You Can’t Download a T-shirt: What bands are doing to keep fans buying merch

In an age where fans are less likely to pay for music, artists have to work harder and get more creative to get fans to spend cash on their musical output. A good record isn’t enough anymore, so both labels and musicians have turned to new concepts (namely bundling), as well as offering other exclusive merch items to get fans to buy their records. The writing is on the wall: Bit Stream culture practically demands that bands have to offer more in order to keep fans interested and sated.

From the more practical (Less Than Jake glassware and Fall Out Boy children’s clothes) to the slightly ridiculous (Unearth beer bongs and the Black Dahlia Murder-endorsed Ouija boards), the variety of merchandise artists are offering to fans has expanded. For some bands, this expansion is a necessity. “I think that as the profits get smaller and smaller on music you have to be creative to sort of keep the income stream, streaming in,” says Less Than Jake drummer Vinnie Fiorello. “Merch sales start to diminish because of the fact that you’ve been around for a really long time and there’s definitely a ceiling of typical merch that someone can own.” For someone that has been a fan of a band for any significant amount of time, there are only so many t-shirts one can own. In response to hitting this ceiling, Less Than Jake have expanded over the years to do a lot of collectible merchandise like toys and records. Fiorello says they’ve found it’s easier for fans to have a shelf full of toys as opposed to a closet full of band t-shirts.

The Black Dahlia Murder pre-order package that includes a Ouija board.

As the fanbase of veteran bands grow older, a demand for different types of merchandise emerges. A fan with a career and family isn’t going to want the same neon t-shirt favored by a 15-year-old still in school. Mark Beemer from Shirts From A Cure has been able to bridge that generational divide by offering screen prints of certain bands’ iconography. “I think that the buying public for what used to be hardcore has grown up,” says Beemer. “They still have that collecting vein in them, but they want something they can pull off in an adult house or adult apartment. A nice hand-screened poster with elegant artwork is so much better than a snapshot of Fugazi from 10 years ago.”

While more veteran bands are expanding the products they offer in order to keep fans interested, newer artists are having to offer audiences more just to get them engaged in the first place. In the pre-order for their latest release from Fueled By Ramen, Good For Me, the Swellers offered the standard album, or fans could choose to pre-order the album, a t-shirt, a carabiner and a one-of-a-kind drawing from the band. “Everybody kind of agreed [that] we needed something outside of the box, something really weird.” says bassist Anto Boros. After throwing out some ideas, the band settled on the one-of-a-kind artwork suggested by Boros. (“We all agreed that it was super, super-weird but it was just original and kind of cool.”) After tweeting images of some of the drawings they were making (more than 300 of them were done in total), Boros says the number of bundles sold that day increased, and that the drawings made a significant difference in the sales. “You have the option of just getting the record, but you might be more inclined to purchase it if you have a neat, unique gift to come along with it.”

While in some cases, it’s a necessity for bands to get more creative with their merchandise in order to keep income flowing, sometimes atypical swag isn‘t always the best avenue to draw people in. “For us, like to be honest, we don’t find it works very well,” says Hopeless Records director of marketing Ian Harrison. “It depends on the product and the band, of course. A lot of times for our pre-orders the more normal type stuff, simple stuff, seems to do a little better than the custom stuff.” Hopeless has issued lunch boxes from the Wonder Years and All Time Low vinyl action figures. While Harrison says they label had assumed things like the action figures would sell well based on the popularity of the band, the impracticality of them is what made them less appealing to fans.

While it would seem bands are getting creative out of a feeling of necessity, in some cases, it’s just as much out of a personal desire to create something different or new. “There‘s definitely a trend of making it [unusual merch items] but I don‘t know if it‘s necessarily a trend because the fans are demanding it.” says Karim Peter, who works in artist relations with Indie Merchandising. “I think the new thing is with everyone‘s record is that they have to have a box set with something in it or a crazy package item.” Peter says he does think bundling unusual merch in order to sell a record is a better option than on its own, as it gives people more of an incentive to buy an album when they might not have in the first place.

For any brazen young road warriors getting ready to run out and start printing up some bizarre merch of their own, there are some important things to take into consideration. The first is being realistic about how much of a particular item can be sold. “For all the crazy things, it’s got to be limited edition,” says Peter.  “If there‘s a million of them, it doesn’t add that urgency to go ahead and get it now, so you end up sitting on it forever.” By limiting an item’s availability, it also increases the desirability it has for fans.

“That’s what merch is about: It’s not about something you can buy 10,000 of, it’s about something you can buy a thousand of,” says Fiorello. “If you have something they made 10,000 copies or you can buy something for the same price, something they made 500 of, what are you going to take?”

Less Than Jake’s cheese-shaped 7-inch. Side A: “Cheese” Side B: “We’re Not Gonna’ Take It” (Twister Sister cover)

After determining the quantity of how much of a particular item should be made, it’s important for artists to know what exactly their fans will actually buy. “I think the key to expanding a merch line is realizing who’s out there buying,” says Fiorello. “We know that our fanbase always reacts to something that’s limited. We already know what our fanbase is: Our fanbase are rabid collectors of what we do that’s outside of the norm so we tailor to that and try to do cooler and logically priced items.” Less Than Jake have issued an array of limited releases over the years, from limited vinyl records to vinyl toys. Not surprisingly, some artifacts have found their way to eBay, selling for significantly more than the original prices. These items include more than a dozen vinyl toys, records shaped like cheese and birthday cakes or sold in pie tins, alongside more traditional albums and a variety of other things that have an appeal to Less Than Jake’s collector fan base.

In expanding the presence of their merchandise for Shirts From A Cure, Beemer says it‘s important to realize what each fan base will buy. “As we start to spread out into different audiences: an older audience, or the country audience, or the metal audience, they want other things.” Beemer says his company have also created things like hockey pucks and soccer scarves, that while not suitable for the typical Warped Tour crowd, can sell well when presented to the right audience.

While the world of merch is expanding to new weird and wonderful places, there will always be room for the basic merchandise that bands have come to rely on for income. “Kids will always love t-shirts and there will always be a market [for them],” resigns Beemer. “Until you can download a t-shirt. But kids want more.” It’s up to artists to see what their fans are asking for, and provide it for them in order to keep making an income in these trying times in the music industry.

Taken from Alternative Press.

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