A campaign to stop music venues taking a cut of artists’ merchandise sales is proving successful, but campaigners say more live music spaces have yet to sign up.
In January, the Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) announced a new directory highlighting music venues that charge no commission on the sale of merchandise. The 100% Venues database was intended to combat the “outdated and unfair” practice of performance spaces taking a portion of merchandise proceeds at concerts.
Now the CAF said NME that over 400 venues have now registered, but a number of major UK arenas and venue groups are still not part of the database.
Along with former Joy Division and New Order bassist Peter Hook, The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess was one of the campaign’s strongest supporters. The frontman made headlines when his band played Nottingham’s Rock City to find the venue had backed out of its traditional merchandising cut earlier in the spring.
An amazing thing happened last night. Rock City usually takes a percentage of the band’s revenue, just something they’ve always done. But they listened to what the artists say and when we left they returned the money to our seller, saying they thought it was fair
—Tim Burgess (@Tim_Burgess) May 15, 2022
Talk to NME of the practice of film locations making money from sales of locally made t-shirts and albums, Burgess said: “It’s something that’s been around for years – but when we talked to our manager and our label, they were just like, ‘That’s that’.
“In 1990 you could sell 100,000 copies of a single on vinyl, so merchandising was important but not half as much as today. Streaming means new bands don’t have record sales to sustain them. .
Asked about the prevalence of these tactics in gig spaces today, he replied, “Not all venues take commission, and it’s as important to highlight those that don’t as much as those that do. make. We need to look at individual sites. We recently played at Aberdeen Music Hall, which is run as a charity, so the money goes to a fantastic resource for their town. They were happy to waive the commission for the support group, which is also to be applauded.
“One of the issues with not all venues being the same is that bands then have to have a merchant with them. At shows where an outsourced merchandising company sells our t-shirts, all stock has to be counted, signed and re-counted – just unnecessary extra work.Then they charge 25% plus VAT.
Burgess said his protest against the situation was “not about money for the Quacks, but about fairness.”
“A lot of times at Charlatans shows, our fans break the record for taking a bar in a venue,” Burgess said. “When I first tweeted about the merchandising commission, Warren Ellis from The Bad Seeds replied that maybe we could ask the sites for a percentage of the bass take. That’s not more unreasonable than to tax the goods.
The leader, solo artist and host of #TimsTwitterListeningParties also said it was humbling to see how many music fans supported the campaign.
“They certainly didn’t know the magnitude of this at first,” he said, “but a lot more fans do now. Many said they bought merchandise to support the band and thought it helped them with travel expenses. It was a wake-up call. It’s a start, and I’m glad many venues are listening.
FCC CEO David Martin agreed progress was encouraging, but more work was needed, particularly to help emerging artists establish themselves after the difficulties caused by Brexit and the COVID pandemic.
“There are now over 400 venues that have signed up for the FCC 100% Venues Directory,” he said. NME. “They range from some of the smallest grassroots clubs to 3,000 seat venues, including iconic venues such as the Barbican Center in London, Brudenell Social Club in Leeds and Clwb Ifor Bach in Cardiff.
“Discussion regarding punitive fees on merchandise sales is now very public, with fans increasingly expressing their displeasure with such practices. The CAF will continue to advocate for a fairer approach and a fairer system that allows artists to develop and grow.
The FAC found that the scale of the problem had not been studied or quantified before, despite it being a regular “bogeyman” for artists – new and rising artists being particularly affected.
“The true extent of the problem is hard to say, but almost every artist we talk to says, ‘Yeah, that really pisses me off,'” Martin said. “It’s been prevalent for a very long time. How big is it in terms of percentage of venues or percentage of bands that suffer a loss while on tour – we don’t have a number for that.
“What’s absolutely clear is that, particularly at the support group level, it’s always about acts being told, ‘Come and play for free and £50’. This commodity is the difference between breaking even or losing money.
He continued, “Now we’re seeing fans find out that this is happening and they hate it. It really annoys them that the money they’re spending isn’t going to the artist the way they thought it would.
Some of the more extreme reports have shown sites claiming merchandise commissions of up to 45%. “In these cases, you have the venue earning more than the artist,” Martin said. “That cannot be true. Artists come out of a pandemic saying: ‘After years of not being able to tour, Brexit is shit and everyone is trying to take money from me’. We try to develop a career here and it is often impossible”.
The Music Venue Trust and Independent Venue Week also lent their support to the campaign – while acknowledging the challenges facing concert spaces in the current climate.
Last year it was revealed that UK grassroots music venues were facing £90million as they emerged from the COVID pandemic, lockdowns and the challenges that came with it. The FAC echoes this and adds that the campaign is not about fighting venues, but rather about creating a fairer ecosystem through live music.
“Artists can’t afford to boycott venues, and we don’t want them to,” he added. “We want to fight on this issue, but we are not against the sites. We are not enemies. The entire sector must function properly to be healthy. We need these places – that’s why we’ve spent the past two years campaigning to save them. It’s not about having an argument, it’s about fairness.
Martin concluded by admitting that the campaign had “frustrated some people” by being so vocal, but added that he had “no remorse and it’s entirely fair to argue for that – especially in light of the 24 last months.
“These things may seem relatively small, but they go a long way in helping some parts of the artist community,” he added. “We are asking music fans to share the campaign. When you’re at the merch desk at a gig, ask if the artist is charged a commission. Hit groups on social media and ask if they are charged. If so, maybe buy directly online.
“This merchandise is really the difference between an artist who is here a year from now and not them. It’s the difference between being able to tour and not being able to.
Author, journalist and CAF board director John Robb said taking money away from struggling artists was a real blow in the current climate.
“In 2022, everyone knows rock’n’roll isn’t about limos and private jets,” he said. “It’s night drives, sleeping on the ground and trying to survive on the thinnest margins you can get on the market.
“Playing a gig is frontline; you manufacture your own equipment and you sell your own merchandise. The reality of touring for 99% of musicians means selling merchandise is the difference between breaking even and losing. With the rising costs of the post-Brexit world, this is becoming increasingly difficult and the few sites that charge bands for selling merchandise are stealing from them.
Mike Weller, Electric Group Music Manager, said its venues “welcome thousands of music fans every week to see the talent we offer, allowing talent to grow and build careers”, adding: “We can never charge punitive fees to artists who sell their merchandise because we understand its importance as a vital source of income.
A number of the UK’s biggest arenas still charge commissions to artists on merchandise, with AEG Group, The O2 and the Academy venue group still not part of the repertoire.
An O2 spokesperson told the NME that “as part of the NAA”, the site was “involved in ongoing dialogue with the CAF” and “working with them to determine the way forward”.
It has been confirmed that AEG Europe is also in communication with the FAC.
The Academy Group did not respond when approached by NME.
Venue patrons can sign up for the 100% Venues campaign by filling out a one-minute form, with CAF also encouraging acts to share the spreadsheet with their fan base and the wider music community. You can find more information here.