Artist merch guide for independent musicians
- 08 May 2023, Monday
There’s something undeniably special about having the merch of our favorite artist or a band. We feel more connected to them and their music. It’s almost as if by purchasing their merch, we immediately become a relevant member of their fanbase – someone close to them.
We assure you that this is exactly how your fans feel about you and your merch! In this guide, we’ll walk you through the steps you should take if you’re about to produce quality merch on your own, or you're considering enhancing the one you already have.
The importance of merch for independent musicians
Producing and selling merchandise is essential to independent artists for several reasons. Firstly, as outlined in the intro, merch has a strong potential to deepen your relationship with your fandom, allowing them to simply express their affection towards your art in a tangible sort of way.
For the individual fans, it also brings a meaning of belonging to a community of people who are connected through your music. This way, your merch has the potential to not only bring your fans closer to you but also closer to each other. There’s no better feeling than connecting with someone who loves the same artist you do!
Buying your merch is also an opportunity for your followers to show their surroundings what kind of music they listen to and what acts they support. This is especially important and personal to those that identify music as their true passion. Speaking of support, any product that your fans can buy from you gives them a chance to financially encourage you as an artist and, potentially, make contributions towards your upcoming project.
Physical merchandise has the potential to generate significant revenue, especially when being offered at gigs and festivals. It’s even often the case that on tours, merch is usually the n.1 source of profit for artists.
Last but not least, merch is vital for your exposure and music brand awareness as it has the power to attract attention. Especially when collaborating with other artists, merch may well help you promote yourself to an undiscovered audience. The best-case scenario: they see your merch, listen to your music and ultimately become your fans.
How to produce and enhance your merch
Now that you know why merch is fundamental to you as an independent musician, let’s move to the key tips that may help you produce quality merch or improve the one you currently have.
1. Identify your target audience
The first crucial step that you need to take before you start designing and producing your merch is to establish your key target audience. Knowing who your target audience is will help you determine what kind of products they would be interested in purchasing and thus what products you should develop and make. Frankly, just like with your music, it’s impossible that your merch will appeal to everyone, and neither should that ever be your goal.
The data coming from music streaming platforms, digital stores, or your social media accounts can help you identify who your target audience is (gender, age), where they come from (location), and what they are like (interests, habits).
At iMusician, we provide our very own Music Analytics tool that can, among other things, help you understand your most relevant audience and optimize your campaigns, including your merch, accordingly. If you’d like to find out more about our Music Analytics, check out its product page on our website!
Create your free iMusician account here!
2. Choose the right products to sell
As we’ve just mentioned in the guide, choosing the right products to develop and sell strongly depends on who you’re selling them to. At the end of the day, you don’t want to produce something that won’t be appealing, useful, and culturally relevant specifically to your fans.
This is when social media can come incredibly handy. Analyzing the performance of your posts (reach, views, comments, shares, etc.) can help you determine what campaigns and messages resonate with your fans. Catchy phrases, slogans that are characteristic of you, or even your most related lyrics can then be displayed on your merch, too. To conduct your analysis, you can either use the tools provided directly by the social media channels or opt for external providers, such as Hootsuite, Buffer, Sprout Social, and others.
You can also dive deeper into what your audience is really like – what their lifestyle is like; what they like to do in their free time; what they like to wear; what their values are, etc. Their presence on social media and their interaction with your posts can tell you a lot!
When on social media, you can also use social listening to monitor the platforms for mentions about you, your music, and, in case you already have one, your existing merch, as well. This can give you better insight into how your fans perceive you and your music, what they like about it, and what they could potentially like to see in your merch.
On top of that, social listening may help you look more into what your direct competitors do with their artist merchandise. This may also give you a better understanding of what’s generally desired by fans of musicians like yourself, and what’s considered trendy in current times.
Remember that even though many expect to be offered t-shirts, sweatshirts, or iPhone cases, you may end up surprised about what kind of products your target audience would be interested in. Maybe it is a cool water bottle, a diary, a passport holder (yes, those are also produced as part of a merch), tour coasters, face masks, tote bags, etc.
If, even after analyzing your data and monitoring social media posts you’re still quite unsure about what products to make, you can ask directly your fans. Use social media polls or email surveys to collect your answers. Your fans may also really appreciate being part of the merch development process.
Include physical records in your merch
Merchandise can consist of everything that’s not a digital download, which also includes your physical records like CDs or vinyl. Incorporating your music into your merch is particularly important during live shows and tours. In fact, physical records have proven to be a substantial stream of revenue for artists during tours.
This is because people who come to your gigs are usually those that already know you or want to know you and are therefore likely to spend more money on you right after your show. At that moment, a physical record of your music may be not only what brings your audience closer to you the most but also the highest-quality merch item, especially if you’re an emerging artist.
In terms of the format, be sure to choose such that fits your present needs the best. While CDs are cheaper to make, vinyl records are currently more popular and actually outsold CDs in 2022 for the first time in decades. On the other hand, their production is rather costly and lengthy, with artists waiting up to a year for their vinyls to be produced. If you’d like to learn more about vinyl, check out our article about how to make a vinyl.
3. Develop your brand identity
Once you know the set of products you’ll include in your merch, the next step is to decide on the overall look and design of your merch. These should be aligned with your brand identity, meaning that your merch should showcase your music artist's brand (your values, personality, logo, typography, etc.) and communicate how you’d like people to feel when they interact with it.
If you’re sure of what your brand identity is, then your job now is to make it shine through your merch. If, however, you’ve never really thought of the concept of brand identity before, it may be a good idea to take your time identifying it.
Bear in mind that the strongest brand identity is a coherent one, meaning it’s clear, easy to understand, and, on top of that, consistent. Our guide on how to promote your music on social media could help establish your brand identity.
You may also make use of brainstorming sessions to come up with ideas for your brand identity or then develop concepts for your merch around it. The following questions could help you:
What do I want to communicate through the merch?
What should my merch represent?
What is unique about my merch?
Why should people notice my merch? What will drive their attention?
How do I want my fans to feel when they wear/use my merch?
Focus on your creativity
Showcasing your artist brand through your merch doesn’t mean that there’s no space for creativity. On the contrary – your brand identity is only there to provide you with some guidelines you should follow to ensure that your brand communication is clear and on point! Traditionally, a strong visual identity plays a vital role when it comes to merch to attract people’s attention and your creativity is something that can enhance it.
Focusing on producing emotionally-driven designs may help you. You can provoke powerful emotions and thoughts in your audience and even, if you will, elicit important conversations – it’s all up to your imagination and vision.
Naturally, your music should be, at least to a certain extent, portrayed in your merch, especially if it is tied to a specific release (album, song, etc.). Once again, establishing your brand identity should help you identify, among other things, how you want to represent and communicate your music, particularly in terms of your promotional activities.
The more unique the designs are, the more attention they’re likely to attract. Just make sure that they’re sustainable (you can be consistent with them) and relatable to those that don’t necessarily know you or your music yet.
Be involved in the design process
When it comes to the design process, you have two options. You can either strive to design your merch on your own (if your skill set allows for it) or work with a professional designer. Either way, it’s important that you’re always as involved in the design process as possible.
Keep in mind that while the professional(s) you work with may be very talented, it’s generally difficult for someone else to perceive, imagine and interpret things the way you do. If your cooperation with the designer is successful, you may well end up with high-quality merch designs that bring your vision and ideas to life.
Pay attention to the quality of your content
There is likely nothing worse than blurry and low-quality visuals displayed on merch items. If you work with a professional designer, they should tell you what the required quality of the content you want to use for your merchandise is. If you don’t, however, it’s crucial that you pay close attention to it yourself. Surely, you want to put out your designs in the best way possible so that your fans can wear or use your merch proudly.
When it comes to content quality, however, your focus should go beyond just your merch. It’s also the product images used in your merch store and other marketing materials that should be up to par. If you don’t have a good camera to take pictures of your merch items, you can ask your merch company if they could do it for you.
If you showcase low-quality images of your products on your website, the likelihood that someone will buy your artist merch is rather low. This also applies to the images you may use for your social media posts and other campaigns to promote the merch.
4. Choose the right manufacturer
When choosing a manufacturer, you have two options to choose from: print-on-demand and bulk manufacturing.
On-demand services will only produce what your fans order. Such manufacturers produce or supply blank merch items and then print your design on them when an order has been put through. This also means that you only pay for what you’ve purchased.
The great benefit of print-on-demand is not having to worry about losing money and ending up with too many products that you cannot sell. You also don’t have to be worried about selling out and running out of the items that your fans love.
Additionally, you don’t need to take care of shipping and neither do you need to hold inventory. Also, with such services, you can easily try out new ideas/concepts of yours and if they don’t work out with your audience, you can simply move on to something else. On top of that, you can offer more sizes, colors, and styles, too.
On the other hand, your cost per product will most likely be more expensive than in the case of bulk manufacturing and the overall product quality may also be lower. You also need to take into consideration additional payments to print-on-demand companies for taking orders, shipping, or holding inventory.
If you want to check out some print-on-demand companies, the ones we would recommend include Printful, Printify, Hello Merch, or Gelato.
As opposed to on-demand services, bulk manufacturers produce ready-to-sell products complete with your designs. You then have to decide the number of items you want to order and are subsequently responsible for inventory, selling, and shipping. This option may be considered a bit risky, especially if you’re just starting out, with the likelihood of ordering too much and not selling it all.
On the other hand, however, you’ll most likely receive a higher-quality end-product that will cost less money than the on-demand product. Also, as you’re the one responsible for shipping and selling your product, you won’t have to pay additional money to the manufacturers.
Additionally, with bulk production, you’re fully in control of what your products will look like. There are no pre-produced items that will just have your design printed on their prefabricated foundation. This means that you are free to fully customize your merch.
On top of that, the time your customer spends waiting for your product is usually shorter than in the case of on-demand production. This can also result in a better customer experience and influence your customer’s future purchase intent. If your fans have to wait months to get your products, they may well decide not to ever order merch from you again.
If you’re still worried about ordering too much, you can prevent that from happening by organizing a pre-sale. Your fans will be presented with a deadline by which they need to place their order. You can then submit this order to the manufacturer who will create the exact number of items (or a number similar to it, depending on their services).
Just bear in mind that, in this case, your customers may have to wait longer for the products to arrive. If you communicate this well with them, however, and they know about it in advance, it shouldn’t be an issue.
If bulk merch production sounds like something you’d be interested in, companies like Monday Merch, Boxaroo, or Useless Pride Merch, the last of which partners with us and makes a special offer for iMusician customers.
Produce your merch with the help of iMusician!
5. Set up a merch store
You know what products you’ll be offering, you’ve decided on their design and have even selected the manufacturer who will produce them. Now it’s time to set up a digital store through which you can actually sell your merch.
Luckily, there are plenty of eCommerce platforms that will help you build your merch store, such as Shopify (from personal experience it’s very easy to use), Artist Shops, Hello Merch, Squarespace, Wix, and many others. Such platforms usually offer a high level of customization that allows you to build and present your store exactly the way you want in order to reach the people you want. Be sure to make use of it and remember that your store, too, should showcase your artist's brand identity.
Link your store to your social media
Nowadays, social media does a great job of helping artists and other entrepreneurs promote and directly link their products and stores. For instance, on both Instagram and Facebook you can create a marketplace shop allowing people to purchase your products without ever leaving the particular social media platform.
You can set up your Shop in the Commerce Manager provided by Meta and to do that it’s necessary that you’re the admin of your Business Page and thus have the Manage Page permission. If you’re looking for guidance, our blog guide about Facebook for musicians will certainly help you with that.
Additionally, companies like Shopify allow their customers to connect their Shopify and Facebook/Instagram accounts and sync their existing product catalog to those platforms. This not only makes things easier and less time-consuming but also enables their customers to sync their inventory, sales, and customer data between Facebook, Instagram, and Shopify.
As a result, you, as a musician selling your merchandise, can manage your sales, as well as payments, orders, and returns in one place, which would be the Shopify Admin. If you’re a Shopify user and would like to learn more about connecting your Shopify catalog to your Instagram/Facebook account, this guiding page may help you.
Sell you merch through music streaming platforms
As we’ve researched, it’s currently only the cases of Spotify and Amazon Music that allow musicians to sell their merch directly through their streaming platforms.
With Spotify, you can set up your Spotify merch catalog (also called a ‘digital merch table’) using Spotify for Artists and Merchbar. All you need to do is sign up with Merchbar and make your merch available there. After you’re listed on Merchbar, up to 3 products of yours will be displayed on your Spotify for Artists profile. In case you have more than 3 products to offer, Spotify will automatically showcase the best selling-ones.
Unlike Spotify, Amazon Music can help you not only sell your already existing products but also to create them and ship them. As an on-demand service, Amazon can produce your merch based on the custom merchandise designs that you provide.
If, however, you already have your merch produced, you can still use Amazon to either take care of the post-sale operations (inventory, shipping, customer service, returns) or to only act as a selling platform. You can read more about how to produce/sell your merch through Amazon Music on their website.
6. Develop a marketing strategy to promote your merch
Naturally, to ensure that more people know about your merch, you need to promote it just like your music. There are many ways you can put together a promotional strategy to market your merch just like there are many different campaigns that you can create around it.
Social media is probably the most important place to go to let your fans know about your upcoming merch. You can post about it, make stories, videos, or reels about it and use a variety of features and tools to create appealing visuals to attract your audience.
You can also organize a giveaway or a competition or produce any type of gamified content that might make the whole merch experience thrilling for your fans. On top of that, you can encourage your followers to generate their own content using or wearing your merch. Your die-hard fans will always be happy to take part in anything initiated by you.
Besides social media, you can also opt for email campaigns sending out newsletters or teasers to your email list subscribers.
Whatever promotional activities you’ll engage in, make sure that they are all a part of a particular strategy. Strategizing your marketing efforts will help you remain structured and consistent and avoid any unnecessary and random promo activities that may cost you time and money. Additionally, if your merch is related to your latest release or upcoming music, you can simply connect those two things and promote both at the same time.
Is your merch prepared and ready to sell? Congratulations! You'll make your fans happy and generate valuable profit from it!
Are you off on a tour soon? Then, don't forget to take your merch with you. While building a digital merch store to sell your merch is necessary, offering it directly to your fans at your gigs is a must! One final tip from us: make sure to accept all kinds of payments (or as many as possible). Nowadays, people are very much used to paying by card or using PayPal to make purchases. If you only accept cash, you can miss out on potential customers and so fail to earn some important revenue.
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