September 2


Selling Swag, Perks, & Promoting A Cause

By Keith Livingston

September 2, 2017

merch, music marketing

What’s wrong with me?

I don’t like a lot of things that people who teach music marketing recommend.

I saw a marketer advise a strategy of giving music downloads away for free, to get folks on your email list. Then, you make a profit by selling swag, along with physical CDs. You can sell hoodies, T-shirts, hats, posters, coffee mugs, posters, and stickers.

I didn’t like that idea. 

Other music marketers talk about making bank with high-ticket items such as writing a song personally for someone, or a VIP backstage pass at a gig, or hanging out with the artists in the studio. The idea is that you’re not going to be profitable with music sales (especially downloads), and this is the way to make up the income.

That sticks in my craw. Here’s why, I think.

Support Musicians, Or Support Their Music?

I bought a CD from a friend a couple of years back. He’s a guy I’ve known for a long time, and I wanted to support his efforts. The CD is still in the wrapper.

Hmmmmm. . .

Let’s suppose Lenny and the Squigtones is your favorite group. You love everything they put out. One day, they come to your town, and you go to the show. It’s awesome! On the way out the door, you see they’re selling hoodies, and you pick one up. You know that every time you wear the hoodie, you’re going to remember the show, and feel good.

You’re wearing the hoodie because you think Lenny & Squiggy are cool. It’s a secondary purchase, that comes after loving the music and performance.

And if you love their music, their next release goes straight on the Victrola, the instant you get home.

Now, when I put out my first recording ('I've Got This Room', GMR 015), my grandma bought two copies! She did it to support me, much like I bought my friend's CD, to support him. My grandma died shortly after she bought my music. No connection, I assume.

I love it when people want to support what I'm doing. But what is the difference between people who buy stuff to support you, and those who buy stuff because they love your music?

For me, one word -- artistic fulfillment (I know, that's two words.). I want people to dig the music. It's cool when your mom loves the finger-painting you brought home from kindergarten. But as an adult, you want people that don't even know you, are moved by what you do. I want people to love and support my music, first.

The music is the thing.

I love the personal support people give me. I teared up a little over Grandma's show of affection. But #1 is people who love the music for the music's sake.

The Music Is The Thing

For me, at least, it's the songs first, arrangement and performance after that. That's what I want people to fall in love with. Being famous is not important to me. I'd rather be respected among a group of solid fans, than simply be well-known across a larger swath of the population.

Thanks for the therapy session 🙂 It's really helping me hone in on what I want to achieve with my songwriting and recording! Maybe you can do the same, if you haven't already. Let's keep going.

The Journey Is The Other Thing

The other thing that is important to me in this realm, is the journey. Being a musician is a struggle. You struggle against your own limitations. You bare your soul in your lyrics. You work hard to make progress. It's nothing special -- everybody struggles in their life.

And what does everybody want? They want someone to recognize that they're making an effort. They want someone to be on their side, and pulling for them! That kind of support feels good. So, if I had a Kickstarter campaign (or other crowdfunding mechanism), and people used it to show support for my journey, that would be cool.

But it would have to be artistically related for me to feel good about it. The rewards/perks would be music-related, or directly impact the experience of experiencing the music. I mean, it would be cool if you could own the microphone that Ylvis used to record - The Fox (What Does The Fox Say?), wouldn't it?

Support A Cause With Your Music? Take A Political Stance?

I hear some people saying that aligning yourself with a cause is a good idea. It's true that people are passionate about politics and causes. And if potential fans support what you support, that's a potential 'in' for you.

But I have the same problem with this strategy. It can become about the issue, and not about the music. For some people, that's cool. Not for me.

For them, their cause may be foremost in their mind. The music is a vehicle to spread the cause. I'm not so enlightened. I write music for the sake of the music and personal expression.

Now, if I happen to write a "save the trees" song, I don't mind pitching it to the Audubon society. I might even use a Facebook ad to promote the single to people who like similar artists to me, and are society members. What the heck!

But I'm not going to make it my regular thing.

I think I'm finally getting to the root of this thing.

I'm Not A T-Shirt Salesman

Look. Every job -- even one you love, will have some parts you don't like. Maybe it's the commute. Maybe it's an obnoxious co-worker. There are going to be things in your music career you don't like, too. But you'll be doing something important to you, that you love.

I don't mind selling T-shirts at a show, or to people that love my music. Merch can be a memento that reminds them of the experience of seeing you, or listening to your music. It can enhance. But I'm not going to flip it around, and make music so I can sell T-shirts! If I wanted a job selling T-shirts, I'd go get one, for fuck's sake.

Now, if I were a visual artist, and had personally crafted my CD cover, I would feel great about putting it on a t-shirt and selling it. But I'm not.

And while we're on the subject, I'm not a dancing monkey for people's entertainment. So, I'm not going to write a song for someone for $500 (not that anyone has asked). My writing is deeply personal to me. To me, writing a song for someone feels like selling out, and I won't do it (unless you want to pay me to put my music in a movie. In that case, leave a twenty on the dresser).

Geez, I'm on a roll!

Teach Music For A Living?

I hear folks advising that you can teach music, and use your spare time to work on the rest of your music career. That way, you're still doing what you love during the day. WTF?

Teaching music is not the same as playing music for a crowd, or writing original songs. I mean, just because I like sex doesn't mean I want to teach sex ed. Right?

And I got news for you -- starting and running any business takes considerable time and effort. You're probably better off getting a real job, or staying with whatever you're already doing. Teaching music probably isn't going to have insurance, or paid vacation/holidays, etc. Of course, if you love teaching and business, go ahead. If not, don't -- unless it provides you with significant advantages over what you're already doing.

And another thing. You kids get off my lawn! Whew!

Decide What You're Willing To Do For Music

What we're getting at here is setting goals, and limits. Yours will be different than mine. And they may change with time, and changing circumstances.

For me, I've decided I'm not a T-shirt salesman, nor a dancing monkey, but potentially, I'll 'prostitute' myself (artistically, working on a score, or marketing songs I've written to TV shows, plays, ads, and movies appeals to me a lot more than writing a song for a $500 crowdfunding perk). Also, I love doing interesting (and hopefully innovative) versions of covers I love, but I don't want to play in a cover band, nor do weddings.

There's a Thai musician, Caribou, who makes bank selling and promoting his line of energy drinks. He grosses $225 million/year. Roger Fisher sells tea.

I wouldn't be comfortable selling energy drinks, or pop, or cigarettes, or alcohol. In general, I think those items detract from the world.

But if there were a tea company that aligned with my values, and tea was something important to me, I could see that. Especially if the philosophy of the tea company tied into the theme of the music in some way (Roger Fisher has Human Tribe tea tying into his Roger Fisher & the Human Tribe CD). And he had a hand in designing the tea.

My Process For Deciding What (in addition to music) To Sell

  1. Elicit your personal values. What do you stand for? Write them down and rank them. Note the top 3.
  2. If your music values match your personal values, skip to the next step. If not, write your musical values down. In other words, what are you trying to accomplish with your music? Are you trying to move people? Motivate them in a particular way? Write these values down and rank them. Note the top 3.
  3. Make a list of ideas for things you may want to sell, in conjunction with your music (Go to crowdfunding sites and look at things other people are offering. Brainstorm things related to hobbies or jobs you have.).
  4. For each item, ask yourself, "Does selling this tie in with my personal/musical values?" If not, reject it.
  5. For each item that passes the values test, ask yourself, "How can I use this to draw people more into the experience of my music?"

There you go.


Let's say your personal/musical top value is to promote unity and peace in the world. You create a meditation and compose the music for it. You offer that to your fans.

What if your values have to do with saving the environment? You create (or have an artist friend create) a series of beautiful images of nature, and offer them as wallpaper/backgrounds for people's computers. You donate a percentage of sales to environmental groups. Each image subtly ties back to you in some way (If you sing Rocky Mountain High, one image is of the Rockies [or maybe a blunt]. Maybe some of your images include you, playing your ukulele, out in the forest, or being eaten by a bear).

If your music a a big party, and your values are to spread fun. . . Offer to show up (via internet) to any party. You promise to tell 6 jokes, and play 3 party songs to get things started.

Now, I'm just spit-balling. These particular ideas may or may not be good. But you get the idea, right? You come up with ideas for things you can sell that match your value system.

There's Nothing Wrong With Different Goals

Maybe you like teaching music, or want to play in a cover band, or you want to only write political songs, or for you, the performance is more important than the song. Maybe you'd like to be world-famous. That's all perfectly fine. It might be a good idea to decide, that's all.

Me? I'm leaning toward crowdfunding for my next project, and having the majority of perks and rewards be experiential, and designed to heighten my peeps involvement in the music. Interviews, helping name songs, choosing mixes, behind the scenes studio stuff, etc., would work for me.

What about you? Let me know in the comments below. What are you comfortable selling, in relation to your music?


PS: I think I figured out why the '$500 for a custom song' thing bugs me. If I felt inspired to write a song for a couple's anniversary (for instance), I'd just write it. I'd give them a recording, and put it on my next release, with a dedication. But I don't want a job doing that! The same thing is true with fans hanging out with me in the studio. I could see it as a way to pay for studio time, but not at an exorbitant price. Maybe even have a contest and the winners get to hang out.

PPS: Maybe these limits I'm placing on what I'll do will keep me from reaching any level of traditionally defined financial/musical success. So be it. I understand what I'm doing.

Keith Livingston

About the author

Keith Livingston started recording his own music in the late '70s, on a 4-track. He worked his way into live sound and studio work as an engineer -- mixing in arenas, working on projects in many major studios as a producer/engineer, and working in conjunction with an independent label.

He taught audio engineering at the Art Institute of Seattle, from 1990-1993, and in '96, contributing to authoring several college-level courses there.

He was General Manager of Радио один (Radio 1) in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Now he spends his time recording his own songs wherever he roams, and teaching others to do the same.

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