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D.I.Y. Musician: Get the Most Out of Merch

August 9, 2010

Being a musician, you probably sell more than just music. T-shirts, apparel, posters, and other merchandise are all a traditional part of a musician''s income. While the goal of selling merch to your fans is the same as it has always been, you now have many options and tools for creating, distributing, and selling beyond traditional manufacturing, such as print-on-demand and fulfillment services. The question is how to use these services effectively.

The place to start is print-on-demand. Sites such as CafePress, Spreadshirt, and Zazzle allow you to upload any image, create an online store (or embed widgets on your website), and immediately start selling a large variety of branded merch. With these sites, nothing is physically made until a customer actually orders one of the products. Because the companies keep no inventory, these stores have zero upfront costs. You can make money on the very first sale. Of course, your margin depends on the price you charge above their baseline cost of each item.

Print-on-demand sites such as Spreadshirt will let you create custom T-shirts and other merchandise.

Print-on-demand sites such as Spreadshirt will let you create custom T-shirts and other merchandise.

Sounds great, right? Generally, it''s a good option, but one of the issues with print-on-demand services is their products are already priced high, so you make low profit margins unless you charge outrageous prices to build up your cut. In addition, because of the methods these companies use to print on apparel, your images sometimes don''t last beyond a few washes. Finally, they usually won''t pay you until you meet a minimum payout value. With low profit margins, it can take many sales to ever hit that threshold.

Because of these disadvantages, many musicians use print-on-demand services to test out designs to see which ones sell. You can even make samples for yourself at cost to see what they look like, as well as try them out on fans (such as using the designs as displays at shows). Once you find out what designs get the most interest, you can take them to a traditional manufacturer and do a standard print run locally to avoid shipping costs. Ordering in bulk will reduce the price per item and give you greater margins. Plus, depending on the company''s printing technique, the quality may be much better.

Once you decide to do a traditional run, you have yet another choice. There are numerous outlets to make your merch online, but if you are fortunate enough to have a local T-shirt or merchandise shop, use it. You''ll be able to save on shipping costs, and you might be able to make some samples. Furthermore, most of the folks at these stores are quite knowledgeable about the options available, which may produce a more effective run.

Doing a traditional print run causes a new problem: You have to take orders and ship them to your customers yourself. Worse, how do you sell them online at your website? To solve these problems, you can use services like PayPal to handle credit card transactions or create an eBay storefront to take orders. But you''ll still have to ship everything yourself.

For a more complete solution, you can use a fulfillment service to do it all for you. Services like IndieMerchandising, Nimbit, Amazon Fulfillment Services, and Yahoo! Merchant Solutions can handle inventories, fulfill orders, and ship your product for you for a fee. Once you have your account set up, you simply ship the company some product, and it will do the rest. Compared to print-on-demand services, fulfillment services using pre-manufactured merch will give you a better profit margin, although it is reduced by their fees and the cost of shipping your product to their warehouses.

Working the various merch options that are available today can help you be smart about your choices so you can maximize your return on investment.

Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are the authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide.


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