Music merchandise is big business. But for artists on tour, it’s cruelly unfair.

The following MBW column comes from Eamonn Forde (inset photo), a longtime music industry journalist and author of The Last Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. His new book, Leaving the building: the lucrative afterlife of musical fieldsis now available through Omnibus Press.

The McQueen, the donquixote but eternally foiled, former rhythm guitarist of the greatest (only?) of Royston Vasey glam rock band Crème Brûléecertainly had the music industry number. “It’s a shitty business” he sighed sadly. “You will know.

At the beginning of March, I went to see Dry cleaning play at the Forum in Kentish Town, north London (capacity: 2,500).

The day before the show, Dice texted me to let me know that there would be no merchandise booths at the venue.

Instead, a pop-up shop selling all sorts of dry cleaning-related items would be open from 4 p.m. to midnight on the day of the show. It was at the Abbey Tavern, a nine-minute walk from the venue. It was, by pure chance, the same day that a subway strikeso there were a lot of people walking to and from the venue.

The group’s reasons for doing this were varied, but at heart it was part of a growing resistance to sites taking a large chunk of merchandise sales.

Something, it seems, is in the air.

In the last week of 2021, Tim Burgess of The Charlatans tweeted about some UK venues taking a 25% cut on a band’s merchandise sales when they play there. “A quarter of the total sale price,” he said. wrote. “Vinyl doesn’t even have that mark to begin with.”

Burgess added: “To be perfectly clear on this, this is often a completely separate ‘concession’ company that the site deals with under contract. A kid who’s never heard of the band sells our stuff, while our salesman fades away for the night – the whole system needs to be sorted.

This prompted the Featured Artists Coalition to set up the Directory 100% places, listing places in the UK that do not take any discount on sales of goods from an act.

There is a Google Docs spreadsheet which currently lists over 370 sites in the UK that do not charge. Places can be added to the list.

The bulk of these listed venues have a capacity of less than 500 (many even less than 200), showing that grassroots venues generally feel a moral and ethical responsibility not to apply stealth taxes to new and niche acts.

Encouragingly, there were four-digit venues in the list – so congratulations to the Boiler Shop in Newcastle (cap: 1,000), the Pavilion in Colwyn Bay (cap: 1,600), the Barbican in London (cap: 1,943 ), the Kasbah in Coventry (cap: 1,350) and the Troxy in London (cap: 3,100).

Rather than publicly complaining about the inequities of it all, the dry cleaners were this rare instance of the act taking direct action in response to what they see as the untenable policies of a mid-sized venue in the capital.

While many UK sites are rated as bad, their 25% is nowhere near as bad as the 35% charged by some sites in the US. Over a third of the sale price goes on a commission instead for them, essentially allowing the deed to have a trestle table out back? The longer you run these numbers, the more difficult it is, both morally and economically, to defend yourself.

(It’s also important to remember that in most cases these reductions are for gross catch, not net catch.)

For a t-shirt that sells for £15, a UK site will take £3.75. The deed must pay in advance for the design, manufacture and delivery of this t-shirt (also note: costs are increasing due to Brexit and the need to make goods more sustainable and from ethical factories) .

These artists also have to pay the people selling the items, which increases their touring overhead. Their manager will have his cut. And the deed will be taxed on the gross income (of which the place has already taken its share).

If they’re on a multi-rights deal, their label could get a share as well. Leaving the act with…the square root of very little.

“The conundrum is this: either the act takes the hit and accepts that the commodity is now a low-margin business for them; or else they have to pass the costs on to the fans.

The conundrum is this: either the act takes the hit and accepts that the commodity is now a low-margin business for them; or else they have to pass the costs on to the fans.

These are the same fans who are already paying increasingly higher prices for tickets and are often hit with “surprise” booking fees and service charges when they visit the ticketing site. Then, when they arrive at the venue, they are charged high prices for drinks that stretch the very definition of “premium.”

Someone is enjoying it immensely here. It’s just not the artists or the fans.

Conversations with those working in the live industry indicate that this is a problem that has “always existed” and has become completely normalized. It was just accepted as “one of those things” – a sort of success tax. Even if the artists pay to rent the room and bring in fans who come to the bar (which the actor does not receive a percentage).

There was, however, an even crueler twist to Dry Cleaning’s stance here.

The night of their show was like stepping back in time. Along the way was the less speckled ticket seller, standing cheekily beside the venue selling tickets for a little more than they would normally cost.

Leaving the venue there were – and I’m probably making a terrible generalization here as I’m sure they’re perfectly lovable with their families – several ‘shady’ gentlemen selling counterfeit dry cleaners on the sidewalk directly in front of the place.

Some fans were clearly unaware of the Abbey Tavern pop-up and, perhaps confused as to why there was no merchandise stand at the exit, mistook these “character” vendors for real agents working on behalf of the group.

Other fans knew of the Abbey Tavern and shouted that it was a “dodgy product” and urged other fans not to buy it.

Their words fell like snow on a roaring furnace. Fistfuls of cash have been given to rogue traders for clothes that are unlikely to survive the third wash.

Groups now risk nefarious characters taking advantage of their lethal position against the location by setting up shop on the sidewalk outside of that same location to sell counterfeit goods. And none of that money goes to the act.

Now, this is pure speculation, so bear with me: it’s unlikely that these smugglers are sourcing their T-shirts from factories that pay their staff well and respect workers’ rights. This piece is also pure speculation, so bear with me: it’s just as unlikely that these bootleggers will pay taxes on their earnings. (But that’s probably not a big deal as I’m sure they donate all the money raised to charitable causes…)

Acts are slowly coming back after two years – long, painful and financially precarious – without touring due to the pandemic. Often the commodity is where they can make a little profit to help protect against future attacks on their income.

Sites, of course, will have their justifications for taking that 25% of merchandise sales because they’ve had a terrible time in the pandemic as well. Yet all of this seems sorely unfair for acts that still weather the storms.

If you back down against the sites and try an alternative, it works like a whistle for opportunistic smugglers who trample on your moral standing in order to make money from you. And then rub your face in it. How they laugh.

Dry cleaning, and other acts that follow their lead, are seemingly damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

In this shitty business in 2022, it all comes down to different ways for musicians to be taken to the cleaners.The music industry around the world