SMB Talk To... Tersha Willis, CEO of Terrible Merch
Tersha co-founded Terrible Merch with Jack McGruer in 2016. Terrible Merch is now a full-service music merchandise and product management company, focusing on ensuring artists are profitable in this vital physical revenue stream. The innovation Tersha brought to the sector with live-stock updates, on- the-road restock requests and bespoke online and mobile tech solutions for artists and their teams, has won her much acclaim from the industry. Tersha was honoured in the AIM AltPower 100 Music List and was a finalist in The Great British Entrepreneur Awards in 2019. She has been featured on the BBC, Channel 4, Wallpaper Magazine and MusicAlly. She is also a fellow in the JUMP: European Music Market Accelerator programme.
We caught up with Tersha to find out more about her work, the importance of merchandise to our industry, and to hear her advice for emerging artists selling merchandise and for entrepreneurs building new music businesses.
Hi Tersha! Thank you for speaking with us today. Could we start by asking you tell us more about Terrible Merch and the work you do?
We’re a non-standard, full-service merchandise company which prioritises quality, efficiency and artist revenues. What makes us different and new is that we’ve also built an app and online platform called TM* Live.TM* Live brings together an artist’s on-tour inventory, e- commerce inventory, sales analytics, day sheets and scheduling, with many more features in the pipeline. When it collects enough data, it’ll show you lots of neat stuff that’ll make your business even more efficient.
Merchandise is one of the last remaining ways to connect physically with an audience - what place does merchandise have in today’s digital music space?
Digital music consumption is mainly passive and we feel it’s always worth noting that the transition has been very lucrative for a lot of stakeholders. Ultimately, it’s very low commitment and we still believe that a small, committed fanbase is worth a lot more to an artist than a much larger, passive fanbase. A true artist-fan connection only really begins with the beginning of a financial relationship, when a fan invests in you. A fan’s options are pretty limited now: physical music; physical merchandise; and (at a push) a physical ticket.
Physical music is probably more of an objet d’art than a means for consuming the art contained within it, meant more for admiring, collecting, preserving, than actually using it as initially intended. We’re seeing the idea of a physical ticket pretty much eroded and with the question of live streaming’s place in a post-pandemic world, it’s difficult to get an accurate read of what live music will mean in the future. Generally-speaking, we don’t see any significant digital competitors for physical merch. We’re as interested as anyone in the rise of skins, etc as micro-transactions within the gaming market, but it’s not something that we’re worrying about too much, before the point of us uploading our consciousness and leaving our physical selves behind.
How do you see the merchandise sector progressing over the coming years?
When we started Terrible Merch no one would listen to us about the importance of merch as part of any artist’s business, so being asked this question gives me great joy! Merchandise is arguably the most vital revenue stream for artists – as a means to direct connection, it’s virtually unparalleled and in terms of control, it’s arguably the last revenue stream without any gatekeepers. We believe there’s scope for merch charts eventually and we’re hopeful that it’ll become more sustainable/quality focused. Merch is having a moment with fashion, but there are a number of questions about the future of fashion at all levels. The high street brands are struggling, and even high fashion isn’t sure how to move forward. So, we think this merch moment will probably continue on a little longer, but that eventually fashion could be run by artists and the brands they build around their merch.
What impact has COVID had on you and your company and what are your hopes for how the live industry will adapt, repair and indeed grow after the pandemic?
When Covid-19 hit, we had artists literally drop everything, leave soundchecks, get to an airport and fly home. We spent 3 weeks collecting merch from venues who were closing their doors and getting merch safely to the warehouse. It was pure chaos and we felt like everything we’d done and built was over without live, it was crushing. But we had to help the artists whose tours had been shut down, so we started to get everything online and we started to help them to sell online and - like everything we do - we made it really cool and high quality and hoped we’d be able to help artists make up some of the lost revenue from touring.
Now this is may be the first bit of really good news in music during Covid-19 - merch started to do really well, music e-commerce was finally having its moment...so many years late to the party after fashion and everyone else! We helped a lot of artists with fundraisers and we’ve also helped them grow a whole new side of their business they never paid much attention to before - online and it’s doing great, all things considered.
As a company we’ve grown a new part of the business, kept revenue stable and we’re now building all of online into TM* Live. We’ve found a lot of new ways to make e-commerce exciting for artists and that’ll be key to their future engagement with it.
Do you have any tips for emerging artists, perhaps planning their first headline tour, with regards to merchandise?
Absolutely! Do your research, know your audience, make the right products at the right volume, in the right sizes. Make it high quality; your future relationships with fans depend on the quality of your products. Set the right pricing, know your numbers and make sure you’re at the merch stand. Make products that you actually like. Get involved in every aspect of the design process and make sure you can take cards. Also, make sure your online store has some stock too - not everyone can miss the last train to buy your merch.
You’ve been placed in the AIM AltPower 100 Music List and been a finalist in The Great British Entrepreneur Awards. What advice do you have for new music business entrepreneurs today?
Tempting to throw out a snappy one-liner here, but the truth about building a successful company and business is almost entirely down to hard work and having a great team around you. That’s a universal truth in any business or industry.
My best advice to anyone entering the music industry - outside of the hard work and a great team - is to be patient. You’re on a very long journey, settle in for the long haul. Know your numbers, build good relationships, don’t party at work (just because it’s a show at a bar doesn’t mean you’re not working). Most importantly, always work with the artists, their stakeholders and their fans in mind. If the artists you work with are successful, you will share in that success. Your fates are intertwined.
Thanks so much Tersha!
Find out more about Terrible Merch at https://terriblemerch.com/
Find out more about JUMP: European Music Market Accelerator at https://jumpmusic.eu/