Music

Inside the Growing War Over Merch Fees at Venues: ‘Bands Are Getting Ripped Off’

Artists at country singer-songwriter Ashley McBryde’s level of popularity can sell $16,000 to $20,000 worth of T-shirts and hoodies when they play 1,500-capacity venues. Layne Weber, director of merchandising and fan engagement for McBryde’s management company, Q Prime, says some venues took a 20% to 25% cut of her merchandise sales during her spring tour — which is standard in the industry but, he says, exorbitant for services rendered at many clubs. “I went to a show the other night and the merch table was next to the bar,” Weber says. “The merch seller was having to compete with the bartender who’s trying to sell the drinks. That was a venue taking 20% of the sales.”

Weber’s complaints, which many artists and their representatives share, are at the center of a long-running live-industry debate over merch percentages. For decades, artists, venues and promoters have haggled behind the scenes over percentages as part of every show contract, but they contend the stakes are now much higher. “Ever since we’ve come back from COVID, the merch numbers have gone through the roof for all genres of music,” says Crom Tidwell, owner of Crom Tidwell Merchandising in Nashville. And with so much money at stake, artists want a larger percentage of their own profits.

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“Bands are getting ripped off,” says Barry Drinkwater, executive chairman of Global Merchandising Services, which handles merch for top metal acts such as Iron Maiden and Guns N’ Roses. He adds that the venue’s cut particularly hurts small acts, which tour on slimmer margins and often operate their own merch tables. “They need the money that gets them food, gets them to the next show,” he says. “Then the promoter wants to charge them 20% of the gross.”

Live Nation has expressed sympathy for this point of view. Last fall, trumpeting an endorsement from Willie Nelson, the world’s biggest concert promoter unveiled its On the Road Again program, which eliminates merch-selling fees for artists at its clubs and provides a per diem of $1,500 in gas and travel cash for artists, among other benefits. Earlier this year, Live Nation president/CEO Michael Rapino told Billboard that the program had “already helped support 3,000 developing artists,” and a statement that Live Nation issued on May 22 said, “We’re incredibly proud of how On the Road Again is supporting thousands of artists and their crews, with 100% merch profits, $1,500 cash nightly for gas and travel costs and more. Developing artists are the future of live music, and we’re proud to keep this program rolling strong.”

Complaints over merch fees are not limited to clubs, however. At arenas, stadiums and other large venues, in-house concessions staff take over merch sales, and the 20% to 25% cut goes largely to these services. And at least one venue takes an even bigger chunk. Drinkwater says New York’s Madison Square Garden (MSG) charges artists 30% of their merch sales, plus credit card fees. He also notes that percentages can be higher in the United Kingdom. (A representative for the Garden declined to comment.)

Whether artists are handling their own merch tables or relying on in-house staffers, managers say they’re often unsatisfied with the services they get, given the cost.

“I don’t feel they’re worth 25% of the revenue,” says Rick Sales, who manages Slayer, Ghost, Mastodon and others. “It’s not good value for the money spent.”

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Venue reps counter that long before fans step into their buildings, they negotiate deals with artists, including merch percentages. Not surprisingly, those with leverage receive favorable terms. “Every live performance is a negotiation,” a concert-business source says. “The band doesn’t like the merch percentage, find somewhere else to play.” Venue consultant Brock Jones, the former GM of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, adds: “At the end of the day, venues have got to make money, too — electricity isn’t free, all that space isn’t free. Venues have to recoup those expenses. An 80/20 merch deal is absolutely fair when the venue is selling.”

Tidwell agrees that it’s a different story at arenas, which often are required to staff union employees at fixed salaries. “You’ve got to have a crew to facilitate the sales,” he says. “Somebody has to pay for the help.” But he also contends that artists complaining about high venue percentages in small venues have a point: “What are you doing for your 20%? You’re just providing a lobby and a table.”

Some small venues, still reeling from the pandemic, have expressed concern that Live Nation’s On the Road Again program might pressure them into following suit and giving up a crucial revenue source. “Temporary measures may appear to help artists in the short run but actually can squeeze out independent venues, which provide the lifeblood of many artists on thin margins,” the National Independent Venue Association said in a statement in September.

Arenas and stadiums are where the big merch money is. On her The Eras Tour last year, Taylor Swift made a reported $200 million on T-shirts and other goods sold at shows. In its 2023 financial report, Live Nation claimed “double-digit growth” in merch and concessions at the arenas it owns or operates, such as the Moody Center in Austin. Notably, the On the Road Again program does not apply to large venues. Drinkwater says the standard 20% to 25% cut applies and, like MSG, sometimes venues pass on credit card fees (usually 5%) to the artist. “We try with our artists to beat this down,” he says. “Sometimes we get a reduction if we can do big sales.”

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