How one Toronto company is using music merch to help struggling bars

Taking cues from the music world, Merch Tent is helping bars and venues stay afloat with limited edition merchandise


Like so many others in the music business, artist managers and agents Adam Kreeft and Heather Kelly had to rethink what they do over the last year. 

The Toronto-based partners realized a couple of things: independent artists and venues need support, and the music merch model needs to be modernized. 

So, they launched Merch Tent last year, originally as a way to recreate the merch-sales partnership between venues and artists in the virtual world, but they’ve since pivoted to support struggling bars. Now, they describe it as a “collaborative marketplace for a sustainable and independent music community.”

Inspired by a fundraising campaign for Ossington watering hole Sweaty Betty’s, Kreeft and Kelly got talking to Charlotte Mars, a bartender there. Mars, who also works at Black Dice, had an idea for a t-shirt they could sell on Merch Tent: an illustration of a pair of cats smoking that anyone who’s spent time at the Dundas West Japanese rockabilly bar will immediately recognize. 

They put up a pre-order link and the response was overwhelming. So, after selling about 200 of those, Mars came with designs for a handful of other local bars that could use the extra support. 

They’re currently taking orders for similarly playful shirts for the Ossington Stop and Dock Ellis. The first features a vodka drinking feline named Freedom Cat, while the other plays off the titular pitcher’s LSD-aided no-hitter with an anthropomorphic shark and the words “No No.” Both are available for order until March 31.

Merch Tent is taking five per cent of the sales to cover their costs and giving the rest of the sales to the bars. 

“We work with independent artists, which means we’re also working with independent bars and venues all the time,” says Kelly on the phone. “We can see them struggling, and we wanted to find a way to help. 

“Most venues are running with a skeleton staff right now, so they don’t have the support for an elaborate production or marketing campaign. They’re just trying to stay afloat. We do everything from start to finish, including physically picking things up in Hamilton and packaging them. It’s super DIY.”

Reimagining the merch table

The next Toronto spots to get their own shirts will be the aforementioned Sweaty Betty’s, Swan Dive, Get Well and GloryHole Donuts.

All are limited-run designs and only sold as pre-orders so they can print as many shirts as demand dictates. 

That plays into Merch Tent’s other goal, which is to make the music merch industry as sustainable as possible by default. They know firsthand how important merch sales are for indie artists, from shirts to records to face masks. Kreeft says in the pre-COVID world, merch accounted for around 70 per cent of road revenue for independent artists. That’s even more important now that revenue sources are so limited. 

Part of their plan is to leverage their connections to make sustainable merch as cheap to produce and sell as the non-eco-friendly stuff that many bands use because it’s what they can afford. Their goal is to create a closed-loop supply chain with materials made and milled in Canada, shipped within the GTA, mailed with compostable packaging, use pre-orders and drop-shipping, on down the line. 

“A lot of artists want to do things in a sustainable way, but they can’t find a way to make it work on an economic level,” says Kreect. “Our goal is: how do we make this competitive? How can we create new merch that isn’t destructive?

“If we’re being totally honest, it was a clunky model to begin with. How practical is it to be traveling across borders with huge boxes full of merch?”

Merch Tent is looking at ways of evolving the merch model, like including merch sales with pre-order concert tickets so you can show up at the show already wearing the shirt. There are also post-COVID realities to address. 

“At least at the beginning, we’re probably not going to have that merch table in the corner of the room where you can touch and feel the clothing, shake the artists’ hand and get your autographs,” Kreeft says. “Maybe you’re buying with bluetooth at the venue and it shows up at your door a week later.”

“It’s a good time to be setting up new infrastructure. We already have to rethink everything.”

@trapunski

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