Ryan Kattner (aka Honus Honus), is a musician-songwriter, film/theater score composer, screenwriter, mustachioed multi-hyphenate living in Los Angeles. Texas-born, he grew up in the Philippines, South Carolina, Germany, Illinois, Alabama and Missouri before finally settling in Philadelphia and pouring his scattered upbringing into his bands Man Man and Mister Heavenly. He’s releasing his first solo album in 2016. Michael J. Fox as Teen Wolf is his spirit animal. You can follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. (photo credit: Mike Gerry)
There’s a small dog — a tiny, white poodle mix with goopy tear-stained rings around its eyes — that yaps incessantly through the screen door of the bungalow across the street from me. All day long. Without fail. Rain or shine. A neighbor told me that the dog is ancient, blind, terrified of everything it can no longer see, and that’s why it’s constantly barking at the darkness that haunts its every waking moment.
Ah ha! Uncle Honus here to share some observations you never knew you never wanted observed and even after muscling through you will still disagree with entirely. Today’s delightful topic: Merchandise People are People with Lives, Too.
Here’s a list, in no particular order, of show etiquette “no no’s” that I’ve encountered during my many shadowy years in the indie rock “biz.” If I’ve left anything out, (fellow music players) let me know:
Disclaimer: As I have very little experience selling merch on the regular these days, I asked friends who do it for a (sorta) living for some further insight. For the purposes of this article, I shall be combining their input and channeling it into the fictional persona of a merch guy who works for bands that play in venues ranging in size from hole-in-the-wall, thirty-cap rooms to three thousand-capacity theaters. To help with this illusion, picture this fictional persona as a slender, six-foot-four man in his late twenties with long, light-brown/blondish hair, strong Germanic features, and a romantic yet practical air of self-reliance and worldliness. For a personal touch, let’s call him Marc. With a “C.” Marc Hinkle. Got that all? Shall we begin?
I briefly alluded to this in my first column, but touring bands (not talking major label bands or massive pop stars) put fossil fuels in their vans, feed themselves, pay for motel/hotel rooms if they’re not sleeping on floors, replace broken drum heads/guitar strings/etc. and pay crew (if they can afford to have a sound guy and/or tour manager) with money that they generate from merch sales.
Even if you’re on a label (indie or otherwise), that doesn’t necessarily mean that the suits will pay for anything that goes into the nuts and bolts of a touring rock band. In all my years of putting out records, I have very rarely, if ever, received “tour support” to pay for any expenses. Most bands are lucky to break even on tour, let alone make money.
Plus, bands pay out of pocket to have physical merchandise manufactured. And, if they run out of T-shirts or anything on tour (which is great!), shipping more stock to wherever they are in the world takes a bite out of the backend. Big surprise here, but most labels don’t just give their bands free CDs/vinyl to sell on the road. That’s a myth. They make you pay for all that stuff, and the profit margin can be pretty grim. A CD — yes, “What are those and why are they even still a thing?” — at the merch table is usually priced at $10 because who wants to pay more for something that goes into your laptop once? Bands usually pay $6 or $7 for that CD. At $10, that’s a $3 profit gain! What a deal! When you swipe that sucker off the table when Marc isn’t looking, it really hurts the band.
Also, before you start griping about how merch costs more at bigger venues, prices tend to be a skewed a little steeper in such spaces because the venues take a cut of the merch sales and things have to be priced accordingly. The percentage breaks for that kind of profit “sharing” are usually eighty/twenty on soft merch (T-shirts, posters, pins, etc.) and ninety/ten on hard (CDs, vinyl).
You may wonder, why do bands even bother selling CDs/vinyl? Because they’ll actually get to see some of the money for the sale as opposed to waiting for the mechanical royalty checks to appear. If you can, buy from the band. You’re helping them directly. When you buy (if you’re kind enough to buy) from brick-and-mortar and/or online stores, the money that trickles back down to the band tends to be far less.
Marc: Don’t forget about Sharpies. Please tell them about the Sharpies.
Oh, yes. Don’t steal those, please. It’s annoyingly inconvenient to merch dudes such as Marc who don’t have an endless supply of pens. Marc is more than happy to loan out his favorite writing implement so that you can have the band sign an album, shirt or body part. Return the pen and you’ll earn some warm, fuzzy respect. Don’t, and you will have a future pen explode in your pocket, purse or bag. Some merch people I have met over the years keep a voodoo doll ready for such occasions. How’s that neck feeling now?
DON’T…beg for discounts.
If there’s a two-for-one discount, it will be advertised. If you buy two records and the third one is half off, it will be advertised. If a T-shirt has a microscopic, pinhead-sized imperfection that warrants a discount, it will be advertised.
A merch table isn’t some crowded bazaar from Aladdin where you can name your own price for a dusty lamp. You’re just annoying Marc by asking/begging for a discount, since it’s not his product to give away. If the vinyl is $20 and the T-shirt is $20, then your total is $40. It’s not $30. And it’s super helpful if you have enough money on your person or in your bank account (if the band is using Square or something similar) to pay for your purchases. Especially if there’s a line behind you that Marc must attend to.
If you’re a really big spender and the band is cool, Marc might broker a deal of some sort — throw in something like a pin — but don’t count on it. I’d safely wager that you wouldn’t go into a retail store and ask the person at the counter for a discount. Does that ever work? If it does, may I go with you next time?
Also, if the thing you wanna buy is $5, forking over a $100 bill will wipe out Marc’s bank. The bar will most likely have smaller denominations — and you can buy a drink! These are all Marc minutia things. Just saying.
If you need to touch every single item laid out on the table to feel connected to the physical product you’ll be spending your hard-earned money on, I don’t see a problem with it…
…just be aware that Marc has to rearrange everything you messed up. Sure, it’s part of his “job description,” but it can be terribly annoying after the umpteenth person drunkenly chooses to absentmindedly Feng Shui the table to their liking.
A photo posted by Honus Honus (@honushonus) on
Sizing questions? We’ll usually have a sign telling you what sizes are available, and when those sizes start to sell out, it’s usually very clearly indicated what is still in stock. There isn’t a secret stash of hidden sizes/colors/designs somewhere. They will all be visible, hanging on the wall or neatly folded on the table. There’s no incentive for a band or Marc to hide product. They want to move it and make money and help pay for touring.
And here’s a pro tip if you wanna see if a shirt will fit: ask Marc how sizes run before you lift a T off the table and hold it to your body. Merch people will usually always accommodate unless they’re slammed with requests — or unless they find a deep serenity in folding the same T-shirt hundreds of times per night. I find no serenity in this. Neither does Marc.
DON’T…forget that the merch person wears many hats.
Be aware that the merch person’s duties don’t always end at the merch table. In the case of our imaginary Marc, he’s also riding in the same van/bus with the band, helping carry equipment, counting in/counting out boxes of merchandise, tallying sales, filling out paperwork, e-mailing invoices, ordering new stock, dealing with the venue staff and dealing with extremely drunk fans breathing confusing questions into his face all night. And he’s probably not even getting paid very much.
And, always remember: if you’re an incredible dickhead to the merch person, you’re being an incredible dickhead to the band you love
In a lot of ways, it’s the most thankless job in the crew. Most of the time, the person selling merch is also acting as the band’s tour manager and dealing with all those added responsibilities. If you need to shed a lifetime of past life bad karma, TM/merch for a band on the road for a year. It’s extremely demanding.
And, always remember: if you’re an incredible dickhead to the merch person, you’re being an incredible dickhead to the band you love, and they’ll probably all hear about it during the next day’s eight-hour drive.