We’ve all heard the story: when a band goes on tour, they make their money not on ticket sales, but on the t-shirt sales. But unlike a nationally recognized, Billboard #1 band, the average burlesque dancer will not have the corporate machine behind them to create and maintain a line of merchandise. For assorted projects I have made comic books, posters, paperdolls, activity books, buttons, t-shirts, handcrafted dolls, DVDs, hair flowers, pasties, craft kits, costumes and stickers to name a few.
I can tell you as someone who travels and performs, the ability to vend does help defray the cost of travel when we know the harsh reality of performing out of town: selling merchandise may not cover your plane ticket, but it can cover your meals, booze, taxis (and buying other performer’s merch).
Here are a few guideline I can offer up to help you find that perfect piece of merch to supplement your income.
MAKE SOMETHING YOU CAN STORE AND/OR ORDER IN SMALL QUANITIES: When looking at merch, be it mugs, t-shirts or shot glasses, it’salways cheaper to order in large quantities. However, if you are like me, you may not have access to a free, unfettered storage area to keep a large order of merch. I have always found it’s easier to make a product you can buy in smaller quantities that can be re-ordered as needed.
MAKE SOMETHING THAT IS UNIQUE: I have purchased unusual items because they were unusual like Guerilla Monster’s playing cards with pin-up photos, a Yard Dog Road Show pennant, Lucky Penny’s eye shadow palette. I wish I had purchased Trixxie Little and the Evil Hate Moneky’s paint-by-number set. Because how many t-shirts can you wear? (Especially if you, like me, don’t wear a lot of t-shirts.)
RESOURCES: I have used thestickerguy.com for stickers and busybeaverbuttons.com for buttons gotprint,net for postcards and business cards simply because not only are they cheap, but I can pick up at their Burbank location and not pay shipping. In this day and age, you can get “Your Logo Here” on just about anything. I am still looking for that perfect silkscreener here in LA who can be honest with me when I show up Thurssday at 4pm and want 20 tank tops by close of business on Friday, and not have them say “sure we can do it” and then not have it when I come to pick them up. Be sure to ask the hivemind for references and be sure to tell the vendor that So-N-So sent you. (Some vendors give discounts on referrals.)
KEYSTONING: In retail there is a rule of thumb where the retail price of an item is the cost of the item wholesale, doubled. So if your merch cost $10 to make, you sell it for $20 to cover overhead (shipping, packaging, advertising) and profit. Some items do have a ceiling on what the consumer will pay for them (no one would pay $50 for a t-shirt, unless it came with a reach-around).
HANDCRAFTED: Since burlesque is filled with women and men who hand craft their own hair flowers, costumes, and pasties, it’s best to create a niche for handcrafted goods that everyone may not make. Maybe you make headdresses; maybe you make gloves and gauntlets. I find that if I’m vending alongside Amber Ray and her fabulous hair flowers, I won’t bring my own hair flowers, but focus on items I know are not in competition with another vendor.
T-SHIRTS: T-shirts are by far the most common piece of merch and the most easy to come by, as every town has a local silkscreener. But the pitfalls are many. First, you’ll need to have a piece of art to be silkscreened on the shirts. If you yourself are not an artist, you’ll need to find one, and an artist that can deliver the art in a digital format that will be graphic enough for a t-shirt (maybe not a lot of line drawings and cross-hatching). Now, if that art is more than one color, each color needs to be a separate screen so you may be paying per color for screen set-up, so that can add to cost. Silkscreeners will not hold onto you screens (your art work prepared for silkscreening), so if you are order 20 t-shirts every 3 months, you may have to pay the set-up fee each time. If you are ordering t-shirts on-line (which may be cheaper than going to a local guy) you’ll have to pay the shipping.
You’ll need to have sizes for t-shirts. One size does not fit all. And you’ll need men’s shirt AND women’s shirts. Although I have cheated on this and have silkscreened only wifebeaters in mens’ medium and XL. Because women will wear a wifebeater, and small and medium sized women will fit in the medium-sized men tank, and large and XL women will fit in a men’s XL tank.
One last note—men will always wear black t-shirts or tank tops. They may not wear white, yellow, purple… you get the idea. So if you art is based on the background being bubblegum pink, you may not want to order that style in mens’.
MAKE SOMETHING THAT IS EASY TO CARRY: CDs are small, yes? But heavy! T-shirts are bulky, but not as heavy. Buttons slip into any suitcase. Hair flowers may get squished in transit, but would be easy to ship via flat rate mail a few days ahead of time to the producer. Think about how your merch will travel before you set your heart on something heavy or delicate.
BETTER TO SELL OUT THAN HAUL IT HOME: The first time I vended merch at Comic-Con, I had an acme sample case filled with DVDs, t-shirts and posters. The case was so heavy we couldn’t carry it down the stairs—we had to unpack it, take the case down empty, then pack it in the car. Then, I sold 1/3 of my merch and had to drag the remainder home. Quel drag! It’s best to bring a smaller amount of merch and sell out—and have cards at the ready to direct people to a website or etsy. On a side note, I often ffer my merch at a slightly discounted price if you buy from me in person, than on the website where shipping costs may be involved as well. This acts as incentive to get people to “buy it now”. If you are on an extended tour, you can prep merchandise ahead of time in flat rate boxes and leave with a friend to pop in the mail and send to your next stop.
PRICING AND MONEY: Katherine Lashe (of Syrens of the South) gave the best piece of advice “Have something for even a few dollars, like stickers or buttons—if people like you, they’ll want to give you money.” So it pays to have a few pieces of merch that are under $5, under $10, under $20—keeping in mind that 1) ATMs spit out $20 bills 2) after purchasing a ticket to the show, and buying a drink (prices vary from venue to venue) what will the average audience member have left to spend on merch?
You should always carry your own bank, but keep in mind that if your merch is priced at $5/$10/$15 you won’t need to carry any ones. If you get caught without change, and the show is in a bar, most bars will be able to give you change (or you can ask the customer to go to the bar and break a $20).
Since society is moving away from cash, you can finally take credit cards using your smart phone with services like Square or Paypal for a small fee.
WHO’S MINDING THE SHOP?: Performing and vending is quite a balancing act. Who is watching your merchandise when you are on stage? You might be able to enlist another performer to trade off time while each other is performing, but if you are both in the same show that can still be tricky. You can ask the producer is there is a trustworthy person who can help you in trade for merchandise or even offer a small commission (10%) to entice them to hustle your merch instead of checking facebook from their phone.
This is also why it’s super important that all your merch have price tags and that you have an inventory.