You packed the house. You had a fantastic performance. The entire crowd loved every minute of your set. Now you have to turn that enthusiasm into album and T-shirt sales. How do you go about doing that? That's a question I asked a few indie hip-hop artists who are masterful at the merch table in hopes of finding out some of their secrets to success. What I ended up learning from Jake Palumbo, Tah Phrum Duh Bush, Toussaint Morrison, Joey Batts, and N.M.E. The Illest is a little something I like to call The Nine Merch Commandments.
Like Biggie said, "There's rules to the shit," so grab your CDs, your T-shirts, and your smartphone credit card reader (if you don't already have one of those, consider it your 10th commandment), because here's your manual.
1. Have someone at your merch table at all times
This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many artists just set up a table and go on about their night. Toussaint Morrison notes that not having a person behind your merch table will likely result in stolen goods. He adds that in addition to security, "If you have someone holding down the table, people always [have] a human being they can ask about the merch."
2. Invite fans to hang out with you at your merch table
When you hold the microphone, you have a lot of control. N.M.E. The Illest suggests using that control to get your fans to join you post-show at your merch table. "Tell them to meet you after the set over at your merch table just to talk and hang out. They don’t have to be pressured into buying anything. They'll do it on their own."
Palumbo seconds this, saying, "By walking straight from the stage over to the merch table instead of backstage, you are leading well-wishers to a central location that just so happens to feature your items for sale staring back at them." He adds, "Support can be contagious. People see others in front of them pulling out money, getting their CD signed, snapping pictures, etc., and they don't want to be left out and will often buy on impulse."
3. Set up your merch correctly
No one wants to pick out a shirt from what looks like a pile of dirty laundry. Set everything up professionally. You're essentially running a store, so it should look like a place where you'd want to shop.
Tah suggests integrating some lighting into your merch display. He also notes that it's essential to have a price list that everyone can easily see. "You don't want people to have to work," he explains. "If there is a line, they can hand off a $10 really quickly and keep moving if they know the price. If they have to wait, chances are they'll say, 'I'll come back,' and they never do."
If you're in a space where it's possible, "try to find a hook or something to hang the T-shirts from," Morrison says. "People can see shit hanging in the background up higher better than they can see something laying flat on the table."
4. Show up to the venue early
Arriving just in time for your set is something only douchey artists do. Tah notes that professionals who actually want to make new fans and move some merch arrive at the venue a full hour before things get started. "Work the whole room, and make sure everyone knows your name," he explains. "Thank them for coming to your show even if they came to see someone else or are just hanging out at the bar randomly. Tell them how much you appreciate them coming out, and ask them how they heard about you. It starts a convo 75 percent of the time. It piques interest and gets curiosity happening. The more of a connection you have, the more of a chance they will watch your set with care, and the more likely they are to buy your shit!"
Joey Batts agrees: "Talk. To. Everyone. Not one artist reading this is bigger than any single fan. A simple convo builds a relationship."
5. Leave the venue late
Show up early and leave late? Yes, you're going to be burning the candle at both ends, but N.M.E. The Illest points out that even after the last act, "people are still meandering around looking for that last out-of-the-door impulse buy. Don't miss out on that opportunity. I've had my biggest sales at the tail end of the night."
6. Have fans who already own your T-shirts come to the show wearing them
If you have an email list, or any sort of following on social media, influence your fans who already own your merch to come to your shows wearing it. "The more people, especially women, wearing your merch at shows, the more people will buy your merch," Tah explains. "They will feel a need to belong."
And if a little motivation is needed? "Have the venue take a dollar off the cover if someone is wearing your merch," he recommends.
7. Hook up the venue's employees
Since the venue is going to be your home for the evening, hook up the employees. N.M.E. The Illest explains why artists should do this: "Who are some people you are guaranteed to run into at a show? Door guy. DJ. Bartender. Sound man. Headliner. Give them a shirt! Ask them to rock it! They will essentially be promoting you all night."
8. Make sure you have high-quality products
As Joey Batts eloquently puts it, "Loyalty is real, but garishness is realer." This is why he notes that a very important aspect of any merch sale is to "create a shirt that people will want to wear."
Quality, N.M.E. The Illest adds, is a huge factor when it comes to this. "You must invest some money into yourself, and try to maintain the highest standard possible when it comes to products you want people to take home," he explains. "The days of iron-on logos and Memorex, handwritten CDs are gone. The internet has made so many great merch options available, or if you're like me, you hunt down the best local print shop, and work face to face with the people creating your goods."
N.M.E. also warns, "Don't overdo it with the corny merch – aprons, clocks, novelty weird stuff. Keep it simple at first – music, shirts, stickers, then think about expanding your brand. If people see 10 different things available, they might get overwhelmed and not buy anything."
9. Play "let's make a deal"
"Fans love a deal," N.M.E. The Illest explains, which is why he bundles his merch. "Give them everything all-in-one for a discount."
Joey Batts adds that this is also a way to connect with fans who might not have as much money on them. "Understand the struggle," he says. "If people paid to see you, cut 'em a deal. No one is truly Mr. Moneybags, despite what they say."
Learn more about selling merch at your shows:
- 5 Out-of-the-Box Band Merch Ideas Your Fans Will Love
- 4 Creative Ways to Sell More Merch
- 5 Reasons Why People Aren't Buying Your Merch
- 2 Great Websites for Selling Band Merch Online
- 8 Creative Band Merch Items to Inspire Your Own
Adam Bernard is a music industry veteran who has been working in media since 2000. If you live in the NYC area, you've probably seen him at a show. He prefers his venues intimate, his whiskey on the rocks, and his baseball played without the DH. Follow him @adamsworldblog.