Merch & Our Near Future

Over the last year, there has been a sudden increase in “merch” related news all over the music world. From Warner Music’s acquisition of EMP to TOOL’s new album, it is interesting to see that even in our digital era, there is still a big part of us that longs for physical, tangible products and rewards outside of a screen. With investments in the millions of dollars, key players are not playing by chance, and with Universal Music’s decision to buy Bravado, we might be witnessing the rise of “merch’s” as the dominant element in the industry.

It is not that the “merch” market is something new (we all know it has been there forever), but we have presenced significant shifts in music’s ancillary products demand because of our current music consumption practices. The internet killed almost all record stores, and with streaming (plus subscription-based services), now we do not “own” as much stuff as before. So that is why witnessing lines of people outside indy record stores waiting to buy their $45 copy of TOOL’s “Fear Inoculum is so meaningful: even though they can stream the full album online, what they want is to get the limited-edition CD package. 

TOOL fans have been so enthusiastic buying the physical album, that it debuted at No.1 on Billboard 200 chart, moving Taylor Swift’s “Love” album to No. 2. 

The moves by the Major labels show that they have found something important. Warner music bought EMP for $180 million back in November, and Universal Music quickly followed up with the acquisition of Bravado this past January. Labels want full control over the “merch” market, and as the tastemakers that they are, “big bucks” are being spent to exert a shift in our music consumption practices. 

Before being bought by the Labels, merch companies would not have the substantial influence to exercise effect on fans, making “merch” consumption a somewhat optional and separate practice to music consumption; it would mostly happen at live shows. Now, under the Label’s power, that “option” might become a “requirement” when consuming music, making “merch” a mandatory purchase.

CD packs, T-shirts, hats, sweatshirts, posters, are expensive to produce and hard to sell for independent artists. At the beginning stages, these assets are not financially viable for most of us. And even though we have worked for decades with different kinds of inventory (like lighters, decks of cards, frisbees, or any low-budget products we can think of), we do not have the financial power to create and mandate our fan bases to pay for merch if they want to enjoy our music.

Maybe, Labels have finally found in “merch” the replacement for the almost extinct Jewel Case CD: Back in the day, everyone needed to buy the CD to listen to the music, but now we don’t need the CD to stream our music. So, what if Labels have found the way to make “merch” the new CDs of our time?

We have to remember that “merch” is an investment that has two purposes: on the one hand, to make money, and on the other, to makes fans our best promoters. If Labels make “merch” a “mandatory” product for music consumption, we as independent artists will have a hard time competing against it because fans might now expect a way more elaborate product/reward for the money they are spending. 

Collectible editions and other kinds of expensive “merch” packs are now being sold to give fans priority concert tickets, exclusive live experiences, and content. Taylor Swift sells tickets to her concerts through CD and “merch” sales to her fans. 

We, independent artists, might find ourselves needing to prepare for a severe change in our ways.

But, even though Labels have almost unlimited budgets to create “merch” and drive music consumption to a new era, that is not the end for us. We will need to prepare for a “merch”-driven industry rather than the music itself, so get ready to step up your game (maybe the music will be the promo for our “merch”).

Our use of social media to find help from upcoming brands in all sectors: fashion, technology, etc., is going to play a crucial role even more from now on. And this does not mean that we will now need to spend fortunes on expensive “merch,” this means we need to start looking for newer alternatives that will also attract listeners and fans to go to our shows, listen to our music, and be interested in our arts.

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