Across the board, 2020 was a painful and difficult year for everyone. Within the music industry, artists saw tours and festival appearances cancelled, record releases were postponed and most artists – apart from a handful of megastars – found it incredibly hard going just trying to make ends meet.
D2C has been leaned on more than ever this year by artists. It could never make up for the losses experienced elsewhere but it has offered a lifeline to many at a time when it was most needed most. It has also been able to adapt to the new circumstances of the year, offering clues to how it can develop next year and beyond.
Tim Hampson, co-founder of Candy Artists, says that in the early days of the pandemic his company did an internal audit and found that the one area that was being underused by its artists was merchandise. “We identified quite quickly that the artists weren't really maximising their potential there,” he says. “In the past, I’ll admit we've been guilty of going, ‘Whatever merch is left over from the tour we'll just put it on our merch store,’ instead of going, ‘We should be replenishing that merch store and doing that side of things.’ This pandemic has made us look at that a lot more closely.”
The evaporation of the touring market left a crater in artists’ income but it also forced a change of attitude to fit with the new shape that the music industry had to, out of necessity, take in 2020.
Dan Jenkins of Raw Power Management suggests that a dramatic shift in mindset has been the net result.
“Traditionally a lot of D2C is driven off the back of live and D2C was probably a secondary option to live because live is a lot more rigid and structured, meaning you know where you stand – whereas D2C can be pretty fluctuating,” he says.
“For a lot of bands, D2C has been the thing that's really kept them afloat; D2C has been the weight bearer of all that.”
-Dan Jenkins, Raw Power Management
Tersha Willis, co-founder and CEO of Terrible Merch, says she has seen artists across the board recalibrate their attitude towards D2C this year – and that was all directly because of the dramatically negative impact of Covid on their income.
“It’s been a year where it has felt like artists have finally shifted their attitudes and taken a real interest in the online side of the business – which is something that I don’t think they were that concerned with except around album release time and driving pre-orders,” she says.
The scale of this has been significant according to Russel Coultart, who has decades of experience here and consults on D2C to major label and independent label artists. As the enormity of Covid started to become clear to artists there was, he says, a “mad scramble to route everything and all the marketing online”, but this has become normalised through the year. “What you see is much more focused on directing traffic to artists’ D2C stores,” he says.
“I've been doing this for 20 years and it’s bigger now than it’s ever been.”
-Russel Coultart, D2C consultant
There was, among certain acts, a hesitancy to get directly involved in D2C marketing and promotion previously. They would sign off on the products being sold but were reluctant to use their social media platforms as sales channels. Some felt they did not have the time while others felt uncomfortable with sending out sales messages. Those qualms have all but disappeared now.
“It takes a commitment from the band to push the merch more because they weren't really doing that in the way that they could have been,” says Hampson of the attitude of acts before this year. “By instigating a conversation and getting them a line of merch and having them involved in that, they become more active with it. And now they're checking in with us about what else they can add.”
Jenkins singles out Raw Power act Don Broco as ones who were deeply involved in D2C before Covid, suggesting how they operate here could offer a template for others to follow.
“Don Broco are very into doing their merch store – that's everything from the colour palettes on the store to the arrangement of the items in the sections of the store,” he says. “They work closely with the designers and typographic artists to be able to pull together a range that looks really nice and feels like a brand.”
One area of D2C that has really proven its worth this year for artists is on-demand printing as it means minimal upfront costs for the creation of T-shirt designs or other products, although Hampson says Candy Artists acts like Dream Wife and Dry Cleaning have artists as band members so this can all be done internally. These can then be sold as limited-edition lines or items that are only available for a finite period (perhaps as little as 24 hours) to incentivise fans to purchase them immediately. As acts do not have huge upfront manufacturing costs here, print on-demand reduces the financial risk here to practically zero.
He says that Willie J Healey has started selling paintings of fish through his D2C store (something that he previously did via Instagram Stories) while Bella Podpadec of Dream Wife is also selling paintings of the band that she produced from different locations on their previous tours.
He adds that the release of the IRL (Live In London 2020) album by Dream Wife this year allowed the band to create a limited-edition T-shirt featuring the sleeve art that was only available for a week.
“That is what we're trying to push our bands into doing more of,” says Hampson. “Instead of saying there are only 50 of these, it's saying this product is only available for this weekend. We found that caused a lot of engagement with products. I think that's a good way of thinking about merch right now.” Willis gives the example of Shura who is a prodigious gamer on Twitch and she has used that platform to sell limited-edition runs of items. “She's been making small amounts of merch steadily throughout this whole time,” says Willis.
“Her fans have been really responsive to it. She's really committed to it as part of her business. She's not making a lot of things, but she's making constantly – so there's a steady stream of revenue there. When it comes to something like merchandise, the reward is more instant than album sales or an album campaign.”
The power of scarcity is something that many acts have really started thinking about this year as it allows a way to create a variety of product lines and use their rarity as a sales hook.
“It's trying to create demand by using scarcity,” proposes Jenkins. “That has been a tactic we have used quite a lot and it shows really good numbers. It has been super exciting because we're trying to get the fans to buy it straight away. It’s almost like 'buy now or miss out' as a marketing strategy. The fans do react really well to it.”
There is also the creation of bespoke products, such as the Rob-Bot 12’’ action figure that Don Broco had made based around lead singer Rob Damiani’s appearance as a half-man, half-machine in the video for ‘Come Out To LA’.
Whereas before, D2C was something that was used in a focused but occasional manner – often as a hook for album sales or a tour – in 2020 it really came into its own as a quotidian activity, being treated the same as social media or streaming in that it was something artists had to be constantly thinking about and developing strategies around. It has transitioned from the occasional to the everyday. Only 50 were produced and 46 put online for sale (the band members each kept one) and they sold out immediately.
“It was very much leaning towards the sell-out culture and the limited-edition/scarcity approach that we were looking to take,” says Jenkins.
Also playing on this heavily fan-centric approach was the use of secret or fan-only links to buy products early – driving purchases among the most dedicated fans.
Hampson notes that Willie J Healey has a WhatsApp group for fans (called The Cult Of Willie) and he used that to push early sales of a Christmas 7” single on transparent vinyl which was limited to 300 copies. Fans who were signed up to the group were sent a link to his store before anyone else. “They got that a day ahead – before it went public,” says Hampson, “and we sold out.”
Willis adds that acts such as Algiers and Beverly Glenn-Copeland have used secret links successfully that are tied to their Patreon pages. “We've created many secret links for those kinds of things – such as early access or access only to the people who are actually part of that,” she says. “It is for the super fans and the diehard fans. It is something that bands with a loyal following or a cult following can take advantage of.”
This has driven a structural change that should now carry on into the future where D2C activities are discussed and planned on a regular basis rather than just being tied to specific campaign moments.
“It's not sticking plaster,” says Hampson of D2C, noting that it helped artists in need this year but should not retreat into the background next year. “It should have been in my weekly to-do list for several years, but it is now alongside 'bands to update Spotify playlist’ [in my checklist]. It's in my weekly phone call to bands to ask them if they have any ideas for merch."
"It's now part of the conversation and it will remain in that conversation. It's not going anywhere. And you can see it's working."
-Tim Hampson, co-founder, Candy Artists
"It was a bit of a neglected area before. You did kind of treat it – wrongly – as a bit of an afterthought.”
Concurrent with this has been a change in consumer behaviour as fans look for ways to support their favourite acts knowing they are unable to tour this year. D2C has the potential to become a regular activity for consumers rather than a rarity. As artists put more focus on it, so it will become more deeply ingrained in consumer behaviour, creating an important and lucrative synchronicity here.
There has also been important data housekeeping happening this year as artists look to clean up their mailing lists (as well as grow them, obviously) and take CRM more seriously as D2C retail and email marketing goes up their priority lists.
“What I see is a much clearer focus on thinking about D2C first,” says Coultart. “The other big thing is CRM. What I mean specifically is email marketing. I'm not talking about social media; I'm talking about email marketing. I know this sounds ridiculous, but in 2020 I hadn't realised how dysfunctional CRM was for many artists, how they don't own their lists or they’d have a database of zero; it's quite breathtaking. I've seen multiple artists now who are launching a campaign and they have no names whatsoever. None. In some cases, the list is owned by the previous record label and they won't share it. I know everyone thinks email is dead and not sexy – but it's definitely the most important thing.”
While artists have increasingly leaned on D2C to bring in revenue as their live business disappeared, there has also been a philanthropic side to what they have used D2C for this year.
Jenkins notes that Don Broco created a limited-edition T-shirt in two colours where proceeds went to the Black Lives Matter charity, raising $25,000 in the process.
Willis meanwhile adds that Glass Animals did a weekend sale on T-shirts where all profits went to causes they were passionate about. And The Midnight created a bespoke T-shirt that was offered out via Spotify’s Fans First platform and where all proceeds went to the band’s out-of-work road crew.
Ultimately, what has happened this year is that D2C has been elevated to the level of an ongoing concern for artists. They are seeking to be more involved in all parts of D2C – from designing the products to actually promoting them – and have come alive to the creative and the commercial opportunities here. They are more keenly aware that this is something that needs to be focused on as much as their touring, social media or streaming strategies.
“I see engagement throughout the year happening – not just for a tour or album release; I feel like artists will now engage with their fans [on D2C] regularly,” says Willis.
“So many artists have built a really strong relationship with their fans online and created a way for them to connect via purchasing. That will remain. Artists will be more engaged with it throughout the year, which is a great thing because it's good for their business.”
-Tersha Willis, Terrible Merch
Jenkins is philosophical that the pain of 2020 can be turned into new strengths for artists in 2021 and beyond. Central to this will be a greater focus on D2C. “I think there are going be a lot of lessons learned from this year by acts who maybe have neglected their D2C campaigns,” he says. “The bands that have been super hands-on and also been very aware of what the D2C store is doing [will do well]. The D2C store is propping up your business right now. It is those types of bands that you'll see really double down on their efforts.”
Hampson says that merchandise should now be treated not as a nice add-on to a record release but as releases in their own right. “It's quite an exciting thing to think about merch in that way,” he says. “You can think about it like how you would announce a single. You can build up a bit of anticipation and definitely give people that sense that they are getting something first or that they are incentivised for being part of something at an early stage. We're going to focus it like it's an album campaign – an album campaign that lasts all year, every year!”
There has been a lot of talk in 2020 about the ‘new normal’ and how people and societies will operate in the future that is distinct from how they behaved in the relatively recent past. Even when full touring resumes, the hope is that D2C is kept as much a priority as it has been this year and that it gets the same level of attention and focus – from artists and fans alike – next year and beyond.
Coultart is confident this change – born of necessity in dark times – will hold.
“It will just continue to grow because of the change in consumer behaviour,” he proposes. “Everyone has been buying things on e-commerce for years, but what this does is it makes buying off the band's website more of a natural thing. A major label executive recently said to me that the future of music, in terms of retail, is D2C and streaming. That's it. That's the future we should be preparing for.”