Merch Madness
Ray Waddell

How to do your own product sales right

Steve Gerstman, founder of Oakland, Calif.-based Tour Swag, is a pioneer in the DIY merchandising space. His business serves many superstar clients like Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, but still promotes a user-friendly merch model that helps emerging bands create swag and get it to shows and on the bodies of fans. Tour Swag can provide any level of merchandising services, including in-house design and production capabilities. Nonetheless, Gerstman’s first piece of advice for baby bands: Don’t necessarily go to a merch company out of the gate. Particularly early on, when profits and fan bases are tiny, many artists will be better off with a complete DIY model. Here are some merchandising tips for any act armed with a cool logo and enough of a following to do a string of dates.


The most common merch mistake is not to have any. Once you commit to it, treat your merch as a blend of creativity and commerce—weighted 70% toward the former. Bands “put a lot of effort, as they should, into their songwriting and their rehearsing and arrangements and honing of their songs,” Gerstman says. “Rather than think of merch as a commodity that you buy as cheap as you can and sell for as much as you can, look at it the same way you do your art. When you’re starting out, do you buy the cheapest guitars and amps, just based on price? No. It is your art; it is important.”

Developing bands should consider selling just one very cool T-shirt style. If you go with two designs, that’s really eight different items with higher upfront costs when size is considered. Gertsman also warns not to be too specific in merch design. Event-focused items—“Soldier Field, June 7, 1989”—are plenty cool, but for only the biggest bands. You don’t want to be stuck with a bunch of shirts for a show that happened months or years ago.

Understanding customers is paramount. Say you’ve decided you want a high-quality product. But what is high quality? Is it thin and small for hipsters, or big, black and beefy for headbangers? Is your art minimalist or an explosion of color? Are your fans girls or boys? Most important, what would you wear?

This article was excerpted from the most recent issue of Billboard Magazine, to read the entire article subscribe here.