It is notoriously difficult for bands to make money. Album sales are down. Royalties from song-streaming services are abysmal, giving artists little pay for all but the best-performing tracks. 

Live shows are, increasingly, bands' best bet at financial stability. And--at least for bands and artists of a certain venue-filling stature--staying on tour is a better option than it has ever been. One unexpected bright spot in that concert-and-music-festival ecosystem is t-shirts. And tote bags. And stickers. Yes, that merch table crammed into a back corner of the club is still a fairly reliable money-maker. 

This part of the industry hasn't exactly been an epicenter for innovation. As so much daily commerce has moved online over the past decade, band merchandise is still primarily an impulsive or emotional purchase--one that's typically done in-person, at a concert. Roughly 80 percent of merchandise sales come at live events, based on estimates from industry employees and executives. 

"There's a feeling, when you're at a show, that this is the only time you're ever going to see this t-shirt," says Jeremy DeVine, the founder of the Brooklyn-based music label Temporary Residence. "You don't have that feeling when looking at soft merch online--you feel like it's going to be there forever, and you don't need it now." ("Soft merch" is the industry term for t-shirts and the like. "Hard merch," or albums, continue to sell extraordinarly poorly in CD form; sales of now-fashionable vinyl are up, but barely, and from a very small base.)

The concert-merchandising business is virtually unchanged since it started in the '70s, according to Chris Cornell, the founder and CEO of New York City-based Manhead Merch, which works with acts such as Fall Out Boy, Hole, and Panic at the Disco. (And who should not be confused with the similarly-named Soundgarden singer.) "You bring your merchandise into the venue, tape it up to the wall, and hopefully people know it is there." The same is true even for big music festivals, where the goods are typically sold by the festival organizer--the same folk who arrange for cutting-edge art and technology installations and the presence of the newest and most artisanal food trucks.

Manhead Merch, which employs six people in New York City and six in Nashville, is looking to shake up the very old ways of how artist-merchandise is created, marketed, and sold. Cornell has embarked upon experimental partnerships and building technological solutions to his company's challenges--with hopes that they might be applied more broadly to the industry.

The project started four years ago, when Cornell hired then 21-year-old Eric Jones, who'd been the drummer for The Downtown Fiction, a band from Fairfax, Virginia, that had been touring for three years. Jones had moved to New York City, and was, to use his term, becoming "obsessed" with technology. His mandate with Manhead was to identify and create opportunities for actually incorporating technical solutions that might shake things up within the merchandise and touring industry.

"We thought, 'why can't fans see what bands are selling before the show starts?' When you have 20,000 fans at a show, technology should be able to be used to identify those fans and to know who's buying what," Jones says.

Gummy Skulls? Sure.

Merchandise companies have long been coming up with new products--and new ways of marketing them--to try to shake up the industry from within. DeadMau5 has an extensive line of collectible figurines ($12.95), several headdresses and headphones, and even footed pajamas ($74.95). One Direction goes as far as to sell as inline skates ($42.99), a child-proof lamp (on sale for $17.49 as part of the "homewares" line), and perfume ($14.49 for 50 ML).

As albums went digital, acts such as The Flaming Lips and Black Heart Procession put albums on USBs, and packaged them in creative ways to attempt to sell to fans: Black Heart Procession's came in a heart-necklace form with a blinking blue light; The Flaming Lips's came encased in a human-head-sized skull made of gummy candy. Even small innovations--such as doing a custom one-time shirt in a local sports' team's colors--as singer Halsey did for the Boston Calling festival--sell well. "When an artist goes the extra step, fans take notice," says Brian Appel, of Crash Line Productions, which manages the festival.

That wasn't necessarily from where Jones drew inspiration. But, he says, it wasn't three days into his time working at Manhead that he came up with the idea for something he called Sidestep: a technology that allowed merchandise companies, ticket suppliers, or record labels to ping ticketed fans before a show. They'd be able to browse available t-shirts and other merchandise, and pre-order it for pick-up at the show. They could have first dibs--and skip the massive line of sweaty concertgoers mobbing the merch stand after the show. 

Manhead tested out the technology; incubated Jones's company in its New York City office; Cornell and Manhead invested in Sidestep as well. Once it was clear the concept worked--and concert-goers could be easily contacted before, and after, a show--Jones splintered off Sidestep.

Today, Sidestep is a freestanding company with eight employees based in the Smashd Labs incubator in Los Angeles's Culver City neighborhood. It works with some of the world's biggest acts, including Adele, Beyonce, and Guns N' Roses. It also works directly with Ticketmaster for some shows and tours.

While Sidestep is still a young company, Jones says it has already proven its value: Buyers using the Sidestep app buy 30 percent more than they do when visiting a merch stand. Sidestep is assembling a round of seed funding, and, Jones says, has been profitable for the past two months.

The new wave of customer-targeting doesn't stop with mailing lists and hitting up fans before a show. Sidestep is launching a feature called "digital hawkers," in which employees roam a concert with an iPad, and take merchandise orders on the spot. 

For acts and management companies, Sidestep's access to fans is huge. "They've found a way to interact with fans before, during, and after a show--and collect data on them," Cornell says, referring, specifically, to fans' contact information such as email addresses. "That's something we've never had before." 

Back at Manhead's office in New York City's Chinatown neighborhood, there's plenty of other experimenting going on. Cornell says he's particularly proud of an in-progress computer program that would that will scrape the Internet for bootleg products--and begins taking action to remove them. "It's something tedious that used to take a lawyer a week, and we've automated some of that," Cornell says.

Manhead last year worked with Los Angeles-based Yoshirt, a t-shirt company that lets buyers customize their own shirt--and prints it quickly. During the Fall Out Boy tour, the band took a selfie from stage--and not only did the usual (Instagrammed it), but also put it on a shirt. The fans in the first few rows got sent the shirt automatically, within days. Others could purchase it, and it would be to their door also within days, before the adrenaline from the show had fully worn off.

It's a buzz almost as good as that from the show itself.

Published on: Jul 25, 2016