Local Current Blog

The mysteries of merch: How much is enough, and how much is too much?

An order form for an early Motion City Soundtrack shirt. Below: Fox and Coyote merch, fans enjoying a Black Diet tambourine.

It wasn’t until Black Diet were featured as one of First Avenue’s Best New Bands of 2013, this past January, that its members even started taking their merchandise seriously. Now they’re designing all of their band’s merch on their own.

“Merch was definitely not on a burner at all,” said backup singer Mugsy. “Not on the back burner; wasn’t on the stove.”

“I don’t think people would have paid for it then,” keyboardist Sean Shultz chimed in. “That feels like forever ago now.”

Since then, Black Diet have played a number of festivals, and Mugsy says they sometimes make more money from their merchandise sales than what they previously made playing shows. On average, they’ve been making around $120 on merchandise sales per show this year, she said, and they’ve gone from having one t-shirt and an album to having six different sticker designs, two different t-shirt designs, posters, buttons, pocket mirrors, and even toy tambourines.

“We made some tambourines because the album’s Find Your Tambourine,” said Shultz. “It’s like a kid trap. Give it to kids at the show, annoy their parents after the show. Parents will always hate us.”

Despite their rapid recent success, Black Diet continue to see themselves as a DIY band, Shultz said—from creating the designs to ordering the materials to assembling everything. Together, Mugsy and Shultz have become the band’s unofficial marketing team, Shultz said.

Shultz does most of the designing while Mugsy orders the materials, picks out the colors, and decides how they’ll package and display the goods, Shultz said—and they do it without spending a lot of money. Shultz isn’t trained as a graphic designer, but rather uses a free online program called Gimp that provides many of the same features programs like Photoshop offer but without the complications that come with using sophisticated designing tools, he said.

“I’m a hack, but it gets the job done,” Shultz said, laughing. “We make cool-looking stuff and we can do it so it’s affordable, rather than paying someone $100 or $200.”

A lot of people use the program, he said, so even when he doesn’t know how to take on a particular task, chances are he’ll be able to find a tutorial to show him how.

Fox and Coyote Merch

Jonathan Harms and Ryan Evans of Fox and Coyote use Gimp to design their band merchandise as well, which they said allowed them to create buttons and an album cover that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to afford.

“I definitely remember that being an initial conversation,” said Evans (guitar, vocals). “Are we going to get this printed by a big printer or are we going to try to do it ourselves?”

The recent St. Olaf graduates released their debut album If We Stay through Minneapolis-based Humans Win! Studio just last fall, and haven’t fully recovered from the costs of recording, said Harms (banjo, vocals).

“The recording process wasn’t cheap,” he said. “We’re straight out of college; we don’t have stable jobs. We’re just kind of doing it as we can, how we can.”

But merchandise isn’t just about advertising, said Mugsy: it’s also a source of income to help pay for things like gas, while touring.

“It really is a good way to make money,” she said. “When you’re playing little shows, you really don’t make money. So, looking back, it probably would have been better for us to have something to make a few bucks on because that would have been our only income. We just did it all backwards.”

Black Diet tambourine

A lot of bands jump the gun on putting too much too quickly into their merchandise, said Josh Cain of Motion City Soundtrackespecially when it comes to hiring outside agents to handle the creation, production and distribution of band merchandise.

“Our band has always been trying to keep it as simple as possible for as long as possible,” Cain said. “Because once you make those shifts, it’s hard to go back.”

Cain said Motion City Soundtrack have always preferred handling their own merchandise, but eventually they simply couldn’t handle playing shows, going on tour, recording albums, and also doing their own merch. But bands should be wary, he said, since staff is often a band’s biggest cost and it cuts into their living expenses. During the music t-shirt craze several years ago, it made more sense to put a lot of money into merchandise, he said, but trends change and bands need to be aware of that.

“If you always have this idea that the river of money is always going to be flowing, you’re wrong,” he said.

Motion City Soundtrack have someone who handles their merchandise for them, Cain said, and they also go through the company Blue Collar Distro, which handles production of their wares—like t-shirts, posters, and collectables like the toy dinosaur the band released after their album My Dinosaur Life dropped in 2010.

Back when Motion City Soundtrack were still trying to make a name for themselves, said Cain, their goal with merch “was just getting people to wear the t-shirts, especially when we were playing basement shows or playing for 30 people at a skate shop,” he said. “Merch to me was promotion at that time.”

For Evans and Harms, their merchandise is a way to give their fans a wholly unique product. For each of the 250 albums they pressed, they hand-crafted album sleeves from cardboard, stamped with three different, overlapping designs they created with Gimp.

“There’s something about hand-stamping it, hand-crafting it,” said Evans, “that just for a smaller band that’s trying to get out and do something, it makes it more personal.”

Kristoffer Tigue is a University of Minnesota journalism student, freelancer, and editor. His work has been published in the Minnesota Daily, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, City Pages, MPR, and the Star Tribune.