Merch Revisited: A Paradigm Shift in Fan Engagement

by Jack Farina in Merchandise March 15, 2017

Artists today have never been better positioned to earn sustainable livings through their craft. In today’s digital age, they’re primed to operate a holistic business with multiple income streams by capitalizing on owned audiences. While the barriers to entry in the music space are perhaps lower than ever, the job of a music artist now requires broader skillsets to succeed.

Aside from pumping out great content on a regular basis, strong communities are built through consistent touring, brand development and merchandising. While fans may consume the majority of your content for free, successful artists focus on a subset of them that will happily spend money on merchandise surrounding content, monetizing upon positive fan sentiment.

Fans can now get closer to their favorite artists than ever and artists in turn are rewarded for producing consistently great content and providing their audiences with a unique, engaging experience.

Lady Gaga

Merchandise is now at the forefront of that experience

New platforms can now mitigate the financial risk of creating merchandise in bulk and are being leveraged by savvy artists to give fans a more dynamic tool to communicate ideas, feelings, and experiences with their supporters. Let’s now explore the merchandising toolbox at a modern artist’s disposal, along with some best practices and a few examples of effective strategies that artists are utilizing to get closer to fans and monetize experiences.

No inventory, no barriers

Print-on-demand custom apparel platforms (like Teespring) have a simple value proposition:

  1. Upload a design onto a variety of products
  2. Create a unique webpage to house the purchase offer
  3. Market that page to potential buyers through various avenues like organic social media posts, paid advertising, email marketing, etc

After a purchase period where buyers pay for and reserve items, they only print and ship what you sell. With no upfront costs, artists can create and market merchandise inspired by anything they feel is important.

Beyonce

Merchandise then functions as an interactive communication tool between artist and fan. Artists experiment with various designs and products, fans support with purchases and provide feedback, and that feedback in turn dictates the direction of future merchandise offers. This cycle of creation, support/feedback and iteration facilitates a new type of fan communication that combines digital ideas and physical goods.

Developing a well-rounded ecommerce strategy is difficult but should always remain grounded in providing fans with a genuine experience. Coupled with consistent and relevant content, effective merchandise should ultimately become non-intrusive. Sales offers and content should support each other to create smooth fan experiences.

Artists sometimes find it hard or uncomfortable to sell to their base, but there are a number of ways to protect them from the appearance of “‘selling out” to instead turn merchandise into something fans inherently feel they have a sense of ownership of.

Performance Testing

Creating multiple designs/products and marketing them to small audiences for to gauge reactions is a highly effective form of performance testing. It leverages the complex paid advertising ecosystems on major social media platforms (Facebook primarily) and ensures that there is hard data gathered from your audience as to what will be successful. In this scenario, artists now have access to what massive brands and agencies have been doing for years: testing to see what works before the significant investment of bringing a product to market.

Visual Representation of Performance Testing

Social platforms are forums for inquiry. Gathering opinions and data through polling, commenting, messaging, and sharing is equally, if not more effective in gauging the adoption of new content. Instead of guesswork, posing a question to your community at large not only elicits genuine responses, but also functions as an engagement tool. It provides a portal for input, discussion and creation. The important part is listening to that input and creating content and merchandise that resonates with those active participants.

These forums can be used equally as resources for unique content. Musicians, oftentimes with inherently creative fan bases, should give fans the opportunity to participate in content creation with fan-made art or music. Hosting design contests for new merchandise is the ultimate form of immersion for fans with creative inclinations. James McVey used this to his advantage to raise a quick $10,000 for his charity of choice, CentrePoint.

James McVey

Online communities often create inside jokes that grow quickly and take on the form of memes, banter - and now - merchandise. Print-on-demand platforms, with their zero-risk proposition, allow anyone with a following to create physical products out of unique moments relevant to that following. Whether those little moments are created during a concert, a livestream or on a small online fan forum…artists who demonstrate that they are tapped into the important spaces where their audience operates are ultimately the ones who provide their fans with the best experience. The Dead 50 reunion shows featured an uncommon interaction between fans of the two most successful jam bands of all time, Phish and the Grateful Dead. Enter the Let Trey Sing shirt: a plea from Phish fans to the members of the Dead and the jam community at large to let Trey Anastasio, the Phish frontman, log some more mic time after limited vocal participation during the first segment of shows. Thousands of dollars were raised for charity, and fans proudly sported their merch. During the July 4th shows in Chicago, not only did Trey sing, but Bob Weir also wore the shirt on stage! The artists listened, created, allowed fans to participate and everyone had an elevated experience.

Dead 50 Reunion

Another strategy has become increasingly more relevant with the 24-hour news cycle and today’s political climate. Artists, celebrities, and influencers at large are in a unique position to drive thought and action. People in positions of power have always undertaken this implicit duty, but today technology makes it easier and faster to illicit actions in support (or against) a cause or idea. As the outpouring of massive movements, fundraising, and new causes grows, artists are reaching out to their communities as pillars of support and as agents of change.

Perhaps the most powerful function of custom merchandise is its role as a fundraising tool. From Panic at The Disco’s rallying cry surrounding tragedy, to Mitch McConnell’s words being used against him as a $250,000 Planned Parenthood fundraiser, influencers today have the ability to create near instantaneous change and drive the narrative of movements that they are passionate about.

Girls Love Girls and Boys

Nevertheless, she persisted

Final Thoughts

Technology will continue to create and support new types of connections between artists and fans. Artists must continuously innovate on every level in order to stay plugged-in to their communities. Attention spans will get even shorter, culture and news will move faster, and traditional merchandise will ultimately fail to engage fans in any meaningful way. Success for modern artists will be determined by their willingness to adapt to a changing landscape and act out of love for the people who support them.

Jack Farina (IG: @chronicles_of_farnia) is a talent manager at Teespring’s Music and Entertainment division in Los Angeles. Jack is an avid live music fan, but taco trucks hold an equally special place in his heart.