Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Merch Guy

“Hi, I’m your merch guy for the night”. This is my typical introduction when I meet my contact for working the merchandise table for bands. I then introduce myself with my real name rather than the service I will provide for the evening. However once the audience is in the venue, people refer to me by my job for the evening, “Hey merch guy, how much is the cd?”  “Hey merch guy, how large is a large tee shirt? Can I see it?” Lots of people have asked me just what does a merch person really do. I am writing this post to let you see what goes on before people come to the show and want to buy band gear.

I LOVE working merch tables. I love meeting and having one on one contact with bands coming through Baltimore. I love talking to the bands fans and meeting them. I consider it an honor and privilege to be trusted by a band to be a face of the band. I take the task seriously and professionally.

I got started by working with local radio station WTMD, working the merch tables for shows that they would put on. I found out that I had a knack for it and really enjoyed it. It has led to a second career for me. Over years of work you get to know bands, managers, tour managers, and club owners who trust you and will recommend you to other bands that come through Baltimore. Much of my references come from bands I have worked before.

Last month I had the honor to work for one of my favorite bands Clap Your Hands Say Yeah  when they came through Baltimore. This reference came from the club’s owner at the Metro Gallery  which is one of my favorite places to work. I connected with my contact from the band and set up a time to go to the club based on their load in. We met, loaded in, and then I go to work. I am there usually 2 hours before the doors open. For this night we met at 6:00 for an 8:00 doors show.

On this night I met Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (CYHSY) at 6:00 and after the load is when the merch table work starts. CYHSY were traveling with 5 different tee shirt designs (had both men’s and women’s), 4 or 5 cd’s, 2 vinyl and some other small stuff. The first thing is you have to “count in” the entire inventory. This means you must count everything they might sell. You have to count in every tee shirt size, cd, vinyl, totes, and whatever else they bring in. This takes a long time and I usually will count it twice to make sure of accuracy. You then mark the numbers on what is known as a tally sheet, which again lists every item they are selling that evening. This can be tedious but needs to be done.

The next step, fun for me, is setting up the actual table or booth. You put out the band's gear to display in a way that is fun, easy to read, and catches the eye. You might hang shirts, make price lists, and creatively make the table as inviting as possible. While I do this the band is usually doing sound check which is always awesome because it is a concert for just a few. I so enjoy sound checks for it gives you a lot of insight to the band and what the show will look like that evening.

The doors then open up and you must be ready to go. The band has given you a “bank” or starter cash. As the audience comes in, many will come to the merch area and the selling begins. I will then spend the rest of the evening at the merch table selling and talking to people, pulling tee shirts, getting cd’s, showing off vinyl, all the time while being friendly and talkative. It helps to know a lot about the band so that you can answer questions that people might have. “What cd was that last song on?”.  “Is this the band that recorded the cd?”.  “Which is their latest cd?”.  For larger bands (Emmylou Harris, The Lumineers) or sold out shows (The Damnwells, Langhorne Slim, Dan Deacon, Wye Oak, Jukebox the Ghost) we may move thousand or so dollars in merch for a night. This means a lot of bending over to get shirts, vinyl, or trying to keep the stock updated in the few minutes when nobody is at the table. These nights mean I will not be able to see any of the show. On slower nights I can see parts of the show, which I always enjoy.

At the end of a night, after the headliner has finished, there is usually a last rush of people buying things as they leave. This is generally a very busy time and the merch area can get a bit untidy and sloppy. Once this last rush is over you then “count out.”  That is exactly what it says and opposite of counting in. You must count every item left, look at your opening tally sheet and find out how many items were sold. You figure out how much money was made and then you hope you match that number exactly. Many times you might be a bit off and most bands understand that when you count over 100 tee shirts in five different sizes, you might not have counted exactly right. Usually I am very close, if not exact. After the money is exchanged, I am then able to go home. By this time the band has packed up and the club is cleaned. This is usually about an hour after the last band has finished. To say the least, I usually get home very early in the morning.

I know that many bands I work for depend on the merch sales for a good percentage of their income. Bands offer compensation depending on the band. Some offer a percentage of sales for the evening, others offer a flat fee, and some pay by the hour. Because I have a full time job, I tend to try to take less money out of their pockets. I will trade cash for a t-shirt, a signed CD, and a ticket to bring someone in with me.

I also want you to know that the best way to support a band is to buy merch at the shows. When you do this the band gets a much larger percentage of money from sales then they would if you bought it from a store or a download. It also helps if you buy the merch with cash. This keeps them from having to pay for the credit card percentage the company takes. Many bands don't even offer a credit card purchase because they can't afford it. Also when you buy directly from them, they will be there to sign the merch you purchased. It doesn't get better than that!!!

I have enjoyed working with many bands over the years. Most of the people I have met have been very kind and grateful. There have been a few people who take themselves too seriously, but for the most part I have grown from the people I have met and the stories I have heard. I consider myself to be very lucky to be known as the “merch guy.”

In memory: I found out a few days ago that one of my musical idols recently passed away from cancer. His name was Charlie Chesterman who was the frontman for one of my all-time favorite bands Scruffy the Cat. This Boston alternative roots band was way ahead of its time and was the group that led me to finding out that there were great indie bands not signed to major labels. Even though the band has not put out anything since the late 80’s, I continued to champion them. While Charlie continued to have a career after Scruffy the Cat, for me he will always associated with this band. They were one of the best live bands I ever saw and I saw them a number of times. This is for you, and how I will always remember you, Charlie.