One important point that I deleted from this column due to space: These days, for most bands, when it comes to tour income, it’s not just about selling CDs, not with the Internet and iTunes and MySpace and the industry as a whole suffering its worst January in the history of SoundScan, according to the last issue of Rolling Stone. Do you think a band like Little Brazil has a big, fat royalty check waiting for them when they pull into Mac’s Bar in Lansing this week? No. To survive on the road, you gotta have merch, and it better be cool.
Column 116: The Merch Merchant
Saddle Creek opens a new subsidiary.Question: What is the life-blood of touring bands, from the greenest indie rock trio to the peroxide-blond ice-cream-cone breasted lady we’ve all seen on MTV?The answer is merch. Short for “merchandise,” merch includes almost any sellable item a band can load into the van and spread out on a table after their set. T-shirts and hoodies are the staple, but it also includes posters, buttons, and yes, even records.“Merch is how smaller bands eat on the road, and how the big ones buy mansions in Fairacres,” said Chris Esterbrooks. The frontman for Omaha punk band Virgasound and former guitarist for the legendary Carcinogents has sold his share of merch over the years. Now he makes a living creating it as the guy behind Ink Tank, a new subsidiary of Saddle Creek Records that screen-prints T-shirts and other items for touring bands.Esterbrooks isn’t new to the business. He worked at the city’s largest merch company, Impact Merchandising, for four years handling tour merch for clients that included a number of Saddle Creek bands. Creek left Impact last November, and Esterbrooks left in January to take his new position at Ink Tank.“Saddle Creek felt they could offer their bands a cheaper product, so why not get into the market?” Esterbrooks said from Ink Tank’s world headquarters, located in the industrial ghetto around 88th and H St. Ink Tank is little more than screen-print presses, a dryer that looks like a giant Quizno’s sandwich oven, and lots of storage. Add some computer equipment and a website (inktankmerch.com) and you’ve got yourself a start-up.Esterbrooks talked shop while his crew mates, including Spring Gun bassist Micah Schmiedeskamp, feverishly produced T-shirts for the upcoming Bright Eyes tour that kicked off the following week. The 11-date tour required roughly 3,000 T-shirts, most of them in size “small” and “medium.”“Indie kids like their shirts too tight, that’s the way it is,” Esterbrooks said. “If we were doing merch for a metal band, there would be nothing below a ‘large’ and lots of sleazy girls’ tank tops and panties.”Cardboard boxes of brown and gray Bright Eyes shirts and hoodies were stacked along the wall, ready to be shipped to far-off locations including Toronto, Somerville, Mass., and Los Angeles, where they’ll arrive at the venue hours before the band (Bright Eyes is flying to locations on this tour). Most bands — like Maria Taylor, whose shirts will be on the presses next — simply haul their merch in their van.Esterbrooks said he depends on the band’s touring “merch guy” to count shirts at the end of every night and call if they’re running low so he can print some more and ship them to the band on the road. The last thing a touring band wants is to run out of merch the night of a show.Small runs of 100 black shirts with one-color ink cost $4.25 per shirt, with prices dropping as the volume rises. Most band sell shirts for around $12 on the road. You do the math. Meanwhile, huge artists like Madonna and Tim McGraw sign multi-million dollar deals with merchandise giants like Cinder Block and Bravado who handle every aspect of the artist’s merch, right down to sales at shows.“Saddle Creek Records’ 50/50 split of CD profits with artists is unheard of in the industry,” Esterbrooks said. “Madonna might only make 20 cents for every CD she sells. She makes a lot more money selling her $45 T-shirts and $100 hoodies.”Esterbrooks said Ink Tank currently prints all the apparel sold on the Saddle Creek website. Each Saddle Creek band, however, chooses where their tour merchandise will be made independent of the label. “I’m trying to make deals to keep their business,” Esterbrooks said. “They have the right to go wherever they want. They’re on their own.”But Ink Tank is after more than just Saddle Creek bands. “We’ve set up our pricing to be competitive with all the big boys in the merch business,” Esterbrooks said. “I look at Ink Tank like a record label. We acquire bands, retain bands, and take care of their merch needs. That’s the way I choose to operate rather than as a typical custom-print shop.”Just like any other record label executive, Esterbrooks will be representing Ink Tank at the South By Southwest music festival later this month, meeting with band management, artists and booking agents, and passing out 12,000 fliers in SXSW goody bags. “It’s a matter of convincing people to come to you,” he said, adding that he was at SXSW last year, representing Impact.The long hours have left little time for Esterbrooks’ other passion, Virgasound. “I’m taking more work home, but it’s a startup, that’s the way it goes. I want to see it succeed more than anyone,” he said, folding a shirt and placing it in a box. “This Bright Eyes tour is the first thing we’ve done, and I don’t want to screw it up.”
Tonight at Sokol Underground, a show that seems to have snuck under the wire, an Elephant 6 showcase featuring Apples in Stereo. Apples is on tour supporting New Magnetic Wonder, their first album in five years that includes contributions from founding members of the E6 collective including Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel, Bill Doss and W. Cullen Hart of the Olivia Tremor Control, and John Fernandes, who played clarinet with just about all the E6 bands. Opening is Athens, Georgia, band Casper and the Cookies. $12, 8:30 p.m.
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