Lowest of the Low: When Venues Take a Cut of Merch Sales
On Saturday, my band was playing a show at the “big” venue for local underground bands in Taipei, Taiwan. Playing a show there means your band has “made it,” at least in a purely local sense. It has the best sound system in town, professional lighting, a small but serviceable backstage area—everything you need and a few things you don’t, including a disco ball. It’s where the “big” international extreme bands play—Exodus, Ensiferum, Misery Index, Into Eternity, Destruction, and many more have played there. It has a much maligned crowd barrier in front of an elevated stage, capacity for about 700 people—those things that make a band that might never have played outside their hometown think they can take things to the next level. It also has a common policy that most bands at the next level encounter on a semi-nightly basis: This venue takes a percentage of the bands’ merchandise sales.
In the case of this particular venue, the house takes ten percent of the T-shirt sales, mercifully leaving the CDs and other assorted saleable items alone. The justification behind this is that the bands set up their merch table in front of an apparel shop also within the confines, and this is the only place the venue will allow bands to push their shirts, CDs, commemorative thongs, logo emblazoned vaporizers, and what have you. So, for the privilege of setting up in front of the clothing emporium, the house takes ten points for a product they had no hand in creating, shipping, or distributing. For them, it’s all profit, and the bands even have to sling the shirts themselves. The house literally contributes nothing, and charges a fee for it. Nice work if you can get it.
I know this is nothing new, and that ten percent is actually on the low end of the scale. I am also aware of how venue owners justify taking their cut. They are providing the space for business to take place, and the points they take on the merch sales are their way of charging rent, essentially. Never mind the fact that punters are only spending their money at the venue because the band has come to play. No, not only does the band have to bring in the customers, it also has to pay an additional penance for the right to try and cover at least some of its expenses.
An oft repeated retort to this problem is, “If the venue is taking a percentage of the merch sales, the band should get a cut of the bar sales.” And why not? Again, the people are only coming to the venue and buying drinks because the band is getting up on stage to play their hearts out. Would they come to the venue to stand around in complete silence, stare at an empty stage, and sip their PBRs just for the polite conversation? Unlikely.
It’s so completely obvious, but it bears repeating because this ridiculous practice goes on and on. What can bands do about it? Not much, short of taking shows out of major venues with decent equipment and booking nothing but dodgy D.I.Y. shows in basements, veterans’ halls, and other available public and private spaces. This probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon, though a lot of bands in the grind, powerviolence, hardcore and punk scenes will still book entire tours this way. Bands need the decent equipment, solid sound, and, let’s face it, the recognition that goes along with playing the “name” venues around the world. So, we’re basically left with no choice but to smile and hand over a chunk of cash at the end of the night for pushing our own merch made with our own money sold by our own hand, barring some mass protest. But I don’t see a boycott of the venues that engage in this accepted form of theft happening in the foreseeable future. But start one up, and I’ll be the first to add my name to it. I can see the non-headlines now.
I don’t know about you, but if I were a venue owner, there’s no way I could sleep at night knowing I was ripping bands off like this. Maybe it’s because I know both sides. I know what it’s like to lay out a large amount of money out of my own pocket for a run of shirts in the hopes they’ll sell and the band will break even or perhaps even turn a slight profit, which then immediately gets funneled back into the band for recording, rehearsal space, touring, or making the next round of merch. I also know running a venue is no walk in the park either, but they always get their cut no matter what, whether ten people show up or a thousand, and I can’t say the same for bands. The venue gets paid first, then the promoter, if he or she is lucky, and the booking agent if a band has one, and on down the list we go, and finally any crumbs that somehow manage to filter through are thrown almost derisively to the band. Taking ten percent of those crumbs away after a band has played its guts out; it’s an insult. Nothing less.
Pay to play in any form is just another slap in the face in an industry that leaves those out there chasing even a modest dream with black eyes and broken teeth at the best of times, and this is, albeit indirectly, a form of pay to play. If a venue provides a merchandise person to help with the sales, and gives the band the option of taking it or leaving it, then by all means, charge for the service. But to do absolutely nothing and then shove your hands into the bands’ pockets while simultaneously tapping their veins for those last few precious drops of lifeblood? It doesn’t get much lower than that.
Joe Henley is a freelance music journalist and editor currently living in Taipei, Taiwan. In addition to pulling vocal duty in a death metal band, he maintains a website on the Taiwanese metal scene and writes regular features on the touring bands that come through Taipei for a local monthly music magazine.
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