With so many great bands champing at the bit to play decent venues, club owners have little incentive to actually pay a band to play. In fact, in cities that the competition is the stiffest, some venues enact a “pay to play” policy: The band must purchase tickets for the night of the show from the club owner, and to make money on the gig, the band has to then sell these tickets at a markup — what a racket. But a person's got to eat, and a band has expenses, so what do you do? For starters, take a tip from the superstars (such as Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani and Sean Combs) who have successful clothing and merchandise lines. Creating and selling unique band wear and novelties at your gigs can be a lucrative business venture, and it has the added bonus of increasing your band's visibility. It's also much less awkward than standing on the corner selling tickets.
STUFF FOR SALE
If you have an album or single that's ready for public consumption, selling that at your gig should be the priority. No matter how cool your merchandise is, ultimately, it's your music that needs to get into people's hands. The merchandise is, essentially, an “up sell,” something fun for people to buy and take home from your shows after they've purchased your music. If you're putting more money into manufacturing clothing and novelty items than recording your music, it might be time to reassess your priorities.
The first choice of most bands is to manufacture a slew of T-shirts imprinted with their logos, Websites and maybe some catchy mottoes. Women often spend more on finery than men, but they aren't buying oversize T-shirts. Offer clothing that will appeal to the ladies, like baby T-shirts, skirts or even underwear (really, it can be done tastefully). Any of these items can be silk-screened with your band's logo as easily as a standard T-shirt. Also, make sure to have things that will appeal to your specific audience and are priced accordingly. For example, less expensive items — coasters, beer cozies, key-chain bottle openers, mugs, hats, pins, stickers and so forth — will be a hit with the broke, beer-drinking college kids who come to your shows.
But rather than manufacture hundreds of T-shirts with the same imprint, create unique, artistic designs and manufacture limited quantities to produce collectible T-shirts. This is a great way of adding value to any product, not just T-shirts, and it differentiates your band's novelty items from other bands selling cookie-cutter products. Everybody wants a one-of-a-kind item. Although the cost per item is higher when you don't buy in bulk, meaning a lower profit margin, the upside is that buying fewer units means less cash is required to get started.
Some printing companies will put your design on a T-shirt for about $10 — including the price of the shirt — using an inkjet printer, heat-transfer paper and a heat press. Of course, you could purchase the heat-transfer paper yourself (about a dollar a sheet), print your own designs and use mom's iron to make the transfers, but a professional heat press produces a better transfer. But for the most professional look and feel, go with silk-screened imprints. This is a more expensive process, but it yields a more durable imprint. For one-offs and very short runs, you might even consider investing in your own silk-screening setup; complete kits are available for less than $150. With runs of 20 or more pieces, it's wise to hire a professional (such as www.angrygirl.com) for overall conformity and convenience.
Other novelty items can be found at carnival supply warehouses, like Kipp Brothers in Indiana (online at www.kippbro.com). You can save money by figuring out ways to affix your artwork to the novelty items yourself. But if you aren't interested in decorating the goods personally and can afford to spend the extra money per unit, there are companies that specialize in putting your art on a variety of objects. One such company, popular among indie musicians, is CaféPress (www.cafepress.com). CaféPress can put your artwork on everything from wall clocks to mouse pads. Best of all, for online sales, the company doesn't charge money for manufacturing until an item has been ordered. Or you can buy ready-made product in bulk directly from the company to sell at your gigs.
CLOSING THE DEAL
It's easy to say that you should sell merchandise at gigs, but anybody who has tried knows that pulling it off successfully is another matter altogether. An independent group in Los Angeles that has had success selling a variety of band wear and collectibles at its shows is Midway (www.midwaymidway.com). To every gig, the group drags along a large roadcase packed full of merchandise, from T-shirts to key chains. Inside, the products are all neatly arranged and ready to be displayed by simply opening the trunk and putting it on a table. The case even has clothing racks and hangers ready to be pulled out, lights to illuminate the business transactions and a neon sign that proudly flashes the band's name. As Midway keyboardist Kevin Fischer says, “The object was to have something quick and easy to set up so that nobody would have to waste 30 minutes before the show setting up the merchandise — and to make the display eye-catching so people would be naturally drawn to it.”
“The most effective way to sell merch is to have the lead singer, the ‘face’ of our band, personally sell stuff after each show,” says Emily Weber, Midway's bass player. “Most people want to meet her anyway. Also, always offer deals on buying more than one item at a time. For example, get one for $10 or two for $18 and you save $2.”
It can be difficult to put on the salesperson hat after a show, but if you're serious about your act, it's wise to treat it like a real business. Take every opportunity to generate a positive cash flow. Selling merch at your performances can provide a steady flow of cash to help fund your musical aspirations.