BandAids: Expert Advice from Boston Merch Girl

Here on BandAids, we’ll explore ideas, innovations and inspirations in band promotion. Making killer tunes is only half the battle; in order to find and keep fans, you need to think of yourself as (cringe) a brand and put some thought into marketing yourself!

By day, twenty-something Bostonian Erica Truncale manages events at a university, but by night she masquerades as Boston Merch Girl, slinging swag for many local and national acts in clubs all over the city and beyond”and she has become the go-to girl for Boston acts who need a hand with sales at their shows. We hit her up for some insider tips on what works and what doesn’t behind the merch table. Read on!

OS: So how did you become Boston Merch Girl? What exactly is your role?

BMG: I started doing merch when I was asked/offered to do it for some friends’ local bands. My boyfriend had been doing it for a couple of bands, and I took over his role when he took on other responsibilites. It sort of snowballed from there. Other bands alongside our merch would ask if I would do theirs, and I decided this was definitely a niche that no one was filling. My role is to be the support a band needs so they can focus on what they’re really there to do”play music. I arrange/inventory/sell merch, circulate mailing lists, answer fan or venue staff questions…things the musicians shouldn’t have to worry about”they should be focused on their music and gear.

OS: What is it that you do so well that makes all the bands want you?
BMG: I strive to provide a peace of mind, and like to think that’s what has bands reaching out to me again. Merch/fan interactions/mailing lists are really important to bands creating and maintaining relationships with a fan base, but there’s not always time to dedicate to that. I do my best to represent the band during a live show while they’re soundchecking, playing, breaking down”you know, the stuff musicians are supposed to be doing.

OS: You’ve mentioned circulating mailing lists¦ what’s your strategy for getting as many email addresses as possible?
BMG: Mailing lists are tough”it’s solicitation, which turns people off really easily. I try to read people, see who’s really into it, who genuinely would want to keep up with the band. Striking up a conversation about the band (i.e. “Have you seen them live before?” “Are you friends with any of the members?”) makes it less aggressive. Basically being personable and approachable, without being too aggressive or abrasive.

OS: When a venue doesn’t have a specified merch area, what’s your strategy for picking a good spot?
BMG: By the exit is best. No one wants to buy merch at the beginning of a show and have to carry it around all night. Also, by the end of the night (and after a couple of drinks), spending $15 on a cool band shirt sounds like a fantastic idea, especially if the audience is really into it. Endorphines and alcohol don’t always make people make BAD decisions…sometimes it just helps them justify a random purchase. Finally, it’s a reminder. If someone planned on buying something at the end of the night, by 1:00 am its not in their head anymore. But seeing the booth as they’re walking out the door is that one last chance. It’s like the candy at the checkout [aisle].

OS: So is it safe to assume that right after the band plays and end of the night are peak sales times?
BMG: Yes. Absolutely. I’d say more than 60% of sales happen right after a band plays, and right around the venue/bar’s last call. During the last few songs of a set you might get a few, but any other time, you’re really not going to get anyone. Sometimes you luck out and catch the interest of the people checking out the band AFTER yours’ merch after THEIR set.

OS: Since you’ve spent so much time behind the merch table, give us some insights. What are the hot items that everyone buys? Any duds you recommend avoiding?
BMG: It depends on your crowd, but generally vinyl, CDs, zip-up hoodies, soft, well-fit t-shirts and cotton tote bags sell great. Hats, download cards, boxy unisex shirts, photos don’t sell well. Posters are hit or miss, depends on the graphic. Also, don’t charge for stickers or pins. These are fantastic for getting people to your booth, but no one’s going to pay $1 for a sticker. While on the topic, your graphic on your merch is really important. If you’re slapping just your band name across things in a glaring color, you’re doing it wrong. I’ve personally bought shirts that I thought were really cute/awesome when I’ve only heard the band once. Put some thought into the colors you use, the quality of the shirts… give your graphic design/artist friends a case of beer to come up with an awesome image, then just include your band name somewhere in the mix. When someone is wearing it, and someone else says, “Hey, I love that shirt,” they’ll respond with “It’s from this band I saw last weekend.” Instant word-of-mouth! Also, people won’t wear/carry ugly things, even if you’re giving them away. Just sayin’.

OS: Who are some of the more successful bands you’ve worked with (in terms of merch sales), and what do you think they do that makes them so successful?
BMG: Most bands I’ve worked with do a combo deal (i.e. buy a $10 CD and a $15 shirt for $20). Sidewalk Driver (left) always does well with just one shirt, because a) it’s not unisex”they have men’s and women’s sizes; and b) they have a great metallic logo that references a lyric in their song. Also, Band of Horses did show-specific posters”different designs for each night of the tour. It said the date, venue and city of the show. Here’s a crappy photo of mine, signed.

The (now retired) Acre did the greatest packaging for their CD release. It was a brown envelope with the band name on the front, sealed with a red wax stamp, with a little info booklet from the night and a copy of the CD inside. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, for CD releases, generally do a pre-sale (ie: buy a ticket to the show and get a free CD, or pre-order a CD and pick it up at the show and get a free shirt). People may love your band, but they love free stuff even more. You might sacrifice some potential profits, but you now have 200 people wearing your shirts around the city.

OS: Let’s say we’re putting together a little merch table survival kit. What items, other than the merch itself, should you always have in it?
BMG: I personally carry my “merch kit””an old suitcase covered in stickers from my “clients””but a band that has their own stuff is awesome. Gaff/painters tape, wire hangers, sharpies and pens that work, a clipboard, pushpins, rubberbands.

OS: How important are decorations/aesthetics/table appearance? What are some of the best approaches to this that you’ve seen?
BMG: I’ve worked with some bands that have amazing merch stands, i.e. OldJack, The Lights Out (see a demo of their homemade ‘Gigstation’ here), This Blue Heaven, but if you’re not going to do that ” and it’s not always necessary ” there are a few key things:

1. Have some kind of sign with your band’s name on it, even if it’s just your name at the top of a sign with your merch prices ” especially if you’re in a new town, you don’t have a merch person or you’re not the only band on the bill.

2. Have your prices listed on good signs, or don’t have any signs at all but have a merch person. Don’t scrawl it on a ripped section of a cardboard box. If you don’t care about your merch, don’t sell it.

3. Bring a light source. I carry a push-on light, a string of Christmas lights and a string of battery-powered lights. These are great because sometimes you’re jammed in a dark corner and people won’t even know you have merch. (Also, drunk people move in the direction of flashing lights. I learned this when I was an EMT ” this is why drunk drivers hit ambulances with their lights on so often. They see them, they drift in the direction of the flashing lights. Fun fact!) Odds are, a percentage of your audience will not be sober. But even sober people will see lights and say, “Hey, whats over there?”

OS: If a band hires a designated merch person for a show, what’s a reasonable amount to pay them for their time and effort?
BMG: Hmmm… Really, just make it worth their time. Some friends will offer to do it for a few beers. I’ve standardized my rate just to be fair and because at a point I was working two-three shows a week. It’s nice to have a base amount plus percentage of sales, so if it’s completely dead, at least they get a few bucks in their pocket, and if it’s an insane madhouse, they’re compensated for their work/patience. Figure out what works for the band and for the person, but always remember to put your merch person on the door list, and buy them at least one drink. They represent you.

OS: Any other tips?
BMG: Announce that you have merch at least twice while you’re onstage. Write it on your set list if you need to. It drives me nuts when people don’t. If you point me out, I will stand on a chair and wave.


Boston Merch Girl in action