Most musicians have so much more to consider than making music – if they want to make their way in the world. The peripheral stuff can be exhausting and all-consuming. Today I bring you an inside look at what happens when a musical duo (the unstoppable McShane & Shaw) set off, ever hopeful, along the treacherous trail of making money with merchandising.
“It’s a slightly depressing fact that we sell more bottles of hot sauce than we do CDs.” said Tim Smithies of the father and son ukulele act Dead Man’s Uke (Tim came up with the somewhat morbid band name for DMU when he came to own the dented resophonic ukulele that Tiny Tim played at the end of his life.)
Mr Smithies was impressing upon Chris and myself the vital role that merchandise plays in keeping a musical career afloat.
He told us, “We took a music marketing workshop with that guy from the band Nine Inch Nails who said, “Forget about selling CDs. People might buy them as keepsakes but no-one listens to them – not even your mother: she says she does but she doesn’t.”
DMU took this advice onboard, installed some screen-printing gear in their home and became a merchandising machine. Jake, Tim’s son and the bass player for DMU, is a talented artist who creates the designs that they artfully slap onto t-shirts, stickers, mugs, bandanas, hot sauce labels and what-have-you; while Tim: the father, uke player, computer geek and wizard of stagecraft (he used to be a professional magician) does much of the rest. He said, “We even learned to sell the hot sauce in 100 ml bottles so people who were flying home could bring them in their carry-on.”
Hearing all this made Chris and I realise that it’s time we got our merchandising asses in gear.
Our booking at the Czech Ukulele Festival at the end of July had already motivated us to finish our studio album – with the indispensable help of Ian Rafferty (our sound engineer, videographer and album cover designer.) Ian mastered our recordings into a 45-minute album of joy that we’re very happy with. Meanwhile Chris and I booked a session at the local photo studio so we’d have nice pictures for the album cover – and any other items that would benefit from having our irresistible image impressed upon them.
But having an album to sell is not the end. It’s merely a beginning. A starting place. The very bottom of a McShane & Shaw merchandising pyramid built from an awe-inspiring pile of branded trinkets: t-shirts, tea towels, caps, hats, table-mats, cat-flaps, rat-traps and badges stacked into an ever-growing, gigantic pile of glorious self-made commerce. Perhaps crowned with a McShane & Shaw logo keyring, emblazoned with the shining gold legend, “My Car’s Too Big”, dangling jauntily from the pinnacle.
That’s the plan anyway.
So, with two months in hand before the Czech festival, we’re thinking that time is on our side. We have ages to get everything done so there’s no need to go rushing into things. Admittedly the design of the album cover took longer than expected. Mainly my fault. It turns out that not only am I not sure what I want, I also don’t know much about art and, as well as that, I’m also very picky. Nothing that Ian comes up with looks quite right to me – but I’m not sure why – and I keep offering suggestions for endless improvements. I remain a perfectionist, even when it’s detrimental to my own progress. I know these never-ending changes will not matter too much in the end. But eventually, and with a final sigh, we make the last design change (we’d forgotten to credit John Marshall the photographer) before the final design was sent off to the CD manufacturer.
Things were going well. We’d definitely have the CDs in time for the festival. I have been to countless album release parties where bands have prebooked a hall and sent out invites but completely underestimated the time it took to manufacture the CDs and, on the day, had nothing to sell. A classic error which we had masterfully avoided. Plus, we still had time to get some merch. made while Ian was still in design mode.
Our two main ideas for products were a Disco Ukulele t-shirt (name of the opening track on the album) and a baseball cap embroidered with the words Your Car’s Too Big (named after our nearly-viral Youtube hit of the same name.) Ian quickly got to work designing these while I sped things along by being a lot less picky than before, saying, “Yep that’s great.” to nearly everything Ian showed us.
With two weeks left before we fly to Prague, I make two important discoveries: During a call to the CD place, I’m told our order of 500 CD’s will arrive on the day that we fly. Gaaah! How did this happen? We had time to spare. And now this! Are we to be CD-less after all? But they offer to duplicate a small run of fifty copies and get them to me within a week So that’s all good. But there is now another problem. We can’t find anyone to make our merch. in time.
On the same day that it seems we must give up on the merch. I bump into a friend called Liam. He tells me he has a buddy in the next village who designs and prints stuff and could help us out. “He’s on Facebook.” says Liam, and gives me the name of the company which I will call XYZ Customs. I find the company and message them with my phone number to call me, so we can chat about printing. A few hours later I get a message back saying: Giggety Let’s Go
I puzzle over the reply for a couple of hours and then type, “Hmmm right. I don’t know what that means… (puzzled emoji)”
Just as I’m going to bed, I get, “Yeah and we don’t know what your message means either”
I keep waking in the night thinking about how to respond to this weirdly rude friend of Liam’s. The problem is that one has to tread carefully here in these Yorkshire villages. An unintentionally wrong word to the wrong person in the wrong way can make lifelong enemies. Which is why you don’t usually get this kind of rudeness. Most people round here tend to be upbeat and polite – unless there’s a very good reason not to be. After a fitful sleep I decide to politely, but firmly, break off contact with this person before it gets more corrosive. There’s a bit more back and forth and I learn that I had found the wrong company. This XYZ Customs is based in the USA and produces exactly the same kinds of products as the XYZ Customs just down the road. Sheesh.
And then I have a better idea: Let’s get the merchandise made in the Czech Republic. Genius! I contact the woman in charge of doing the Czech festival t-shirts. Her English is excellent and she connects me with her manufacturer. After a couple of days, I learn that they are already rammed with work and cannot possibly get anything made in time for the festival weekend.
This is Friday. We fly out on Wednesday. The batch of fifty CDs has arrived – which is good – and Chris and I decide, absolutely for sure this time, that our merch. will not be happening this time around.
Later that day I call Rob to confirm our details for the Prague flight. Rob, originally from Wolverhampton, is a friend of mine from student days when we studied Applied Physics together. He’s a self-employed IT consultant who has an uncommon willingness to leave all his commitments at the drop of a hat in order to go off on some random adventure. The adventure might be to hitch-hike halfway across the country to hand-deliver a birthday card or it could be a hike alongside the reservoir where the Dambusters trained. Equally appealing could be a visit to Stonehenge or indeed a trip to see our old student haunts in Liverpool.
Naturally, when I asked him to come to Prague for a ukulele festival, Rob said yes without a second thought. And so, he joined Chris, Jane and myself as part of the McShane & Shaw entourage (after years of traveling to gigs alone it’s so nice to have an entourage.) Well, it turns out that Rob’s nephew Dave has a company that prints merchandise. Within five minutes Rob had called Dave who was already wanting to know what sizes and colours we wanted.
We were back in the game!
Sizes and colours? These were the questions I’d so far been ignoring. How many each of S, M, L, XL, XXL, XXXL (??) should we order? As for colours, there were so many choices that I could only say, “Not white and definitely not black.” I’ve seen too many black band t-shirts in my time and I’ve decided that I prefer brighter, more cheerful tones. I tell Rob to tell Dave, “We’ll take 6 small, 8 medium, 8 large in any darkish colour – except for black”. I reasoned that by not being too picky about colour we could expect a faster turnaround.
Next day, Saturday, I’m with Jane and we’re checking-in for our flights using the EasyJet app. The process is taking forever and my inner rage is building. Checking-in for a flight used to be a 5-minute process – at the airport – with a trained check-in person who knew what they were doing – and, unless your bags had been packed by a visiting stranger from Bogota, or contained a lifetime’s supply of barbeque fuel it was usually a quick and painless procedure. Now, by doing it ourselves, check-in can take an hour or more. What with app glitches, combined with technical ignorance, it means that your trip begins with a frustrating ordeal in the comfort of your own home wondering if anything you have just spent an hour and a half doing has actually gone through: or if you have to start all over again …at which point you hit the back arrow and accidentally refresh the page and lose all your work and therefore definitely do have to do it all over again. If you multiply the misery and wasted time for one unhappy traveller, by the thousands of people who fly daily you discover a major reason why the world is in the state it’s in today. Too much of humanity is exhausted from doing debilitating online work that used to get done quickly and easily by people who actually knew what they were doing.
And it’s somewhere about halfway through this laborious check-in attempt when Rob calls me – his call comes through on the same phone that I am checking-in on, so that I have to carefully break away from what I’m doing to take his call. He tells me that his nephew, Dave, has heard back from the printer that the PNG files for the t-shirt and cap designs are not suitable for the printing machine.
“He needs ‘Vector’ files.” Says Rob.
“Okay” I say, “I’ll let Ian know”.
There then follows a five-person line of communication starting with the printer, who needs vector files, and is telling this to Dave who passes it on to Rob, who tells me so that I can tell Ian (the designer.) Ian tells me that the PNG files are normally fine and he doesn’t have vector files. I pass his reply back along the line (while still doing my online check-in.) Explanations and arguments of what vector files are, and why we do or do not need them, go up and down the line. Personally, I find doing online check-in plenty all by itself without the need to explain what vectors are. At one point Rob starts giving me an actual lecture, “Remember when we did vectors in Physics? They give the information for the direction and length of a line drawn in space that can be expressed in computer code as blah blah….”
“That’s all well and good I reply but what am I supposed to say to Ian?”
In the end we gave up and Rob took it on himself to translate the files to pass on to the printer. Several hours later (about the same time that I finally finished my online check-in) I got the heartening news that the printer had fed the vector coordinates into his machine and our t-shirts and caps were already getting made. Additionally, I was told that the printer was not just any printer but an official manufacturer of merchandise for the Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. Cool.
I took a forensic look at one of our new CDs and found an error – the photographer was not mentioned. During a last-minute change to the template the manufacturer had gone and switched the design for the earlier, incorrect one. Soon after making this discovery is when the box of merchandise arrived. Rob rolled up at the same time. To be fair, it was a small miracle that we had merch. at all and I was supremely grateful to Rob for making this happen. But, as I lifted the scissors to cut the tape on the box, I was already telling myself, “Okay, let’s see what’s gone wrong this time…”
Is it me I wonder? Is my negative attitude and my expectation of errors causing the problems? It is often said that thoughts create reality and therefore, if we think positively, those positive thoughts will create better outcomes. It’s a philosophy I largely agree with …but not when it comes to stuff that has already happened. No amount of positive thinking is going to change whatever screwup has already happened to the merch. that currently resides within the box that I am now cutting open. I fully expect the designs to have been distorted beyond recognition during the translation from PNG files to vector files. But no, it has all been done perfectly. The work is flawless. It’s the shirts themselves – they are ALL black.
“I gave one instruction,” I said, “Any colour except black!”
We couldn’t believe our eyes – well I could, because nothing is ever done right anymore – but, once I’d calmed down and looked properly, I had to admit, that actually, it wasn’t too bad. The orange of the Disco Ukulele graphic looked pretty sharp on the black background. Rob, a Wolves supporter, laughed out loud when he remembered that black and gold are the club colours for Wolverhampton Wanderers and, in his merry mind, obviously the printer (who did work for that team) could ONLY work in those two colours. Ha ha ha ha ha.
Rob gave his nephew some hassle over the colour screwup: it turned out the printer had sent written instructions to the guy on the press to use navy blue shirts but it was accompanied by an example picture of a black shirt. And the guy on the press did not bother to read the instructions because pictures speak louder than words. We called Chris McShane to come over. He took a look and we all agreed it was fine and we would not be demanding any refund.
Every festival has their own way of dealing with performer merchandise. The best situation is to have a pleasing central market area with volunteers assigned to sell the stuff while we go off to teach, perform and rehearse. During unscheduled time the market area is where performers can hang out to chat, have impromptu jams and give playing tips. The worst I’ve seen was a festival in California that had a lovely market area for ukulele merchants but when I asked the director of the festival where the performer’s table was, she said, “There isn’t one.” She had not thought to provide a table for performers and had no intention of creating one. In that case I had to get help from a vendor to let me use part of their table, which was not ideal.
At the Czech festival, performer goods were sold at the registration table at the point where people entered the festival. It wasn’t a great hangout place but on the plus side the festival did not take a cut of the sales and the volunteers were always there. I had calculated our production cost for the embroidered baseball caps to be about £9 a-piece and the t-shirts £12 each but, when I got to the booth, I noticed they were selling their own festival t-shirts (of a happy dog holding a uke in its mouth) for a mere 250 Crowns -about £8.50. My heart sank – it didn’t look like we were going to be making much money from merch. sales.
I asked Ben the director what he thought our highest t-shirt price could reasonably be. He suggested 350 Crowns (£11.50). At this price we’d only be taking a loss of fifty pence on each sale. I decided that, although far from ideal, this was probably the best option available and I dropped off our stuff.
Mid-afternoon on Saturday, I saw a guy wearing one of our t-shirts. I hissed at Chris in an excited whisper, “I saw someone wearing our t-shirt!”
“Yes, I saw him too!” Chris hissed back.
It was reasonable to assume that we had witnessed the beginning of the bell curve of sales. We would now see more and more people wearing our t-shirts until it peaked before tailing off towards the end of the night.
Spoiler alert: that’s not what happened.
Our performance went very well. By the end of our set the hall was packed with everyone on their feet doing Dad Dancing moves. An hour or so later, as we sat listening to DMU, someone from the registration booth pushed through the crowd and handed me a bag with the remainder of our merchandise: including the sales money.
Chis and I perused the accompanying slip of paper. We’d sold seven CDs (Hm – not bad these days) and one t-shirt and no caps. We stared thoughtfully at the slip.
“That’s good.” We agreed, “We didn’t lose too much money there by selling a lot of shirts. It’s a relief really. Plus, we have plenty of merch. left over for the next gig. A win-win!”
We went off to look for the guy who’d bought our t-shirt. We found him and took a picture. He’s a Czech and his name is David.