American Aquarium Frontman BJ Barham On Why He’s Calling Out Venues For Taking Merch Cuts: “It’s Very Unjust… We Do Not Think It’s Fair”

American Aquarium country music
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American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham is certainly a man of the people.

He recently took to Twitter to shed some light on a subject most casual music fans are unaware of, which is that most music venues require that you give them part of your merch sales.

For bigger venues, it usually make sense (and we’ll get to that), but for artists who play much smaller clubs and have to constantly be on the road just to break even a lot of the time, it is massive hit to their revenue.

You can (and should) read more in-depth about all of that HERE, but today, I want to share BJ’s explanation of why he’s decided to start dropping names and calling put specific venues.

He posted a lengthy video on Instagram over the weekend, explaining in great detail how the merch cuts work and why they’re so unfair to the bands.

Most merch cuts vary between 10-30%, which he said he believed was fair when it comes to playing huge amphitheaters and arenas. At large venues like that, they take a cut, but employees there take care of everything from selling stuff, count-ins, count-outs, and even making sure you’re in the best possible spot to sell tons of merch.

But at smaller clubs, where they supposedly support smaller, independent artists, they’re doing the same without lifting a finger.

And the argument from them (and from others who support the practice of venues getting a cut of merch) is that the venue is providing space for the artists to set up shop, so they should get a portion of the sales in “rent” for that space.

BJ explains that at those kinds of venues, he doesn’t want them to take a cut of his merch for the same reason the venue doesn’t want to give him a cut of their bar sales:

“They do something to earn that money, and I’m never gonna get in the way of someone earning a living wage, especially if it’s counting in and out my merchandise and selling it every night.

The problem we’re running into is, a lot of the independent venues that support the music, that ‘support the independent bands,’ are getting in on this train, because they see it as an extra way to make an extra couple hundred bucks a night, to offset the cost of their overhead.

It is merchandise that we design, it is merchandise that we manufacture, it’s merchandise that we ship, we transport, we set up, we sell, and we break down ourselves each night. We do not think it’s fair that these clubs are taking 20% without doing any of the work.

A lot of times I ask the promoters, ‘Well how about I take a cut of the bar sales, because by your theory, no one would be here to drink your alcohol without me bringing people to the club.’ And they always huff and puff and say, ‘Well, we paid for the alcohol and we have to pay bartenders to sell that alcohol.’

And I don’t understand why it works for them and it doesn’t work for us. So for here on out, I’m taking a stand on it.”

A great point, indeed.

He also added that this isn’t about trying to get out of anything, and his contracts always include the stipulation that the band gets to keep 100% of merch sales, though a lot of the venues won’t agree to it:

“We realized this is gonna ruffle some feathers, this is gonna make a lot of clubs very upset.

They’re A-okay putting this in the contracts, and the thing I’ve heard from a lot of folks, especially people that work at venues is, well you shouldn’t have signed the contract, it says 20%.

Let me go ahead and cut you off there, and let you know that when we put our contract in, it always says ‘Band retains 100% of merch.’ Those clubs then go in with a Sharpie marker and mark that out and put their cuts, and then let our agent know that we can’t play the show unless we agree to the 20%.”

BJ says it comes down to the fact that these merch cuts at small venues are simply unjust, and the reason a lot of them are upset that he’s bringing it up now is because fans are realizing how unfair of a business practice it is:

“Everybody’s okay with being sketchy when the lights are out, but when the lights are on, that’s when the people get to judge it.

And a good friend of mine told me that sunlight is the greatest disinfectant. We’re pulling this stuff out of the shadows that we don’t think is fair and we’re letting people decide whether it’s fair.”

And not only is he talking about it on social media, BJ has started putting up signs at all venues that refuse to waive merch fees at their booth, so people know where their money is going (and it’s not all going to American Aquarium a lot of the time):

BJ noted that he and his band are finally at the place in their career where they can afford to speak out about this and lose money from venues who won’t take too kindly to it.

And he says he’s already ruffled some feathers, so to speak, with venues they’ve played recently, but he wants people to know where their money is going and hopefully, help change the way this policy works at clubs across the country:

“We’re gonna ruffle some feathers out here, but I think it’s extremely important that folks know where their money is going and how it is being allocated.”

Like I said, a man of the people.

Maybe consider an online order like he mentions in the sign if you happen to catch American Aquarium at a venue taking a cut of their sales.

And do yourself a favor and check out his whole video below, because he gives a great and detailed explanation of the nuances and details that come along with all of this.

As one of the premiere independent acts in the business who has been grinding it out for so long touring his ass off non-stop across the country, BJ has a great perspective on the matter that deserves some of your time if you’re a music fan:

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock