Your music is why people love you, naturally. But developing a smart, creative merch strategy is a great way to keep your fanbase connected to you, while also advertising their devotion to anyone who’s paying attention. It reinforces your brand and boosts your bottom line, to boot. Whether it’s tees, coffee mugs, posable action figures, vape pens, or even coffins, merch options are endless and can drive home who you are as a band, where you fit in the world of music, and how your fans fit into the conversation.
A strong team (band and management where applicable) will not only be able to conjure great merch, but also build a brand and a loyalty that’ll draw repeat customers (who doesn’t dream of a ravenous fanbase hovering over a reload button as a new slate of merch is released?). The key components of repeat sales are no different than how you market your music, and it all begins with the right positioning.
Identify your goals
Merchandise is an excellent way to earn cash to offset the financial gut-punch of touring and recording. But setting your sights exclusively on the bottom line is missing an important point: Much of the return on investment is intangible. The T-shirts and pins your fans take into the world are invaluable marketing tools as far as increasing your band’s name recognition.
Finding the right price point is essential. All other factors being equal (cost, demand, availability, etc.), the logic is simple: A cheaper price tag means a smaller profit—but it will also move more units than an expensive one, meaning more people will be wearing your band’s shirt around town. John Bowes, who runs Cold Cuts Merchandise, which serves artists like Quicksand, The Hold Steady, and Code Orange, concurs. “If it’s just about building your brand—and understanding that promotion costs money—it’s better for a young band to have their name out there and for people to say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that logo all over the place.’”
Know your audience before you pick your products
Goals now identified, tools like the Spotify for Artists app can be excellent for determining who your fans are and what types of merch are likely to turn them on, both in terms of items and price points. If you’re a singer-songwriter with a mostly under-25 fanbase, a licensed casket is unlikely to be a hot seller, for instance. Having a picture of their budget and the depth of their devotion is helpful, too. Are they more apt to buy a cassette because of its inherent collectability and low cost, or are they more interested in a higher ticket item that can potentially accrue value over time, like a record? Are your fans passive or ravenous collectors? Observe the sort of merch sold by peers and those with like-minded fans to help you understand how to focus your energy and what will resonate.
Once you’ve figured out the most efficient way of targeting your merch, figure out how to elevate it to make it more appealing to your audience. The world is filled with logo tees, but you want merch that stands out from the crowd; an effective merch line is desirable and unique. “People are smarter and they look closer nowadays,” explains Michael Casarella of Barking Irons, a boutique merch firm that specializes in high-end and collectible pieces for names like Bob Dylan, Kings of Leon, Billy Joel and John Lennon. “They can tell when there is a little more thought and creativity in the merch, as opposed to just an album cover slapped on a T-shirt with dates on the back. There is way too much out there for your merch to not be exciting.”
Bowes agrees, adding that bands with “a total vision of what they want—how the lyrics and the album art and the logo and them as people and literally everything ties together into a single story—those are the bands with the most success.”
Pinpoint the intersection of supply, demand, and cost
Once you’ve found your niche with respect to what your audience is looking for, gain a deep understanding of how to make that merch stand out and offer an array of alternatives. The ideal is for a fan to have to make a tough decision at the merch table, and maybe even buy more than they planned to. Barking Irons has recently moved toward the inclusion of lower-priced items, but their initial offering of premium goods has made the strongest impact from a positioning perspective. “While we do offer the basic shirt, a lot of what we do is more focused on fans who want a more premium product,” says Casarella. “In general, the merch world is rather flat, graphics aside. We wanted to offer a shirt that was a bit nicer—that stood out from the crowd.”
Quality is important, but it’s also crucial to be on trend and, better yet, ahead of the curve when it comes to the desires of the audience. “There are definitely things that go in and out of style—like dad hats are popular now—but all it takes is one band that has the right following to make the tides turn, to where every band wants to make a similar merch item,” explains Bowes.
Limited numbers of items can ratchet up urgency and immediate demand for a merch piece, in addition to leveraging limited startup costs. Respected indie label Southern Lord, home to sunn o))), Power Trip and others, has always created a strong product, and with the growth of metal within popular culture, so goes the demand for their titles—many editions of which have long since disappeared. Yet the original intention was less about creating an artificial sub-economy and more about working within financial constraints.
“I kind of view the album as a specialty item—the music can be heard easily through digital, streaming, or even CD—so we try to make the best product we can considering conservative estimates with budgeting,” explains Southern Lord honcho and sunn o))) founder Greg Anderson. “To me it’s more about the music.” It’s worth noting that prices on Discogs indicate that some Southern Lord releases are in insanely high demand.
In the end, merch has huge potential as an income stream and as a fan-base fertilizer when it’s approached with creativity, patience, and intent. “This is the digital age, an age of streaming music where most of the records, media, and the bulk of the tactile parts of music have faded away,” asserts Casarella. “We tell artists to treat merch like an extension of the music, and people will dig that. That’s what we also try to practice with Barking Irons: to tell a story that extends and deepens that artist’s universe.”