The Merch Gap
Posted on July 8, 2014
Image: Caroline Moore
July 8, 2014
by Bryne Yancey
Cross-pollination between scenes is still pretty rare in this day and age. Because there are so many bands—and so many of them have “teams” of managers, publicists, tour managers, label owners, and booking agents—every perceived mistake can be deciminated, analyzed and overanalyzed by literally anyone at anytime. That doesn’t mean that these bands are 100% risk-averse, just that there are more people than ever who depend on their success or failure.
Convenience and calculation is why bands generally go on tour with other, sonically similar bands. Putting together a consistently good “package” is more important for business than say, taking a risk on an opener or co-headliner. There are examples of the contrary, like that awesome 2007 Mastodon / Against Me! / Cursive tour or the mewithoutYou / Touche Amore co-headliner in 2013, but for the most part, toeing the genre line on tours is the norm.
Now, because it’s 2014 and kids still don’t buy records (Where were you the day the new Tigers Jaw record leaked? Hopefully not on twitter or tumblr) and a lot of a band’s guarantee on tour goes to operating expenses like gas, van repairs, food, managers, tour managers, booking agents and publicists, merch is how they make their money. T-shirts, hoodies, koozies and yes, the occasional LP sold after the show are what keep the band on the road. But while these bands tend to not cross-pollinate, surely some fans have noticed that merch prices seem to vary wildly depending on the band, tour lineup, venue and other factors. Why is that? There’s also a price disparity from genre to genre: Most fans who attend metal or indie rock shows don’t seem to bat an eyelash at a $35 t-shirt or a $20 LP; meanwhile, a middling punk band wouldn’t dare charge more than $12-15 for a shirt or a record, lest they seem greedy. Presumably, heavy metal t-shirts and records cost roughly the same to produce as their punk counterparts. Why is there such a large price gap?
“It seems like there’s something ingrained in the punk scene where people expect everything to be dirt cheap,” says Banquets guitarist/Black Numbers label owner Dave Frenson. “In metal or indie, especially with bigger bands, I think the average fan is more willing to accept the amount of middlemen involved and the costs associated with getting a band in front of them. Mastodon is a great example because they’ve always got amazing art that’s extremely tailored to their ‘brand’ on their shirts. Right now they’re selling a t-shirt with art by David Cook for $30. If I could afford to pay that dude to do a Banquets shirt, I’d be lucky to sell out of that design at $12.”
“It seems to me like metal fans are more willing to deal with ‘industry’ institutions like booking agents, merch companies, ticket sellers, etc.,” Frenson continues. “Whereas punk fans expect the bands to be screen printing their own shirts on the way to their $5 basement show. It’s a model that only stands to burn bands out when they get tired of being broke.”
Chris Regec of Lehigh Valley Apparel Creations, which has printed merch for bands such as Iceage, The World Is A Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Spraynard and others, seems to agree that the disparity is environmental in nature. “I think that most ‘punks’ are uneasy with the notion of profit,” he says. “Perhaps it’s a rejection of capitalism or the rejection of idol worship (see also: why DIY bands don’t like big stages, barricades, and light shows) or something entirely different.”
“I think metal bands, specifically, are often raised to want to be rock and roll stars. The measuring sticks for success are different: Fugazi vs. Metallica is a stark contrast.”
Regec has a diverse clientele, which includes non-profits, schools, fire departments and a lot of professional wrestlers. He explains that to the wrestlers, much like a lot of metal bands, profit is seen as a good thing. “I see a lot of parallels in the world they live in – except that none of them have any qualms about making money,” he says. “Even the folks who know they’ll NEVER get to WWE (or the ones who don’t WANT to get to WWE) still know it’s a work, they still know there’s a hustle to it. On the independent wrestling level, the fans know it too – that’s why they’re willing to pay $20 for a shirt; they see it as supporting the trade, and supporting the hard work of their favorite wrestlers, you know?”
There’s also the issue of bands having to decide what to charge for their merch depending on what kind of tour they’re on. “When there are no [price] regulations implemented, for me it’s always been about feeling out the situation,” says Fake Problems vocalist/guitarist Chris Farren. “It’s usually influenced by the other bands [on the tour], just to make sure everyone is able to sell at a price point they’re comfortable with – and to make sure you don’t feel like you’re taking advantage of anyone.”
“I think that’s the main thing about punk shows vs. metal shows or whatever,” Farren continues. “It might be easing up a little bit over the past five years, but there is something inherently touchy about money in punk. In my experience, there are some people who just straight up take issue with bands making money. In reality I think most of us are only really making about $10 a shirt after paying for the shirt, screening and shipping. And a lot of bands can’t afford to make huge orders so the shirt prices go up when you can only order 50 at a time. But I do think the vast majority of fans and music listeners are savvy enough at this point to realize that almost every mid-level musician they love would make more money being a waitress/waiter or bartender.”
Indeed, while the disconnect in terms of what bands actually make vs. what their fans think they make seems to be shrinking, there’s still a sense of entitlement that exists in certain circles, especially younger ones. There’s a wide generational gap when it comes to assigning value to music, physical or digital. Bands and labels have had to get more creative over the years to stay above water, whether it’s rare or unique merch items, limited edition vinyl or something else. Often, the only way to get a kid to buy a record is to slap a limited edition label on it or press an odd color of vinyl; that is now the value inherent in the music and culture, rather than the music itself, which allows the entire culture to exist in the first place.
“I think I fall in line with that similar ‘punk’ attitude. I’ll be the first to admit that when a single LP costs upwards of $20 that I’m much more reluctant to pick it up,” says Matt Medina, owner of Animal Style Records. The label, which has released material from legitimately popular bands like The Story So Far and Transit, as well as current up-and-comers like Kite Party, Light Years and Young Turks, continues to sell their LPs at around $12, a punk-friendly price. “A lot of that comes down to my own ideals and based on the fact that I charge around $12 a record – which aren’t pressed in large quantities,” he continues. “Since I’m dealing with newer bands who aren’t necessarily household names, I think it’s important to keep prices low and hopefully get more people to pick up the record.”
Deciding to raise merch prices, and by how much, is something a lot of independent bands struggle with as costs rise. It’s a delicate dance that may translate to more sales, but not necessarily extra income. “I’d love to be able to raise our [prices] a bit, but I doubt people would pay much more,” admits Frenson. “One thing we’ve focused on was printing on nicer shirts. I know people will balk at some of the cheaper brands, so we started printing on Anvil Organic tees. When we did this, we bumped up from $10 to $12, but definitely saw more sales. Unfortunately at the level we’re printing merch (24-48 per design), that bump in price basically covers the bump in cost.”
Something else bands and labels have to be wary of is putting a large amount of money up front for something that may not see an immediate return. “With Black Numbers, we really haven’t ever been able to move a substantial amount of t-shirts. Real Friends is the only case where we sold a ton of shirts, and we didn’t want to risk raising our prices on that,” Frenson continues. “Having lots of leftovers, for whatever reason (price too high, design not going over well, shirt quality) is one the biggest fears for both Black Numbers and Banquets.
“Banquets printed a bunch of hoodies and spent almost $1,000 on them. It took us well over a year to move them all, and we barely made more than we spent on them. That was an even better situation than the first time we did hoodies, when we put them on much cheaper blanks and sold almost none of them.”
Low merch prices and lower profits can often mean musicians have to find day jobs, or other ways to make a living. Farren recently had success designing t-shirts—his “My Spirit Animal Is A Goth Teenager” shirt, co-designed with Heather Gabel was picked up by Urban Outfitters, and more recently his “Smith Family” shirts went viral on reddit, eventually making an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon when Will Smith was a guest. “Because I could barely keep up with the workload this entailed (in the beginning I was packaging, shipping and handling all customer service by myself), I raised the price from $20 to $25,” he explains. “Since it’s been out for a few months now, an impossible amount of Etsy, eBay and other online stores have completely ripped off the exact design from me and sell it for much cheaper. It kind of sucks to see it, but I’m not really interested in trying to compete in that world. I don’t care about novelty shirts enough to spend that much time on it.”
Farren is dealing with a whole other animal when it comes to his Goth Teenager shirts. “A website ripped off that exact design and phrase and sells it for literally one dollar cheaper. For that one, we have actually sent two cease and desists and are trying to figure out what else we can do. The Smiths thing is a little trickier because it’s already a parody shirt, but the Goth Teen shirt is straight up intellectual property theft.”
When it comes to venues taking their cut, Farren has thoughts as well. “Maybe there’s a valid argument for it somewhere out there, but having to sit in some random House of Blues at 2 a.m. while some teenager counts all of my shirts and then asks me for $10 (because we only sold four shirts) is dehumanizing, FOR BOTH OF US,” he says. “The whole thing very frequently feels like a scam, especially the times you know that each and every person in the venue has probably spent $30 at the bar.”
The notion that many music fans would prefer to spend their money at the bar, or at Starbucks or wherever, than on a record or t-shirt is nothing new. Both directly (the sheer number of bands) and indirectly (rising operation prices in the midst of a tough economy), competition is tough all over. Many traditional venues don’t seem to be doing the bands any favors by cutting into their already-small nightly income. There’s no clear answer on what bands should or shouldn’t do, where they should or shouldn’t play, what kind of merch they should or shouldn’t sell. It appears to be a case-by-case thing, a “What makes the most sense for us right this moment?” that, while keeping the bands on their toes and giving them much-needed street smarts, seems to come at the cost of any tangible long-term planning.
“The bigger machine requires more fuel to run – if you’ve got a press team, a tour manager, a booking agent – everybody gets a piece of the action, which quickly leads to $12-$15 shirts and [more expensive] LPs,” says Regec. “Bigger bands play bigger venues, which means 20-30% of merch sales go straight back to the house. That opens up the can of worms that is ‘do punk bands belong at big clubs?’”
“Is it wrong for a band to make a living off of their art? No, but because punk/DIY is supposed to be something more than just a chord structure,” he continues. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and peer review is always crucial, but I don’t think anyone really has room to say shit about any band, as long as they are honest and open about their motives, goals, and methods.”
“If you think taking staged promo pictures for your band is stupid, then don’t do it. If you think having a booking agent is bullshit, then don’t do it. That’s punk, that’s direct action on the most basic level.”