In this exclusive interview, we have the privilege of delving into the journey of Tom Lee, a veteran touring merchandiser who has navigated the ins and outs of the industry while working closely with some of the most acclaimed musical acts such as Bastille, Barenaked Ladies, Dominic Fike, and Enter Shikari.
From innovative merchandising approaches to the challenges of logistics on the road, we uncover the strategies, anecdotes, and insights that have shaped Tom's remarkable career.
Join us as we explore the behind-the-scenes world of touring merchandising and learn how it contributes to the vibrant tapestry of the music we love.
Tour schedules can be demanding. How do you ensure that the production team stays motivated and maintains a high level of performance and creativity throughout the tour when you’re out on a tour management gig?
It’s been a while since I’ve TM’d and that’s only been at club level so far, but it’s funny how similar pre-show routines are for most artists, from small punk bands to arena pop acts. A Bluetooth speaker playing upbeat bangers and everyone YouTubing their vocal warm-ups!
But in general, I think motivation varies so much from person to person on a tour. Allowing downtime for everyone to do whatever fulfills them outside the job is essential to maintaining energy on the road. I’ve seen that range from fishing, bouldering, golfing or just sleeping.
I feel at my best when there’s a good sense of camaraderie and inclusivity in the team. Making occasions for group dinners, karaoke, day-off lake retreat hikes, and swims. Participating in a ‘Roadie Awards’. Think Dundies from The Office, I won ‘Messiest Bunk’ one time and have a certificate to prove it! I might still be a little bitter about it. In many ways, it isn’t the shows but these moments I remember most fondly.
Working with such a diverse range of artists, each with their own style and audience, how do you adapt your merchandising approach to cater to their fan bases effectively? Can you share a specific example perhaps?
That’s an interesting question because adapting isn’t something I’m consciously aware of doing. It’s just being present for anyone who rocks up to the merch table, whether it’s a metal or K-pop concert or an older crowd vs. young teen audience, and acting accordingly.
There’s the prep side of things, knowing whether to stock up heavy on black hoodies or glowsticks on shows depending on the fanbase. Oh, and make sure to insert those 1000s of glowsticks with AA batteries pre-doors so they’re good to go right away when fans pick them up. Efficiency is king! Then, there are items that always do well regardless of genre, such as the reliable tour t-shirt.
Being grounded is important, particularly with the quick repetition of interacting with hundreds of people each night. I like what I do and take pride in being an artist representative, so I want to make sure whoever I talk to has a great experience and it doesn’t feel like just a transaction. That might mean having patience and taking extra time to help an older fan who is indecisive, or making a core memory in a kid’s first concert by gifting them a signed drumstick.
Besides being a professional merch slinger, you are also a certified mental health first aider. Can you tell us a little bit more about your background regarding this? Mental health is a topic we touch on with most of our features since being out on the road can be challenging for a lot of people. Would be awesome to get your take on this and have a few tips on how to maintain a healthy mind whilst being out on tour.
I completed my certification during post-pandemic downtime thanks to a bursary via Music Support, in addition to a Suicide First Aid Lite course more recently. It’s something that means a lot to me having had occasional serious history with poor mental health, on a few tours in the past, and semi-recently during covid. I’ve also been around a lot of it, and it’s devastating for everyone when nobody has the capacity to guide or support them in a meaningful way. Touring isn’t exactly the healthiest lifestyle, so darker thoughts, along with issues such as depression and loneliness get easily compounded.
Thankfully, I’ve been okay for a little while, and it’s empowering to learn ways to help others who struggle and in turn yourself if needed. It doesn’t mean I’m a licensed therapist, it’s in the name ‘first aid’ after all, but it’s a useful first step in directing someone in the right direction.
In terms of maintaining a healthy mind while on the road, I’m naturally introverted so as much as I like being sociable, it can sometimes be overwhelming sharing a tour bus with up to 16 other people, so I really value personal space and any solo time I can get to read or listen to podcasts. Particularly after interacting with fans all night!
Daily exercise is also important, and depending on how busy or exhausting the day is, I try to squeeze something in. Whether it’s going for a run, a HIIT yoga mat session in a spare dressing room, or a simple walk around the venue vicinity. I’ve found maintaining a good routine on tour is tricky, but I’ve seen others do well with it. A couple of the Bastille crew brought weights on the last Europe tour and worked out together in front of the stage after each soundcheck, sometimes with the band and others joining in, which is a great way to hold each other accountable to it.
The music industry is constantly evolving. How have you seen the role of a touring merchandiser change over the years, especially in the context of shifts in music consumption and fan engagement?
An obvious change is more card and fewer cash sales, particularly since lockdown. It’s 90/10 on average, apart from maybe in Germany, so a decent card reader with good signal or wifi is vital now at every show. Brexit has made touring Europe more awkward than it used to be, to the surprise of no one. It seems like people are coming to shows and buying merch more than ever, which is true according to AtVenu statistics. Kind of wild since touring is getting more expensive, which is reflected in ticket and merch prices. Fans are still showing up despite this and a cost of living crisis, because catharsis from live music and community is still needed.
With fan engagement, ‘VIP’ meet-&-greet and soundcheck packages are becoming the norm as an added income source on a lot of tours, and managing them has become a regular addition to my role. Everything is online now too. Social media is vital to most artists, so having someone dedicated on-the-road to create content has now become a mainstay. Tour photographers have had to expand their palette to accommodate platforms like TikTok, and when there isn’t one, I’ve found myself being asked to take charge of the band’s Instagram stories.
After working with such a diverse array of artists, what are some key lessons you've learned about merchandising that you believe are universally applicable to any touring scenario?
Managing merchandise, as with any other tour role, can be intense, fast-paced and tiring. So when mistakes happen, being able to own it and quickly find solutions autonomously to anything that comes up is an important skill that comes with time and confidence.
I think making a concerted effort to be friendly and approachable is important when talking to fans at the merch desk, but equally so when joining a new touring party. They become your temporary family, so being warm and conscientious, particularly when burnout sets in, is a helpful trait. Even though I don’t share work by the stage, it’s always nice to show up and offer a tea-coffee run for the crew, the same as I would for my local merch vendors.
In a dynamic industry like music, unexpected situations can arise on tour. Could you share a challenging scenario you've faced as a touring merchandiser and how you creatively resolved it?
Yeah, it’s hard to find a more dynamic work environment than being in a different location, town and-or country daily, so there are new challenges every day.
A problem that has happened, albeit infrequently, is not having enough room in the truck, trailer or van at the start of a tour. Space is usually planned for by the tour or production manager, but sometimes the pack just doesn’t work out, even with ‘accurate’ measurements. It’s happened twice this year where a trailer has been booked, and we’ve still discovered everything won’t fit during the initial load out, especially when merch and other items get shipped to the first venue ahead of time. We’ve had to creatively squeeze Pelis and hardcases into bus lounges, merch boxes into spare bunks, or leave things behind at the venue to figure out the next morning. An obvious headache when we need to get everything to a show the next day, and a costly logistical challenge to swap to a truck with driver, or arrange for someone to drive leftover gear to gigs at short notice.
I’ve rented vans last minute in the past to self-drive excess merch and band equipment for stints of tours. It’s not ideal but at the end of the day, I see part of my job is to make sure the show goes ahead, so we all do whatever we can.