Why Your Band Doesn't Need Merch
Are you a musician? Is your group having issues? Ask Fan Landers! Critic Jessica Hopper has played in and managed bands, toured internationally, booked shows, produced records, worked as a publicist and is the author of The Girls' Guide to Rocking, a how-to for teen ladies. She is here to help you stop doing it wrong. Send your problems to her -- confidentiality is assured, unless you want to use your drama as a ticket to Internet microfame.
Flickr user fihu You're gonna need to invent a new job for your buddy.
Dear Fan Landers,
Do we have to sell things to be professional musicians?
-Damon & Naomi
Dear Damon & Naomi,
Have to? No. Ultimately, what do we mean by professional here? Like, making a living? Selling things certainly helps. But how and what you are selling, and what you are co-signing, ultimately, is the biggest question a band can face these days. It's pretty hard to exist as a band without a little merch-money padding unless you are really game to do this at your own financial expense. There is the social pressure and fan expectation of merch to contend with as well.
As you well know, it's a curious thing these days to even try to sell one's own recorded music, to seek tangible profit from it. The many ways online where one can retail one's wares can be a hassle or mean cutting in third or fourth parties -- and while many of them seem fairly effective and harmless (Bandcamp, Paypal) these are still unknown entities cutting in on not only your business, but your connection with your fans.
If you play live and hawk items from the merch table -- totes! tees! buttons! vinyl -- you have an unmediated way. But it is just more stuff in the world. It is stuff you have to pony up for and pray people like you enough to carry a flimsy tote bag. I imagine it's kind of weird to make an album and just have it be some mp3 in a languishing playlist somewhere.
In the post-Fugazi era (google 'em!) the idea of not doing merch, of not milking ones fans or their nostalgia is downright novel, isn't it? I have always had a kind of romance for bands I saw in basements whose existence was so ephemeral that no document of it existed. If there was no demo tape--did it even happen? It made it special.
If you wanted a t-shirt, you made one yourself and while you were carving that stencil with an exacto or ironing those letters on, you thought about why that band maybe did not have merch, and also how much you loved them, and why you wanted that shirt to advertise. I used to have a home-made Lungfish shirt I ironed the letters onto, and I thought about why not just ironing on all the names of the bands I loved the most, some of them forever merchless. Just have a singular band t-shirt, on my own terms.
So why not? Why not challenge the very mechanics of what it means to be a band and just focus on the music? Being in a group is such a pain in the ass anyhow -- why make it more laborious? Who cares about a shirt or a tape when ultimately all you can truly leave fans with is a memory?