In the decades since it became a leading merch company for indie bands from Pavement and Sonic Youth up through the White Stripes and Vampire Weekend, Tannis Root and its co-owner, Bill Mooney, have seen a lot — but nothing quite like this summer. Their team had just loaded boxes of T-shirts onto a delivery truck for client Tame Impala for their show at Bonnaroo on Sept 4. Then an urgent call came into the company’s North Carolina office: The Tennessee festival was off, thanks to flooding from Hurricane Ida. In an instant, Tannis Root found themselves with thousands of shirts and no one to buy them.
“I thought the call was going to be, ‘We want to make sure you ship the merchandise,’” says Mooney now. “Instead I had to run out and stop the truck with thousands of shirts. It was a stop-the-presses call.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has rippled throughout the music world, forcing everything from canceled shows to out-of-work roadies to immense financial grief for indie venues. The resumption of festivals and tours this summer has helped merch sales rebound, but as Mooney has learned, one of the most profitable parts of an artist’s business — especially for touring acts — is still facing huge challenges. “It’s better news than the beginning of the pandemic,” he says, “but now it’s a pandemic mixed with global warming.” And the result, he and others in the business say, will be felt by fans flocking to tables before and after shows — and seeing fewer and more costly shirts, at least until next year.
Whereas last year merchandisers struggled because show promoters and artists canceled festivals and concert tours, leaving no need for concert tees, something of the opposite challenge has emerged in 2021. Twice as many artists are looking to get back on the road. Yet the pandemic has still left a shock to the global supply chain with longer shipping times and labor shortages, and the industry can’t possibly meet demand. “It’s just impossible to make stuff right now,” says Billy Candler, CEO and co-founder of Absolute Merch, the merchandising company for artists such as Amine, Blackbear and Trevor Daniel. “Some of our partners are telling us not to even think about sending them print requests until January. Bands are used to having several items on their tours always in stock, but I think it’s unrealistic for most artists to be running their merch the way they did before the pandemic.” Even when merch is successfully delivered to the artist, it can still be derailed at the last minute, like with Bonnaroo.
Overall, the merch business is in a better place than it was when concerts abruptly ended in March 2020. In 2019, according to AtVenu, which works with artists and promoters to tracks sales of live-event tickets and merch, 4.6 million T-shirts were sold at shows. Combined with just as much additional goodies (hats, keychains, etc.), the industry pulled in $414 million that year. As a result of the lockdown, that figure tumbled to $51 million in 2020, with only 560,000 shirts purchased.
Thanks to the return of festivals and a few mega-merch tours like Hella Mega, the industry has rebounded to a degree. From June 2021 to August 2021, one million T-shirts were sold, and the business raked in $105 million during that time. (Sales per head — how much the average person is buying per show — are up in every genre, especially K-Pop and hip-hop.) That’s still only a quarter of what it was two years ago, but it’s a start. Tannis Root has seen an uptick in e-commerce sales of their goods as well as added revenue from live streams and the limited-edition posters and such.
But the industry is still facing hurdles in the months ahead. A shortage of cotton thread used to make T-shirts, combined with fewer laborers to do the work, has resulted in rationing in some warehouses. “When you look at supplies now, they’re super-spotty,” says Mooney. “There are zero medium or zero large shirts sometimes.”
More retailers are moving their production from overseas to domestic to avoid international shipping issues. Printers are over capacity and without enough workers, forcing merchandisers to jockey among one another for their shirts to get made. Artists and major music events are jumping from merchandiser to merchandiser looking for someone who can take on a quick request.
“[It’s] one of the small things you didn’t think of as a major pain in the ass.”
There are also shipping issues. Some bands didn’t get their merch for their first few show and lost out on all-important early revenue. Tannis Root says boxes of T-shirts have been lost due to issues with the USPS and Fed Ex. “We’ll reach out to a merch company and say, ‘Is there a problem?’’” says Ben Brannen, president of AtVenu. “And they say, ‘No, UPS didn’t get it here in time, so we have to play the first few shows without merchandise.’ That was an unexpected problem. It was one of the small things you didn’t think of as a major pain in the ass.” Candler faces similar issues. With commercial shippers less reliable right now, he commissioned a semi-truck for a recent merch shipment. That truck never showed up, and since then, he started taking shipments to the airport from Orange County to LAX himself with his own truck.
As merchandisers face hurdles to make products, they’ll likely be able to take on less work, and such measures will affect small and mid-tier acts the most. “We’re absolutely in a scenario right now where working with smaller bands is just not worth it given the amount of effort,” Candler says. “We’re either going to have to cut them out or raise their costs a lot, unfortunately. Printing 100 shirts for them when we’ve got bands doing thousands of shirts isn’t feasible, especially if we can’t depend on shipping. Fed Ex losing one box of merch means we have to spend three hours finding their merchandise. When I have a full semi-truck of pallets needing to get out for a headliner and it hasn’t even shown up yet, that needs to take a lot more of my focus.”
All this may seem a minor inconvenience — but for some bands, merch is their lifeline. “For the bands who have to tour for a living they lost their ticket revenue and their merch revenue, which kept them in business,” says Brannen, who estimates that, for smaller acts, 75 percent of their income derives from merch sold at live shows. “Most merch companies feel the best means of delivery is now Priority Overnight, which is driving costs way up,” says Brannen. “It’s not cheap shipping boxes of heavy hoodies and shirts this way, which eats away at the tours’ profitability.”
Tai Verdes embarked on his first-ever tour this summer riding success of viral singles “AOK” and “Stuck in the Middle,” opening for Quinn XCII and Chelsey Cutler. Since Verdes was an opener on the tour and it wasn’t clear how the crowd would react, his team went more conservative on merchandise — buying a few hundred hats, t-shirts, and intricate tie-dye hoodies. At worst, they thought, they’d sell out at the end of the tour.
Instead, they were selling 200 hoodies per concert and sold out after three shows. With the delays, it took several weeks to restock instead of the day or two it’d take in a normal year, and cheaper backup merchandise they had on hand didn’t sell nearly as well. Without their best merch at crucial markets like Chicago and New York, Verdes’ team missed out on tens of thousands of dollars in potential sales. As an opener, Verdes was already operating at a loss on the tour, and losing merchandise sales only compounds that.
“We’re fortunate that Tai has seen a lot of success and can afford this,” says Brandon Epstein, who co-manages Verdes. “But I worry about if we weren’t in this position, and we were solely reliant on merch sales to keep us afloat, which a lot of bands do, I think that would be a lot scarier. We didn’t know about how much a problem this could be until we got in it. A lot of managers and agents getting tours ready will be in for a rude awakening.”
Still, some have been able to most of the lost opportunities of the past year. Several artists, especially in country, are selling unsold tees from canceled 2020 shows, billing them as collector’s items. “I heard that,” Brannen says, “and I thought, ‘I applaud your creativity!’”