But I never said it was easy.
The best things in life may be free, but for those things that are not the best, it takes money. This includes being in a band. Between equipment, gas, food, promotion and much more, a band can sink (financially) faster than the Titanic.
So what do you do to cover your expenses? Well, for starters, play out. If you are not playing shows, you are not getting paid. However, there are many `dos' and `don'ts' to this overly simplified rule in order to actually be successful.
Rule number one would be to not expect to make enough money from the door to buy a tour bus. Be realistic. Most venues host several bands each night and have a lot of bills to pay, so by the time the door money gets down to you, there is not much left. Venues have to pay bills, but so do bands... so be prepared for "Plan B"- merchandise sales. This is where you can benefit the most from what you are doing already. It kills two birds with one stone: on one hand, you are making a profit (or hopefully, not losing money) on your merchandise and on the other hand, you are further promoting your band's name. When the show is over, the merchandise lives on and it is seen by many.
Rule number two would be to find a product line that suits your band and what it is all about. Finding a good name, logo, catchy phrase, picture, or something that reminds people of your music is a good place to start. Then you have to decide what to put it on. Make it appropriate to your audience. No one wants your name on their bed sheets (as much as you may wish they did) or their toilet paper (this is one is more likely) so start with the staples of merchandising - CDs, T-shirts, hoodies, stickers, buttons, lighters, etc. Then branch out, based on what you learn from your fans about their identity, their wants/needs and the sales. Test the water a bit with small orders before buying 10,000 pocket protectors with your band's logo on them: (visualizes my own band's new line of pocket protectors reading a catch phrase) "Nemesis: Nerd Metal." Hmmm...
Now you need to find a place to make your products come to life. This is much harder than it may sound, believe me. (See last month's edition of Louisville Rock Lowdown to see some of the difficulties you may encounter.) I prefer to work with local places for a few reasons. It is good to support the local guys and girls who are tied in with our scene, it is good for the local economy and it helps to have someone within driving distance to be in touch with about your order (or bitch at, as it may be). It also makes things easier and cheaper for delivery and pickup. Your vendor needs to understand your needs, especially when it comes to deadlines and prices. Being in a band is a somewhat sporadic job - you should tell them this up front. Last-minute shows come up and you may need merchandise with the quickness. You are also on a budget, so the price needs to be fair. Remember... you are going to have to mark this stuff up to make it worth your while. People are only willing to pay so much for your merchandise, even though they are buying it to support you. You have to take this into consideration when making decisions such as this one and when it comes down to pricing the finished product.
Let's talk about that.
Once the product is finished and you are ready to sell it at your shows, you have to put a price on it. While there is no absolute right or wrong about what kind of profit you should shoot for, a good rule of thumb is around $2 - $3 above cost per item for clothing and CDs and less for the smaller items like stickers and such. Just think about what you would be willing to pay for another unsigned band's merchandise. Also, keep in mind the actual cost of the item and the quality of the finished product. For instance, if you bought a genuine Rolex watch (hypothetically valued at $15,000) for $5, you wouldn't sell it for $7 just because you got a good deal on it. It has a certain market value based on its quality and reputation. The sheer fact that you bought it for $5 off some guy you know doesn't force you to give that break to someone else. However, your fans will appreciate any break you pass on to them, so if you get a steal on some promotional items, try to pass along the savings. It is also helpful when competing with other bands carrying the same items to be cheaper than they are. If you are in a metal or rock band, chances are high that your target audience is younger kids between the ages of 12-21. Many of them do not have a job, so keep in mind that they are spending their allowance to come see you play and saving their allowance up to buy your stuff. Take it easy on them as much as possible, they will thank you (and buy more later).
Now that you have your merchandise complete and ready to sell, you come full circle to the beginning of this story - playing out. It is somewhat possible to sell merchandise outside of shows through friends, word of mouth and especially the Internet but shows are still going to be your best bet. This is where you have the opportunity to show the crowd what it is you do and pitch your merchandise speech to them. Offer sales, giveaways, contests, etc., to help promote your products. You should have a merchandise table set up if you expect to sell anything at a show. This is your storefront. Treat it like one! Don't let it look run down or sloppy. Make it eye-catching, approachable and accessible. Make sure that there is someone present working it at all times and that they are friendly and appreciative to your fans/customers. There is nothing worse than giving someone your money and them being rude to you about it. That does not leave a good impression and you will not have repeat sales from that individual. Treat your fans like your friends. They deserve that. Also, you will have to reach out to them to sell your stuff, as most people are not willing to chase you down to buy something.
There is a plethora of places out there to make your band's merchandise. You just have to find the right one for your needs. A good place to begin your search is the Yellow Pages. Look under screen-printing for clothing items such as T-shirts and hoodies. Most places will offer multiple services, so ask what they have to offer and if they can special order for you. Sizes are also important, as not everyone is a small, medium, or large. Make sure they can offer sizes up to 4X and 5X. Plus sizes will usually cost extra, but your customers are willing to pay a little extra for something that fits well. If you can't find what you are looking for locally, your next stop should be the Internet. There, you will find MANY places that want your money... I mean business. Be choosy and do some research on the place before giving out your credit card number to some 14-year old hacker in his basement.
To wrap up the discussion, I will say this: The responsibility is yours only. There is nothing that says you can only make money once you get signed to a big label. That is actually quite the opposite. You stand a better chance of making money here and now than you do when you first get signed to a big label. There are many bands such as MSD, One With Misery, Element H, Incursion 502, the Revenants, My Own Victim and more that are doing a great job of keeping their band afloat through their merchandise. It takes money to promote your band and this is where merchandise can help.
Just because I have talked about the importance of selling promotional items for your band, I do not mean that door money is not important, or not deserved by the bands. It is. Be sure that the door money is split fairly amongst the venue and all the bands. This is especially important when playing out of town. There is no reason why good bands should lose money when they play out. Try to work out a guarantee (in writing) to cover your expenses when playing gigs out of town. If you do so, you are more likely to be able to continue touring and promoting your band in other areas.
Money CAN be made, you see, but I never said it was easy.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts or questions. Rock on Louisville!