Being a musician these days may be tougher than it’s ever been. The evolution of how we consume our favorite tunes has taken some money out of musicians’ pockets and forced them to get creative with how they make some of it back.

Gone are the days when fans would rush to the stores to buy that new CD, or visit iTunes to download their album. Today, most of us simply stream our music and the rise of these services has made tour and merch revenue much more important to artists worldwide. Business Insider found that the highest paid act in 2017, U2, made $54 million in total revenue. About 94% of that came from touring and less than 4% came from streaming or album sales. Imagine what that means for a local band or an artist without the cache of U2.

Streaming Is Sucking Artists Dry

According to Billboard.com, by November 2019 album sales fell 19% compared to the same point in 2018. “And, for the full year of 2018, album sales dropped by 17.7% to 141 million — the lowest number of albums sold in a year since Nielsen Music began electronically tracking sales in 1991.” This is largely due to streaming.

NPR interviewed independent musician, Erin McKeown, and found that her accountant mentioned she was only making $0.004 per play on Spotify. At that rate, it would take 250 streams to earn $1 in royalties and 2,500 to earn a typical album download cost of $10. Keep in mind that is because McKeown is an independent artist, she gets 100% of her streaming royalties, but if she had a label, she’d be splitting even that small amount of earnings with them too.

The coronavirus has recently made things even more dire for musicians. With the pandemic effectively shutting down their #1 revenue stream, most acts have been forced to cancel or reschedule their tours. So how are musicians surviving these days?

Apparel Bundles and Merch Are Saving Musicians

Enter the apparel bundle. Because no one really buys music anymore, musicians need to entice their fans into purchasing albums. In an article for Rolling Stone, J. Cole manager, Matt McNeal, says that bundles are meant

“to trick people back into buying full albums…Fans are probably already listening to the album [on a streaming service], but because I sold them this t-shirt, I also get a CD sale within it.”

T-shirt bundles like these can sell for upwards of $30 and get paired with either a physical copy of the album or a digital download. But, some artists are skimming on using quality apparel and taking a hit on margins, with these bundles. On average you’d pay $10 for an album and between $20 to $30 for the artist’s apparel. Some bundles, like the one Nicki Minaj had put out for her “Queen” album, have gone for as low as $15 dollars, which seems crazy to some, because it leaves so little margin for profit. So why would someone do such a thing, especially when merchandise is such a huge revenue stream for artists today?

Apparel Catapults You Up The Charts

These days, almost all the albums on the top 200 are getting their rank boosted by a bundled album, and we’re talking about the likes of Taylor Swift, The Jonas Brothers, Kanye West, Ariana Grande, Thomas Rhett and Billie Eilish. Your Billboard ranking is dependent on your total album sales, but since everyone is streaming, musicians need to bundle decorated apparel with album downloads, to raise their ranking.

It takes 1,250 paid subscription streams to equal 1 album unit and 3,750 ad-supported streams to do the same, making it almost impossible to rely on streams alone to raise your Billboard ranking.

When Travis Scott first released his album “Astroworld,” he bundled it with exclusive merch that spanned 28 items. For the first 9 days of the release, every 24 hours he updated his site with brand new exclusive merch. One of those pieces included a t-shirt collaboration with the ever-popular Off-White founder, Virgil Abloh. As you probably know, his strategy worked, because “Astroworld” would eventually hit #1 on the Billboard charts.

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Virgil for Astroworld 24hrs

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In a way, this has sparked what some are calling a “bundle war” in the music industry. Your position on the charts is becoming more about how creative you can be in developing unique promotions and apparel than whose music people enjoyed more. That’s why some artists are willing to settle for less on quality and margins. Their main goal is to sell as many units as possible, by any means necessary. In Rolling Stone, Michael Cherman, designer of merchandise for A$AP Rocky and Lil Wayne, says:

“If [artists] can move the numbers up, that will get them more attention. It’s just a marketing game: The more you can trend, be the album that’s talked about, the more people are going to go and see what’s happening.”

Of course, bigger acts are going to be able to play this game more than the smaller ones. Some musicians aren’t able to skimp on margins and might sell less albums because of it. Some won’t want to skimp on quality, because it’s a bad reflection of their brand. The main takeaway is that all of them need you.

The one constant within the industry is the need for decorated apparel, and not only is it increasing, it’s becoming a vital part of an artist’s success. Knowing the ins and outs of how apparel affects a musician’s image, ranking, and survival will be key in your consultations with them. Your ability to help recommend the best approach in choosing the right design, quality and quantity to achieve their goals is what will take your business to the top of the charts.

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