[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Vanessa Ferrer, owner of Merch Cat. Be sure to check out next week’s second installment that covers ‘Merch Strategy’!]

Merch is serious business if you want to sustain a career as an artist in today’s music world – it’s a surefire way to put funds in your pocket in real-time, while empowering your fans to spread your message to the world.

In order to fully maximize your true merch potential, you’ll need to have some insight on the different pieces that impact the big merch picture. We understand that this can be a bit overwhelming, so we created a workshop that we’ve brought to SXSW, Music Biz, and other conferences to bring some insight to the process and the areas that should be considered in your merch plan. While we can’t bring the entire workshop to you in written form, we’re sharing some of the nuts and bolts of the workshop, broken down into two sections – ‘Merch Basics’ and ‘Merch Strategy’. We’ll start here with the basics, because that’s where you should start your merch process as well.  

Branding

Before you can (or should) ever have merch, you need to have a brand that represents you as an artist/band. Why? Because your brand is the face that you show the world, and your fans are the people who represent it. In your absence, your brand is what fans will connect to as an extension of you, so you want it to be authentic and have a vibe that fits your overall persona as a band/artist. If it’s not, your existing fans and potential new fans will likely pick up on that and it will be more difficult for them to connect and get them to buy into you.

Your merch is one of the best physical manifestations of your brand, and a great brand usually translates into merch that fans will buy.

Artwork

The artwork that you place on your merchandise is critical to it selling successfully. Your merch line is essentially your own retail clothing line. If the artwork is too funky, has an unattractive color scheme that doesn’t tie into anything related to you or doesn’t fit your vibe, you may want to re-visit.

You need to ask yourself, “Will people wear this?” If your instinctive answer is no, then you probably shouldn’t make it. You also want to make sure that your artist name is visible somewhere. Until you’re a household name like Nike and your brand is recognizable on its own, you’ll need to have a way for people to identify the name associated with the cool logo/design your merch is sporting.

Physical Merch Products That Work For Musicians

Yeah, we’ve all thought of something that would be really cool to sell and as creatives, well, we want to be creative when it comes to merch. But the truth is that the tried and true merch products still work and there is a reason for that – they are functional things that people can wear/use.

Once you start deviating, you’re running the risk of speaking to only a small part of your audience and getting stuck with merch you can’t sell. Save those items for when you reach a point of financial stability and can afford that risk. Until then, must have items are:

T-shirts
You can never really go wrong with the band T, and it will never go out of style. You can currently find legacy band Ts in department stores and collaborating with other brands like SoulCycle. The band T is here to stay – people always need clothes to wear, so why not let it be your cool brand and artwork?

Hats
Coming in close behind T shirts arehats – trucker hats, dad hats, and beanies are all popular items that fans will get use of, will represent your brand well and can usually be done with a good profit.

Bags
Totes, drawstring bags (great for festivals) and messenger bags have a variety of functional uses and can easily be customized with your logo or message

Music
Despite the increasing popularity of streaming, many fans still want a physical copy of your music at shows, whether it be a CD or vinyl. Merch is an emotional, impulse purchase and when fans have just seen you perform and are all fired up about you they want to leave with something in their hand.

Yes, people still buy CDs at shows. Sign them and your vinyl to up the excitement factor. Note that vinyl can be an expensive endeavor, so it’s recommended that you first understand whether or not your fans would be receptive to vinyl if you made it. If you want to get into alternative mediums, the USB drive or bracelet can be a good way to deliver your tracks in a functional device that will hold your branding and can be re-used. Your fan will be reminded of you every time they go to plug in that presentation at the office and it might make their day.

Run away from drop cards unless you’re intending to simply use it as an expensive business card. In our experience, the cards are rarely redeemed for the digital download, defeating the purpose and cost of making them. If you want a grab and go item with your data, a traditional business card or postcard sized flyer is a less costly way to go and not as upsetting if you later find them on the venue floor. Drive the fans to your website and then offer a download there in exchange for an email address.

Posters
Posters can be inexpensive to produce, and therefore can have a high profit margin. Have a great design and go for the thicker paper stock to increase the perceived value and durability.  

Stickers
Like posters, stickers are inexpensive to produce and are good for give away items in exchange for an email addresses or as part of a bundle.  You can also sell them for a few bucks.

A good rule of thumb to follow when venturing into “other” items is to ask yourself, “can and will someone use/wear/rep this”? Items we’ve seen work for either sale or promo:

Quality Matters   

So we’ve established that T-shirts are still the front-runner of merch, but not all T Shirts are created equal! The blank shirt you choose means everything. Fans are no longer content to buy the stiff Hanes Beefy T and let it sit in the bottom drawer never to be seen again. Today’s merch customers ask to feel the shirt and even want to try them on. Over and over again, fans are purchasing the better feeling shirt. A higher quality shirt feels better, often prints better and always fits better. This means that your fans will wear it for years to come and it will hold up over time.

The same principle goes for hats, hoodies, bags and pretty much everything else you’re selling. Quality matters. Don’t just make cheap items so you have something to sell. There are ways to cost effectively make good merch, and it’s better to make one quality item than two or three crappy items. By making cheap merch, not only do you run the risk of not selling it, but you also run the risk of pissing your fan off and deterring them from ever buying anything from you again.

Choosing Apparel Styles, Colors and Sizing  

Now that we got that out of the way, how do you decide what type of shirt you are going to make? Unisex or ladies? And what color? Black, white, grey, neon yellow or pink? Well, that all depends on who your fans are, after all, they are the ones purchasing your merch and likely the ones who will wear it. How do you know who your fans are? If you’re already playing shows, the easiest way to gauge your fan’s age, gender, build and geographic location is to pay attention.

If you’re gearing up for your first tour or just haven’t been taking notice of who’s coming to your shows, luckily, streaming services like Spotify and digital distribution platforms like TuneCore, offer analytics to see who is consuming your music. Check out these analytics and then use your judgement. If your audience is 40% female, make sure you have a ladies’ shirt in the mix. If your audience is middle aged white men, don’t make a distressed neon shirt with holes in it. Follow?  

Sizing can be tricky if you have no clue who your fans are. You don’t want to end up with a load of random sizes that will never sell. Using the analytics we just mentioned can help. People in certain geographic areas tend to be larger than others. A younger audience may indicate a smaller audience. An all-male audience will likely command more large sizes and vice versa. There are always exceptions, so again, use your judgement.

When in doubt, the percentages* below can be used as a starting guideline:

*Based on 100%

Choosing A Merch Company

Working with the right merch company (or not) can make or break your profit, affect your ability to sell and set the tone for your overall attitude toward “doing merch”. Too often we’ve heard stories from artists that they’ve way overpaid, not received merch in time, had art issues, or did not get a finished product they liked. We’ve experienced some of these issues with our own branded products, so learn from our lessons and follow these guidelines:

  • Look for companies who offer low minimums and good pricing
  • Know your prices – do a little research to see what is reasonable for the item you’re looking for (Google search, etc.)
  • Follow word of mouth and ask around – who do other bands use and love?
  • Beware of teaser ads offering all in pricing (including shipping) at $4.99/shirt – they typically give you cheap, white, stiff shirts with a single color, single location design.
  • Look for companies who have in-house graphic designers.

[Merch Cat now offers merch services. Give us a shout for your next merch run!]

Keeping Merch Costs Down  

Following some simple best practices can save money and time. Time is money as well.

  • Order and re-order with enough lead time (usually a two week minimum). Last minute orders can incur ”rush” production fees and expedited shipping.
  • Make sure your artwork is “print ready” – vector files including .ai (Adobe Illustrator), .pdf (Hi Resolution), .eps (Photoshop) is a print ready format. A .jpg or a .png file is not print ready!
  • If you’re using a graphic designer, be sure to ask for your art in all relevant file formats as soon as they turn the art over to you.
  • One color/one location art has the lowest production cost and is a good way to start.
  • Start small – do not blow the entire bank on merch unless you know what your fans will respond to. This will help prevent having to fire sale or giveaway items that aren’t selling.

Merch Display And Best Practices

Now that you’ve got merch, the way you display it at shows can be the difference between whether or not your fans approach, stay and purchase.

Think of walking in to the TJ Maxx where everything is all over the place and looks like a mess. If you’re like me, you’re probably inclined to run in the other direction. Same with your merch table. You want it to look like a warm, inviting, welcoming place that’s not intimidating for your fan to approach and transact.

Here are some best practices to follow:

  • Light It Up!

Use lighting to be seen and highlight your merch.

  • Display Pricing 

Use signs and price your items. Don’t make fans guess the price or have to ask. This will slow down movement of the line and piss off fans who waited but didn’t want to pay the ultimate price.

  • Be Seen

Set up in a visible location with the most traffic possible. If the venue has you in a dark corner that’s not in plain sight, ask them to move the table.

  • Be There 

As much as possible when you can’t be, have someone manning it for you! Make sure that person has a pleasant demeanor. No one wants to approach an unapproachable looking person.

  • Dress for Success (the table, that is)

Use a branded tablecloth or table covering that is your own – don’t rely on the venue to provide this.

  • Rotate Merchandise

Swap out some items so your merch doesn’t get stale, but keep best sellers for every show.

DO!
DON’T

In Summary…

Your brand is the face you show the world – make sure it represents what you want the world to see

DO make sure that artwork represents you in an authentic way
DO make things that people will want to wear
DO make sure your band name is present so we know who you are
Don’t take costly design risks until you know what your fans are buying
Don’t just slap something onto a shirt without putting thought into it – fans will know
DO leave enough lead time for merch ordering 
DO make sure your merch table is neat and organized 
DO make sure your merch is in a visible and well-lit area
DO get creative with display
DO pay attention to who your fans are
DO apply your judgment based on your experience and knowledge of your fan base

Stay tuned for Part II of this piece which will cover Merch Strategy. 

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