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Artists welcome progress on venue merch commissions, but call for more venues to drop their merchandise fees

By | Published on Friday 27 January 2023

Artists on both sides of the Atlantic have welcomed the news that the US-based Ineffable Music Group is dropping merch commissions at the venues it owns and/or operates. Ineffable Live made that commitment following the testimony of musician Clyde Lawrence in US Congress earlier this week.

Lawrence spoke as part of the hearing in the US Senate about the ticketing business, which was mainly focused on the dominance of Live Nation/Ticketmaster in the live sector, and the need to better regulate ticket-touting Stateside. However, in his testimony, Lawrence discussed how artists interact with the live music industry more generally, outlining the various issues that they have to deal with.

One of those issues is venues charging a commission on any merchandise an artist sells during their shows. This has been a long-standing grievance within the artist community, but has become an even bigger deal since the pandemic, with surging costs greatly reducing the profit margins on concerts. For many artists, that makes merch sales all the more important to ensure touring is commercially viable.

In the UK, the Featured Artists Coalition launched its 100% Venues campaign a year ago, after Tim Burgess of The Charlatans sparked an online debate about merch commissions. It launched a directory that lists all the UK venues that don’t charge such commissions, which includes most grassroots venues. And then it called on other venues to drop their merch fees and get themselves a directory listing.

The campaign extended to North America late last year via an alliance with the Union Of Musicians And Allied Workers in the US and rapper Cadence Weapon in Canada. They are hoping that Lawrence raising the issue in Congress – and the speedy response of Ineffable Live – will persuade other venues across North America to likewise stop taking a cut of an artist’s merch income.

Cadence Weapon tells CMU: “I have personally felt the pain of hitting the road with countless expenses, only to show up to a venue and be told that they’ll be taking 20% of my merch sales. With the help of UMAW in the US and FAC in the UK, we have built a database of venues and festivals who say no to taking a merch cut from bands”.

“I hope that the wonderful decision by Ineffable Music Group to end the practice will encourage other similar companies to do the same”, he continues. “A healthier music ecosystem is possible, one where the wellbeing of bands is more important than the bottom line”.

Meanwhile, musician and UMAW member Damon Krukowski adds: “As an independent artist touring a mostly artist-friendly circuit, I only ever ran into merch cuts at the most corporate venues or festivals we happened to play. Post-pandemic, I was shocked to walk into a 250 cap independently-run room and be told the house now demanded 25% of our merch sales”.

“The worst practices in the live music industry have spread downward, and we’ve heard that at the top they have gotten even more outrageous – up to 35% or more”, he goes on. “UMAW is raising its collective voice in the USA, alongside FAC’s pioneering work in the UK and our comrade Cadence Weapon in Canada, to call a halt to this unfair tax that venues and promoters levy on performing artists at every level”.

Back in the UK, FAC CEO David Martin hopes that the momentum built in the UK and beyond by the 100% Venues campaign over the last year will see many more companies follow the lead of Ineffable Live, and others, in getting rid of the merch fees.

“The FAC launched 100% Venues in early 2022, providing a focal point for artists’ frustrations about certain venues and their policies on merchandise commission”, he tells CMU. “One year on, the topic has become a key issue for the music industry on both sides of the Atlantic, drawing the attention of Congress and seeing frustration and opposition from fans, who spend their money in the expectation that it will support their favourite artists”.

“Having partnered with UMAW in the US and Cadence Weapon in Canada to launch a North American leg of the campaign, we are only seeing the support for our calls grow”, he adds. “It is now time to end these outdated practices and work towards a healthier and more equitable live touring ecosystem”.

And, having first brought wider attention to this issue via a tweet in late 2021, Tim Burgess welcomes the progress made so far, but hopes much more can yet be achieved. “Until artists are paid a percentage of the bar take, we should fight the demands of venues to take a percentage of the merch sales at a gig”, he says.

“We are making headway with the directory that venues can sign up to, which shows which don’t take commission, but there’s still a way to go – fans think they are helping bands by buying merch at gigs but often the commission is most of the profit – and in terms of vinyl, it’s more than we actually make”.

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