Experiment: name-your-own-price merch

February 17, 2009


Should you let your fans pay what they want for merch? Dave Allen, the original bassist of the Gang of Four, recently made the argument on his music blog that bands can make more money by not posting prices at merch tables and instead letting fans name their own price for merchandise at concerts:

My thinking here is that those fans that really like the band and are leaning towards buying will ask what the price of a CD is. And the answer should be “how much do you want to pay?” I guarantee that the answer will be somewhat along these lines – “I only have $4,” “I’d like to give you $10,” “You guys were great, here’s $20,” “I have no money.” You should sell your CD at those prices to all of those folks and give one to the guy with no money. They will never forget the experience they had and they will tell their friends that you are the coolest band on earth for doing that.

Allen argues that, on average, bands are likely to make more money doing this than by having fixed prices. More importantly, however, this approach either leverages an existing relationship (people who have money are happy to give the band more than the ‘official’ cost of the CD) or it helps develop a relationship. Here at z=z, we recently discussed the role of relationships in differentiating artists in a world where the music itself may be fungible.

While I’m not a musician, I know that a number of artists read this blog – please let us know what you think. And if you decide to try this, please share how it works out!

How bands can make more money by not putting a price on a CD

MP3: Electric Laser People – Move Right, Move Left [buy, CC-licensed download]

Image: From behind the merch table by Flickr user Brett L., reposted here under its Creative Commons license.


  1. I’m a bit wary of this in certain situations. Smaller acts are usually of this mindset in large regard and when they’re not the merch is usually pretty cheap as it is.

    LPs are usually $10 or under, shirts rarely post for more than $10 dollars and many bands are just trying to sustain themselves on tour.

    Although the idea is potentially a good one there definitely needs to be some research, or hard numbers to back it up. Of course, those numbers would have to reflect viewership, usual volume of merch sold, etc., etc.

    A good idea, but not necessarily correct, but then again, it may be.

    Good post.


  2. One variant of this that I’ve seen is to set a floor on the price, typically not selling it lower than cost – with that approach, each sale makes a profit, and everything below ‘list price’ is a sale you would not have made otherwise. But I agree that there isn’t enough data, and it’s probably highly variable – that’s why I suggested it as an experiment, not as a prescription.

  3. I’d be really curious to see how this goes in real life. I know Tim Fite does this with his artwork. He’s got a book of drawings and prints and such and he tells people to just make an offer. It usually works really well for him. But on one or two occassions, when someone has low balled him, I have heard him be like, “Eeehhh” and then the person ups their price. It seems like a great way for him to make some extra cash while on tour, especially with something that doesn’t really have a fixed cost/profit factor like art.

  4. i’m totally in favor of alternative pricing models. set your own price certainly worked for radiohead. can it work for a small band? not sure, but we (electric laser people) always “sell” our cds radiohead style (whatever you want to pay) at our concerts. this is also due to the fact that not many people actually want cds anymore.

    in general, i believe in the freedom of information and a copyright free society. as a band, you should recognize the power of the web as infinite free distribution and use that in your favor. physical merch is a different story…

    right now, bands tend to go into debt to make recordings and then expect to recover their debt by selling you something they can distribute for free (mp3s anyways). this is flawed. imagine a chef cooking a giant banquet before insuring there were any guests that wished to pay for food.

    some reading-> Why Napster is Right; With no intellectual property, is everyone a chef?

  5. Thanks for the links, Dan! And yeah, there’s a reason I chose an ELP song to ‘illustrate’ the post – I bought three copies of Straight Talk on Raising Kids that I insisted on paying for, and Grant pressed a fourth on me (it promptly got mailed off to a music-loving friend).

  6. I like the idea in theory, but I also think it has the potential to make people uncomfortable. I, as a consumer, wouldn’t want to be burdened with deciding a fair price on the spot. It’s also different when dealing with someone face to face than it is online (e.g., Radiohead). What if you want to offer less than the person in front of you? What if you want to offer more?

  7. That’s a good point, Mike – that it adds a lot of uncertainty to the social aspects of the transaction. Justin mentioned Tim Fite’s response to lowball offers – it’s easy to see how the lack of online anonymity means that someone could get uncomfortable if they really couldn’t afford much. Allen suggests that bands would make more money doing this, but your comment makes me wonder about how much of that may be due to subtle social coercion, rather than just having a frank, fixed-price transaction.

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