Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

From totes to t-shirts, why all your favorite creators are selling merch now


Published on November 10, 2022

Filed under

Katie Tupper is making money from her music for the first time. That makes Tupper—an indie musician signed to Toronto label Arts & Crafts who recently went on tour—one of the luckier striving artists out there. But between her label recouping recording costs, paying musicians, and recent gas prices, it’s still not enough to live on. With streaming services like Spotify paying out just a fraction of a cent per play, musicians like Tupper need other streams of income. That’s where merch comes in.

Historically, big brands sold merchandise to connect with consumers. Now we’re living in a time when each individual can be their own brand, catering to audiences as wide or niche as they please. That means we’re not just trafficking in t-shirts with company logos anymore; everything from custom hats and stickers to water bottles and phone cases can be given a personal touch. And because younger generations are more likely to buy from those they trust, it makes sense that creators with significant fanbases are poised to capitalize on the followings they’ve cultivated over time. 

Touring artists of all kinds have sold merchandise since long before the internet even existed— but for digital-era creators, it’s more viable than ever. As demand for fan-based products has grown, platforms like Etsy, Spring, and Dropbox Shop have made creation and distribution even easier. When the e-commerce site Spring (formerly Teespring) diversified beyond custom t-shirts, letting anyone personalize and sell a wider variety of products, the number of creators selling merch on their platform jumped over 200% from 2018 to 2020. By June 2020, nearly $50 million in sales went to products outside of Spring’s apparel category.

“There are more artists now in the marketplace than I think there's ever been, and everyone's competing for the same eyeballs,” says Ali Samadpour

This growing merch industry is indicative of a larger shift for creators in particular. For today’s artists, musicians, and makers of all kinds, it’s no longer just about simply focusing on your craft and your fanbase—it’s also about the merch. 

“My manager said, ‘you need to make merch,’” says Tupper. “This is the way you make money touring. Sometimes 85-100% of your income is from merch sales.” But from design to marketing and promotion, there’s a lot that goes into merchandising and most creators have to front the labor and the costs themselves. It can be risky—but it’s a risk many creators, regardless of follower count, are willing to make. For those who seek a balance between making work they’re passionate about and earning money, creating and selling merch can offer a pathway to a more viable living.

When the merch is the message

If done right, merchandise can offer a tangible connection between artist and fan. “People have more of a stake in you because they have their hands on you in some way,” says Tupper. In the same way that items with high-end, name-brand logos are used as a means to signal a certain status, merch from your favorite artist or online personality says something about your interests and who you align yourself with. Creators understand this all too well, which is why you’re likely to find podcasters, YouTubers, and authors alike hawking everyday products with their own spin on it, from tote bags and bucket hats to custom wallpaper.

For creators interested in starting up their own merch line, there’s more to it than just deciding between cotton or jersey crewnecks. “You need to provide value for your consumers for them to really buy into your brand,” says Ali Samadpour, managing director of boutique merchandising agency Modular Merch. “Invest in your brand and make a compelling case for why people should support you as an artist.”

This element of brand affiliation can drive a closer relationship between the work of a creator and the people who consume it. “There are more artists now in the marketplace than I think there's ever been, and everyone's competing for the same eyeballs,” says Samadpour. “How are you going to stand out, foster relationships with your fans, and onboard new fans as well?”

For someone like Tupper, building a brand feels more to her like creating an entire world around her music, presenting pieces of herself through different mediums in order to create the fullest picture of herself as an artist. This opens up opportunities to branch out, flex different creative muscles, and collaborate with other like-minded artists. “I’d suggest working with someone you really trust as a designer, whose taste you really like,” Tupper says. “They're going to make your ideas translate.”

Know what your merch is worth

Because there’s no merchandising playbook for indie creators, it’s not always easy to figure out if it will be a good investment until you dive in. Most creators today shoulder the cost of their own merchandise upfront, which means asking yourself some tough questions. “Who is my customer, and how big is the audience?” says Samadpour. “If your audience size is 400 people, you’ll be lucky if you sell 10% of your merch.”

There are ways for smaller artist to make that investment work—for example, by working with a print-on-demand shop that can do most of the legwork when it comes to sourcing materials, printing, and shipping. But the risk is still there. A mistake as simple as over-ordering can mean your sunk cost is stuck in a pile by your bed until you can move your items. “You don’t want to invest in 5,000 units to sit in a warehouse,” says Samadpour.

“I could like an artist [...] but if I'm going to their show and buying their t-shirt, that is a level of commitment,” says Tupper

While there is a huge opportunity in selling your own merchandise, Samadpour cautions against focusing solely on generating a bit of cash at the expense of your primary art. “Say it’s an investment of $20,000 upfront. What could you have done with $20,000 to push yourself forward as an artist?” he asks. “How much time do you have? What’s the value of my time in this business venture? Would my brand be better served by making more art and perfecting that?”

For Tupper, merch has been worth the investment. She used money from a serving job to fund her first round of products. The proceeds from the first round funded her second round, where she hopes to start making a profit—and provide more options for her fans. “It's like taking your relationship with listeners to the next level,” says Tupper.

A literal show of support

The creator economy was built around the idea of a small community of passionate fans turned patrons. As fandom culture shows few signs of cooling down, devotees continue to seek out more forms of connection and ways to display their interests—and creators are responding in kind. For artists like Tupper who have cultivated a following through their work, offering merch provides another way to support their art. 

As Tupper attests, creating value for costumers doesn’t need to feel soulless and corporate. She understands that there’s a throughline of trust between artist and fan that pierces every type of transaction. “I could like an artist and watch their interviews, but if I'm going to their show and buying their t-shirt, that is a level of commitment with my money, with my closet space,” says Tupper. 

By treating merch not as a vanity project but as a legitimate arm of an operation, creators have an opportunity to nurture their community of patrons, build brand affiliation, and strengthen their business. “You are investing so much in yourself,” Tupper says as encouragement to other creators. “I think it’s really cool and exciting to treat myself more professionally as a small business.”