You’re worried about attendance. You’re thinking about tweaks to the set list. You’re introducing yourself to the sound engineer, booker, bouncer, bartender, or barista. You’re hoping you’ll have digested your dinner by the downbeat, or else you’ll be strategically timing burps between verses.
I’m not going to say that properly setting up your merch booth is the MOST pressing thing before your show; of course you want to sound good and fill the club. But once you’ve achieved those goals and expended lots of energy making sure everyone in the audience had a great time, the merch table is where your fans will turn to give some of that energy back — by purchasing a CD, t-shirt, or poster — and providing you with the money and psychic support you need to sustain your music career.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of your band’s merch table:
1. Make sure your signage is big and clear. What are you selling? How much does it cost? Answer those questions for your fans in advance. Then you can spend time talking with them about more interesting things. Even if it’s a brief interaction, better that you thank them for coming to the show, or ask them where they’re from, or tell them some anecdote, rather than saying “My newest CD is $12 and older CDs are $10. What? Oh, the newest CD is called emails from Heaven. Oh, yes. We have t-shirts too. They’re $14.”
2. Be at your merch booth before and after the show. No, it’s not ALWAYS going to be possible, especially in larger venues. But it’s a good rule to follow when you can. At a 2000-capacity hall in Portland, Oregon, Macklemore was still hanging out after and talking to hundreds of fans at his merch booth. If he can do it, you can too.
Not only will fans be more likely to buy your merch if you’re at the booth, but you also have the chance to make a connection with someone who appreciates your music. Music pundits always say you need to make “fans for life,” right? Yeah, well many of those diehard fans are met and made at the merch booth. And maybe they’ll give you an ego boost too. If you’ve been at this a while and gone through the ups and downs of music-making, you probably already know that kind of encouragement can go a long way.
3. Get someone else to run your merch table while you play. Too many bands leave their merch booths abandoned during the set. Now think of the fans who are super excited about the music but either have to leave early or just don’t want to wait in line as everyone crowds around the merch booth afterwards. If someone’s not at your merch booth while you’re playing, you’re missing out on potential sales AND email list subscribers. Speaking of…
4. Always encourage people to sign your email list. As an independent musician, your #1 marketing goal should be to build your email list. Social media platforms come and go, but email is forever — well, at least until your subscriber gets a new email address or the internet collapses. So make sure your email signup sheet is front-and-center at the merch table. If your table is easily crowded, put out multiple signup forms and offer some additional incentive for subscribing (free stickers)!
5. Set up the merch where everyone can see it. Forget about what’s most convenient for the venue. You need to set your merch display up where it’s highly visible and most convenient for your fans. This may mean having to bring your own stand or foldup table to display your merch on. It might also mean you have to do some negotiating with the staff.
Does the venue have a standard merch area at the back of the club where no one is looking? Forget about that. Set up your table to the left of the stage. Does the venue want you to put your merch booth under a stairwell (yes, I’ve seen it)? Screw that. Put it in the foyer where a dozen people can look at your merch at once.
6. Have change ready. Come prepared with enough cash and coin to get some commerce going. It’s embarrassing and a giant time-suck when you have to say, “Umm,… I don’t have change for a twenty. But, uhhh, hold on, lemme run to the bar.”
7. Accept credit cards and make sure your fans know they can whip out the plastic. With Square, or Intuit, or PayPal, you can easily take credit cards at your shows through a smartphone or iPad. Be sure your signage makes it clear to fans that they can use their Visa, MC, Amex, Discover, etc. (As long as your processing method supports those cards, of course).
8. Give your fans multiple merch choices. As consumers we like options, right? So make sure you’re selling a few different items: CDs, vinyl, t-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, stickers, download cards, hats, lyric broadsides, etc.
If it’s in the budget, the more options the better. However, you should always highlight one or two items so people know where to look first. Your newest album? The latest t-shirt? Don’t make it a total mystery which items you’d prefer fans to buy if they could only pick one.
9. Keep track of all your sales. You (and whoever else helps sell your merch) will have to become a good record-keeper. You want to see which items sold and in what quantity so you’ll know what to bring next time, what to reorder if supply is running low, and how to divvy up the money. If you’re on a label that lets you take CDs/vinyl out on the road without upfront payment, you’ll also need to know how much you owe them. Looking in a well-kept ledger is a lot easier than counting the leftover CDs at the end of the tour.
10. Sell something new for every big tour. Every time you come through town, you should have something new for your fans, something that they’ll want to buy to help you keep your tour wheels rolling. It doesn’t always have to be a major undertaking like a new album or t-shirt. How about a new CD single, or an EP of acoustic demos available only via download card, or a limited edition tour poster signed by the band?
11. Light it up! In the darkness of a music venue, your merch booth should shine, glow, blink, pulse, or otherwise give off that unmistakable radiance which says, “hey, come here and check out our awesome schwag.” Neon. Glow-sticks. White Christmas lights. An array of musical goodness lit from above by reading lamp. There’s lots of ways to illuminate your merch. Figure out what works best for you and your setup. Which brings us to…
12. Keep your setup portable. If you’re playing a big venue and have a designated merch seller, sure, use the whole merch/vending area and set up everything from scratch every night. Otherwise, you should figure out how to spruce up a foldout merch station, something you can quickly strike at the end of the night: a suitcase, guitar case, etc. By minimizing your setup time, you’ll minimize your stress and have more energy to put into your show.
13. Take their cash, even if they don’t have enough! This is certainly debatable, but I think bands who are still working to become full-time should have a kind of” secret sliding-scale” mentality when it comes to merch. Don’t advertise it, of course — but if someone expresses interest in your $12 CD and they only have $8, take the $8. Let them pay you! If you make a fan, a fan who tells friends about your show and album, that $4 “loss” will have been well worth it.
Bonus: Bargains, bargains, bargains! Everyone loves a discount, so consider doing a sale such as “CDs are $12; any two CDs for $20,” or “Buy two t-shirts, get a CD free.” Again, make the signage clear.
What are your tried-and-true methods to boost music and t-shirt sales at your merch booth? Let us know what’s worked for you in the comments section below.