Merch Table: Supplementing Music Income Through T-Shirt Sales

The short-sleeved T-shirt, first made for the US Navy in 1913, turns 100 this year.

Theoretically, there are dozens of ways a musician could make money. In a survey that began in 2012, the non-profit group Future of Music Coalition identified 42 of them. Their exhaustive list included everything from session fees to teaching engagements, licensing to lawsuits.

Out of all of these potential revenue streams, my own favorite is one of the most straightforward: Pay musicians for their recordings. It’s simple, it’s scalable, and it rewards musicians for being musicians rather than marketers and social media mavens.

The other major revenue stream for artists is live performance. There are an equal number of wonderful things to say about this art form, but perhaps most importantly at the moment, it comes with the added bonus of not being a market that has shrunk by more than 60% since its peak.

In the future, it’s plausible that some combination of legal streaming services and piracy crackdowns could help restore the shattered market for recorded music. But until that day comes, musicians have no real choice but to: A ) Continue raising ticket prices or B ) Find other ways to supplement their displaced recording revenue. One way of doing the latter is to embrace merch sales.

Not every type of artist does – or even could – make money selling merch. When the FMA polled over 5,000 musicians from a wide cross-section of genres and roles, they found that “income from merchandise is the smallest bucket; less than the percent of income from performances (28%), sound recordings (6%) or compositions (6%).” In fact, “88% of survey respondents reported that 0% of their income was derived from merchandise in the past 12 months.”

That might make merch sales sound like a bleak prospect. But if you read between the lines, you’ll find a hidden story. Some simple arithmetic suggests that for the 12% of musicians who earn any income from merch sales, it makes up 16% of their total average income. That’s more than sound recordings and compositions put together.

First, Learn To Accept It

Ian MacKaye, the Fugazi/Minor Threat frontman and a recent guest on our InputOutput Podcast, confounded aging post-punks and young hipsters alike last week when he gave the sub-culture re-appropriators at Urban Outfitters a license to sell Minor Threat T-Shirts at $28 a pop.

“Dischord [Records] doesn’t make T-shirts,” he told The Washington City Paper. “It’s not a political thing for me,” remarked the counter-culture thought leader who once said that “everything is political.” “I just don’t give a fuck about T-shirts.”

In fairness to MacKaye, he’s had to deal with big-box bootleggers trying to cash in on his work in the past, and it seems like he just wants to be done with it. The way he tells it, licensing T-shirts to Urban Outfitters was a way to make enforcement somebody else’s problem:

“I spend so much of my time [chasing down bootleggers].” And when he tracks them down? “They get in your face…or they deny it…It’s a complete waste of time. It’s fucking absurd the amount of bootlegs that are out there. My time is better spent doing other things.”

“Do I think it’s absurd? Yes, I certainly do,” he added. “Motherfuckers pay $28, that’s what they wanna pay for their shirts.”

The other solution would be to take a less conservative approach, re-imagine what your music company’s job is today, and say “Maybe we should just print these up ourselves?

In order to sell band T-shirts at $28 a pop, Urban Outfitters has used manufacturers that have been sued successfully for “wage theft” and “sweatshop-like conditions.”

But if you wanted to take matters into your own hands, that same $28 (or less) could allow your fans to buy a shirt that was made in America by a company that pays a living wage to its workers. (And if you’re extra socially-conscious, you can get them from one that isn’t run a creepy misogynist horndog.)

If people want to buy things that have your band’s name on it, let them. Just do it on your own terms. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it pays better, too.

And if you’re as apprehensive as MacKaye about selling T-shirts instead of records: Do you know who one of the best and most shameless bands in the history of the world were when it came to merchandising? The motherf*ing Beatles. They practically invented the band T-shirt.

Oh, I’m sorry. Are you better than The Beatles?

Fans love you so much that owning useless little trinkets or pieces of fabric with your images and ideas on them makes them feel happier in their lives? You should be so lucky.

This kind of behavior is not crazy or weird, it’s not grossly “commercialist” or a symptom of uniquely superficial times. It is human.

The desire to self-identify and to totemize the things that inspire us is baked right into our DNA. And music is arguably one of the healthiest outlets for this kind of evolved behavior.

The Toronto Star reports that “[A survey of 1,000 American adults] found that 95 per cent of them wore T-shirts and 87 per cent had at least one they refuse to throw out, due to sentimental attachment. On average, respondents had 13 T-shirts they’re holding onto, often because they’re commemorative.”

People love their favorite band T-shirts, even if they don’t wear them all the time. If you can’t relate to that, you’ve never been young, and you probably don’t like music.

Autonomy Apparel

One of the great things about T-shirt sales is that they’re often one of the few places where bands can retain a lot of control.

You can decide on the images, styles and pricing, and even though super-lame fans could theoretically steal your images and print them on T-shirts themselves just like they steal your music, they usually don’t.

For some reason, people tend to feel scummy about stealing images and printing them on T-shirts themselves, but not about stealing recordings, even though in principle, the two acts are pretty much identical. Go figure.

(Maybe it’s because the computer tech industry hasn’t yet lobbied to convince people it’s okay to replicate T-shirts without permission yet? Maybe it’s because printing your own T-shirts isn’t as cost effective just yet? Note to self: Remember to schedule an article about how 3D-printers are killing the T-shirt industry for August 2018.)

For “mid-level” touring acts who expect guarantees in the neighborhood of a few hundred dollars a show, T-shirt sales can often double the night’s gross earnings in a way that CDs can rarely do alone.

Of course, having T-shirts printed up commercially can cost you more money per unit than CDs or even vinyl. But once you account for the production costs of an actual recording (and then factor in just how little some people are willing to pay for a CD these days), on a small scale, the potential mismatch in profit-per-unit might just swing the other way.

In 2009, Mos Def got this concept like none other, releasing his critically acclaimed album The Ecstatic as a $40 T-shirt – complete with the cover on the front, a track listing on the back, and a unique download code embedded right in the tag.

T-Shirt Sale Strategies: How Much To Charge

There are two directions you can go when you’re figuring out how much to charge for your merch. You can price ’em cheap in hopes that you’ll move a lot of them, or price them high, wagering that fans are so in love with what you do that they’ll shell out more just to show their support.

To some degree, this depends on what your audience is like. If your potential fanbase is dominated by teenagers and college kids, you probably want to price low. If your music tends to motivate older adults, you can probably price higher. (And potentially so high as to make them feel like NPR-style listener/patrons.)

As a general rule, the markup on printed T-shirts tends to be at least 100%. If you buy shirts for $7.50, you’d sell them for at least $15. If high-quality printed shirts cost you $10 – $15, the common wisdom is to charge $20 – $30.

Sometimes markups can be even higher, particularly if your costs are low or if your fans are swanky.

For instance: If you’re able to buy plain white tees in bulk and do 1-color printing, costs could potentially be as low as $3 or $4 per shirt, but kids will still think of them as a steal at $10 or $15. They want to support what you do and feel cool about doing it, and they know this helps.

On the other hand, if you produce some really creative, desirable and high-quality limited-edition merch, you might be surprised by the amount rabid fans will pay. (And it might surprise you even more to realize that they like doing so. Don’t judge. Just say “thank you.”) Of course, for this to work, you must first have rabid fans.

Where to Sell

Creating an online store on Bandcamp, Facebook, or your own personal website is a no brainer. If you haven’t done it, do. But where shirts really tend to move are at shows. If you’re doing really well for yourself, you might convert 10% of your audience into merch buyers on any given night.

Our own informal poll suggests that fans usually expect to pay $20 or $25 for shirts at a venue. But sometimes new bands at small venues will price considerably lower to help spread word-of-mouth, while bigger artists playing larger shows might price higher – sometimes as much as $40 or more.

This isn’t always because bigger artists are trying to gouge you or make their shirts into prestigious luxury items (although sometimes they are.)

The reality is that at larger venues, the house usually takes a cut of merchandise sales. This can take as much as 15% – 35% right off the top, forcing artists to sell at a higher price for the same profit. On top of that, opening acts will often be required to match the headlining artists’ merch prices so they can’t undercut the headliner and redirect the audience’s merch dollars on price alone.

Couple this with the fact that an increasing number of labels are signing their artists to “360 deals” where they take a cut of everything the band does, including merch, and you have a recipe for higher-priced T-shirts at decent-sized venues.

Don’t like it? Think that all this conspires to make T-shirts and concert experiences unequal, elitist and exclusionary? Easy answer: Convince society to spend more money on recorded music. That’s pretty much the only way that ticket and T-shirt prices are going to go back down across the board.

(Please note: My definition of “easy” might be a little fuzzy.)

What To Sell

You’ll want to think about the same kinds of issues when you’re deciding on what kinds of accessories to print up.

If you’re selling to younger audiences, it may be a good idea to go for a huge variety of different designs or graphics rather than different cuts or colors. Musician and blogger Tanner Mikray Robinson writes:

“Skip the color variations. Doing multiple runs in different colors hurts your volume discount, and kids won’t buy a shirt if their friend has it in a different color. Not cost effective. You are better off spending the money on printing a different design.”

“Kids have so many friends on Facebook now, and they won’t get the same shirt design if their friend already has it…Hoodies are the exception to the ‘won’t buy if their friends have it’ rule. Hoodies are like a uniform: entire friend groups will buy the same hoodie.”

On the other had, if your audience is a bit older, they might be more interested in having options in the color, cut and style of the clothing, rather than having to choose from a smorgasbord of printed graphics.

Engineer Zach McNees tells me that his clients, Enter The Haggis, a celtic rock band with an avid niche fanbase, wanted to make their fans a shirt that they could wear to work. In addition to traditional tees, the band printed up polo shirts with a custom embroidered emblem, putting them up for just $30. They sold faster than anyone expected.

Women’s fitted shirts, V-necks, tank-tops, ¾ lengths, baseball tees, even underwear seem to be surprisingly popular choices with these kinds of audiences. Don’t underestimate the power of quirky accessories either: bottle openers, pins, posters, bumper stickers, and guitar picks. Despite the low dollar amounts, these smaller items can bring far higher margins than concert tees. The band GWAR even sells used, painted drumheads signed by the entire group. Recycling broken gear and turning it into art can be low- or no-cost and high-reward.

Also: coffee mugs. If I like what you do, I will buy your coffee mug. (But then again, I am a total weirdo who owns and breaks a lot of coffee mugs.)

C’mon. Who *wouldn’t* want one of these?

Paying For It All

There are two reasonable ways to go when it comes to pricing and paying for T-shirts and other merch.

The first is buying in bulk. It can be very cost-effective, but the biggest problem with this method is the danger of over-ordering. As Charles Dickens wrote back in 1849: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result: happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds six, result: misery.”

Many musicians can attest to how depressing it is to look at boxes upon boxes of unsold CDs purchased at a seductively low price-per-unit. On the other hand, selling out of a smaller inventory is one of the best feelings in the world, even if the profit margins are a bit lower. Nothing makes a person feel more appreciated than to have other people value their stuff more than they expected. It keeps forward momentum going, and you can always order more.

Our brains weigh losses more heavily than gains, so it’s probably the best idea to start with smaller batches and higher costs and see how they go. Start with big ideas but humble goals, listen to the market, and slowly ramp up supply to meet increasing demand. Selling out (in the literal sense, rather than the figurative one) feels good.

The other option is quite new one. When I first started considering the idea of printing up Scientist T-shirts, Joel Scheuneman, Chief Technical Engineer with The Manhattan Center and the maker of Origin Point’s Senator Compressor, recommended that I check Teespring.

Teespring is a new Kickstarter-like service that allows you to set up a T-shirt “campaign” where the shirts are only produced if your sales goal is reached. Once you reach your goal, your fans are charged and your custom-designed shirts ship directly to them. The prices are reasonable, and there’s a variety of cuts and brands available.

It might not be plausible for a band that needs to stock up on shirts for an upcoming tour, but for artists with an internet following and a good eye for design, it’s a great way to test the market or make shirts without risk of over-ordering or going into debt. We plan to launch our own campaign in September.

Okay, the coffee mug isn’t real. (Yet!) But these tees, we will be selling. If you want one, please shoot us an email at [email protected] This will help us to get a headcount and keep costs low. You’ll also be helping to support more free science and looking quite dashing, to boot.

Making Them Move

When it comes time to sell T-shirts, sell them. At shows, mention them from stage. Make sure someone is at the merch table, standing up and looking inviting. And make sure that merch table looks crowded.

People want to talk to you after the show? Great, talk to them by the merch table. Within reason, a crowd invites a crowd. It’s a simple trick of psychology-people are more likely to approach an already crowded merch table than one that’s kicking up tumbleweeds.

Give people deals for buying bundles: A T-shirt plus a vinyl record or all three of your CDs.

Also: Accept credit cards. Today you can get credit card swipers for your iPhone or Android from Intuit, Pay Pal or Square. The apps and swipers are often free, and all you have to pay out is 1.75% to 2.75% per sale.

That’s a small price to pay for the benefits. Estimates vary, but it’s said that fans buy anywhere from 40% to 400% more merch when credit or debit card is an option, and the average sale is 2 to 4 times larger.

If you’re serious about supporting yourself with music – or at least having it pay its own costs – that’s a prospect that you just can’t turn down.

Justin Colletti is a producer/engineer, a journalist, and an educator.

Related story: Reinventing The Album: Keeping Releases Relevant in The 21st Century

This entry was posted in All Stories, August 2013, Featured Stories, Industry Trends. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Sign up for our Email Newsletter


  • E-news and Updates

    Subscribe to Trust Me, I'm a Scientist Find me on Facebook Find me on Twitter Email Trust Me, I'm a Scientist