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Rapper and writer Rollie Pemberton, who's stage name is Cadence Weapon, is speaking out against the 'merch cut' practice which sees artists pay out between 15 to 35 per cent of merchandise sales to venues.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

After almost two years of pandemic uncertainty that brought the live music world to a standstill, I finally returned to what felt like a normal touring schedule last summer. I played shows as Cadence Weapon across Canada to ecstatic audiences who were happy to be cheering on music in real life again. My return to the road also brought back an unwelcome vestige of the past: many of the venues I performed at took 25 per cent of the money I made from selling shirts and albums to my fans. This practice is called a merch cut and it’s an antiquated policy in sore need of reform in the live music industry.

The history of the merch cut is just as murky as the practice itself. No one is quite sure exactly how or why it began but somewhere down the line, it became standard in the business. In Kevin Stewart-Panko’s 2018 piece in Decibel, death metal musician Jason Netherton claims that it started when stadiums in major cities started taking a cut of merch sales in the seventies and eighties as the tour shirt became a popular keepsake. The practice trickled down to smaller venues around North America and was eventually enshrined in the contracts given by promoters to the booking agents who represent bands. In the same article, guitarist Pat Sheridan suggests that merch cuts started initially as a way for venues to make back lost alcohol sales when booking straight edge bands in the eighties.

Whatever the origin of the merch cut is, it has become a common issue for musicians of all genres. Over time, it has become an unfortunate fact of life for artists, with booking agents reluctant to push back against the practice when negotiating contracts for their bands. And if we say no, the promoter and venue can decide to never book us again and we might have trouble finding elsewhere to play in that city in the future.

Despite the fact that we pay out of pocket to have our shirts and albums manufactured, designed and shipped to venues by mail or by van, we’re often forced to arbitrarily fork over anywhere between 15-35 per cent of our merch sales to venues. This is why you’ll often see inflated prices for merchandise at live shows; musicians are forced to raise prices and pass on the expense to the consumer as a result of venues taking merch cuts. I’ve even heard stories of bands being surprised after a show by a last minute shakedown for a cut of merch money that wasn’t previously stated in the contract.

Selling merch is traditionally one of the only ways for musicians to make money on the road. Merch sales can be the difference between breaking even and taking a loss. When a band decides to go on tour, they usually have to pay for gas, food, hotels, flights, a rental van and support staff like a tour manager, as well as lighting and sound technicians. These expenses have all gone up with inflation, making touring an increasingly difficult proposition that has caused even well-known acts such as Animal Collective, Santigold and Metronomy to cancel tours this year. Venue merch cuts further dig into the artist’s bottom line at a time when our finances have become more precarious than ever.

At larger venues, they have merch sellers dealing in large volumes that need to be properly compensated. But even at clubs where we sell our stuff ourselves and there isn’t even a dedicated table with adequate lighting to do so, the venue will still feel entitled to a cut of the proceeds. This has led to bands coming up with creative solutions around the problem. Zola Jesus sometimes sells merch out of the trunk of her van. Yard Act and Dry Cleaning have both taken to setting up merch pop up shops at nearby pubs and alternate locations when the venue they play decides to take a merch cut. But it’s unfortunate that musicians even have to go to these lengths to dodge an exploitative practice that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

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I was inspired to start the #MyMerch campaign in collaboration with the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers as a North American response to the Featured Artist Coalition’s 100 per cent Venues program that attracted nearly 500 venues in Britain. We’re building a database of North American clubs who don’t take a cut of merch from bands, which has garnered over 80 venues and festivals. Notable institutions who have taken the pledge so far include Lee’s Palace, The Horseshoe Tavern, Tranzac, The Empty Bottle, Elsewhere, Baby’s All Right, Bottom of the Hill and POP Montreal. The #MyMerch campaign has been supported on social media by Canadian musicians such as Tegan and Sara, PUP, July Talk, The Weather Station and Dan Mangan, while artists like Jack Antonoff and Lorde have spoken out about merch cuts in recent days as well.

I’ve seen comments online from fans responding to our campaign wondering what impact the loss of merch income might have on music venues who are already struggling. While I have empathy for pandemic-battered venues, merch cuts are only a small part of their balance sheet when compared with their traditional sources of income, such as alcohol sales and excess money from ticket sales, which are typically split between the band and the venue.

And I can’t help but wonder why the shortfall has to come out of what the artist makes. Musicians are often left with the scraps after everyone else in the industry has gotten paid off of their labour. Venues feel entitled to a cut of our merch sales because we sell on their property. But they would never give us a cut of alcohol sales, even though bands are the ones who attract an audience to their venue in the first place. The current arrangement is patently unfair.

For a long time, merch cuts were something that was whispered about in the shadows by aggrieved musicians. This silence allowed the exploitation to thrive. Now that our campaign is gaining momentum, the truth is coming to the light, making it harder for venues and promoters to justify this practice. I’ve learned that most fans are unaware that the money that they believe they’re giving directly to the artist at a show is sometimes being garnished by the venue. What can you do to help? Tell your favourite local North American venue, festival or promoter about the #MyMerch campaign in person or online and let them know how much it would mean to you if they signed up. With increased solidarity between musicians, fans, venues and promoters, we can all help create a more equitable music ecosystem.

Rollie Pemberton is a Hamilton-based musician, author and activist who makes music as Cadence Weapon. His album Parallel World won the 2021 Polaris Music Prize. His memoir Bedroom Rapper is out now on McClelland and Stewart.