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Ask any artist and they’ll tell you merch is their biggest source of income.

With physical music sales in a constant decline—with the exception of vinyl, of course—these days fans are more likely to spend money on a cool new T-shirt design, a jokey item like a metal band’s cheesy Christmas sweater, or just straight up bizarre things like a band’s branded hot sauce. All you have to do is check out the insane range of KISS collectibles at your local record store to know band merch is a major moneymaker. So why aren’t more bands treating merch like the serious business it is?

Many artists shy away from focusing on profit margins, either because they’re not comfortable slapping a price value on their music or because they’re not interested in the less artistic side of the job. However, if you want your music to become your career, selling the right kind of merch at the right price, the right way, will help finance your dreams. It’s simple, and it doesn’t have to be a painful process.

What to Sell

The two pillars of the merch table are your CD/vinyl/cassette tape (whichever format you prefer) and your T-shirts. These are the most purchased items out of any band’s catalog. (Tote bags are also becoming increasingly popular.) Decorate your table with stickers and buttons, which should have such a low production cost that you can give them away for free, or charge $1 if you want.

After all, the reason wearable merch is so popular is not only do bands profit from the initial sale, but the wearer provides free marketing for your band for years to come.

So it makes sense to invest in a quality product that won’t fade, get stretched in the wrong places, or have the logo flake off. You don’t want to skimp on your merchandise’s quality to save a buck. You’re putting your name on it; if it falls apart, it reflects poorly on you.

Of course, you shouldn’t bankrupt yourself by ordering only the crème de la crème of merch–say a limited edition silk bomber jacket with your band name emblazoned on it–but don’t order cheap, ugly t-shirts just because they’re inexpensive. People won’t buy them and then you’ll be stuck with 400 crappy shirts. American Apparel brand shirts are basically the standard for well-made band merchandise these days, as you’ll see next time you’re perusing the tables at a show.

Unusual items, limited edition products, or tour only swag will catch the eye of your biggest fans and pull them over to the table. Scarcity equals demand. Tell fans your latest run of T-shirts is limited to 100 and they’ll sell quickly, as long as you’ve laid the foundation by creating a cool design on a well-made shirt.

When you’re determining a price to charge fans, don’t undersell yourself. While you’re figuring out how much to charge, consider what return on investment is reasonable.

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How to Sell

You’re going to miss out on sales if there’s not someone behind your merch table at all times. If you’re playing a show in your hometown, recruit a trusted and charming friend. If you’re on tour, designate someone in your band for the task while you’re offstage, and when you’re on, request someone working the other bands’ tables cover yours. You can also offer up a guestlist spot to a local fan who will handle the role while you’re focused on playing.

Not everyone enjoys interacting with strangers or talking about money, so choose someone who genuinely has a good time meeting people, making deals, and promoting your music.

While you’re onstage, talk up your merch. Give the table a few mentions throughout your set, and be clever. “We’ve got T-shirts!” will work once. Whereas, “buy a drink for our good friend Jennifer, who’s helping us sell shirts tonight” tells people not only do you have merch, but you have someone knowledgeable there to help fans. Jokes work, as does promoting your tour only EP, mentioning your limited edition shirts are almost sold out, and discussing a special package deal on certain items.

When fans do come to your table, they should be greeted by a well-lit space with thoughtful, attractive presentation. Hang up the shirts and other items of clothing so people can see them. Keep your space organized, with different bins for different sizes of clothing. If you don’t keep your merchandise in order and you’re spending five minutes rifling through your bins trying to find a ladies size small, people in the waiting line will get bored, distracted, or assume you’ve sold out of what they want.

One of the biggest secrets to successful merch tables is package deals. If you knock a few dollars off the cost of two items you’ve paired together, you’re more likely to convince a fan they need a shirt AND your latest album. They save some money, and you walk away with more than you would’ve had before if you had sold only your new LP. If you’re selling CDs for $10 each, sell two for $15. You’re moving inventory, getting fans deeper into your catalog, and making everyone involved feel good.

Finally, get a credit card swiper and app. Square is the standard, but many other awesome systems with low fees for the seller exist. Don’t miss out on a sale because the fan doesn’t have cash and you don’t want to pay 3% on credit card fees, or because you’re too lazy to look into setting a system up on your mobile device. Besides, people are more willing to spend more money on merch if they know it won’t reduce the cash they have on hand for another drink at the bar, or for tomorrow morning’s coffee.

“You will be surprised by how lazy some people will be: they don’t want to walk all the way to merch on their way out, or they don’t want to wait in a line at merch.”

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How to Handle the Business End

Do your research before choosing which company will produce your products. Compare pricing, quality, and item options available. When you find a few companies that could work, reach out to them on a person-to-person level. They want your business, and should be willing to work with you and your budget.

When you’re negotiating, ask if the company will price match, or throw in some extra promotional swag to land your business. You can also approach a local vendor about a long-term partnership. This works best when your city has a tight-knit music community where people want to help each other out.

If you can guarantee a certain amount of business for a certain period of time, ask if they’ll work with you on lower pricing. Most importantly, always order your standard merch items in bulk. The more you order of something, the more the price goes down. You can also save money on less elaborate, less colorful designs, as most screen printers will charge per color.

When you’re determining a price to charge fans, don’t undersell yourself. While you’re figuring out how much to charge, consider what return on investment is reasonable. Don’t be the guy in the punk scene charging $30 for a shirt when everyone else is charging $10, but also make sure you’re turning a profit and not just covering costs. $15-20 for a shirt is normal for any small to mid-sized band these days, with hoodies costing more, usually between $35-$40.

Naturally, pricing will vary according to the level of success you’ve achieved as a band, individual member preferences in regards to profit, and sometimes even your genre of music. As a general rule, however, a decent pricing structure is $10 for a CD, $5 for a cassette tape or EP and $20+ for vinyl. If you’ve got a nice screen printed poster, $15-$25 is fine.

How a Successful Touring Band Does It

To get some perspective on how merch sales work for a successful touring band, we spoke with Gabe Douglas, frontman of Minneapolis-based rock ‘n’ roll band The4onthefloor. With songs licensed in hit television shows like ABC’s Nashville and A&E’s Duck Dynasty and stages shared with the likes of Willie Nelson, Drive-By Truckers and Trampled By Turtles, the band has turned their art into a viable business. They have a packed touring schedule which sees the band frequently cycling through the Midwestern circuit, with regular national tours. Gabe shares his insights below.

What kind of merch sells best?

“In my experience, merch that is of quality. I only get merch that I would buy. That means tri-blend shirts, hearty trucker hats, exceptional hoodies with thumbholes & stash pockets, premium vinyl, and CD digipaks that have spines that are easily read. You can always sell somebody a new, cool design on a T-shirt, even if they already own all your albums.”

Any recommendations on where to get it made?

“I always recommend going local. You can get your goods quickly and you have boots on the ground when problems arise. (PROBLEMS WILL ARISE.) We’ve used Shameless in Minneapolis and Ambient Inks in Eau Claire, and they both come HIGHLY recommended. For albums, we’ve used Noiseland Industries for all our vinyl & CDs. Amazing work they do.”

How do you determine how much to sell merch for so you can make a profit?

“I don’t expect folks to pay more for my stuff at a merch stand than they would at a record store. I determine prices so it’s EASY to make change (and hopefully NOT make change.) Stick with prices divisible by 5 and you won’t have to ever see George Washington in your cash box. Make things $20 because it’s effective and [makes for] quick transactions. (We are constantly selling merch as security is removing folks out the doors. It adds up.)”

Do you have any tips on what works best?

Always bring your own lighting. If a club or festival has lighting, cool, but it’s up to you for folks to see your merchandise. I usually try and be in plain sight as folks are entering a show room. Being near exits is also beneficial, as you can catch folks who are there for openers or headliners that aren’t you, easily. Have DOWNLOAD CARDS; give them to people who are interested. Don’t just flyer folks, but engage them.

Hang stuff at EYE LEVEL and make your pricing chart simple and informative. Have sizes on T-shirts (that are in stock) and have prices on all display items. It’s much easier to point at a price on something while a band is rocking loudly than to yell “$20!!! TWENTY DOLLARS. TWENTY F**KIN EEEEE DOLLAHHHHS” at people.

Have a credit card reader. Lurk around your merch booth. Don’t be creepy, but be ready to engage any passerby who seems interested. Everybody in the band should have download cards on them and know where merch is. Many bands give each member a handful of CDs post-show and then run to the exits to sell them effortlessly. (For the fans it is effortless. You will be surprised by how lazy some people will be: they don’t want to walk all the way to merch on their way out, or they don’t want to wait in a line at merch.)”

How do online sales figure into your total merch sales? Is there a different strategy there?

“Online sales are driven by people knowing who you are. Our download cards bring you to free songs to download and [to] our web store. [It’s] easy to buy physical and digital copies there.

A big thing while touring is you may run out of sizes for certain items, so directing folks to the webstore can be instrumental in getting that person to put a billboard on their chest for you.”

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