Bands turn to merch tables to give their tours more juice
Merchandise sales have always been part of the equation for Hamilton’s band Arkells.
Between high-anticipation pieces like Arkel’s branded neon winter talks and tie-dyed tees, there are some less predictable ideas. A 500-piece puzzle is assembled into the band’s figure, and a “Dirty Dancing”-inspired shirt gives him a retro 1980s vibe.
A few quirky concepts also made their way into the product mix, such as Arkel’s limited-edition bathrobes, which were unveiled during the pandemic lockdown, and guitar tabbooks inspired by their 2020 album, Campfire Chords.
Band merch is especially important as Canadian musicians face two major challenges this year. That’s enough show planning to recover financially from inflation-driven touring costs and years of hiatus during the pandemic.
“If you want to make being a musician a job, there’s an entrepreneurial side to it,” said the lead singer, who was the band’s seventh Group of the Year nominee at this weekend’s Juno Awards. Max Kerman explains.
“You have to think about it.”
Kerman’s band avoids talking too much about revenue, but admits that the merch table is a reliable source of income, even if they prefer it as a way to build a fan community.
Both could be true, especially in this uncertain economic time.
Sheepdogs bassist Ryan Gullen said his band’s combination of branded fanny packs, vinyl slipmats and clothing has helped keep concert ticket prices from spiraling out of control.
“I don’t want to charge a lot of money,” he said.
“Commodities are that saving grace,” he added.
Other performers say merchandise is essential to making the tour happen.
East Coast singer Sean McCann describes merchandise as a “fundamental” part of his business model. For years he refused to apply for financial assistance to keep other Canadian musicians active, and “always believed that any business should be independently viable.” said.
Also, the former member of The Great Big Sea has removed most of his solo music from the streaming service for ethical reasons. His next tour means that sales at the merchandising table will become even more important in making a living on tour.
“If I can go out and sell $500 of merchandise, I’ll be able to pay for gas and hotels,” he said.
“And for the show to come to fruition, it needs at least that.”
McCann has created a small but tangible product line to meet these financial goals. He gathered feedback from fans on his social media and came up with the idea of selling a mini-his songbook. There’s also a shirt that winks at the middle-aged female fanbase that reads “My Mom Loves Your Band” and he expects it to be a hot seller.
“People are starting to realize that artists are being coerced because of Spotify and the pandemic,” he added.
“And they want to keep watching the show.”
Yvonne Arbour, business development specialist at Toronto-based designer KT8 Merch, suggests that the last few years have shaped a real shift between musicians and their fans. She said more performers have come to accept that “there is no shame in the self-promotion game.”
She credits some of this new perspective to retailers such as Urban Outfitters, which began carrying a wide selection of classic band shirts about a decade ago. As more people wore them, the stigma that led some artists to start wearing their own wares gradually disappeared.
In the years that followed, she said, cultural and creative changes took hold. Among the leaders were DJs from the electronic dance-her community who experimented with less-conventional merchandise ideas such as her skate decks, slide sandals, and cannabis grinders for sale at concerts and online stores.
Fans paid cash to fuel an explosion in the lifestyle apparel segment spearheaded by hip-hop performers alongside Taylor Swift and The Weeknd.
“We’re talking $120 jerseys, truly unique backpacks, and items you wear every day.
“Where artists are accustomed to making $10 off a T-shirt by $20, we see much greater profit margins.”
How deeply each performer invests in a branded product line comes down to individual tastes, Arbor said, but the demand is undeniable at many live music events.
“Now, when I go to a festival or a concert, I have an immediate product lineup,” she said.
“We’re seeing a huge increase in[sales]and this is a big contributor to the profit margins for the artists, and they can walk away from the show with their money at the end of the day.”
The surge in popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed by other areas of the music industry looking to grab a slice of the profits as well. One of those players is a concert venue, or a promoter like Live Nation, sometimes demanding a sizable share of the merchandise table sales.
This has caused concern for rapper Cadence Weapon, who last year launched an initiative to discourage them from dipping in the pot. Venues often make up between 15% and 35% of their revenue, and they say they lost hundreds of dollars last summer.
“In many situations, especially at venues, it feels very arbitrary,” he said. “I know it’s not a big part of their revenue, but why is this happening?”
Since unveiling the campaign last November, nearly 130 North American venues have pledged to refrain from merchandise sales, Pemberton said.
“The way I see it, artists have been the driving force of the whole live music industry, but they’re always the first to get the money,” he said.
“They’re always the people who have to take the scraps left over after paying everyone else involved in live music.”
With merchandising sales as important as ever, members of the Arkells bow to Montreal-based supplier Cardboard Box Project to imagine new ideas that will resonate with fans.
Most of their designs were created by guitarist Mike DeAngelis, who sketches ideas on his iPad before presenting them to the group. It can be a keepsake that references a specific Arkels concert, or it can be random, like a painting of his cat.
“Merchandise can be a really artistic statement,” he said.
“And in our own minds, it helps us visually conceptualize what we’re doing. I think setting that vibe is going to be important.”
This report by the Canadian Press was first published on March 8, 2023.