We caught up with Luke Draper, a seasoned merchandise manager with over 3 years of experience in the industry. Throughout his career in the merch game, Luke has worked with some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Warner, Bravado, and Sandbag. Working on tours for the likes of Ashley McBryde, The Rolling Stones, Deaf Havana, and BlackPink to name a few.
With a proven track record of success in developing and implementing innovative merchandise strategies, he has played a key role in driving sales and building brand loyalty for the artists and bands he worked with. In this interview, Luke will share his insights on the ever-changing world of merchandise and offer valuable advice for those looking to break into the industry.
Can you give us your ‘day in the life’ of a merchandise manager whilst out on the road?
It changes slightly depending on the size of the tour – flights and hotels, sleeper bus and bunks, or a van tour and finding places to stay on the hop. Overall, I’d start with finding a place to freshen up – whether that is in a hotel bathroom or with a wet wipe in a car park, it all helps. I’ll have breakfast, and get myself ready, if I have time, I will wander around whichever city or town I am in, but if not then I’ll head into the venue and crack on with whatever needs to be done.
Loading into the venue for a concession or for myself to vend doesn’t differ all that much, I’ll count my stock, make sure I know what I have and what I need for that show (If I can and need to, I’ll prep for the next show too). Stock up the venue, agree on figures and numbers, try and factor in some lunch, make sure the stand is set up & ready, take anything back to the van/truck, have dinner, get ready for the show.
After the show it’s a case of counting cash & card sales, counting the stock out of the building, agreeing on figures and numbers, and finalizing the settlement, placing the stock back into the truck or van, and getting out. If I have finished everything and dependent on time, I’ll hang out with whoever is around.
You’ve experienced life on the road with your band Elephantis - how would you compare touring as a musician to touring as crew?
Oh, it is totally different, we didn’t have any crew for any Elephantis tours, we did, however, have friends who would come on tour with us occasionally that would help with the merchandise.
I’d always be interested in setting up the merch for the band before the show and selling after our sets. Touring as a musician involves a lot of hurrying up and waiting – rushing to the van, perhaps having to rush to the venue to get there on time or not get there too late, rush to soundcheck, and if there is time, go out & explore a bit, and then wait to play.
As crew, there is always something to do. Whenever I do get time to go out and explore wherever I am, I do think about other crew on a bigger tour – riggers, lighting, truckers, backline, promoters, catering, audio, etc and how much they must have to do constantly. I truly do enjoy it all, the difference is stark, the sense of camaraderie and excitement is still there though.
I always loved playing live music, weirdly I feel more part of the team as crew now.
Could you give us a glimpse into how you work with artists and other members of the team on merch projects for tours?
So far with my touring work, I’m hired out by a merchandise company that looks after the artist and their needs for selling merchandise – from concept and design to after-sale care and everything in between.
On a few tours I have worked as part of a team, we’ll each have our roles and duties to take care of, but there’s always time and a way to help with everything needed to make sure everything runs smoothly – no man is an island. For example, on The Rolling Stones tour last summer, I took great pleasure in my main role as the comp guy - Assisting the guests, family members, friends, and colleagues of the band with their (free) merchandise needs. However, that would be a show day task really, with the odd prep work here and there, so I had time to help with anything else – deliveries, stock takes in our trucks, branding, and assisting in any way I can. And it would go both ways, having to set up a makeshift merch stand for every show became routine, though there’s always room for little snags that my lovely colleagues would help me with!
Being part of a team is wonderful, I enjoy the family feeling. I enjoy working solo too, however, there’s loads of fun to be had as a team on a tour!
What is one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned whilst working in the industry?
Always ask questions. Whether you do understand something or you don’t, ask to find out more. The more information you have the better.
Be kind. It costs absolutely nothing to be kind, happy, and upbeat, even if you’re having a stressful day, if you’re kind to someone in passing, it could help.
Be up for helping – Sometimes long days take their toll however helping someone ties in with being kind and does make everything run smoother.
We all know that life on the road can be hectic and stressful, how do you stay on top of your health while being out on tours with a band?
I’m the worst person to ask about this. I don’t take care of myself past the basics of washing, eating, and sleeping - even then I’m using the term ‘take care of myself’ loosely there. I know touring crew who keep up with decent vitamins, have good sleeping routines even on long days, eat & drink properly (easier said than done sometimes), keep up with exercise, and more! All things I would benefit from taking up.
In terms of taking care of my mental health, I have let that slip a bit as well. I have had therapy in the past and I am taking medication (and have been since 2015), both of which help, it’s just I have become slack with my coping mechanisms and therefore my coping now is to just keep pushing through it all.
So to people reading this (& myself) I’d say healthy diets, alongside vitamins, good sleeping routines, and exercise all have tremendous benefits to keeping healthy whilst out on tour. Mentally, the aforementioned helps, as well as talking to people – be it crew, friends, family, health care professionals – medication, therapy, meditation, and so much more will also help!
Artist merchandising is an ever-evolving industry, where do you see it going in the next five years?
I have always wondered how much automation would be introduced into the industry, and at what levels. I’ve talked about this with colleagues – this might sound silly, but I think about whether a type of vending machine would be introduced to venues, you’d still need human input for topping up the machines and maintenance and so on. It sounds far-fetched I know, but with lots of industries trying to lessen the human workforce and automate as much as they can, it does make me wonder. If something like this were to happen it would be a shame to take away the personal element of interacting with the fans at shows. I was lucky enough to be in the company of Arnie Merch a few times last year, and I saw one of his great ideas come to life in December – A click and collect service for shows that he would be working. The merch range for the tour goes up on a website he hosts before show day, a very smooth click-and-order type deal, paid for before you attend the show, you’re given an order number, Arnie will have the order, and the order number and, on the day, bag up your order for you to pick up at a collection point. I thought it was a fantastic idea. I’m sure other venues and companies may offer this, but it would be interesting to see if this will take off on a global scale.
Apart from that, I hope that there will be a compromise on the horizon within the merchandise industry. I won’t dive into it, I think working concession, as well as a touring merch rep, helps me understand both sides. However, I don’t think that’s a prerequisite to want to have compromise help attain an ideal to benefit artists, fans, venues, companies, and crew alike.
For our readers that are looking to approach the industry as a career path, do you have any advice you’d like to give them on where to start?
If you have friends in bands, ask them if you can help in whatever area you’re interested in, maybe even try a few – merchandise, audio, lighting, etc. – If you don’t have friends in bands, try and make friends of local bands you enjoy. Ask questions to people at venues – merch concession staff, venue managers, box office, promoters, sound engineers, lighting, riggers, merch reps, any crew you see, touring, and venue-based. Ask how they got into their profession, and what advice would they have on where, how, and when to get started. I started out working for a concession company, simply because a friend of mine asked me one day if I wanted to lend a hand at a show at a local venue, I said yes, and then kept working. I inter-spliced the work with other jobs, which in truth I wish I focused on working within the merchandise world, but the other jobs kept the money rolling in to pay the bills. I worked my way up to the merchandise manager for that venue. I worked hard, and aimed to have a happy team that enjoyed their time on shift, I loved to learn more, and I would like to think I was welcoming to touring merchandise reps and crew that would come through.
I had my break when a lovely merchandise manager at Bravado asked if I wanted to help him on a tour, and I had a friend working at Sandbag who put me forward for a tour as well. From there what I had always wanted to do became more of a reality and I worked as hard as possible to keep it going and I still do.
If anyone has any questions I am more than happy to talk more about it all.