Different Beat

Go on tour with the changing music industry, which offers a wealth of opportunities for creative promotions.

With the rise of digital music, making money through album sales has gotten more difficult than ever, and strong radio play is no longer a guarantee of strong earnings.

Rather than relying on album sales as their primary source of income, artists now must rely more on the sale of concert tickets and, increasingly, branded merchandise.

This presents opportunities for sales reps who are in-tune with finding fun and fitting ways for acts to connect with their fans.

Expansion Plan

That’s the primary goal for the distributor

Merchtable (asi/141693), whose main client base is artists and performers seeking creative promotional products.

The company goes beyond the traditional T-shirts and buttons that usually make up a band’s promotional offerings. As Merchtable’s clients have seen the success of more unusual pieces, they have worked to collaborate on other fresh ideas.

“A band will bring us a design and we are able to look at what the art is and come up with something more specific to them,” says Burton Parker, owner of Merchtable. “We have some artists that have an iconic character, and we will take that and incorporate it onto an item.”

For singer-songwriter Josh Ritter, Merchtable designed lapel pins with a twist. Working off Ritter’s album art, which features a vintage aesthetic, the company created silver and bronze pins with an antique feel.

Though not a musician, the comedian Marc Maron, who talks often about his cats in his hit podcast and standup shows, provided Merchtable with another opportunity for a creative promotion: customized cat bowls. “They sold out and now we’re working on doing another pressing of them,” says Parker.

Some of the most popular types of items now being provided by Merchtable are beanies and snapback hats. Just a few other recent products that went over well: customized scarves, bandanas, rolling papers and iPhone stickers.

Rave Reviews

As it has gotten easier than ever to download a band’s new album, promotional products also offer a way to encourage fans to buy the physical CD (or, increasingly, the vinyl record). This past December, Merchtable created custom Christmas cards for their major music clients, including the card as a freebie for those who placed an order around the holidays. For DJ/rapper Diplo, those who bought his album received a custom T-shirt and pennant. For hip-hop group Three Loco, fans got a sticker and T-shirt.

“Lots of bands give out stickers or buttons for free with the purchase of an album,” says Mandy Kilinskis, content and social team manager for Quality Logo Products, Inc. (asi/302967), which sources promotional products for a number of bands and concerts. “That’s a great incentive to have fans purchase higher-ticket items.”

The same holds true for concerts and music festivals – promotional products can help to enhance them and attract more people to the event.

“A tour T-shirt or tote bag is a great memento,” says Kilinskis. “For diehard fans, branded merchandise turns into collectibles.”

For example, Quality Logo Products got to be part of Rihanna’s 777 Tour – the pop star’s seven-country, seven-day tour in a 777 jet. The 150 journalists and guests on the plane each got a swag bag packed with goodies from Skull Candy headphones to No Label watches to Rihanna’s own Nude perfume. The tote bag itself (which featured the tour’s logo, reading “7 countries 7 days 7 shows”) was designed by QLP.

“Representatives from Rihanna’s label contacted a member of our sales team directly,” says Kilinskis. “They chose those bags because of their style and capacity.”

The tour received mixed responses from the journalists onboard, with reporters from Rolling Stone to New York Magazine complaining about lack of access to the singer and flight delays. The bags, however, got only rave reviews, with a number of journalists photographing and publishing QLP’s work.

Rock band Atom Strange went a more unconventional route, creating figurines of “Marv the Alien” – the band’s mascot – as well as alien stress balls to give out at shows.

This points to a distinction made by Deborah Brosseau, owner of Spinner PR, which has worked to launch and develop the careers of numerous bands, indie musicians, venues and events. In addition to merchandise sold at shows and online, the other main use of promotional products is the items given away to agents, managers, venues and media to promote a new album or some other news. She describes these as “a little more clever and less functional” than traditional merchandise – such as the Marv the Alien figures.

Traditional stickers and T-shirts still remain steady sellers for concerts and festivals, though, according to Kilinskis, as well as “anything that has utility and can be used immediately,” such as can coolers, sunglasses, water bottles and lighters.

“They’re another way to get attendees involved with the event,” says Kilinskis. “They can hold up a branded lighter during a power ballad or toss around beach balls during dance numbers.” 

Promotion by Genre

The rise of “fair-trade ticketing” companies like Brown Paper Tickets (BPT) have meant that musicians do not have to go through giants like Ticketmaster, even as ticket sales become a more important revenue stream for artists.

“The percentage from ticketing events is growing as part of overall funds for musicians,” says Barb Morgen, chief storyteller for Brown Paper Tickets. “Whether it’s recording fees, merch sales or playing gigs, that’s what we are seeing in that segment.”

Brown Paper Tickets offers promotional products to employees as well as customers who promote their events through the BPT website. Recently the company sent out customized buttons to their clients.

“If they are a crafter who is teaching a class, we would put what it is that they make on the button – for musicians there was a boombox, or record player,” says Morgen.

The value of branded merchandise can vary by genre. Morgen points to a recent study by Seattle Office of Film + Music that looked at the earnings of three different Seattle musicians. Though the classical musician reported earning nothing from merchandise, the indie musician brought in $4,805, while the hip-hop artist earned $14,098 – more than a quarter of his total earnings.

“Not all genres of music have been affected the same way,” says Brosseau. “Metal bands will never have a problem creating a community at live shows and generating a new one, but that genre operates differently than EDM [electronic dance music]. Everything in the music industry is a factor now.”

Rev Up the Radio

Just as the transformation of the music industry has required that musical acts rethink their revenue streams and marketing choices, it has also reshaped radio. While traditional radio stations still do steady business, the merging of stations and rise of online and satellite radio has given listeners more options — and with them, opportunities for promotional products sales reps.

Spotify, one of the giants of digital music streaming, announced at the end of January that acts can now sell branded merchandise through its app with no add-on fees. Among the first to offer shirts, wristbands, posters and more are Beastie Boys, Banks, The Grateful Dead, Bon Jovi, Deadmau5 and Led Zeppelin.

With an eye on the radio market, Bagwell Promotions launched the website both to capture search engine traffic and to explicitly showcase what the company can offer to broadcasters. But according to John Bagwell, the owner of the company, the products radio stations embrace can run the gamut.

“Beach balls and can coolers during the summer are popular, bumper stickers and keychains year-round,” says Bagwell. “Some radio stations are going high-tech, with flash drives and speakers and things along that line.”

Promotional events are a major part of local and mid-market stations’ advertising efforts, whether that’s operating a booth at a major rock festival, broadcasting from a local car dealership or hosting its own concert. For all of these, promotional giveaways are essential.

The target audience of a radio station is not always its listeners. In the past few holiday seasons, Bagwell has helped his clients use promotional products to appeal to local advertisers, offering them a “World’s Largest Christmas Stocking.” The eight-foot-long, transparent stocking comes packed with dozens of toys.

“The radio station’s ad sales team buys them, then turns around and gives them away to a dry cleaner or restaurant when they buy ads for Christmas,” he says. “Maybe they’ve been buying $2,000 worth of ads per month, but for upping that to $3,000, the station will give them the stocking.”

The stocking comes as a complete promotional package, with a sweepstakes entry form, entry box, posters and book of press releases. The local business then hangs it up and the radio station promotes that customers can enter to win the stocking by visiting the business.

Of course, the type of promotional items likely to appeal to the station’s listeners will vary by the station’s format – indie rock listeners are more likely to go for smartphone cases, while an oldies station audience might be more apt to want beer coolers. For sports radio stations, Bagwell does brisk business selling items like seat cushions, mini footballs and laminated pocket-sized season schedules.

As stations have consolidated under major conglomerates like Clear Channel or CBS Radio, it has gotten more important for distributor sales reps to reach out to independent operations or stations affiliated with organizations like colleges and schools.

For example, shine.FM, a radio station affiliated with Olivet Nazarene University, holds a number of events, from hosting its own music festivals to a recent “Super Mom 2014” parade in honor of an Indiana military wife, for which the station gave out a number of prizes.

Sponsorships are critical for these smaller stations, which do not have the deep pockets that a major broadcasting conglomerate might enjoy.

“If we own an event, the goal is to get as much of it paid for as possible before we start selling tickets,” says Justin Knight, advancement director for shine.FM. He gives the example of a recent concert the station hosted for the band Casting Crowns. “We got a sponsor to pay for 2,000 T-shirts specific to that event. It created great engagement without costing too much.”

Rather than costing the radio client more money, these promotional items often help defray costs since local businesses or other sponsors can be enticed to help underwrite the event if their logo is featured prominently on the signage and giveaways.

“The only problem is when we have a small item,” says Bagwell. “We just did a stadium cup and the client wanted 15 logos on it.”