As the band was packing up, I brushed by and could hear the owner spouting his contorted excuses about why he couldn’t pay the guarantee. I’ve heard it all before and I’ve felt that crushing feeling of not knowing how I would make it to the next town because an owner or promoter let me down. I was glad it wasn’t me in that position that night.

That’s why it surprised me to see that Tony just nodded and smiled as he listened the news!

It all made sense twenty minutes later when I saw him packing up the merch booth. As he stuffed an impressive wad of cash into his guitar case, he gave me the most valuable piece of advice I ever heard on tour:

“Don’t rely on the promoters. As long as you put on a killer show and have killer merch, you’ll always have enough gas to make it to the next stop.”

The bottom line is that if you want to be a professional musician, you should have a solid merch setup and promote it effectively at your gigs. Because it might be the only money you make that night.

What constitutes a solid merch setup?

The first thing you need to consider when developing your merch strategy is who your fans are. It should go without saying, but you’d be surprised at some of the misdirected merch attempts I’ve seen. So make sure to offer items that your fans want.

Don’t assume you know. Ask them. Not only is it a great opportunity to engage with your fans, it’s a solid icebreaker topic if you’re shy about starting conversations with them.

The more you get your fans involved in the development of your merch the more eager they will be to buy it. In fact, fan-designed merch (especially t-shirts) almost invariably outsells everything else on the table.

The other thing you need to consider is who the purchaser or decision-maker is. A great example is children’s music. The kids may be the consumers, but the parents are the purchasers.

Although your shows may be filled with equal parts men and women, do the merch buyers tend to be from one group more than the other? Pay attention to that and provide merch that suits the buyers.

Set up your merch booth professionally! Here are some quick guidelines to make sure people know you mean business:

  • Have an actual, packable, portable, merch table. It should be part of your regular gear and kept with your amps and guitars to that it’s with you wherever you go. Invest in a banner and tablecloth or whatever else you need to make it look nice. The investment in a professional quality merch table will pay for itself almost immediately.
  • Make sure it is well lit. I like to use flexible tube lights with a spattering of blinky buttons. The merch booth should be second only to the stage in spotlight coverage.
  • Position it in a spot that is visible when coming and going. As close to the smoke-break route as possible.
  • Have someone stationed at the table during the show. Placing an honor-system bucket on the table while you’re on stage is not nearly as effective as having an actual person there who is motivated to sell. A cut of the profits is a great way to motivate someone. Don’t take advantage of your friend’s kindness to run your table for free. Cut them in and you’ll feel the results in our wallet. Pay your money-maker. Don’t treat them like crappy promoters treat you.
  • When you’re not on stage, be at the booth. Make sure that is the area to party with the band. Not backstage. You don’t make money there. Backstage is where you get swarmed by groupies that drink your beer and distract you from the show. If you bring that party up front, some of those groupies will probably leave with t-shirts and CDs instead of (insert dirty groupie joke here).
  • The merch table should be the last thing you tear down. Not only do people hate carrying stuff around all night, it’s at the end of the night that they cash out at the bar and have their credit cards in hand. PS: Accept credit cards.
  • Pay attention to profit margins. Please don’t do mental math. Keep track of ALL costs (including paying you merch girl). Even if you don’t have an advanced understanding of accounting, by keeping track of all the numbers you will learn to understand and optimize your profit margins.
  • Don’t over order. The money you save by purchasing 1,000 CDs does you no good while those CDs sit in your garage. You might need that money to re-up on t-shirts or flasks or get your guitar fixed. The profit from having more variety in your merch will make up for missing out on that bulk discount. Use companies that provide fulfillment-as-you-go like Kunaki for CDs. Support local business (like screen printers) whenever you can and you’ll find they will return the favor.
  •  

    How do I promote my merch effectively at shows?

    Now that you have a bunch of great merch and an attractive table, what can you do to get that stuff off the table and into the fans’ hands?

    If you want to be a professional musician, you’ve got to get out there and do your job. As with any other business “do your job” refers to more than making music.

    You are responsible for all the activities associated with turning your music into money. That’s the difference between a professional and a hobbyist.

    This is why it’s crucial that instead of basking in your rockstardom with a herd of groupies or hiding in seclusion backstage, you need to be where the money is being made. The math is pretty basic: As the star of the show, people will gravitate toward you. So be where they will spend money.

    What makes people want to buy? Here are some quick tips to help you move that merch:

  • Rotate your merch. Having the same stuff all the time discourages repeat buying. So switching it up and offering limited edition merch will go a long way. Anyone with a business degree knows that it costs 6 times more to get a new customer than a repeat customer. Since you probably don’t have a business degree, I reckon that’s an important statistic for me to share with you;)
  • Announce from the stage that you have merch AT LEAST twice per show. Here’s an idea to try: “This next song is from our new album, ‘___’! And until we finish playing it, ANY of our CDs will be available for $5! Just go talk to Jason at the Merch table!”
  • Price individual items higher than you think you should so that you can offer discounted bundles. “CD’s are $15 or 2 for $20.” Yes, this can even work if you only have one CD. People still buy music as gifts. Maybe even have some pre-wrapped gift editions on display to “plant the seed” in their minds.
  • Design, commission, or otherwise achieve really good album covers. Those still make a difference, but there are some new considerations. This image should look good on an MP3 player. So crazy, intricate designs don’t do well for that.
  • Don’t skimp on the quality of your merch (especially t-shirts). Your merch represents your music very directly and very publicly. You should want the world to know that you provide quality products (music AND merch), not that your out to make a quick buck.
  • Have a cool shirt. Unless your logo is so cool that it stands alone (Rolling Stones, Misfits) you have to spruce it up. Lyrics on t-shirts sell well (let your fans pick the lyrics). Also fan-designed shirts, as I mentioned before.
  • Display your awesome shirt on the stage. Drape it over a speaker. Have hot chicks wear your shirts and sell them right off of their backs (LITTERALLY)! Get women’s t-shirts and onesies (both very neglected yet highly in-demand products).
  • If someone buys a t-shirt, thank them form the stage. Point them out. “Look how cool Jerry is in his new t-shirt!” Buy him a beer. That’s a MUCH BETTER use of your drink tickets than getting wasted and falling off the stage. In fact…
  • Use your drink tickets to sell merch, NOT to get drunk. Some places will even sell you additional drink tickets super cheap. You can get pretty creative with that. Or you can simply hang out at the merch booth, mingle with fans, and buy drinks for people that buy merch.
  • Put a stack of CDs at the bar or cashier and make arrangements with the staff so that they can buy a CD when the pay their tab.
  • Have change on hand. It really bites to lose a sale because you couldn’t break a $20.
  •  

    Ultimately, it’s important to note that marketing is not sales. Marketing is all the stuff you put into presenting your products professionally, and effectively engaging with your fans so that they want to buy. This should be part of your whole thought process and routine.

    If you absorb that into how you manage your business, you’ll never have to ask for the sale, which I know is the hardest part…

I was invited by Yann Ilunga to have a conversation about how applying entrepreneurial principles to your music career can carve your path to success.

You’ll love this one because there are tidbits that you can apply to your career and see results right away!

And check out The Jazz Spotlight for more great conversations with leaders of the independent music movement;)

I was in a band that got lazy.

We had a solid stable of clubs that we played regularly. We were growing and starting to make decent money.

Well, we stopped scouting new places in order to focus on building our fanbase in the clubs where we were regulars.

Not a good idea…

We were no longer relentlessly marketing. In fact, we weren’t marketing at all. We had become complacent.

By and by one bar went out of business, one quit having bands, and one now only has bands once a week.

There are a lot of dangers out there that will cost you gigs if you’re not marketing yourself relentlessly. In addition to the reasons that I mentioned, you need to realize that a DJ or Karaoke host will charge a club between $150-$300. So if you don’t pull in a crowd you can easily be replaced.

So if you are gaining momentum with your gigging don’t ever stop marketing relentlessly because it will stall or even completely derail your momentum.

Have you ever lost a gig due to an oversight? What happened? How did you recover?

“We were a band of white boys from Ohio that hitch-hiked our way to New York to try and make it big. Needless to say, by the time we arrived we were completely broke. We had nothing but the gear we hadn’t pawned yet and the clothes on our back. So when it came to finding a place to stay we were limited by the budget of what we were able to scrape together by busking in front of Yankee Stadium and ‘donating’ plasma.

Our first stroke of luck came in the form of a cab driver that was inspired by our tenacity and offered us the spare room in his townhouse in Queens. So we found ourselves the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ in a neighborhood that was racially, culturally, and financially worlds away from anything we had ever known.

Honestly, we were scared and intimidated. We really weren’t sure we were in a position to find any success in such unfamiliar territory. What we discovered was that music is a bond that builds bridges across unknown expanses. Beyond the differences separating us from the community that had taken us in, we realized that we were all blue-collared Americans looking to blow off steam after a hard day’s work.

We quickly established a reputation as the neighborhood good-time band by playing house parties and getting paid with fried chicken and cheap liquor. And from there it snowballed into steady gigs at the hottest clubs in the city and a national touring circuit that took us places we never imagined. We became more than just a band of musicians. We became cross-cultural ambassadors for sonic manipulation!”

It’s true that there are bands out there whose music is so compelling and instantly connects with such a mass audience that the story doesn’t matter. But that’s a one-in-a-million shot. You would be better off buying a lottery ticket. But then you’d have a story to tell.

The truth of the matter is that if you want to take a proactive approach to getting attention for your music you have to think about that kind of stuff. Whether you are looking for some press or simply to connect on a deeper level with your fans, your story matters.

That’s right. Not only do you have to write and record the songs, but you also have to tell an engaging story.

What stories are people looking for?

Press and fans alike want to know what makes you stand out, what makes you unique. Your awesome voice and catchy melodies simply aren’t enough to make you stand out from the rest. That’s not to say that skills don’t matter. Your musical ability is the first thing you must master on your way to becoming a professional musician. However, it is the context with which your present your music that will give you the edge when it comes to getting the gigs, fans, and attention you will need in order to sustain your career.

The good news is that the stories are already there. All you have to do is develop the narrative. Think about that throughout your creation process so that it doesn’t sneak up on you. What you will discover is that you have a way to present your music with context.

Did your crazy producer help you develop your sound by locking you in a basement full of vinyl and throwing hammers at you? Did your neighbor call the cops on you because of your noisy rehearsals, thus inspiring you to steal his girlfriend and write a song about it? Was growing up next to the airport the catalyst for your love of tube screamers? Did a spiritual journey to the homeland shape your vision of the world? The key is that you have to dig deeper than, “We showed up in New York and paid our dues.”

The stories are imbedded in your life, your music, your career, your lyrics, and your inspiration. All you have to do is apply a simple process to formalize the narrative. Then you can string a thread from all of those pieces that illustrates an overview of your entire career and creates a philosophy that resonates deeply with your fans.

Try this:

Go though every song you have ever written or played and ponder the most interesting thing about each one. It could be something you are doing musically, a technique you are using, your inspiration, or an idea you are trying to articulate with the song. It could have something to do with the instrumentation, the lyrics, the arrangements, the context of the music, or the band dynamics when you recorded the song. It could be about the traditions that you are drawing from, adapting, or changing. It could be an experience from your tour or feedback from a fan. Well, I think you get the idea.

For each song, write that singular element on a post-it note and stick it on your wall. Then rearrange, expand, and rearticulate the narrative as your catalogue grows and your music matures.

That is your story: A living, breathing, evolving, aspect of the art that you have been creating the whole time.

The first requirement for being successful in anything is to define what success means to you. That is one of the biggest challenges musicians face today. There is no standard to follow.

It’s not like going to college, where there is a defined set of measurable parameters. You attend classes, you pass exams, you write papers, and after completing all of the requisite steps you succeed in earning your degree. That’s an ideal scenario where you can demonstrate that you are making progress and, therefore retain the ever so important support of your friends and family. Unfortunately, the pathway to a career in music isn’t so cut and dry.

Let’s first examine some characteristics that are pretty much universal in successful people:

  • Authentic Interest: A genuine state of curiosity, concern, or attention.
  • Consistency: Steadfast adherence to the same principles, course, form, etc.
  • Persistence: Firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or oppression.
  • Goals: The objects of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result.

Those are the basics. Those are the characteristics that will enable a student to take the SAT, go to college, pass the exams and write the papers, take the MCAT, attend medical school, complete a residency and come out the other end as a doctor.

A career in music, however, is far less arbitrary. There is no curriculum, no checklist, no predetermined pathway to become a professional musician. And because of that lack of definitive stepping-stones you find that the people that are supposed to be your cheerleaders (friends and family) start to celebrate your failures more than your successes. They really do want what’s best for you. And since a career in music is not a sure thing, they think that it’s better to get you on track for something with more defined goals and measurements.

The fact that the people that are supposed to be your biggest fans are pressuring you to follow a well-worn path, and treat your music as a hobby can be very discouraging. And it is real easy to start believing that what they think really is what is best for you. And I know how heartbreaking it is when you tell people that you are a musician and they ask, “what’s your day job?”

So how do you turn music into a viable option as a legitimate career choice and convince your friends and family (and more importantly yourself) that you can and are succeeding? Here are a few traits that you need to embody if you are going to go against the grain and make music your full time income.

Avoid Self-Deprecation. Always remember that you are your own worst critic. Bitch into the mirror all you want. Review performance tapes, take notes, and use them to improve for next time. Just keep it to yourself. When you are in front of other people, the last thing you want to do is feed their beliefs that you can’t make it as a musician. That goes for your fans as well. You my not have played all of the notes exactly as you had intended. But you are the only person that knows that, or ever needs to. Maybe that dissonant chord you played was the spark that grabbed the attention of that future super-fan and made him notice your performance over the droll conversation he had previously been engaged in.

Give Value To What You Do. Because if you don’t, no one else will. When you are booking shows think in terms of what you need, not what you can get. If you need to make $50,000 a year for you to consider yourself a professional musician, then you have defined yourself a goal that you can aim for as well as demonstrate to your naysayers. That’s $4,167 a month, or $962 a week. Once you set the goal you have taken the first step toward accomplishing it. Keep in mind that not all of your income will come from performing. There are at least 101 ways to make money with music. Once you realize that, your financial goals won’t seem nearly as difficult to achieve. Also keep in mind that not all value is money. There gigs that pay well and you should definitely seek them out. And there are other gigs that don’t pay so much but provide great opportunities, like playing to a large crowd of potential new fans, opening for your hero, or traveling to a new destination.

Show No Fear. My college diving coach constantly reminded me that, “confidence is key.” That’s how you accomplish the impossible. When I was standing on top of the 10-meter platform about to do a backward 3½ somersault, I was shaking on the inside and thinking, “this is impossible!” But I did not show my fear. The fans in the stands believed that they were alone in thinking this stuff is crazy. I went after the dive aggressively, and confidently with all the control I could manage. Never letting on for a moment that I wasn’t completely sure I knew what I was doing. Once I made that change in my approach, I landed on my face way less frequently. The fear will always be there. Once you know that, you can choose not to let it control you.

Be Authentically Confident. In the business world they say, “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” And I’ve seen it work. The guy that shows to up work in a tie everyday is invariably the guy that climbs the ladder the fastest. It’s not specifically because of the tie. It is because of the peripheral psychological effect that comes with dressing and acting the part to which you aspire. The same thing goes for music. Only we have better style. You wanna be a rock star? Then start acting like one. No, I don’t mean to mainline booze, knock up groupies, and throw TVs through hotel windows. I mean get your gear set up early enough to get a solid sound check, put 100% of your energy into your performance, and play your complete set no matter what goes wrong. Even if it’s just you and the sound guy. Maintain your performance persona from the moment you walk in the door until the last embers of the after-party die out. The trick here is that you have to believe it.

Welcome Criticism. Nothing helps you learn and grow faster than constructive feedback. It’s easy to get lost in the universe that you create with your music. In that universe you are a god, and a genius, and the creator of all that is and ever was. Of course, that universe can easily be shattered when it collides with the “real world.” Especially since a lot of musicians are actually very shy people that use their performing persona as a tool to give them the confidence to interact with earthlings. The best thing that you can do is transform the things that hurt you into things that help you. Keep in mind that people don’t generally care enough about you to want to hurt you. Anything they say to you is really just a reflection of their experience. And their experience is ultimately the source of your income. Pearl Jam once played a set-list concocted by one of their fans that turned out to be arguably their best show ever.

Develop Your Talent. You must commit to spending time every single day practicing your craft. I know there is a lot of other stuff to do like performing, networking, booking, marketing, and tweeting. But it’s all for naught if you aren’t consistently creating mind-blowing music and advancing your skills. Don’t ever let you chops get stale. A good buddy of mine told me recently that he hadn’t played any of his own songs in over a year. He was just sick of playing those same songs all the time and took a break. The only thing I could respond with was, “If even you’re sick of those songs, imagine how your fans must feel!” This guy is one of the most amazing musicians I have ever met and the songs he was sick of are spectacular, but he had gone through a period of stagnation. Even though he hasn’t writing new stuff, he spent the last year learning new covers, exploring new ideas, and exercising those music muscles that had atrophied by playing exact same set-list over and over.

Well, this is turning into a fairly lengthy post so I just want to share some final thoughts with you to help you achieve your goals:

  • If you truly believe that what you are doing is beautiful, so will your audience. Performing is like telling a joke. It’s all about the delivery. You can tell a joke with confidence and projection or, you can use the exact same words but be timid and unsure. I’m sure you can guess which one people are going to laugh at.
  • A singing voice that is not “traditionally” great can give you the great advantages of character and distinctiveness, especially when coupled with good songwriting. I’m thinking of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Jimi Hendrix just to name a few.
  • When you play something “perfectly,” stop. Then take a moment to reflect on the feeling. Your brain doesn’t differentiate between what’s real and what’s imagined. The same neurological pathways are used either way. You’ll find it’s much easier to reproduce a feeling than a specific combination of notes, yet the result is the same. So rehearse the way you want to feel and that will come out in your performance.
  • With anything you want to accomplish, trial & error is the best way to gain knowledge. Thomas Edison said, “I have never failed. I have just discovered 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
  • Other paths in life have predefined goals and curriculums. The first challenge in choosing the musical path is defining your own terms of success. And hopefully, after reading this article you have a better idea of how to do that.
  • And finally, differentiate yourself by creating the element of the unexpected. The well-worn paths are full of people driving down the highway and getting startled by roadrunners that dart in front of them. Be the most creative roadrunner you can be. Because there aren’t always roads where you’re going.