Things have changed a lot in the music business over the past decade or two.
As music has gone largely digital, album sales have been replaced by streaming – and artists have seen their share of the revenue go down dramatically.
Platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, which are great for artists looking to get their music heard by the masses, pay only fractions of a penny for a stream. Compare that to the cut that artists would get from the sale of an album, and you see why artists have had to replace that revenue with other streams like touring and merchandise sales.
Especially for smaller artists, the ones that aren’t selling out arenas and stadiums, merchandise sales are a vital part of their business, keeping those artists on the road and making music.
But last year, American Aquarium pointed out a big problem with that business: Venues across the country were taking a percentage of merch sales, regardless of whether they did anything to sell it.
That means that an artist who designed their own merch, brought it to the show, counted it in before the show and after the show, and had their own team to sell it, was still required to give the venue a portion of the revenue that they made from the sale of their merchandise.
Hardly seems fair, does it?
When a fan buys a t-shirt from an artist, they likely assume that their money is going to the band or the artist.
But when American Aquarium frontman BJ Barham began letting fans know that wasn’t always the case, many people were not only surprised, but were outraged.
It started last year when the band began putting out signs at their shows letting fans know that a venue was – or wasn’t – taking a cut of merch sales:
And they’ve kept up the practice since then – and seen things change because of it.
Speaking with BJ before the band’s recent appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, he said he started doing this because people often didn’t realize what was going on behind the scenes:
“People didn’t know it was happening. Before I was in this business, the truest way you can give your favorite artist money is at the merch table.
You know that the club is taxing the drinks. You know the club is taxing the tickets. You know the club’s taxing everything.
But the one thing you don’t think they’re taxing is when you walk up to that band and you hand them $20 for a t-shirt, you think that’s going in the gas tank, or that’s buying food at a fast food restaurant. That’s somehow helping them get to the next gig.
Most fans had no idea. And it’s in a lot of contracts. Well, it was in a lot of our contracts. So a lot of these clubs, we’re telling them, ‘We don’t think this is fair.’ And they’d say, ‘Well you’re contractually obligated. You signed the contract.'”
But BJ says he wasn’t contractually obligated to stay quiet about it:
“I am contractually obligated to pay this fee. But what I’m not contractually obligated to do is to be quiet about it, so I’m going to let the consumer know. I’m going to let them make the judgment.”
And he says that the response from fans was overwhelmingly positive:
“We saw such a backing for the artist.
There’s a couple bootlickers out there that were like, ‘Man you signed a contract. The club’s gotta make money too.’
It’s like, that’s what $10 Bud Lights are for. That’s how they make their money. We don’t get a cut of that.”
Not only have fans been appreciative of knowing which venues are taking a cut of the band’s merch sales, but BJ says that now that the practice has been brought to the light, most venues aren’t even trying to put it in their contracts – and the ones that are generally waive the fee so that the band doesn’t call them out on it:
“I’m proud to say that less than a year later, I’d say 99% of our shows, it’s out of our contract. Clubs aren’t even trying to put it in our contract.
And if it is in our contract, we show up to the show and they’re like, ‘Hey, just to let you know, we don’t know how that got in there, we’re not taking it tonight, please don’t put your sign up.’
It really says something about your business practice when you’re willing to do it in the dark, but when the lights come on, you’re not willing to.”
Of course BJ says that some venues have stopped booking them since he started calling them out, but he says the band’s fortunate to be in a position to be able to take a stand for what he believes is right:
“I get it. The small bands can’t do anything about it. Their hands are tied. They need every dollar, even if it’s taxed, they need every dollar to get to the next gig.
We’re very fortunate to be at a point where I can lose $1,000 in merchandise sales to make a point every night. And so far it’s working.”
I think BJ’s spot on here when he says that it really says something about the business practices when the venues don’t want customers to know how they operate.
But good for American Aquarium for taking a stand – and hopefully in the process, changing things for all artists that come through these venues.