As record sales have declined in the age of music streaming, the value of strong merchandising for musicians and artists has only increased. This is the age of the music merchandiser: a jack-of-all-trades visual designer who creates designs for clients (bands and artists), applies these designs to a variety of products, from T-shirts to toothbrushes, and manufactures the products themselves, either in a DIY basement studio or a bona fide warehouse.
Music merchandisers who consistently design high-quality, on-trend artwork and manufacture solid products eventually build up large rosters of clients.
When it comes to selling the merchandise, record labels and specialty stores usually take over. However, increasingly, music merchandising companies have their own online shops and offer touring services—road managers who travel with artists and manage the sale and stock of merchandise. Music merchandisers also sometimes provide brand consulting services for artists, and organize merchandising promotions such as pop-up stores.
Music Merchandiser at a Glance
Most music merchandisers start out as freelance graphic designers, doing everything themselves: creating designs, screen printing T-shirts, and building online stores for clients. After some time, they may accrue enough funds to purchase new facilities and build a staff, transitioning into being business owners. At this point, they may move away from design and manufacturing, and be primarily involved with licensing designs from other artists and sending them out to a separate manufacturer. Music merchandising companies are usually broken up into a number of distinct departments, including art design, tour coordination, artist relations, and licensing. Music merchandising companies that consistently create high-quality, on-trend products can accrue impressively large rosters of clients, and sell their products in stores across the world.
Many music merchandisers get their start by designing and creating products by themselves in home studios, and develop an initial network of clients by approaching artists and managers at shows. Chris Cornell, founder and chief executive officer of Manhead—a successful music merchandising company representing artists such as Fall Out Boy, Dashboard Confessional, and Train—said, “I started Manhead, nearly by accident, back in the mid '90s. I was in a band that toured a lot. Through trial, error, and selling a lot of shirts on the road, I learned a lot about the merch biz . . . so I offered my services to other bands I knew. The business grew and I started getting calls from bigger bands. I sold their merch on tour, built and managed their online store, and fulfilled orders out of my basement.”
- Graphic design
- Product design
- Digital media
- Manufacturing (esp. screen printing)
- Web design
Music merchandisers tend to be jack-of-all-trades graphic designers with some knowledge of marketing, manufacturing, sales, and licensing. In order to make strong designs, they need to be immersed in music, graphic design, and pop-culture trends. They must be style chameleons, capable of understanding the particular graphic cultures associated with certain genres of music and mimicking them while creating designs that are innovative and distinct. Many designs are created collaboratively, and some come with direct specifications from the clients themselves, so active listening and strong communication skills are a must. Music merchandisers also need to have excellent networking skills since most new clients are acquired by word of mouth.
Freelance music merchandisers work flexible hours and usually balance the creative process with a day job—at least at the beginning. Owners or employees of music merchandising companies are much more likely to work normal business hours and may have an office or studio. In many cases, the job involves traveling with artists on tour and managing their merchandise sales.