Music & Merch Series: In Conversation With | Amanda VanDenBrock (part 2)
If you missed part 1 of our interview with Amanda you can read it here.
RS: How involved are you in the merch marketing and selling process?
AVDB: Currently I don't have any involvement in it other than showing an artist when they arrive at a venue where they can set up their merchandise. Maybe giving them some tips on how to hang a tee shirt with what’s there. But I’ve had a lot of experience in my past with everything. From the “we need a slew of t-shirt designs and merchandise” to working with the merchandising company, which would be someone like yourself. Having them submit some ideas and of course, having the artist offer up ideas for merch design.
We’d pick them out and decide on the finals, perhaps fun different tchotchke ideas. Other items that can be put out in an album cycle let’s say. Then it’s looking at the ordering and trying to look into the crystal ball and say, “Which design do you think is going to be the most popular?”
And then it’s looking at prior sales, and I loved getting into the geeky Excel mess of it all. I would make an excel sheet of each style and each size and see what the breakdown was between say a men’s large and extra-large. Or. a female-centred design with the different sizings, even go by region. Being like, “hey, are we going to go through Calgary and Edmonton?” Because in those cities, at least 10 years ago, the merch sales were through the roof.
RS: Are artists predominantly involved in their design and have a hand in picking everything? Or do you find some of them just let the label handle it?
AVDB: Certainly the artists that I've worked with have been very involved in their designs. Even the artists that are friends of mine that maybe I didn’t work with, I’ve seen them all be very involved in the decisions on which designs might be used. I can’t imagine a band that wouldn’t be just because it’s representing them, does it fit with their artistic vision and what they say as a band? So I can’t imagine a band that wouldn’t be involved in the design decisions.
Often people who are artistic are artistic in more than one way. For example, a band might have a guitar player, who might also be a graphic designer and would come up with some ideas that would be part of the design lineup for that album cycle.
RS: In addition to the classic t-shirt, we’ve helped artists create some pretty unique goods—tote bags, pins, matchbooks, stickers, custom knitwear, etc. What’s the most unique marketing or merch idea you’ve ever executed for a band or event?
AVDB: I worked with a pop artist named Lights and for her, we created a lightsaber. It was like a little key chain lightsaber that was branded and it was very popular. They were super cute, and it was so fun to see.
Another weird one that I did for a band, this is going to date me again! It was a small hoodie for an iPod, and you would stick your thumbs in the pouch and then you could manipulate the wheel on the iPod. The hoodie would go around the screen face so you could still see your screen. I don’t know how well those sold. We all in the office were like, “oh they’re the cutest ever” but sometimes it's really hard to sell something at the table because it's either too small for people to see are they’re like “er, I don't know”.
Kind of a more specific thing, I worked with an artist who also painted. She did this series of paintings that we got printed, like museum-quality prints. They were limited edition and numbered and signed. Those were really popular, they would basically just disappear when we put them for sale. We could also charge a bit more money because they were limited edition and signed by the artist.
I also went to Lilith Fair when it toured in probably 2009 or 2010. At the merch table was this gorgeous long sweater and it's a material that is really a stretchy like with a good amount of elastane in it. It was a fitted sweater but hits the top of my knees and it zips up and with a good shape to it. I was then told by a friend that was involved in the tour that the sweater was apparently designed by Sarah McLaughlin. It was a higher priced item, and the branding was very subtle within sweater. So, I’ve probably had that piece for 10 years and I wear it all the time. It’s actually a staple of my wardrobe.
To another point, for people who might read this and be actual merchandise sellers, it was displayed on a mannequin.
RS: Does that help in how merch can be sold?
AVDB: Well I realize that that's not always available to bands. They might not have space in their vans for a mannequin's per se. But I’ve seen bands come through, even tiny bands that play smaller venues that bring body forms that can actually stack into each other that are flat on the back. When you put a t-shirt on it, you can actually see how it fits a body. At least if you can see it on a form there’s just something to that.
My Beck shirt was on a body form and when I saw it I thought, oh that’s how the neck falls and I could see where the print is. I can totally visualize how that would fit me. If you can see it on yourself or if you’re buying it for someone else it really does help.
RS: With traditional music publishing in flux, merch has become a source of serious income for many bands. What’s your take on that from your experience in the industry?
AVDB: For sure, having seen a lot of the different sides of the industry it's a huge part. When I worked management, I worked with one artist that had a really successful time with merchandise. It was a very large part of her income for touring. For a lot of bands, it's actually the reason they can put gas in their car. They get more of the money directly when you buy the merch at a show. Ultimately they get more money from a t-shirt sale then they would say, a record sale. Those really don’t happen that much anymore but the amount they get out of the streaming income is pretty low because a lot of people take their cut here and there. So for artists, I know merch is incredibly important.
As a venue, it depends on what the deal is. Some venues will take a small cut of the merchandise sale, and some don't. In some cases, if it’s a brand new band a venue might be like “no, no, no, you need gas in your car.” Once a band gets to a certain level it's a very common thing that a venue might take a cut of it. They’re creating the space, setting up the lighting and possibly even providing a seller. So they’re using their cut to pay for those expenses. I wouldn’t say that on the promoter or venue side it’s a large amount of income that could be relied on but for artists it is for sure.
RS: Bands come with a following of people who buy their merch because they love the band and want to belong to that tribe. This is similar to brands who carry a following and people who identify with that brand. Do the bands that you work with see themselves as brands?
AVDB: It's hard to say. Certainly there is the idea of “does this fit in with our message?” So if you take that as an idea, then that is sort of like a brand in a way. You should have a message and an idea of what your band is about. It could be equality, acceptance, peace, love and that is your brand. So for sure, it is reflected in how bands present themselves.
I went to see the band Idles a few weeks back and they are fantastic. Their whole message is positivity and inclusivity. I had a chance to chat with the Bass player at the merch table afterwards and I was complimenting them on their Glastonbury set. The bass player was like “we all cried after that one” which was I’m going to put in air quotes “on brand” for what they were selling. To be in touch with your feelings and allow them to come through and not be ashamed of it. You just know that you’re supporting their message. This guy was telling me his whole band cried because they were excited to play Glastonbury, which was incredible - and very “on brand”.
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