: $10 (OR LESS IF IT’S FREEZING OUTSIDE OR EVERYONE ELSE HAS LEFT THE CONCERT AND GONE HOME )
Amount to the artist: $0
We’ve all seen those vendors hawking cheap T-shirts outside the venue after the concert. We all know they are bootlegs.
“I admit it, I’ve bought those shirts,” says Stu Dead. “Gorillaz is one of my favourite bands. I knew the shirts at the concert would be $50 and I planned to buy every one. But the designs were awful. They had purple shirts for guys! I was really upset, but then outside someone was selling black shirts for $10 with one of the best designs I ever saw. I felt awful buying it, but it was bad-ass.”
Some bands do their own crackdowns on these illegal sales, confiscating the product on sight. Campbell recalls the Stones had a dedicated “bootlegger security” guy on their team. “The problem is that the days of walking up to a bootlegger, punching him in the face, and taking his stuff are over. They know the laws about where they can sell. They will stand just across the street, taunting you, and you can’t do anything.”
Sewell adds that sometimes dealing with merch piracy directly can be risky, particularly outside of North America where organized crime may be involved. “When we go into those territories, we just cut a deal with the promoters and give them the rights to sell merch at those shows. You don’t have to worry about anything.”
Even if you suspect the bootlegger is just a working stiff, not a thug, remember that the band sees not a cent from your purchase. And those cents add up. “Selling merch used to be icing on the cake,” says Sewell. “When I started touring, it was an extra meal, it was a little wiggle room if you needed a van repair or had high phone bills. Now, it really is the lifeblood.”
MORE TALES FROM THE MERCH TABLE
Hollerado on the virtues of handmade vinyl: Hollerado didn’t just put out a vinyl version of its latest full-length album, White Paint—the band and a crew of friends hand-painted all 2,000 covers. Lead singer Menno Versteeg says the painting party, held over a weekend in an Etobicoke warehouse, added about one dollar to the cost of making each record, bringing that figure up to about $7.50 per unit. (They sell the album for $20 a copy.) “Our attitude is that anything you do costs money, so let’s have fun. Merch is an extension of the art we make.” He adds, “Do you know anyone who needs 30 gallons of white paint?”
Born Ruffians on the Cosmic Cube: For their new album, Birthmarks, Born Ruffians decided to try something different, making temporary tattoos and small lightboxes they called “Cosmic Cubes.” While the tattoos didn’t sell that well (fans thought they were free stickers), the neat novelty cubes with the band’s name embossed on them were a big hit. “They’re made in China and it was kind of nail-biting waiting for them to cross customs in time for the tour,” says Mitch Derosier, the band’s bassist. “But they did arrive, they looked great, and people were really into them.” Derosier says they sold enough of the 1,500 cubes at shows ($6 each or two for $10) to make a profit, but they won’t experiment like this again for a while. “We’ll focus on having cool designs for our shirts. A band shirt is still the most important thing you can sell.”
Photo: Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press
CORRECTION, JUNE 9, 2013: The original version of this article included an incorrect link for Extreme Merchandising, and misidentified the business’ location. The errors have been corrected.