Part 1 of 4:
“So, we got paid £20 for tonight”: its a pretty familiar story that you hear from every musician struggling to make ends meet on self-booked tours round the toilet circuit.
Often that £20 feels like £1000, seeing as a lot of the time you might make nothing from a show or you hassle the promoter who has made a ton from the door fee until they manage to scrabble together £4.50 for your petrol and food (as I did on one occasion. Ah, Leeds.).
Put bluntly, for one reason or another most acts playing original music can’t expect to go home from gigs with their pockets full of door money. So in order to afford to drive around the country for two weeks and eat at least once a day, us unsigned musicians need to look at selling merchandise in order to keep our bellies and fuel tanks topped up.
In this series of articles I will be looking at ways for unsigned and independent acts to make and sell merchandise at a profit, supporting their passion for gallivanting around the country playing music and drinking whisky. In the words of my friend Adam, “It’s always worth doing a table”.
Number 1 on most merch tables is the humble T-shirt. Shirts are extremely important as they sell for more than a CD, and they act as a billboard for your act (though it can be a bit disconcerting for a solo artist to watch people walking around with your actual name printed on their chest).
The first suggestion I would make in regards to shirts is to go the DIY route. Printing through professional merchandise companies give you excellent quality shirts but, due to the cost and amount you need to buy to drive the price down, to make a profit you need to sell quite a lot and you will likely end up taking a while to shift them, meaning that profits are in the long term.
When it comes to supporting yourself on tour, that shirt money will feed you that night, so you may be better off printing your own cheaply. Buying plain shirts is easy enough, you can get great quality tees for less than a pound each from various places over the internet, and quality-wise Fruit of the Loom is a decent shout.
Logo printing can be done easily three ways – screen printing, stencilling, or transfers. Screen printing looks great but you need a screen printing machine (or a friend with one), and the knowledge that you’ll probably bugger a few up to start with. Stencilling looks great, and is very novel. At a Bomb the Music Industry! show last year, my friend took a plain white shirt and after the show they sprayed a personalised logo on it for her. However, spray paint does run and fade after a while.
Bandit The Panther ‘Tesco Value Horror’ tee
art by Lizzie Hughes
Ducking Punches ‘Breaking Rad’ tee
art by Dan Allen
Due to the downsides of those methods, my choice is transfers. All you need is a decent quality printer, an iron, and some transfer paper. Transfer paper costs around a tenner for 20 sheets, and printing is super easy to do in your front room. Flip the shirt image on your computer, print it out on the transfer paper, and iron onto the shirt, then leave to dry.
Simple! A black design onto a white shirt works best here as black is a strong, stand-out colour, and the white shirt will mask the edges left from cutting out the design. To save on money keep the design to A5 size so you can fit two on each sheet of transfer paper. Just make sure you put your back into the ironing part, as if you do a good job here the shirt will survive a lot washes with minimal fading. You can easily make 30 shirts in an afternoon, and at an outlay of around £50 total it is extremely cheap to do.
This means that instead of your shirt needing to be in the £7-10 bracket, you can be more flexible with the price and choose to sell it cheaper if you wish in order to sell more. I price shirts at £5, meaning that selling only a third of them covers the initial outlay and it’s all profit from there.
This price point also appeals to cash strapped gig-goers – remember that potential fans may have paid a fiver to get into the gig, plus maybe £20 on drinks, so convincing them to give your band some money can prove a hard task.
There will always be several other acts with merch tables, so if your shirt edges out the competition by a few pounds it is worth dropping the price.
One or two designs maximum is all that is needed. But fiscal viewpoints aside, the main thing that will sell your shirt is the design. If people see a cool design instead of the usual ‘band name/logo’ they will often get a lot more excited.
My band, Bandit The Panther, plumped for a Mexican cat, and I’m sure you can guess the reactions to the sheer awesomeness of that Ducking Punches ‘Breaking Rad’ shirt!
Getting the work of a good artist on your shirt really helps set it apart.