The commodification problem of the music industry

Spending $75 on a hoodie at a concert is ridiculous, and frankly, it is. But you shouldn’t blame the artist.

Spending $75 on a hoodie at a concert is ridiculous, and frankly, it is. But you shouldn’t blame the artist.

For a long time, venues took a percentage of artists’ merchandise sales – jeopardizing whether they’d get a meal or a hotel room that night. The cut often puts touring artists in the red, and many are lucky to break even. Chances are, if the price of a hat at a show raises eyebrows, the price of merchandise tonight is probably pretty high.

Venues typically take between 10-40% of merchandise sales, although the artist is responsible for designing, shipping, and usually selling the items. The venues believe that because they give the artists a dimly lit corner to sell merchandise to the fans who bring business to the venue that night, they are entitled to a percentage of all those sales.

Adding this ingredient to an already nasty cocktail of inflation, venue consolidation, dismal streaming profits and the cost of putting on a tour has left small and mid-sized acts struggling to stay afloat.

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Written by Max Clark (Cut Worms)

It’s a topic that thankfully is seeing the light of day more and more recently. I’ve seen other artists talk about this and explain it probably better than I can, but basically it all boils down to this: selling merchandise is really the only way musicians make money and one of the main reasons for touring, and also which makes the tour itself possible. Most musicians can’t make anything approaching a living from record sales anymore, and it’s now common knowledge that streaming numbers don’t exactly equate to decent pay either. So unless you catch lightning in a bottle with a publishing sync, going on tour and selling t-shirts is pretty much your only way to make money. For venues or promoters to take some of that makes no sense. They have nothing to do with the design, manufacture, transport or sale of the group’s goods. They claim to provide a place for people to buy and sell, but the whole thrust of this place is for bands to play music there. There wouldn’t be a place like this if there weren’t bands to bring people out. So by that logic, as others have said, if a venue can take a cut of the merchandise, then the band is just as entitled to a cut of the bar sales, because no one would buy drinks at an empty music venue.

In the past, I’d only seen merch cut at really big venues when I was opening for bigger acts. Even then it felt unfair to take money from us for something that really had nothing to do with them, but since it was a big place you felt you had to go along with it. Now even the lowest dive spots are coming out to stake their claim on artist merch profits. It’s like a big bully taking your money and then his skinny weasel sidekick sees your hands are tied so he comes and takes your money too.

I’ve dealt with the same mentality more or less my entire adult life in creative fields – whether it’s music performance, graphic design or illustration – where I’m expected to work for little or nothing. Countless times I’ve heard the increasingly popular consolations of “It’s good exposure” or “It’s not actually working for you because it’s what you like to do.” So by that logic, if an accountant has a natural affinity and ability with numbers, do we ask them to work for free because that’s what they’re good at? Do only people who hate their jobs deserve to get paid?

It really is more of the same thing we see in every single corner of capitalism – doing what it was created to do: serve those on top. CEOs and people at the top are all about making as much money as possible for themselves without regard to who is doing the work or making the actual wheels of the machine turn. They do it because they can get away with it and they know it.

Not to get political, but we see the same behavior in Congress and our government more broadly. We expect those who hold all the cards (inexplicably out of goodwill) to vote to take power and money away from themselves. That’s why we’ll never see legislation passed imposing term limits on Congress or preventing lawmakers from trading stocks.

We’re left to pray for some “good” rich savior who just does the right thing without prompting, for which we’ll shower them with praise — even though it usually amounts to little more than a token victory or a PR victory.

It’s great that well-intentioned people like Willie Nelson would try to help by teaming up with Live Nation or [insert company here] to create an initiative or program designed to help the little boy. It usually looks great on paper.

But the company always finds a loophole, leaving the artist in the lurch: “We played a Live Nation EVENT, but it wasn’t a Live Nation VENUE, so they still took a discount on merchandise and we weren’t eligible for any of the scholarships, grants, or whatever you have.

The worst part is that at the end of the day, the amount of money they take from us probably means next to nothing to these huge companies. A $175 cut of our sales to them is a microscopic decimal point on a spreadsheet, but to us it’s food, fuel and a place to sleep.

I am sure that the establishments themselves are also pressured from the top down and the blame cannot be placed solely on them. And the representatives who work for these companies are usually nice, well-intentioned people. There is never anyone to blame. But it still doesn’t seem right to pass that cost on to the bands that provide the service, and then the bands have to pass it on to people who just want to see a show and maybe buy a t-shirt without spending their savings on the month. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m sure we can come up with something better than that.

Max Clark is the singer and songwriter of the Brooklyn-based band Cut Worms.

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