When you decide to go to a concert, it’s easy to take it for granted that artists will have merch for sale. For smaller bands, that will most likely mean a few t-shirts, some physical media, and some stickers.
But for larger artists embarking on world tours, the variety of merch and the logistics required to produce and distribute it to thousands of eager fans is a whole different ball game. It takes real skill and teams of dedicated personnel to make it all happen. Today, we’re lucky enough to have with us one of the top merchandising managers working in music today.
A globally-recognized merchandising manager, Imogen ray has proven time and again that she’s more than capable of achieving impressive sales success for major artists, including world-famous Grammy-winning artists like Madonna, BTS, and Harry Styles.
Ray was recently nominated for Best Merchandising Manager by the organization Women in Live Music based on her outstanding success in the field. Ray was also interviewed as an expert by BBC 6, the sixth-largest radio station in the UK.
In our interview with Ray, we tried to tackle some of the biggest tours and projects of her illustrious career so far, and we also closed things out by asking for her opinions and advice on how bands and artists just getting their start can capitalize on the benefits of merch sales.
Thanks for joining us. So to start out, we heard that you were nominated by the prestigious organization Women in Live Music for Best Merchandise Manager. This is a significant nomination as this is an esteemed organization with over 5,000 members. Can you tell us about the accomplishments that led to this nomination?
It was such an amazing achievement to be recognized by the incredible international organization, Women in Live Music. Women in Live Music is a European-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to help increase and stabilize diversity backstage as less than 5% of people working in the live music industry are women.
To be picked out of the whole of the UK and European music industry was an overwhelming and very proud moment for me. There are many events and tours that I managed that led to the nomination. However, the most significant events that I have had the opportunity to work on that contributed to the nomination include, first of all, being the Merchandise tour manager for the Brit Awards Rising Star nominee and New Music Entertainment Group award winner Beabadoobee, UK tour 2021.
This was my first tour out of Covid and so the outcome of merchandise sales was dubious as spending habits had likely changed due to the result of the global pandemic.
Despite this, I managed to achieve absolutely astonishing merchandise sales for an artist who was relatively new, but also considering the economic climate of the time. After the first show, I had to re-forecast the whole tour to ensure we could capitalize on sales, which led to achieving some groundbreaking spends per head for a new/breakthrough artist.
Another was MTV, Kerrang, and multi-award-winning Japanese Band BABYMETAL, their European tour in 2020. This was my biggest selling tour I had worked on and involved a higher level of management and a much larger team of people to manage. Pre-tour projections were almost doubled on some shows and I am yet to work on a tour as high grossing as this. It was incredible to work on this tour and be exposed to this level of sales and it really impacted my skill set and took me to another level in my work.
Lastly, the Billboard, Brit Award, and Grammy Award-winner Harry Styles’ London pop-up shop in 2019, where we promoted his American Music Award-winning album ‘Fine Line’. This is the largest, internationally known artist I have worked with and to be a part of the pop-up shop was a great experience.
This worked very differently from a tour, and as it was aiding the release of an album, it was really interesting to be involved in first-week album sales and be a part of aiding chart position for such a world-renowned artist. The turnout for this week-long pop-up shop was phenomenal and every day we had a queue all the way down Camden market of fans waiting to come in and spend money. Ending the week with a secret show in London as well, this was a record-breaking week for sales.
Based on your experience, which items tend to sell the best, or does it depend on the artist?
It can depend on the artists a lot, but generally, a tour t-shirt with dates on the back sells really well. People want merchandise to prove they were at the show and if that becomes a legendary show, all the better for having a t-shirt! Vinyl has also been selling really well in recent years and people will much more likely buy vinyl than a CD. I love working with artists who do something a bit different for merch. Either they just have a cool design or have a really random item. Baseball hats are always surprising sellers, but only if they have been designed well and aren’t plain.
That being said, sales also massively depend on the success of a show itself. Perhaps the artist that was most impacted by media coverage was Beabadoobee. She had a viral song on TikTok which launched her into the music world, with her live shows and tour announcement being covered by NME, a British music, film, gaming, and culture website and brand that garners almost 16 million online readers per month. Coverage from this huge media mogul undoubtedly led to an increase in ticket sales, which also lends itself to an increase in merchandise sales at the shows.
Can you tell us about your outstanding work managing merchandise for the Slam Dunk Festival, which is the number 1 pop music festival in the United Kingdom with over 50,000 attendees?
It was a large festival to manage merchandise sales for, with over 60 bands and artists from all over the world, including the UK, USA, and Australia.
My work here involves managing and selling the festival’s own branded merch, which is usually a range of 5-10 tees, a hoodie, and other small bits. It also involves selling and managing some of the artist’s merchandise. The festival sees over 70 bands and artists perform each year and most come with merchandise to sell. At the festival, we have two merchandise locations on site and so we split staff across the two and then manage which merch goes where. If we have the time we move merch between the stands if one has sold out, but often it’s so busy it’s not possible.
At the end of the first festival, we count everything up, pack it all down, and then take it to the next site overnight and do the whole thing again! It’s a lot of work, but I do enjoy the festival season, working in fields with lots of good people.
Managing merchandise here gives a platform for bands to sell and make money on their merchandise, but the main aspect of the job is managing and selling festival merchandise. It always blows my mind the enormity of sales that we do at this festival, just selling festival merchandise. It’s even more impressive considering the festival is only on for two days total, at two different locations in the UK.
You also managed the BTS pop-up shop in London. BTS is one of the most recognizable bands on the planet with endless Billboard and American awards and millions of fans globally. They are featured in almost all music publications, including Rolling Stone regularly, so there must’ve been a tremendous demand to manage. Was this a hectic project?
Hectic is a great word for it! BTS is perhaps the biggest K-Pop band to reach worldwide success. Due to all of this success and global coverage, I was prepared for a very busy couple of weeks. This was a new one for me, as although it was merchandise management, it was outside of a show or tour setting.
This was more retail than I was used to, and so we had to set up a whole shop, put rails and clothes and products out, set up an ordering and pager system, and set up photo opportunities and Instagrammable parts of the store.
There was also a huge amount of stock constantly coming into the shop. We started with a large amount of stock, and during the week got continuous deliveries. I have never worked something so continuously busy! From prep to opening to the end. There were lines 3 hours long for people to get into the store and every day when we opened, people would just run in screaming.
The store worked by giving every customer a pamphlet with all of the merchandise options. Customers would circle what they wanted and hand that into an ordering desk and receive a pager that would buzz when their order was ready to collect and pay for. Behind the ordering desk was a packing station. All of the merchandise had been organized and laid out in a way that enabled staff to grab a bag and then grab each item the customer wanted. As the packing station was right behind the LED screen it was incredibly loud and on top of excited fans screaming on entering the store, it was certainly very hectic!
We had a system in place that worked well and all of the staff were very diligent, and so we encountered very few issues, it was just a very fast-paced work environment. It taught me a lot about working under pressure in extremely busy environments with excited fans.
At the time, this was the largest-selling artist I had worked with and this pop-up shop was no disappointment.
The sales daily and weekly were astronomical! This didn’t even include sales of merchandise at Wembley Stadium, which has a capacity of 90,000. The pop-up shop traveled around the world, as did the band, and the London store was the highest-earning pop-up store of the tour.
You were interviewed on BBC 6 Music Radio interview which holds an audience of millions as its one of the largest radio stations in the United Kingdom. Can you share with our audience the subject of the interview where they chose you clearly based on your impressive achievements as a merchandise manager?
They reached out to me to ask me to discuss the impact that Brexit and Covid have had on the touring industry, in particular its impact on merchandise sales. It was a really important moment for me and my career to be recognized by such an institution in the UK music industry and for them to value my experience and opinion.
Can you share with aspiring music merchandise managers how you dealt with particularly difficult challenges and how you overcame them to exceed projected sales?
Ideally, everything is managed and sorted in advance, but yes, you do need the ability to solve problems on the spot. If the tour is going well and sales are going well you may need to re-order stock. Depending on where you are in the world this can have its various problems. Especially now with Brexit, touring between the UK and EU has extra complications.
If stock is ordered and made in the UK but is needed in Europe there are now different tax and VAT numbers that are needed. These things are hard to plan in advance and you have to be able to think on the spot and come up with a plan pretty quickly to ensure stock is shipped and meets you at the relevant venue in the relevant country. It could also be something as small as the card machine going down. Now that most people pay on their cards this can cause a loss of sales so to be able to fix it/come up with a solution quickly so you don’t lose sales is a big one.
You’ve worked with so many world-famous artists. Have you ever felt intimidated, or is it just part of the job?
I get less intimidated by the artist than I do by the crew. I always want to impress the people I’m working with and make good work connections that will pay forward in my career. Of course, occasionally I get booked for a big gig and there is a bit of excitement, but realistically the bigger the gig, the busier I will be so more of my focus is on the job than the artist.
Essentially, if I impress the crew or the tour manager or management that will get me more work or even spread my name around, more than it will if the artist likes me.
The reason I get the gigs that I get is because I have a track record of producing amazing sales and exceeding sales predictions and also being able to quickly and efficiently forecast tours on the go and ensure we have appropriate stock levels to guarantee successful sales. The number of high-selling artists I have worked with and high grossing tours I have managed means that management and merchandise companies trust me to deliver the sales they expect, and oftentimes exceed them. An example of this is the 2021 UK tour with Beabadoobee and 2022 tour with Courtney Barnett, both of which exceeded sales expectations and a rather quick turnaround of re-printing was needed.
You’ve also expanded into tour management. Did this present challenges?
The main challenge was believing I could do it. I am a confident person and tour management has always been my end goal in touring, but I think I definitely held myself back for a little bit, worrying I wasn’t ‘ready’.
Entering the industry at the age of 16 and dreaming of being a tour manager, it always seemed so far away, and for a long while nothing I ever felt like I was ready to do just yet. I spent a long time in merchandise management just wishing for the day I was ready to tour manage.
In reality, I probably wasted a lot of time thinking I wasn’t ready. When it comes down to it, tour management isn’t that hard. It is a lot of work but it’s all organization, logistics, coordinating people, and most importantly it’s how you get on with people: people skills.
I think as it was something I always aspired to do, it seemed like such a big role and so important, I didn’t want to put myself in it and do a bad job. In reality, you learn the best in this industry by just doing the job and making mistakes. As long as you’re not repeating the same mistakes, you’re learning.
What should small bands and performers keep in mind to achieve successful merchandising?
I think what’s important is to make merchandise that you like and you would actually wear. I see so many terrible or boring t-shirts with a logo slapped on. Merchandise is such an important aspect of an artist’s income, and if done well, so much money can be made. Make merchandise that you like and that you would wear. So much of it looks the same nowadays, so make something that is different, and something that people will wear outside of the gig. It’s promotion if you get people wearing your merch outside of the gig too.
The worst thing is managing an artist you love who has terrible merch and every night you hear how disappointed people are. I always think the winner is if you design merch so good that people who aren’t fans want it just because they like it so much or have seen someone wearing it, then they get introduced to you through your merch.
There is so much potential to make a lot of money through merchandise, don’t take that lightly.