Selling merchandise has always been part of the equation for Hamilton-based band Arkells, but when the rockers put a kaleidoscopic display of their most memorable pieces on a table, it’s clear they’re taking this part of the music business very seriously.
Among the most anticipated items—for example, Arkells-branded neon winter hats and tie-dye T-shirts—there’s a selection of less predictable ideas. A 500-piece jigsaw puzzle is assembled in the band’s likeness and a “Dirty Dancing”-inspired T-shirt offers a retro ’80s feel.
Some more quirky concepts also found their way into his product mix, including a limited-edition bathrobe from Arkells that dropped during the pandemic lockdown and a book of guitar tabs inspired by his 2020 album “Campfire Chords.”
The band’s merchandise is of particular importance as Canadian musicians face two big challenges this year: high touring costs due to inflation, and planning enough shows to financially recover from years off the road during the pandemic. .
“There’s an entrepreneurial aspect to being a musician if you want to make it your job,” explains lead singer Max Kerman, whose band has its seventh nomination for group of the year at the Juno Awards this weekend.
“You have to be thoughtful about it.”
While the Kerman gang avoids talking too much about the bottom line, they do acknowledge that their merch board is a reliable source of income, even if they prefer to view it as a way to build a community of fans.
Both can be true, particularly in these uncertain economic times.
The Sheepdogs bassist Ryan Gullen said his band’s combination of designer fanny packs, vinyl floor mats and clothing has helped keep concert ticket prices from skyrocketing out of control.
“You don’t want to charge too much,” he said, “but you also have to cover the costs associated with putting on the show.”
“Merchandise is that saving grace,” he added.
Other artists say merchandise is essential for touring.
East Coast singer Sean McCann describes merchandising as a “fundamental” piece of his business model. For years, he has refused to apply for the financial grants that keep other Canadian musicians on the road, saying that he “always believed that any business should be viable independently.”
And the former Great Big Sea member pulled most of his solo music off streaming services for ethical reasons, meaning the fraction of a cent per stream doesn’t go into his pocket. On his next tour, that means sales at the merch desk will be even more important to making a living on the road.
“If I can go out there and sell $500 worth of merchandise, that will pay for my gas and my hotel,” he said.
“And that’s what needs to happen, at least, for the show to happen.”
McCann has created a small but specific product line to meet those financial goals. He got feedback from his fans on social media, which gave him the idea to sell a mini-book of songs. There’s also a T-shirt that nods to his middle-aged female fan base: It reads, “My mom loves your band,” which he anticipates will be a bestseller.
“People are realizing that artists are under pressure because of Spotify and the pandemic,” he added.
“And they want to keep seeing shows.”
There has been a real shift between musicians and their fans in recent years, suggested Yvonne Arbour, business development specialist at Toronto-based designer KT8 Merch. She said it has led more artists to accept that “there is no shame in the self-promotion game.”
She credits some of this new insight to retailers like Urban Outfitters, which began selling a wide selection of classic band T-shirts about a decade ago. As more people used them, a stigma was gradually removed that led some artists to even start using their own merchandise.
A cultural and creative shift took hold in the following years, he said. Among the leaders were DJs in the electronic dance community who experimented with less conventional business ideas such as skateboards, sandals, and cannabis grinders that they sold at concerts and through their online stores.
Fans responded by shelling out cash, fostering an explosion in the lifestyle clothing segment that has seen hip-hop artists lead the way, along with Taylor Swift and The Weeknd.
“We’re talking $120 t-shirts, backpacks, and really unique items that you wear every day,” he said.
“Where artists are used to making $10 off $20 off a t-shirt, we’re seeing much higher profit margins.”
An artist’s investment in branded product lines depends on their own taste, Arbor said, but demand is unmissable at many live music events.
“You go to a festival or a concert now and there are lines of products almost instantly,” he said.
“We’ve seen a significant increase (in sales) which is helping a lot with artists’ profit margins and at the end of the day they walk away from a show with money.”
The rise in popularity has not gone unnoticed by other corners of the music industry looking to get a piece of the profits. One such player is concert venues, or promoters like Live Nation, who in some cases command a significant portion of merchandising table sales.
That raised concerns with rapper Cadence Weapon, who launched an initiative last year to discourage them from diving into the pot. The Polaris Music Award winner, born Rollie Pemberton, said venues often pocket 15 to 35 percent of business revenue, which meant he lost hundreds of dollars last summer.
“In a lot of situations, especially the locations, it feels very arbitrary,” he said. “I know that’s not a big part of your results, so why is this happening?”
Since going public with his campaign last November, Pemberton said nearly 130 North American venues have pledged to keep their hands off merchandise sales.
“From my point of view, artists have been the engine of the entire live music industry, but they are always the first people to get their money taken,” he said.
“It’s always the people who have to take the leftovers after they’ve paid all the other people involved with the live music.”
With merchandise sales as strong as ever, the members of Arkells have teamed up with their Montreal-based supplier, Cardboard Box Project, to imagine new ideas that will resonate with their fans.
Most of their designs are created by guitarist Mike DeAngelis, who sketches out ideas on his iPad before presenting them to the group. Sometimes they’re flashbacks referencing a particular Arkells concert, other times they’re as random as a cat drawing of him.
“Merchandising can really be an artistic statement,” he said.
“And in our own minds, it helps us visually conceptualize what we’re doing. I think setting that vibe can be important.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 8, 2023.