Sadly, the ugly trend right now is that venues do next to nothing to promote an evening at their establishment. Maybe they’ll go so far as to buy a tiny ad in the weekly rag that lists their calendar of events, or maybe they won’t do anything. Maybe they won’t even bother putting up the posters that were sent to them. Such heartbreaking times are these when a venue can’t spend five minutes posting in-house fliers for a gig the band just travelled eight hours to play.
While this paradigm may or may not shift, for the time being, it’s up to bands and promoters to supply the audience. As important as it is to be an effective promoter, that subject deserves its own article. Simply keep in mind promoting is just as much a part of a band’s job as is playing.
As a band becomes more popular, gains more buzz, and tours with more success, other deals become available to it. Especially with the help of a legitimate booking agent, bands can secure guarantees, an essential element to touring in a new market. In fact, plenty of clubs will take a little risk on an out-of-town band and offer a guarantee they may very well not make back from the door. These guarantees for first timers usually range from $200 to $600; enough for gas and a hotel. Aside from the obvious benefit of having a guaranteed pay for the night, the other gigantic benefit is that the club is more inclined to help promote because now they’re more invested in the evening.
In many cases, the more generous clubs will offer a guarantee with points. The points, similar to grade school, are the reward for good attendance. The term refers to a percentage of ticket sales and is offered as a “whichever is greater” situation. For instance, if Johnny & The Shoeshines has a points-based deal with a club, the club might guarantee them $500 with the option of making 75 percent of the sales after expenses. If 20 tickets are sold at $10 each, the band will be paid their $500 guarantee and probably never asked to come back. If 300 tickets are sold, the band will be paid $2,250, which is 75 percent of sales.
This is all assuming a perfect environment in which all tickets are sold at the same price and the club has no expenses, which is about as unrealistic as a free lunch. Every club has expenses, whether it’s security, sound, janitorial, or hospitality. Occasionally clubs will even list incredibly high, completely unfounded fees to prevent ever having to pay out points. Although rare, these establishments are usually found in musically oversaturated areas like New York, Los Angeles, or Portland. Additionally, most higher-capacity venues are greatly affected by advance ticket sales and late-night door discounts, so rarely is the math as straightforward and plain as the example above.
Thankfully, ticket sales aren’t the only way to make money at the live show, and the next big piggy to bank on is the merchandise. Most bands tend to treat their merch table like the standard one-dimensional point of sale (POS) with the album, T-shirt, sticker, and mailing list. While that works, there’s always room for improvement.
To start, the merch table needs to be viewed as more than just a means of getting albums sold. It’s both a POS and a chance to engage fans and talk face to face. It is a traveling storefront and for the band’s sake it deserves to be outfitted in a visual manner that draws in customers.
Clubs are dark, so let there be light. Lots of light! Clip-on lamps, light ropes, miniature disco balls, industrial-strength menorahs, whatever. Construct a visual presentation that just screams, “buy something!” Especially if the albums and T-shirts are a dark black, a good lighting rig will both illuminate what is actually for sale and will act as a beacon to potential customers. Don’t make the mistake of relying on club lights as, like many so-called “sound engineers,” they are frequently too dull to work with.
In addition to the lighting, there’s the physical display to consider; preferably something tall, compact, self-contained, and indestructible. The old standard is to buy a vintage hard-shell suitcase from a thrift store and pimp it out with band paraphernalia. This method works, though it’s small and hard to see over a crowd. Another option is to travel with a few tall metal rack panels that act as clothing displays and light mounts. The major benefit to these is the additional height and visibility they add to the storefront.
More important than the lighting or the presentation is the actual merchandise. Albums are essential, and the more releases available, the more units will sell at the show. It is fairly common for people to buy all three of a band’s albums at the merch table, so keep them all in stock. T-shirts and hoodies are also great, though hoodies don’t tend to fly off the shelves and they also take up a lot of precious cargo space.
But these bits of swag are only part of what can be sold, and why is it that bands only sell band stuff? Is there a reason not to sell other things? Of course not! Big-name artists take sponsorship deals and “sell” other products all the time, so why not the little guy? One band in particular, the March Fourth Marching Band, from Portland, has bulldozed its way on tour with a plethora of band-made merchandise that puts all other band’s merch setups to shame. Since they tour with 24 people, they’ve got a lot of creative minds that do more than just play music, so they have a slight advantage over the average-sized band. That said, they make and sell all sorts of goods including albums, DVDs, hoodies, T-shirts of various colors and models, leather hats, denim hats, earrings, medallions, wrist warmers, and even lamps made from recycled instruments. And yes, people actually buy $35 earrings and $200 lamps at shows. Keep in mind, though, that in M4’s case they aren’t just selling merch; they’re propagating a style. They’re selling the same stuff that makes them look cool to people that want to look cool like them. Smart, eh?
Another secret to M4’s merchandising success is their full-time merch girl, though the title really doesn’t do justice to a salesperson that can both make multiple transactions at once, design a product display, and keep inventory of everything sold. Aside from the obvious necessity of superb selling skills and being a people-person, the sheer constant presence of anybody manning the table, even while the band is performing, can make a big difference to sales. This human element, especially when dressed up in band garb or uniform, can be enough to just get audience members to walk over and check it out. It also never hurts if they’re easy on the eyes. Furthermore, having bandmembers run over to the table immediately after the show can greatly affect sales because everybody wants to meet the band, so get the Sharpies and grab your guitar player before he sneaks off to cupcake with his girlfriend; it’s time to sell some merch and sign some body parts!
The final element to a high-volume merch booth is plastic. Every successful merch booth does it, and now with smartphones it’s never been easier to process credit cards. With the exception of playing at youth centers, most every show will inevitably have a fan who doesn’t have enough cash for the T-shirt, and there’s nothing worse than losing a sale because you can’t process a Visa.
The two main routes for credit card processing are either to buy a stand-alone credit card reader, or to get a smartphone add-on. For the cheaper, instant gratification, there’s no beating the Square smartphone device. The company ships out free readers from its Web site (squareup.com), the app is free, and the company takes only 2.75 percent of every sale. That’s under $3 for every ten CDs sold (assuming they cost $10 each)! There are, however, a few downsides, like the fact that the phone needs to have Internet access to process transactions and that whoever is working the merch booth will either need to install it on their phone and link it to your band’s bank account, or a band member will have to leave his phone at the merch booth all night long. Additionally, there’s a privacy issue: Think of how much fun it would be getting interrupted by your mom’s paranoid text messages as a fan simultaneously tries to verify a transaction on your phone.
There are also plenty of standalone card readers out there, and although they tend to have a high buy-in price that doesn’t jibe with a small-business model, they also carry a few benefits like the fact that they don’t require a phone or Internet access to process transactions. These tend to make more sense with higher-volume transactions, but why not try out the phone freebie first?