Merch strategies for the indie artist

In today's indie music scene, your guarantee from any given gig might cover gas money.

The real money is made off of merch and CD sales, and if you're doing it right, you can sell merch at a 150% or 200% mark-up and still be at the same price point as most other bands. Figuring out how to maximize sales and revenue is the real challenge, but it's one of those crucial things you'll need to master if you want to make an impact on your bottom line. Here are five strategies to consider.

1. Create an aesthetic

While this is really general advice for musical acts – it translates directly to the world of merchandise. Your aesthetic relates to the general vibe communicated by all of your merchandise, from CDs and vinyl records to hoodies, t-shirts, and hats. What your aesthetic is will be determined by your band's brand. Step two is creating pieces and apparel your fans will relate to. What's important is that your products have a recognizable and consistent look that encourages a collector's sensibilities and gets your fans interested in purchasing everything you have to offer. This aesthetic should also apply to how you lay out your merch: your fans should be drawn in by the various designs that showcase different aspects of your band. Take a cue from local bands and national acts you go to see.

2. Tip jar

Some people might not have the $15 they need for a shirt, but might be blown away by your performance. Put a tip jar on your merch table and see what happens. It doesn't cost you anything, and it allows fans who want to chip in even a few quarters the opportunity to do it. If you have a friendly merch guy and an entertaining message, you might even be able to turn this into a regular income stream. For bands that regularly play mid-sized venues, it's not unusual to pull in $50 a gig just by putting out a jar! People actively want to help bands – they just want it to be easy and convenient, and you rarely get more convenient than a chance to dump your spare change into a jar to support an artist you like.

3. Cut deals

Whoever is selling your merch should be aware of the wholesale price of each piece of merchandise and be authorized to cut deals. Did someone buy two CDs and a vinyl record? Well you probably just netted thirty bucks of profit off that person, so a free shirt – or at least a sticker or a patch – shouldn't be out of the question. People who spend money on your band should be rightly rewarded: they are the people making this whole thing possible, after all! Beyond that, people often like to spring for package deals, so be sure to have a few pre-packaged deals priced and ready to go. You might lose a little bit of net profit – but if you have your merch priced properly and you're operating on a 150-200% markup, the impact on profits should be minimal. After all, more sales lead to more profits, even if the net per sale is a little lower.

4. Sell unique merchandise

I still remember seeing West Coast powerviolence act Antichrist Demoncore years ago, selling their custom onesie and being stunned. Everyone loves a band who sells something totally unique: not only does it make people remember your group, it also encourages people to buy. I mean really, how many chances do you get to buy a onesie with a pentagram on it? It's this kind of lateral thinking that really helps your band earn more money. Other pieces of merch that I've seen capture the hearts of legions of fans include kilts, underwear (admittedly this one is getting more and more popular), condoms, and leggings. If you're looking for inspiration, check out the web store or crowdfunding rewards of some of your favorite big-name bands; they are sure to have items you would never have thought of.

5. Sell everything

If you've been able to cultivate any sort of fanbase, you should be able to sell what many might describe as the pure excitement of playing in a band. Things like broken drum heads, shredded drum sticks, and damaged guitars can command a pretty penny at the merch table – especially if they are signed by the band. Another great potential income stream is soundboard recordings. What better way to let fans take home the power of your live performance? In fact, if a fan wants to buy the shirt off your back – sell it! There should be no ifs, ands, or buts about it, you need to do everything you can to thrive as a band.


Matt Bacon is the lead columnist for Independent Music Promotions: we would love to work with you! Matt also manages heavy metal bands, works for labels, and is a prolific freelance writer. Get in touch with him at Matt@independentmusicpromotions.com.