In search of merch: Bands turn to merch tables to give their tours more juice

TORONTO — Selling merchandise has always been part of the equation for Hamilton band Arkells, but when the rockers put a kaleidoscopic display of their most memorable pieces on a table, it’s clear they're taking this part of the music business quite seriously.

Between the more expected items — Arkells-branded neon winter toques and tie-dye T-shirts, for instance — there’s a selection of less predictable ideas. A 500-piece puzzle assembles into the band’s likeness and a shirt inspired by “Dirty Dancing” offers a retro-1980s touch.

A few quirkier concepts also made it into their product mix, including an Arkells limited-edition bathrobe that rolled out during the pandemic lockdown and a guitar tabs book inspired by their 2020 album “Campfire Chords.”

Band merchandise carries particular importance as Canadian musicians face two big challenges this year: the soaring costs of touring due to inflation and planning enough shows to financially recover from years off the road during the pandemic.

"Being a musician, there's an entrepreneurial aspect if you want to make it your job," explains lead singer Max Kerman, whose band holds their seventh group of the year nomination at the Juno Awards this weekend.

"You have to be thoughtful about it."

While Kerman's band shies away from talking too much about the bottom line, they acknowledge their merch table is a reliable revenue stream, even if they prefer to see it as a way to build a fan community.

Both can be true, particularly in these uncertain economic times.

The Sheepdogs bassist Ryan Gullen said his band's mix of branded fanny packs, vinyl slipmats and clothing have helped keep concert ticket prices from soaring out of control.

"You don't want to charge too much," he said, "but you also need to cover the costs associated with just putting on the show."

"The merch is that saving grace," he added.

Other performers say merchandise is essential to making a tour happen.

East Coast singer Sean McCann describes merch as a "fundamental" piece of his business model. For years, he's refused to apply for the financial grants that keep some other Canadian musicians on the road, saying he's "always believed any business should be independently viable."

And the former Great Big Sea member pulled most of his solo music off streaming services for ethical reasons, meaning the fraction of a penny per play doesn't go into his pocket. On his upcoming tour, that means sales at the merch table will be even more significant to making a living on the road.

"If I can go out and sell $500 in merchandise that'll pay for my gas and my hotel," he said.

"And that's what needs to happen — at the very least — to make the show happen."

McCann has created a small but specific line of merchandise to reach those financial goals. He sourced feedback from his fans on social media who gave him the idea for selling a mini-songbook. There's also a shirt that winks at his middle-aged female fan base — it reads: "My Mom Loves Your Band," which he anticipates will be a hot seller.

"People are becoming aware that artists are under duress because of Spotify and the pandemic," he added.

"And they want to keep seeing shows."

A real change took shape between musicians and their fans in recent years, suggested Yvonne Arbour, a business development specialist at Toronto-based designer KT8 Merch. She said it's led more performers to accept "there ain't no shame in the self-promotion game."

Part of this new perspective she credits to retailers like Urban Outfitters who began carrying a wide selection of classic band shirts about a decade ago. As more people wore them, it gradually erased a stigma that led some artists to even begin wearing their own merch.

A cultural and creative shift took hold in the years that followed, she said. Among the leaders were DJs in the electronic dance community who experimented with less conventional merch ideas, such as skate decks, slide sandals and cannabis grinders they sold at concerts and through their online stores.

Fans responded by shelling out cash, encouraging an explosion in the lifestyle apparel segment that's seen hip-hop performers lead the way, alongside Taylor Swift and the Weeknd.

"We're talking $120 jerseys, really unique backpacks and items that you wear every single day," she said.

"Where artists are used to making $10 off a $20 off a T-shirt, we're seeing much larger profit margins."

How deep each performer invests in branded product lines depends on their own tastes, Arbour said, but the demand is unmissable at many live music events.

"You go to a festival or concert now and there are lineups for merchandise almost instantly," she said.

"We have seen a significant increase (in sales) which is greatly helping with artists' profit margins and them walking away from a show with money at the end of the day."

The surge in popularity hasn't gone unnoticed by other corners of the music industry that are looking to grab a share of the profits. One of those players is the concert venues, or promoters like Live Nation, which in some instances demand a significant share of merch table sales.

That's raised concerns with rapper Cadence Weapon, who launched an initiative last year to discourage them from dipping into the pot. The Polaris Music Prize winner, born Rollie Pemberton, said venues often pocket 15 to 35 per cent of merch revenues, which meant he lost hundreds of dollars last summer.

"In a lot of situations, especially for venues, it feels very arbitrary," he said. "I know it's not a big part of their bottom line, so why is this happening?"

Since going public with his campaign last November, Pemberton said nearly 130 North American venues have pledged to keep their hands off merch sales.

"The way I see it, artists have been the engine for the entire live music industry, but are always the first people to have their money garnished," he said.

"They're always the people who have to take the scraps left over after you've paid every other person involved with live music."

With merchandise sales as important as ever, members of Arkells have put their heads down with their Montreal-based supplier the Cardboard Box Project to imagine new ideas that resonate with their fans.

Most of their designs are created by guitarist Mike DeAngelis, who sketches ideas on his iPad before pitching them to the group. Sometimes they're mementoes that reference a particular Arkells concert, other times they're as random as a drawing of his cat.

"Merch can really be an artistic statement," he said.

"And in our own minds, it helps us conceptualize what we’re doing, visually. I think setting that vibe can be important."


Listen to a playlist of 2023 Juno Award nominees on Spotify:

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2023.

David Friend, The Canadian Press