Selling swag keeps band going -- Your favorite artists need to sell beer Koozies, T-shirts, and trucker hats to make ends meet

By Michael Endelman
Updated December 13, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Around midnight, a college student with frisbee-size pupils and a season-inappropriate outfit (shorts and sandals in mid-October) stumbles toward the merchandise booth and pulls a couple of crumpled bills from his pocket. ”Hey, man,” he slurs. ”I’ve only got two dollars, could you give me a deal on a key chain?”

”NO DEALS!” bellows the merch manager, a bearded, bearlike fellow named Skye McDonald. ”If you want a key chain, it’s three bucks, no less.” Fortunately, there’s a kind flower child standing by. After she digs into her purse and offers up a dollar, our severely wasted fan staggers off into the 40-degree Wisconsin night, tightly clutching his key-chain bottle opener in his hand.

Just another evening at the merch table, that not-so-mythic space where concertgoers congregate between sets or after shows, hemming and hawing over $30 T-shirts and $5 stickers. Arena rockers began selling souvenir T-shirts in the early ’70s, but now merch is a ritual of the contemporary concert experience, from the satin jackets and glowsticks of mega- stadium shows to the sew-on patches and pins of beery indie-rock clubs. Mock, ignore, or dismiss this practice, if you will, but tour merchandising has become to concerts what popcorn and Milk Duds are to the movies: the real income generator (as in a billion-dollar-a-year business, according to Billboard‘s Ray Waddell).

”Most revenues for bands are shrinking — recording fees, sponsorship dollars, and publishing dollars are all shrinking,” says Waddell. ”Merch revenue is more important than ever.” So in the post-(illegal) Napster climate, those baby tees (sold at at least a 200 percent markup) can make the difference between big pimpin’ and Dumpster divin’ for aspiring rock stars.

That’s the attitude of the Yonder Mountain String Band, a young bluegrass act from Colorado who’ve built up a strong following on the jam-band circuit. And they’ve capitalized on their rabid fan base by creating a very sophisticated and self-sufficient swag operation. Going way beyond the standard T-shirts and CDs, the band hawks a cornucopia of tchotchkes, including neoprene beer Koozies ($3), hoodies ($40), trucker hats ($20), and chunky belt buckles ($20). It pays off, too. Over three gigs in mid-October (one in Madison, Wis., two in Chicago), the band grossed $9,500. Following the lead of the Rolling Stones — ”the kings of merch,” according to Waddell — the band even accepts credit cards, which helps push single purchases into the triple digits. For the Stones, those pricey leather jackets just seem like slimy greed — unless Mick Jagger really doesneed another pied-à-terre in southern France — but for underground acts, every dollar is sorely needed. ”Often with developing artists, it’s the merch sales that’ll get you from point A to B,” says Waddell. ”They regard that T-shirt money as living expenses.”

”You guys ready to slang [sic] some merch tonight?” merch manager Skye McDonald yells out, trying to get his crew pumped for the evening’s show. Getting motivated is key, because working the merch table is the exact opposite of rock & roll’s rebellious spontaneity — as in regimented and routine. Before the doors open, you’ve already been there at least an hour, counting inventory, folding shirts, taping up price sheets. Once the gig starts, you’re on your feet most of the night, dealing with obnoxious drunks and cheapskates. ”Sometimes we make the fat, stinky hippies do 50 push-ups for a sticker,” jokes one merch vet. ”I guess you meet some girls,” muses another. ”But, you know, they just want to meet the band…”