Merch commission: the problem behind the problem

Sunday 26 May, 2019

Owen Ralph

Arts marketer and musician

The practice of venues charging commission on merchandise sales at gigs has recently been a hot topic of conversation on Twitter within folk music circles.

A number of artists highlighted this sign at Theatr Mwldan, a rare example of a venue explicitly opposing the practice.

Kings Place in London was namechecked a couple of times on Twitter as a culprit for particularly high merch commission charges, and has in the last couple of days announced an end to the practice at their venue.

Having worked at music venues, in addition to being an independent promoter and a musician, I’ve been on all sides of this and it’s always a horrible issue. Even from the venue’s perspective, it can give a sour end to an otherwise very pleasant night for the front of house team who are tasked with enforcing the commission policy.

Is it that simple? It’s an unfair, unpleasant practice that should be abolished, right? On the one hand, yes, absolutely. But as with anything worth talking about...it’s more complicated than that.

Three big problems have emerged from this recent discourse, which we need to deal with urgently:

  • There is a misapprehension—particularly among concert-goers who didn't realise that merch commission is a thing—that greedy venues are raking in the profits from concerts, leaving artists to count their pennies to cobble together the train fare home. Broadly speaking, the first half of that sentence is bollocks.
  • The tone of this conversation is pitting artists, promoters and venues against each other, when now more than ever, we all need to be on the same side to keep the folk scene going strong.
  • There is a persistently casual approach among those high up in the business to fixing the real heart of the problem.

Let’s take each of these in turn.

  1. Who’s eating all the pie?
  2. You may well have heard the very sad news in recent days of the closure of The Borderline in London.

    It was interesting to see people on Twitter angrily calling out venues for wrenching merch commission out of the hands of poor musicians, and lamenting the closure of a venue which was no longer financially viable, almost in the same breath.

    Don’t get me wrong, these two views are not mutually exclusive, in fact I agree with both in principle. This does, however, demonstrate the danger of casting venues in the role of the greedy villain. There needs to be an understanding that by and large, venues are not lining their pockets with all the money coming in from gigs—often there is no money. It’s quite normal for a venue or a promoter to be making a loss on gigs these days. They're not eating all the pie, and that's an important context to understand.

  3. Let’s stop hating on each other
  4. With the above context in mind, this situation will never get better unless we pull together. We can’t afford for any part of the folk music industry to crumble, because the rest of us will come down with it. So let’s firstly stop charging unnecessary fees to each other, but then let’s sit down and talk openly about what we all need to do keep things thriving.

    It simply is not good enough to tell venues to cut out bad practices and then leave it at that, because that does nothing to tackle the root of the problem.

    Which leads us to the crucially important point number 3...

  5. We need to get serious about audience development
  6. If there isn’t enough money to go around, we need to be finding more ways to inject money into the system. Public funding helps to a certain extent, but ultimately this comes down to getting people through the door. In the folk scene we have some wonderfully dedicated audiences who come to dozens of concerts every year—these people are amazing and we need to keep them, because we’d be pretty stuck without them.

    But we can’t rely on that same core of people for the growth we need. The key is bringing in a greater number of people, and a greater diversity of people. We need to think about how we’re presenting ourselves, how we’re positioning folk music both in the imagery we use and our discourse, and doing everything we can to open doors for people to find their way into this amazing music scene.

The issue of audience development needs far more than a couple of paragraphs to consider. It's a discussion that has been ongoing for years, but it’s my mission over the next couple of years to create some spaces for this discussion to happen with more urgency, and to collaboratively come up with some action points to take us from whimsical pondering to a realistic game plan.

So venues, seriously, drop the commission, but let’s all acknowledge the very pressing problems of which this practice is a symptom, and get working on some SMART goals to actively bring about change.

If you have any comments about any of this, do drop me an email at blog@greenwoodside.co.uk. Because talking to each other is the first step.

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