Artists rely on merchandise sales to offset the costs of touring, but the profit margin can dwindle when crossing borders. Chris Cornell, CEO of merch company Manhead, offered a few suggestions on how to save a few bucks. 

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Manhead Merch

“I think a lot of bands make mistakes, or don’t have a real strategy in place when it comes to doing merchandise overseas,” Cornell told Pollstar. “I’ve basically been involved with merchandise for 15 years and I’ve gotten merchandise to every imaginable country and in a variety of ways.”

One way not to do it, for those traveling in a van and heading to, say, Canada, is to stuff it in a suitcase and hope the border officers won’t find it. One of the tenets Cornell (fyi, not that Chris Cornell) suggests to bands is to play by the rules.

“That actually happened to me when I was in a band – we tried to take merch across the border not knowing we had to pay to get it over there. They asked us what it was and we said, ‘Oh, it’s merchandise.’

“They basically seized our merchandise and it became property of the government. Aside from holding us up for a couple hours we had to end up counting everything, then they taxed us, paid duties. It was a nightmare.”

It’s probably obvious that it’s better to declare the merch and pay the tariff – if you’re crossing the border for, at most, a couple of club shows in Vancouver and Toronto, for instance.

When it comes to the real deal, however – Manhead’s clients include Fall Out BoyTrainMorrissey and Steve Aoki – the advice shifts. “You can ship it over the border, FedEx or UPS,” he said. “With that you need to create a commercial invoice – what the products are, what they’re made out of. You put a value on it and pay a tax. Or you can actually print it in the country you’re going to. Have your artwork sent over to them. It’s a good option if there are a lot of shows or if the shows are big enough. If it’s just one or two small shows, ship up enough merch for them and leave the rest in the States. If we think you’re going to do $10,000 in merch, we’ll just ship it in. Hopefully you’ll sell it all.

“You can also broker it across the border. A tour manager can help with that. A merchandising company would do the paperwork for the merch crossing the border and just present it to customs. There’s usually not a problem; it’s pretty easy. Usually your merchandising company has a partner in the U.K., Australia or Japan.”

Speaking of the U.K., that can be a shocker to the uninitiated. “It’s much more expensive in England for printing. There are screen charges and setup charges that cost three times as here. That also surprises a lot of artists.”

Then there’s the former Soviet Union.

“There are a lot of instances where it doesn’t make sense for a band to ship merch. If you’re playing a smaller show, it’s probably not worth printing, locally, 150 shirts to get a good price if you’re only going to sell 10. You basically lost money. Same with shipping. Sometimes we have artists that go to Russia for one show. We won’t even do merch at all. There’s nobody reliable there so we’d have to ship it and we’ll say it’s not worth it. There are a couple of other countries like that.”

As for the baby bands – literally only a few months old – Cornell didn’t have much in the way of advice other than to go local and check yourselves.

“Over the last couple years I’ve been hit up by many bands that maybe just started in the past few months who automatically want to get some merch going. They want to start a web store. I feel bands are way more into creating merchandise than to sell it to offset the costs of touring.

“But in the States there is a great network of printers that aren’t necessarily merch companies. I’ve found there is always a guy in a band that knows a guy who prints T-shirts. That’s how a lot of these small bands start. After a while, that’s when they call us, after they can’t keep up with demand. I don’t think there will ever be a shortage of screen printers and bands who know how to get them.”