Here's How Music Merch Companies Are Navigating Coronavirus

Frazer Harrison

Merchandise Tent is seen during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 21, 2019 in Indio, Calif.

“We’re waiting and planning and hoping for the best,” says Red Star CEO Alex Stultz.

The forecast for the coronavirus' spread seems to change by the hour, affecting markets, manufacturing and public gatherings across the world. And for music merchandise -- a business that has to balance long lead times for front-end production with fast turn-arounds for order fulfillment on the back end -- that has thrown the entire industry into uncertainty as the COVID-19 disease grows.

“We have eight tours starting in Europe next week and everything seems to be changing day by day,” says Alex Stultz, CEO of Virginia-based merch company Red Star, which handles Dave Matthews Band and others. “What’s happening with shows in Switzerland or Northern Italy? We just don’t know. So we’re waiting and planning and hoping for the best.”

Along with putting the future of concerts, festivals and other large public gatherings around the world in doubt, the COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted supply chains in China, where the coronavirus first emerged. But even though Asia is one of the world’s major manufacturers for almost everything, including music merchandise, this has yet to become a major problem.

“Most of our T-shirts do come from China,” says Del Wood, CEO of the merchandise-fulfillment firm Music Today. “But a lot of the processing is elsewhere, including in the U.S., so that hasn’t been affected yet. We’re concerned, we have plans where we can, but what can we do?”

It helps that music merchandise manufacturing is not completely confined to Asia. Mat Vlasic, CEO of Universal Music Group-owned Bravado, says his firm has its manufacturing spread out around the world with this very scenario in mind.

“We have diverse geographical relationships for all our operations, so we’re generally protected,” Vlasic says. “Whether it’s a natural disaster or something like what’s happening now, we’re not beholden to any one region or set of manufacturers.”

Perryscope, which has a client list that includes AC/DC and Pink Floyd, has a similar setup. Its music-merchandise apparel is made all over the world and comes from Central America, Turkey, Pakistan and India, as well as China.

“Most of what we get from China is accessories like keychains,” says Norman Perry, CEO of Perryscope. “But supply chains are behind schedule. We’re having discussions with many licensees about Plan Bs right now.”

That’s not uncommon, because for many music-merchandise firms, China is less of a source for apparel than accessories. North Carolina-based Port Merchandise (Jason Isbell, Mavis Staples) is experiencing delays for products like iron-on patches for an upcoming Guided by Voices tour.

“We’ve also had some koozies and baseball caps held up,” says Chip Taylor, owner of Port Merchandise. “Mostly it’s little knick-knacks like patches and buttons. But the good thing is it’s not make-or-break for us. Shirts are our main thing and we get those made domestically.”

As for tour-specific merchandise, artists and their teams will look for other ways to sell it online and in retail stores. Even if a given tour is canceled, the majority of stock will probably wind up shifted to retail. “Then we’re looking for storage,” says Perryscope’s Perry.

He continues, “But there’s not anybody on the planet who won’t feel some effect from this, whether it’s a closed building or ushers, caterers, security companies -- or T-shirt vendors. I’m working with [K-pop band] ATEEZ and their tour is supposed to open in Madrid and Paris in May. There are questions about if it will happen, and if we’ll have the goods. We’ll see.”