Album Sales Vs. Merchandise: What is more important?

The fourth metal chat on Twitter started out discussing the difference in importance between album sales and merchandise sales. But it turned out that the issues are far more deeply intertwined than they look on the surface.


Given the interaction and depth of discussion on this chat, it's evident that the topic is one that is timely and necessary, and - as with all issues in the metal industry – deep. Rather than staying on the line of simply band merchandise versus album sales, the discussion moved from album sales to merchandise, to issues of downloading, to publishing rights, and beyond.

While the initial discussion opened out being 'which is more important to bands, sales-wise: albums or merchandise?', a deeper issue emerged. This issue was that merchandise is seen as being more important for fans to buy, because bands get hardly any return on album sales. It's a curious dichotomy, given that bands exist to make music, rather than sell merchandise.

However, some chat participants felt that the market is almost at saturation point in terms of bands and live shows, if it isn't already, and that album sales are only important for the labels that drive those sales. As one participant pointed out, a royalty rate of 2% to 7% is on the high end of returns for bands' album sales. To this end, a notion was put forth that labels' and bands' perspectives of what is important are almost at polar opposites. By the same token, however, it was pointed out that many bands don't know a great deal about publishing rights and how they work, thereby presupposing that bands aren't in the best position to negotiate returns.

The issue of models of sale regarding bands and labels came up with the comment from the label rep on the chat that bands need to realise that being signed to a label doesn't result in instant money: and that bands need to keep the production of merch themselves. The alternative model, where bands do all their own production and art, and supply a label with the finished product, can often yield a higher return for the bands involved. Managed properly, such a model can also have fewer problems for band-label relations as well.

When this point was brought up, someone else mentioned that the Dismember model is one which many other bands ought to try and follow. That model is based on a 1+1 option, the return percentage is negotiated for each album, based on the sales performance of previous releases and promo success and so on. The argument, and it is a good one, is that this allows a great deal of flexibility for the band – far more flexibility than signing a contract with a label for a series of releases, with no power of negotiation.

Some participants brought up the notion that downloads are adversely affecting CD sales, and yet the one label representative on board the chat – Riot Entertainment's Chris Maric – pointed out that while digital downloads might be on the rise, up to 80% of sales are still physical sales, at least in Australia.

The issue of digital download affecting sales or not, within the chat there was also the rebounding discussion that the issue of downloads versus sales doesn't matter in metal, because kids will still buy metal. It's a big call, but one that was backed up by lots of other chat participants. Some pointed out that downloading, as consumers, is impersonal and dissatisfying because you don't get the tactile interaction with art that you get a physical package.

Merchandise, however, is vital to bands both large and small. As one participant in the chat pointed out, merch is quite literally 'walking promo': promo is used to sell the music, on the one hand, and yet the band's name and/or image is used to sell merchandise. To some extent the 'which is more important' question is like the 'chicken or the egg' question, for established bands anyway. Some participans in the chat, however, disagreed with this – stating that kids will always buy music before they buy merchandise, that the music is often cheaper than merch, if not free. Some fans perfer to buy merchandise over albums, because they are conscious that there is a higher financial return for bands on merchandise – and this guides their purchasing decisions accordingly.

Merchandise, so the discussion went on this particular metal chat, yields a higher revenue for the bands, though it never comes before the music. Still others pointed out that the best promo for any band is touring, but that often the funds for touring come directly from merchandise sales.

It's a curiously interwoven web between album sales, merch sales and touring promotion; and the age-old debate that any promo that goes down well generates sales also raised its head.

And yet, despite the importance of merchandise to bands, it's clear to any metalhead – including those on the metalchat – that t-shirts and artwork are central to metal, as in no other genre of music that exists. Image is important to the lifestyle, and it is also important if you're going to sell yourself as an artist or band. And yet, interestingly, to those involved in the chat, being seen as a poser is still a huge crime to the metal community: that is, being seen to be a metalhead, when really you're not. This is one area in which the music is seen as being far more integral to the metal community in terms of lifestyle, than is its merchandise-driven trappings: you can look like a metalhead all you want, but without the music, you're not really part of the scene. Besides which, as some argued, the music is far more important to a metal lifestyle, simply because of its emotional impact: some merch has an impact, but only because it is extreme, or offensive. It doesn't have the deep emotional connection – whatever that might be – that the music itself has.

Whichever way you look at it, album sales are important given that the metal scene wouldn't exist without the music; and yet issues of merchandise are vital for the bands' financial return, and vital for image creation. The two are not easily separated, and after this discussion on Twitter I'm not sure that they should be. Many of the issues go far deeper than a simple 'which is more important' debate, and highlight that the metal music industry is an intensely complex beast. What might surprise some is that metal fans are aware of this complexity, and often make their consumer choices based on that knowledge.

If you have further comments about this issue, please drop them here: we'd love to hear what you think.