Managing Merch for the Biggest Tours Around – An Interview with Imogen Ray

Managing stock and shipping for an online store is definitely difficult, but there are also many third-party companies that now make these processes much easier. The drop shipping model, for example, takes a lot of pressure off the shoulders of site owners, allowing other companies to handle manufacturing. 

But live tour merchandising is a highly unique area of manufacturing and distribution. Just think of a major touring act that visits numerous countries and continents throughout the course of a single tour. The full range of merchandise needs to be delivered and ready for purchase at every single show. 

In other words, manufacturing and shipping need to be worked out ahead of time for every single tour venue. Within the same country, merch can be carried around with the rest of the equipment, but as soon as the crew crosses national borders, everything gets more complicated. 

If you’re a logistics aficionado who loves getting into the nitty gritty details of planning and processes, then you’re in the right place, because today we’re going to be talking with a top-tier Merchandising Manager who delights in overcoming the countless challenges associated with domestic and international music tours. 

Imogen Ray has made a name for herself as one of the pre-eminent Merchandising Managers in the live music industry. Ray has earned a long list of accomplishments, and we’ll be discussing some of the most important during the interview, but we’d like to give a sense of her expertise before getting started. 

Ray has been recognized as an expert in her field by both BBC 6 (a large British radio channel) and the nonprofit Women in Live Music, the latter of which nominated her for Best Merchandising Manager. 

Ray has been asked to work with a slew of Grammy award-winning artists as well as top-ranked music festivals. These days, huge music acts and top companies go to Ray to meet and exceed their sales goals, and now it’s time to share our conversation with Ray, in full. 

Welcome to Artvoice and thanks for joining us. You’ve accomplished so much, but we’d like to start by asking about a show that the U.S. Embassy helped organize in Slovakia. Could you talk about the importance of this show, in particular?

This show was a part of our European tour with Postmodern Jukebox in 2022. What was seemingly just a small show in a small city in Slovakia was actually a hugely important event for the band and the town. The town of Presov was holding a US day along with the US embassy in Slovakia, celebrating America and exposing residents to American culture and opportunities. 

Our show was the culmination of this celebration. The town was hugely excited about  PMJ coming to town and I was often told this was the event of the year for them. Along with the show, we were involved with a student showcase in which I took some of the cast from PMJ to a local school that had prepared a few songs and performances to show us. With Presov being such a small town, this show and interaction were so important, since it acted as a huge inspiration for the students and young people of Presov to pursue or continue to pursue music, dancing, and the arts. Having such a big American band come to town was a huge deal for the town and speaking to and meeting the students was the highlight for a lot of the town. 

Imogen Ray

The show was a huge success and sold out, with everyone in town wanting to attend. The promoters were tremendously thankful for all of our work and for meeting the students, and it was so lovely to be involved in such a wonderful day. It really makes you remember why you love this job and why bringing live music to audiences across the world is so important and fulfilling.  

You’ve been on global tours in Europe with Postmodern Jukebox, a jazz band whose songs are always on the top of Billboard magazine charts.   You have also toured with them across Australia/New Zealand with a tremendous amount of success- can you discuss the differences in both environments and how your work led to merchandising success?

2022 was really incredible for me, being able to work with Postmodern Jukebox across both Europe and Australasia. It was so interesting to be able to directly compare the success of the shows in two territories I hadn’t worked in before. 

The main difference between the two tours was attendance, which of course has a direct impact on merchandise sales. The Australia and New Zealand tour was rescheduled a few times, so this had an impact on attendance numbers, more so than it did in Europe. In Europe, shows had only just started happening again due to Covid. But even so, attendance was great.

Due to issues of Brexit and the length of the European tour, we only took merchandise into the UK part of the tour, which lasted about a month. This meant we had to capitalize on sales in the UK. The nature of this band and their exposure means they have very enthusiastic and attentive fans, so creating merchandising success for the UK was really vital for the success of the tour.

In Australia, we didn’t have the issues of Brexit, but we did have to find suppliers locally, as shipping merchandise from the UK was economically unviable. We did surprisingly well, despite the slight drop-off in attendance due to rescheduling. As Australia was one of the last countries to open up after lockdown and therefore get touring acts, the audience was very ready and excited to be out. 

One of the struggles of touring Australia is that, due to its size, re-ordering stock becomes a little harder and requires more production and delivery time. Because of this, I made sure forecasting was accurate and re-orders were placed in time. 

Both of these tours were hugely successful and were covered across multiple media outlets including Riot Mag and Auckland live with 100,000 monthly readers. 

You were nominated by Women in Live Music as the Best Merchandise Manager, a globally respected European organization with over 20,000 votes for the nomination. This is a significant honor, particularly in the music merchandising industry. Can you discuss how this has impacted your career?

To be nominated by Women in Live Music was definitely a career highlight for me. To be recognized by this international organization of incredible women was a ‘pinch me’ moment and really cemented myself in the live music industry. To be picked out of the whole of the UK and European music industry was an overwhelming and very proud moment for me.

Women in Live Music is the only organization championing women backstage and working towards increasing the number of women in backstage roles. Women currently make up less than 5% of the industry, and with so little representation, it is important we recognize the amazing women in live music to inspire the next generation of young girls who can be inspired to do a job in what is currently an intimidating and male-dominated industry. 

It has impacted my career greatly as it has spread my name around a lot more than it already was. My current form of networking is through people I have worked with and them passing my name around. To be put on this global platform has spread my name, and also my excellence in the area of merchandise management, more than I ever could through working on tours. It directly impacted my career as I got booked for the Courtney Barnett tour because of it. 

What is your perspective on managing major international tours for stars such as Courtney Barret to pop-up shows for global icons such as Madonna, Harry Styles, and BTS?

Managing tours and pop-up shops vary hugely for many different reasons. With touring, logistics and travel play a huge role and often impact what is possible in terms of re-stocking and maximizing sales. 

With pop-up shops, although you don’t have travel involved, they are usually only one week long, at max, and so forecasts have to be pretty spot-on as the turnaround time for re-ordering stock is too small. 

For example, on the 2022 Courtney Barnett European tour we had to make plans for shipping merchandise between the EU and UK to avoid import charges. During Europe, sales were going incredibly well and so a top-up was needed, and we managed this by having a merchandise manufacturer/provider based in Europe. This ensured we could get stock delivered quickly and without going through any customs processes, which often take a lot of time. However vinyl production in the EU is harder and the artist already had stock in the UK, which meant having to ship it to the EU which required various VAT registrations and Export numbers/identification. 

These tax numbers are only possessed by businesses and so in order to ship vinyl from the UK to an eg. French venue meant finding a business that had these tax numbers who we could ship stock to and then deliver to the venue. It is a long and complicated process and takes a lot of time to organize. I managed to arrange shipping of stock between the UK and EU to ensure we always had sufficient stock and therefore maximized sales. Sales for these shows were double what we had projected and were hugely successful for an Australian artist touring the EU for the first time since Covid and Brexit 

For the 2019 Harry Styles pop-up shop, promoting his new album ‘Fine Line’ we had no international logistics to worry about, which takes a lot of work out of it. However, as this was a shop and not a show, there was no ‘audience’ or people that were naturally in the space that would then buy merchandise. The success of sales for this and any pop-up shop depends a lot on getting people to attend the shop, which, with an artist as popular as Harry Styles, wasn’t a huge issue. 

With a pop-up shop, the efficiency of the store is a huge part of the success of sales. 

Both events had huge successes in their own ways. The tour had incredible spending per head, which is something you can’t measure on a pop-up shop. We also traveled across 13 cities, all of which have different spending habits. The pop-up shop, which was in one location in London for one week, had phenomenal gross sales which also contributed to first-week sales and therefore the chart position of the album and was featured in Vogue UK with over four million monthly readers. 

My perspective on managing a tour vs a pop-up shop is that both require in-depth knowledge and understanding of merchandise management and what it takes to generate successful sales. Generally, I think an understanding of tour merchandising is necessary for running a successful pop-up shop with high sales, but the same is not true vice-versa. I also think that if you have only managed pop-up shops, you cannot smoothly move into touring as the two events are so different. In short, if you tour you can run a pop-up, but the same can’t be said the other way around. 

To what degree are import/export considerations part of your work?

Import and export considerations are essential for my work, both in tour management and merchandise management. Being from the UK, my touring circuit has mainly been in the UK and Europe. Initially, the only import and export considerations were between mainland Europe and countries outside of the EU like Switzerland and Norway. On European tours that involved these countries, I would have to figure out shipping merchandise into or out of them to avoid long border procedures, checking stock, and paying import-export taxes, all of which reduce profits.

Now that Britain has left the EU, this has become the case for the whole of Europe and has made touring merchandise through the UK and Europe a lot more expensive and thus cutting into the artists’ profits.

This is something that as tour manager and merchandise manager, the roles cross over a lot as both have to make sure we are following procedure and doing everything according to guidelines and the new rules. 

Another new consideration is carrying musical gear between the UK and EU. This now requires a carnet. A carnet is basically proof that you are not bringing the touring equipment into a country with the intention to sell. Merchandise isn’t included on a carnet as it is being sold. 

When crossing out of the UK and into the EU, and vice-versa, we now have to make sure we find a border customs agent to stamp the carnet on export and import. For example, if I am leaving the UK and traveling into France, on leaving the UK I need to make sure I get the export section of the document filled out and stamped, and then on entering France I have to make sure the import section of the document is filled and stamped. If you miss just one of these stamps it can cause your tour to come to a complete halt. Oftentimes just finding the customs part of a border is what takes the longest, and since it is a new procedure we now have to do with the UK/EU lots or border personnel don’t fully understand it.

Carnet’s cost around £600, often done through an agent, which comes at an extra cost. This further cuts into tour profits.

In short, touring internationally requires an understanding of import and export. A lot of people from the UK touring industry just tour between the UK and Europe and so until now haven’t had to understand it, but with Brexit this has changed. Essentially, it is impossible to tour and not take import/export procedures into consideration.

Tours that I have worked on that have specifically been impacted by imports and exports included the BABYMETAL European tour 2020. This was before the impacts of Brexit had fully hit the touring industry, but we did however travel between the EU and Norway. All of the issues we face now because of Brexit apply to traveling between Norway and the EU. To avoid having to import or export the merchandise, we organized merchandise to be shipped into and out of Norway, with none being carried with the tour and therefore avoiding sales and customs tax. Due to the huge amount of sales this tour achieved it was economically feasible to ship in/out of Norway over carrying, and any leftover merchandise was shipped to the next destination so no money was lost in dead stock.

Now that Brexit is in effect, this happens to every tour crossing between the UK and EU and often means increased costs due to extra shipping involved. 

What are some of the most extensive travel you have done with regard to merchandising?

The most extensive travel I have done was across Australia and New Zealand with Postmodern Jukebox. As Australia is so big and requires flying between every city, ensuring we had correct forecasts for merchandise was essential. If we didn’t order enough stock, we would sell out and then it would take a minimum of one week for more to reach us. If we had too much stock we would have to carry this while flying and any extra baggage costs a lot when our mode of transport between each show was flying. 

I was able to successfully forecast stock needs after only a couple of shows and place an order for delivery in time for when we would need it and avoid the extra costs of carrying an excessive amount of merchandise. 

My career has enabled me to be very savvy to travel and customs logistics, whether that be because of Brexit or touring places like Australia.

Have you noticed any major changes in terms of how merchandise is handled or how well it sells in recent years?

Merchandise sales really depend on the crowd, I have found. Certain artists I have worked for draw really big sales due to the intensity of the fans, and for other artists, there’s a more casual browsing of merchandise.

One thing I have noticed a lot is the resurgence of vinyl. Most artists I work with now include vinyl in their touring merchandise, and there is a real mix of who is buying it, from young kids to older adults.

In terms of how it is handled, it really depends on the size of the artist. A lot of the merchandise management I have done has been for slightly larger artists who have their merch handled by an outside company, like Live Nation. Generally, most merchandise companies run and handle merchandise the same. 

The most major changes have been the increase of venues taking a cut of merchandise sales and thus increasing prices. Oftentimes venues charge a fee or take a percentage of merchandise sales as part of the contract with the promoter, sometimes a flat fee but more often now it is a percentage. This is really eating into artists’ profits and is something artists are starting to become more vocal about. 

Sometimes this results in more sales to support the artist, sometimes it results in customers ordering merchandise online to avoid the venue getting a cut. Coming out of Covid, I was expecting a large drop in sales, but it seems as though everything has gone back to pre-pandemic levels, or close to it. 

In September 2021 when we were only just starting to get out of it, the main impact was a drop off in attendance, which then impacts sales. But the people going to gigs are still buying merch like they were before the pandemic. My first gig back had a very young demographic and so sales were very good, so I really wasn’t expecting that much but the trend seemed to continue with other tours I did. 

You were also interviewed by one of the largest music outlets in the United Kingdom, BBC 6 Music, for your achievements and also overcoming challenges during Covid to still increase sales of merchandise. Can you discuss that?

It was such a career milestone to be asked to be interviewed on BBC 6 Music. Due to my merchandise managing success and worldwide touring career, they reached out to ask me to discuss the impact that Brexit and Covid have had on the touring industry, in particular its impact on merchandise sales. It was a really important moment for me and my career to be recognized by such an institution in the UK music industry and for them to value my experience and opinion. 

On the program, I talked about the 2021 Beabadoobee tour and how I managed to ensure record-breaking sales, right out of Covid. 

The main impact I saw Covid bring was in attendance. With so many tours being canceled and rescheduled, once they ended up happening again, ticket holders had the option to get a refund for their ticket. Due to the economics of Covid, a lot of ticket holders did this. Another thing that affected attendance was just fear of being around a big group of people again. We saw some high drop-offs in attendance because of this. However, despite this, we still managed hugely successful sales and high spending per head.