Indie folk singer/songwriter Sarah Beth Tomberlin didn’t sell a single shirt at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, Sept. 17.
Not the one celebrating her 2022 album, I Don’t Know Who Needs To Hear This … nor the one with a picture of her dog, Annie.
No one bought her albums, recorded mononymously as Tomberlin.
For a touring artist — and especially an opener, as she is in support of Ray LaMontagne this summer — it’s a real bummer to whiff on merch sales, and especially disappointing as the Filene Center — a 7,028-capacity amphitheatre inside the only unit of the National Park Service unit dedicated to the performing arts — was full, even for the opener.
“I could have sold a lot of merch. The audience was attentive,” Tomberlin tells Pollstar. “It sucked, because it was a beautiful show.”
But she’d had enough and “after a lot of back and forth” with the venue’s merch manager, she told the crowd she decided not to sell that evening.
Tomberlin explained Wolf Trap’s merchandise policy called for a 30 percent cut to the venue, plus 5 percent service charge for using the venue’s card reader and 6 percent tax, which in this case is retained by Wolf Trap under arrangement with the Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s a whopping 41 percent. Wolf Trap, in a statement, said the policy is standard for artists playing Filene and that other artists had complied without complaint.
She didn’t have the option to use her own card reader or her own staff to sell. Well, “staff” is maybe overselling it. Her staff is her cousin, Mallory, who’s been along for the ride in a rented SUV as Tomberlin spends six weeks or so warming up the crowd for LaMontagne.
After the performance, in the interest of transparency, she posted the merch policies for all of the tour’s stops. Most are 90/10 or 80/20 splits, with a handful of 70/30s. Venues have different policies — and sometimes different cuts — as to whether the artist’s team is permitted to sell themselves or if, as at Wolf Trap, they must use venue staff.
Merch cuts are part of the negotiations handled by a promoter — in this case, Live Nation — along with agents, though as the headliner, LaMontagne’s agent (Wasserman Music’s Mike Greisch) has more sway than does Tomberlin’s (High Road Touring’s Wilson Zheng).
Tomberlin is just one of a number of artists — typically at the club level — who are raising awareness about merch cuts, as many now regularly post merch breakdowns on Instagram and elsewhere.
“Touring has become economically disastrous for us who are not at a large level. When I went to shows, I didn’t know about merch cuts, but I knew buying merch was helping those artists directly. We should make it less of a mystery,” Tomberlin says, noting that Live Nation and Wolf Trap are aware of what’s going on.
The United Musicians and Allied Workers union launched the #MyMerch campaign in 2022, inspired by the Featured Artists Coalition’s “100% Venues” effort in the UK, one of the few markets, like the U.S., where merch cuts are commonplace.
Both campaigns seek to raise awareness among fans about the practice, but to also highlight venues which don’t charge the fee.
“We want to create a positive incentive for venues and to create a database of such venues. We have an ongoing spreadsheet of North American venues pledged to never take merch cuts from artists,” UMAW organizer — and touring musician — Joey “La Neve” DeFrancesco says.
They’ve been touring clubs long enough to remember a time when merch cuts were unusual.
“You would run into it largely at corporate venues, but now it’s become more common. Artists are seeing it more and more as venues gets more corporatized and monopolized with Live Nation and AEG buying up venues,” DeFrancesco says.
While artists have grumbled for years about the practice, it does seem — anecdotally, at least — that more are taking those grievances public, as the post-pandemic touring glut has put more artists on the road and facing difficult economic realities. The ubiquity of social media has made it easier for artists to speak without a barrier to fans.
“It’s always difficult being a touring musician and [musicians] are facing a similar economic reality to everyone else with inflation and higher prices. Musicians’ wages have not gone up to match inflation and rising costs. There’s more money at the top that hasn’t trickled down,” DeFrancesco says. “A lot of musicians have finally had it. Merch cuts, festival pay, streaming pay. They were taboo things to talk about and musicians had a fear of retaliation, but there’s not much left to lose.”
UMAW’s list of 170-odd venues without merch cuts added 75 new names Sept. 26 when Live Nation announced its owned-and-operated clubs would stop charging merch fees.
“Those are positive changes,” Tomberlin says, and DeFrancesco agrees, though with a labor organizer’s jaundiced eye, they look askance at Live Nation’s motivations, noting that the corporate giant has been almost perpetually at the center of a public relations firestorm in 2023 and that the warm-and-fuzzy reception that Live Nation’s “On The Road Again” program received might be a welcome distraction.
The National Independent Venues
Association cast its own doubts on the program, which also includes a $1,500 travel
stipend. NIVA said On The Road Again was just another case of Live Nation using its enviable market position and near-limitless resources to bigfoot its way through the
live industry. But in doing so, NIVA allowed that plenty of indie venues don’t charge merch fees.
Which raises the question: what are merch cuts for anyway? It’s difficult to find a venue operator to go on the record with a full-throated defense of the practice, though there’s always the claim that the fees cover the venue’s cost for staffing a table (which doesn’t explain the fee when the artist sells their own merch without venue staff) or as some peppercorn payment for the few square feet of space it requires.
In any case, if an artist sells 20 shirts at $25 a pop, is the $100 the club pockets on a 20 percent fee off $500 worth it?
With its campaign creating “positive incentives,” UMAW is betting it’s not. Because merch cuts — in the aggregate — cause little harm to the bottom lines of major arena and stadium acts, the issue isn’t likely to draw a big-name artist to speak out for the cause, in the way The Cure’s Robert Smith did on high ticketing fees, for example.
DeFrancesco says a mass movement is more effective anyway. Boycotting won’t work and is counterproductive — if fans don’t buy merch, it hurts the artist — so the best weapons are awareness and consumer pressure.
“For lasting change, on this issue and so many others, we (as musicians) have to get organized and not solely get millionaires to speak on our behalf,” they say.