Merch madness means you’re mad if you don’t have merch.

I’ve worked on some stinkers of shows.

And you know what?  No matter how short the run, we’ve always sold some t-shirts.

T-shirts and other pieces of merch are social proof badges that audience members can showcase in their own communities which elevate their status.  How high that status goes depends on the show and the value of the brand (Wicked = high, In My Life = low).

Thanks to the high price of theater tickets, getting a buyer to tack on a $20 t-shirt is easier than in other industries (how many times have you seen a merch stand selling $20 t-shirts outside a movie theater?).   Some merch buyers may subconsciously want to demonstrate to the public that they were able to afford that ticket.  Others may feel the need to demonstrate how passionate they are about a show.  (Theater has a way of creating some passionate people.  Need an example?  Watch the YouTube of Jared’s Broadway Musical Museum Apartment below.)

In other words . . . Got merch?  If the answer is no, then get it.

I don’t care how big or small your show or your theater is, you should have a merch line.  You don’t have to have a perfume line, but at the very least you should have a t-shirt and a button (I always advise merch sellers to have at least one less-than-$5 item for the budget-conscious consumer that still wants to buy).

Profit margins for merch are high, so take advantage of it.  A Company Manager friend of mine once worked on a flop that ran out of money before the show finished its run.  He had no money in the bank to load-out the show!  How did he pay the crew for the load-out?  He paid them in cash out of the merch sales . . . and they got everything out and everyone paid.

Thanks to the plethora of t-shirt sellers now available to you online, and to the low minimums now required for purchase (check out CafePress for the simplest of stores), it’s truly possible for everyone to make money selling merch . . . and that money can be used to offset your production and operating costs.

Which begs the question . . . if merch is almost always a money maker . . . why do Broadway shows outsource the merch to companies that only pay them a royalty?

Shouldn’t shows work the small startup costs necessary to operate a simple merch company into the capitalization of a show?  Isn’t that ancillary revenue stream a good diversification for the show and therefore a benefit to the investors?

I think you know the answer.

  • Niki says:

    Do your shows outsource the merchandise to companies, Ken?

  • CL Jahn says:

    When I worked at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre, there was a show t-shirt with the show logo on the front,and the BRDT logo on the back, and a glass that was free with the drink special, or for purchase at the gift shop. Opening night, every member of the cast and crew received both a shirt and a glass.
    Years later, I worked at a theatre where the producer decided to drop the merch. She didn’t make money because
    1. she over-ordered stuff,
    2. she always ordered the cheapest version,
    3. she didn’t want to pay to keep someone hawking the stuff, leaving it locked in a display case and assuming interested patrons would track down someone to sell them stuff.
    Merch doesn’t sell itself.

  • I agree that all shows should sell at least a few items of merchandise. I’m always looking to buy a magnet at every show and I cannot be the only one looking to get something! The few times I’ve been to a show that did not sell any merchandise I have been disappointed and even thought it was a bad business move.
    Also, Producers, if you do intend to sell merchandise, please offer it way in the beginning of the run and don’t 6 months later! lol that’s just annoying
    on that thought…why doesn’t MTC sell anything at their shows? ha

  • YourBiggestFan says:

    Not sure I agree with the “small startup costs” — manufacturing, shipping, storage, staffing, scheduling, accounting, inventory management, kiosk building all still cost time and money. A diversified line, that goes beyond just t-shirts, requires multiple additional vendors to create and a good deal of follow-up and maintenance. Sure, it’s relatively simple to sell a few t-shirts, a windowcard, maybe a script. And if you’re a small play, perhaps you can squeak by without adding too much overhead. But for a major musical or any show with a full merch line, it’s a pretty significant undertaking. Using a 3rd party company takes all of that off of your hands and mitigates essentially any risk. That’s not a bad trade-off early in the life of a show. If anything, perhaps we should advocate for merch deals that expire after a fixed period of time so that if the show turns into the hit we all hope it will be, the show can reclaim that revenue stream at a later date.

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