Music

Merch wars kick off as venues take up to 45% from band T-shirt sales

Cult band The Lovely Eggs started the uprising after the O2 Apollo in Manchester took 30 per cent of band T-shirt and merch sales

The Lovely Eggs hit out at their venue for taking a cut of band T-shirt and merch sales

The Lovely Eggs hit out at their venue for taking a cut of merch sales Photo: PR supplied

“We were robbed last night,” raged a recent viral tweet by cult Lancaster band The Lovely Eggs, directed at the O2 Apollo venue in Manchester after they’d just supported US slacker-rock heroes Pavement there. “[They] took 30 per cent of our merch sales,” the lo-fi psychedelic punk duo’s angry post continued. “Also forced to sell T-shirts for £35. Found out last minute. Tried to fight it. But management wouldn’t listen. This shit will kill DIY bands like us. O2 Apollo you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Like so many others at the more DIY end of the music industry, The Lovely Eggs have simply had enough of this kind of thing, and influential voices quickly piled in to back them up. “Screw all venues who take percentages of artists’ merch sales,” wrote ex-Sonic Youth member Thurston Moore in a quote tweet. “Live Nation took 30 per cent last night for doing NOTHING,” grumbled Pavement guitarist Spiral Stairs, referring to the O2 Apollo’s multi-national operator, which had stung the headliners just as badly.

Public figures beyond music were furious too. “Was possibly thinking of playing this venue for my next tour,” fictional political correspondent comedian Jonathan Pie chimed in. “That’ll be a no from me then.”

On their irate indie bods bingo card, nobody can have had multi-million selling His Dark Materials author Phillip Pullman. “Where are the laws that ought to prevent this sort of contemptible behaviour?” he questioned. “No one should exploit artists and musicians from a place of greater power and get away with it.”

Believe it or not, that stack of threadbare and faded old band T-shirts in your drawer represents financial lifeblood to some of your favourite artists. It can take years for a band to reach the level where they’re earning decent fees on live shows – if they ever reach that level at all. But merchandise in the form of vinyl records, CDs and cassettes, posters, mugs and especially band T-shirts (because music fans just love to show their colours), represents quick and relatively uncomplicated returns right from the get-go, sometimes equal to if not exceeding gig fees on a good night. Money vital for everything from accommodation and transport to basic subsistence costs for band and crew.

“We rely on merch sales to top up ticket sale money so we can get by throughout the year when we’re not touring,” Holly Ross from The Lovely Eggs tells The Big Issue.

Increasingly, major venues – including the Live Nation-owned Academy Music Group, which operates around 20 mid-sized venues everywhere from Glasgow to Sheffield, London and Bristol – have been coming after a cut of the merch cash artists earn under their roof, by hitting headliners and supports alike with levies of anywhere between 10 per cent to a whopping 45 per cent. It’s exasperating for the likes of The Lovely Eggs, not just in the financial sense, but as a matter of sheer fairness.

“A venue is taking 30 per cent of something they haven’t financially invested in and haven’t worked hard on,” says Ross. “They’ve had literally zero input into it, yet demand 30 per cent. Also don’t forget bands pay venues for the hire of the space, so they should be able to do what they want in that space when they have paid for it.”

A backlash against the practice has been growing for years, with The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess and ex-New Order bassist Peter Hook among those using their platforms to call it out. The Featured Artists Coalition (FAC), a not-for-profit UK trade body representing the rights and interests of musicians at all levels, has launched their 100% Venues directory, listing more than 400 UK venues which charge zero commission on artists’ band T-shirt sales (mainly small grassroots spaces, but some larger venues too such as the Sheffield Leadmill, London’s Troxy and the Olympia in Liverpool). 

Where they’re unable to avoid the merch fee-charging venues, bands like Dry Cleaning, The Big Moon and Mudhoney and comedians such as Mark Thomas have been seen to take their merch stalls out of house, either by finding sympathetic nearby pubs in which to set up shop, or just doing it on the pavement right outside the venue, much as a bootleg band T-shirt seller would. “More and more people are standing up to it these days,” says Ross, “which is great because it is pure and utter bullshit.” 

But why should bands have to go to such lengths at all? On grounds of both practicality and principle, merch stalls belong inside venues, and to stifle their trade is to damage not only musicians’ earning potential, but the very spirit of independent art-meets-commerce which underpins the DIY scene. Not unlike Big Issue vendors, many bands operate as tech-savvy micro businesses who, for instance, invest in their own electronic card readers for ease of sales.

Most put loads of thought, time, effort and love into crafting merch that fans will treasure. Transactions at the merch stall go far beyond the merely financial. Smaller bands often sell their wares themselves, still sweating from the show. Artists of all sizes are known to put in appearances on occasion, for informal meet and greets, signings, and photographs. The merch desk is a nexus point for fans and artists. 

Fans can help by continuing to buy, whatever the cost. “Ultimately if fans boycott the merch stall, the only people that suffer are the bands,” says Ross. They can rest assured that artists don’t want to have to overcharge them, much less worry about percentages at all, when they would much prefer to focus on doing what they do and love best – making music.

“People like us don’t form bands to run a business,” says Ross. “That might be a consequence of what we do but it’s not a primary motive. 

“Let bands sell direct to fans at reasonable prices,” she insists. “Is that really too much to ask?” 

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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