If you want to make money as a gigging band, you must sell merch.
Unfortunately, unless you’re a Photoshop whiz kid, it can be hard to know where to get started.
Dimensions? Specifications? CMYK? What do these words even mean?
And, that’s just one aspect of merch.
You must choose a supplier, decide whether you want silkscreen or embroidery (or another method), figure out when you need the merch by, order size, and of course, how you’re going to pay for it.
In this guide, we intend to boil the process down to its core components, to make it as easy as possible, and help you get from no merch to merch-in-hand.
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Decide What Merch To Make
Before you even concern yourself with design, you should consider what merch you need.
Are you looking to get T-shirts made up?
All of the above or other?
Decide now, because it’s a lot easier to get everything you need in one fell swoop.
Getting new items made up one by one can be inefficient, and it can even end up costing you more.
Although it’s better to play a show with some merch versus no merch, if you don’t have what your fans want then and there, you could end up leaving money on the table.
But there is another important factor here – your fans.
Don’t just think about what you want for merch – consider what your fans would buy.
If you aren’t sure, or don’t have enough feedback to go on, then use a tool like SurveyMonkey or even social media to poll your audience and figure out what they’re going to buy.
There's no point making a bunch of merch no one will wear or buy.
You want to make the kinds of shirts and merch people will wear as they’re going about their day, as this is free marketing you simply can’t buy.
Another easy way to figure out what merch to make is by researching what other artists or bands like you are selling.
If they’ve done their homework, then you won’t have to.
But you’ll want to do your own research as much as possible, as some artists like to scratch their own itch instead of thinking about what their fans might want.
Put Your Designs Together
Once you know what merch items you’re going to be making, you’re ready to move onto the design phase.
I’ve been fortunate in the sense that someone in my band always knew how to use Photoshop.
And, eventually, I learned how to use it too.
That was a frustrating process though.
And, you might not be so fortunate.
If you can’t create your own designs, you will need to hire a designer.
And, when I want something nice done up, I usually hire a designer even if I could do it myself – I’m usually too close to the project to know what would work.
Design will be one of your biggest expenses, though if you’re getting T-shirts made up, for instance, the shirts will cost just as much if not more than the designer.
There are a few more things I’d like to cover with regards to design, so let’s take this blow by blow:
Finding A Designer
You can skip this step if you can put together designs yourself or know someone who can.
But keep in mind that if you aren’t willing to spend some money on this, you shouldn’t expect much.
Sure, you might know someone that’ll do it for beer and pizza, but do they know what they’re doing?
Do they know what your band needs?
Are you sure they will produce the quality of designs needed to the specs the supplier requires?
These are important details you must address before settling on a designer.
Now, let’s consider services you can utilize to find a designer.
I happen to like Upwork and Freelancer for these types of jobs, as you can have some control over your budget and who you want to work with (e.g. beginner, intermediate, advanced, etc.).
Even if this isn’t a one-off project and you plan to return to the same designer, in most cases you can hire people you’ve worked with in the past using these platforms.
Naturally, you will want to review their portfolio before you jump into anything.
Most designers have a portfolio onsite, and if you can’t find one, ask for a link.
Typically, they’ll be able to set you straight.
If they don’t have a portfolio, or if they haven’t done much, or if you don’t like their work, keep looking until you find the right designer.
One of my favorite services is Laganson Graphic Design – they do good work and they’re affordable to boot.
So, if you prefer not to go through Upwork or Freelancer, or for that matter 99designs (which can cost you a lot more), you can also look for independent designers.
If there’s a specific style you love and can’t live without, then go on sites like Behance, scan portfolios and hire a designer of your choosing.
Another great way to find a designer is to ask for a referral.
Keep It Simple
There’s one simple rule to the cost of designs, and here’s what it is:
The more complicated the design and the more colors it uses, the more the merch generally costs.
With T-Shirts, for example, there’s typically a setup fee for every color you require.
If you can find a designer who knows what they’re doing, they should be able to provide you with a design you’ll be satisfied with, no matter how simplistic it might be.
So, for best results, collaborate with your designer and make them aware of the limitations.
Also, don’t forget to provide them with relevant specs from the supplier/manufacturer.
Ensure That Your Designs Meet Supplier Specs
We haven’t looked at finding a supplier yet, so at this point you’re not going to know in what format your supplier needs your designs in or even what the specs are.
But this is information you’re going to want to provide your designer with, so don’t forget.
There are several moving pieces to this process, so just be aware.
Some common requirements include designing with bleed/cutoff in mind, using specific dimensions, CMYK color, 300dpi and the like.
This might be gibberish to you, which is fine, but it shouldn’t be to your designer.
Find A Supplier
Finding a designer and supplier may happen at the same time.
Knowing your supplier in advance can help you determine your costs as well as design specs, so that’s important to be mindful of.
So, how should you go about finding a supplier?
First, you can ask for referrals.
If you know other artists and bands in your area who’ve had some merch made, and you like it, you can ask them if they’d be willing to share their contact.
Second, you can do a Google search for local providers.
This may not be the most reliable way to find a quality supplier, but you should also be able to find reviews, which can be helpful when choosing.
Third, you can take advantage of known suppliers like Merchly, which serve more than just their locality.
What works for you may not work for another, so take some time to determine what your options are and whittle them down to the ones you like most.
Then, pick one.
There are a couple more things you should be aware of with regards to suppliers, so let’s get into that.
Get A Quote
You may go directly from getting your designs done to placing an order, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
But if there’s anything you’re unsure about, or anything you need to confirm, getting a quote from the supplier should be your next move.
After all, you should have a good idea how much your merch is going to cost and if there are any additional fees, or if you haven’t accounted for taxes, you should see all of it on a quote.
How a company handles this aspect of their business also says a lot about the quality of their service.
If they drag their feet in supplying you with a quote, or it takes them longer than they say it will, perhaps it would be best to find another provider.
It can be difficult to remain patient during this process, but if you don’t, you could end up spending more money than necessary.
When asking for a quote, be sure to provide the supplier with as many details as possible, including colors, quality, units and more.
Optimize Order Sizes
Merch fails to represent an opportunity when: a) it doesn’t make you money, b) it doesn’t help get your artist or band name out there, or c) both.
Unless you’ve got a large tribe of superfans on your hands, it’s safe to assume you’re not going to sell out on your first day.
So, for most artists or bands, it’s important to optimize order sizes.
First, you must understand that discounts generally get better as your order size increases.
So, your cost per unit will tend to go down as you increase your order size.
Second, some (if not most) suppliers have a minimum order size.
It could be 50, 100 or even 500, depending on the business.
You must be aware of this as you’re planning, because it’s obviously going to cost more for 500 T-shirts versus 50, even if the cost per unit is less.
Third, you can optimize order sizes by getting a sense of how many people are going to be buying your merch.
You can survey your fan base again or include a question as part of your original survey.
Now, you can never plan perfectly – there’s no such thing.
You’ll buy too much or you’ll buy too little.
But so long as you come close, you’ll be able to keep costs low and maximize profit and exposure.
Place Your Order
If your designs are ready and you’ve chosen your provider, there isn’t much left to do at this point beyond placing your order.
We’ve looked at how to come up with the money to fund your music career in the past, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here.
You must put some money in to get some money out, so look at this as an investment, because that’s exactly what it is.
But at Music Industry How To, we don’t believe in going into debt to fund your career – it’s a last resort, if that.
So, plan your financial transactions and don’t overspend.
Saving up can take time and sometimes it will feel like two steps forwards, one step back.
So, hang in there, and you will have eventually paid the price to get to where you need to be.
Build A Partnership
They say customer loyalty is a dying thing but there can be certain advantages to sticking to the tried and true.
If everything goes well with the provider, consider building a long-term partnership with them.
Send them a “thank you” card and the occasional update about your career and how merch sales are going.
When you need additional merch items made up, give them a call.
Businesses like working with regular clients who are relatively low maintenance and trouble free.
If you continue to utilize the same supplier, you might be able to get discounts and get your orders done faster too.
This aspect of building your music career doesn’t often get talked about, but to me it makes a lot of sense to keep working with the people who can get you the results you need.
And, when you need a referral for something else, they might be able to set you up with other trusted sources too.
There are a lot of things you need for your music career that you’re probably not even thinking about right now, so the more quality connections you have, the better.
How To Make Merch For Musicians, Final Thoughts
The above reflects traditional methods for getting your merch made.
These days, there are some disruptive business models popping up, turning the process of merch creation on its head.
Feel free to do your research and see what else is out there – you have nothing to lose but a bit of time.
And, ultimately, take advantage of services that feel right to you.
Make decisions that are in alignment with your brand, the brand your fans have come to love.
Then, you can’t go wrong.