November was AusMusic Month in Australia. It's a time when youth radio promotes Australian talent on their airways, and young Aussies are encouraged to don their favourite band T-shirt. There's plenty to love about this concept, especially after the last two years of COVID, which crippled our entertainment industry. Australian bands deserve to be promoted and supported. Yet, the Fairtrade advocate in me can't help but wonder: how many bands sell ethical merch?
In a pre-COVID world, a band's merchandise contributed an incredible amount of money to their earnings. A 2017 article claims artists earned between 10-35% of their revenue through merch sales, while the very biggest names bought in US$300,000-400,000 in the space of a few hours. Yep, all those band T-shirts add up.
During COVID, merchandise sales have taken on new importance as artists began to rely on merch profits in place of tours and live gigs. What used to be a nice subsidiary income became their primary income — a lifeline for artists around the country and the world.
The last couple of years have taken a huge toll on the mental health of musicians, performers and artists, and I want to recognise that. This blog isn't about slinging mud when an industry is down and out. But, musicians weren't the only ones impacted by the pandemic.
Supply chain workers like cotton farmers and garment manufacturers continue to suffer a loss of income from cancelled or downgraded sales. And because these workers are some of the world's poorest, their options for subsidiary income are next to none.
When considering the importance of band merchandise and the need for garment workers to receive a more secure living wage, I see an opportunity for these two industries to work together.
Artists and musicians are often activists. If asked, I'm sure most musicians would agree they would like to sell merchandise that betters the lives of those who made the clothes. In fact, I've had some big Aussie artists approach Etiko to procure ethical merchandise; however, their management has been the deciding factor.
Because an artist may only have a small number of years in the limelight and their management will take up to 20% of their merchandise earnings, it becomes crucial for the artist to generate maximum profit from sales. This means only the biggest names can afford to sacrifice gains by purchasing more expensive ethical merchandise, or the smaller bands who don't have to pay hefty management fees.
Complicating the issue further, there are only a few large Australian companies that specialise in band merchandise. And none of these big players offer an eco-ethical product line, meaning that many bands aren't presented with any other option.
So, how do we encourage bands (and their management) to make the switch to Fairtrade? And who, if any, are already on the ethical merch (band)wagon?
A quick Google search reveals that a few of the world's biggest and brightest musical names sell T-shirts made from organic cotton. Coldplay is one, and they're also making headlines for some pretty wild sustainability goals. Jack Johnson also sells organic cotton tees and has toured plastic-free for many years. But, there's not a Fairtrade logo to be found in their online stores. And, what about Australian musicians?
Even the most wholesome big names of Blues and Roots or Indie music don't seem to sell Fairtrade merchandise. And, while there's no industry figure I can pull out to pinpoint the percentage of bands selling organic merchandise, I think it's fair to say ethical merch is a minority.
All that's to say: what if the next AusMusic Month was different? What if we promoted Australian musicians and helped provide revenue while also using ethical procurement channels?
Instead of buying sweatshop merch to raise money for musicians, imagine if we bought Fairtrade merch to raise funds instead.
If you own band merch, do me a favour and check the label. Is it made from organic fibres, or is it Fairtrade? I would love to hear from you. But more importantly, I would love for you to contact your favourite musicians and ask for change. Tell them you want to buy merchandise that makes a difference and want your money to have maximum social impact. Be respectful, be polite and understand that times are tough, but also be insistent.
Just like big businesses who have adopted greener policies because consumers have demanded change, the music industry may also change. If the artists' managers believe there is a genuine desire from fans to buy ethical merchandise, they will change their procurement channels.
Together, we can create change that extends beyond our own country. Together, we can create social justice for those who don't have microphones to amplify their message. Here's to an ethical AusMusic Month in November 2022.