Featured Artists Coalition CEO urges live sector to back campaign against excessive merch commission

Featured Artists Coalition CEO urges live sector to back campaign against excessive merch commission

The Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) has signed up hundreds of music venues along with industry organisations to its initiative to stop artists being shortchanged when selling merch at their own shows. 

Here, FAC CEO David Martin welcomes the support for their 100% Venues campaign and calls on the live sector to fully embrace the initiative… 

For many music bodies, the FAC included, 2022 was dominated by ongoing discussions around streaming reform, and the push to make online music licensing fit for purpose. We believe this will reap dividends in 2023 and beyond for our music-making members, but it was by far from our only area of campaigning; and following the long-awaited return to live touring we also started to address another perennial challenge facing UK artists - the punitive commissions charged on merch sales by a significant number of UK venues.  

Frequently amounting to 25% of gross revenue (plus VAT) on sales of T-shirts, vinyl, posters and other items, and in era where a majority of artists still structure their business around live performance - and where ticket sales can significantly over-index against streaming activity - such levels of commission are now widely perceived as unjustifiable and, quite frankly, obstructive to the touring ecosystem. 

Effectively, many artists are being hideously shortchanged for the privilege of selling their own merch at their own shows. 

Still reeling from impacts of an ongoing pandemic and against a deepening cost of living crisis, where fees have reduced, costs have rocketed and consumer confidence is weakened, onerous merchandise commissions are becoming make or break. Their imposition can determine whether live touring for artists is financially viable or not. 

Summarising the situation perfectly in an interview with The Big Issue, Holly Ross from The Lovely Eggs commented: “A venue is taking 30% of something they haven’t financially invested in and haven’t worked hard on. They’ve had literally zero input into it, yet demand 30%. Also don’t forget, bands pay venues for the hire of the space, so they should be able to do what they want in that space when they have paid for it.”

As highlighted in a Twitter post by Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, this isn’t even a particularly new issue. 

Artists with committed and tribal fanbases have bumped up against these practices for decades. However, today’s commercial environment demands that we urgently fix such outmoded terms. As the FAC has consistently highlighted in the debates around streaming and archaic recording contracts, just because a practice is “accepted” in certain quarters, that should not put it beyond question or challenge.

While Ned’s effectively simply shut up shop at the Town & Country Club in 1991 and withdrew their products from sale, many current artists are resorting to more innovative actions to claim their rightful share of merchandise revenues. Last year, Dry Cleaning and The Big Moon both bypassed the same venue’s in-house rules by opening pop-up stores at nearby pubs. Yard Act did something similar ahead of a hometown show at the O2 Academy Leeds, offering merchandise at a 25% “discount” to counterbalance the in-house commission.

But, laudable as these moves might be, they do not represent a long-term solution. Which is where the FAC’s 100% Venues campaign comes in. 

Rather than name and shame the most egregious offenders, we decided instead to take an alternative approach - building an open database of UK venues who view merch commissions as anathema to their business model, and where they could display public support for our cause. (Click here for the Google Doc link of the venues database.)

Artists are being hideously shortchanged for the privilege of selling their own merch at their own shows

David Martin

Within 12 months, I am absolutely delighted that more than 550 venues have signed up to the 100% Venues campaign, including iconic spaces such as The Sage Gateshead, Troxy, Koko, and the Barbican. 

Organisations such as Independent Venue Week and Music Venue Trust have also been incredibly supportive, highlighting that for many grassroots venues it has long been established practice for artists to retain all their merch revenues. 

Demonstrating the majority of the live music business is with us on this issue, the database has already achieved three wins. 

First, it has galvanised the live music community and generated a sense of momentum. A clear line in the sand has been drawn, and artists and booking agents have openly available information to assist them when routing and planning tours. 

Secondly, it has put the issue on a much wider radar - and particularly amongst artists, ticket buyers and policy makers.

Thanks to vocal support from the likes of Peter Hook, Tim Burgess, Wolf Alice, Aluna Francis, Simone Butler and Nova Twins, there has been a renewed media interest in the issue. Similar to arguments in favour of user-centric licensing for streaming services, which would ensure a subscriber’s monthly payments go only to the artists they play, many fans are equally dismayed when they discover others are taking a large slice of their T-shirt or vinyl purchase. Most buy from the merch stand on the sole principle that their hard-earned cash is going directly to their favourite artists. 

In November, we also extended the 100% Venues campaign to North America, in collaboration with Canadian artist Cadence Weapon and US organisation, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW).

Thirdly, and as an accumulation of all the activities above, it has allowed the FAC to start constructive conversations with others in the live business, and particularly with promoters, agents and venue operators. Until there is wholesale change from those who persist in taking excessive merch commissions, it feels there is at least greater scope for artists to negotiate for improved terms.

We won’t, however, be letting up on our campaigning until we see industry-wide change. 2023 should be a hugely significant year for artists, and hopefully for positive reasons - but that will only become a reality if we see fundamental changes to the economics of touring, alongside those similarly necessary improvements in the streaming market. 


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