Being blind hasn’t stopped Joey Stuckey from living a life of intention, joy, and music-making. He also helps design and sell his merch, which is a big part of his revenue stream as an indie artist.
Joey Stuckey is an award-winning guitarist, songwriter, singer, composer, producer, radio and television personality, music columnist, educator, and sound engineer. He is also the official music ambassador for his home town of Macon, Georgia. Joey took some time to chat with us to discuss his success in music and the important role merch plays in branding his act and bringing in revenue.
How and when did you start playing music?
I lost my sight and sense of smell when I was around two years old from a brain tumor. I wasn’t supposed to survive the surgery, but I did. My folks were told that even if I did survive, I probably would never walk or talk. Forty-something years later, I am living a life of intention and joy in my chosen career of music.
My house was always full of music, both my parents love music and filled our home with it. I always found it a great source of comfort, but honestly, I never thought of it as a career until I was 17 as most of my early life was focused on survival and, more often than not, spent in the hospital.
Around the age of 13, I discovered the world of sound design and my life change forever! I started off just wanting to record sound effects, but over time, people started coming to me asking if I would record their garage bands. Once I heard that first original song from a local band, I knew that music was the vehicle I wanted to use to tell my story.
What made the lightbulb go off that you needed to start selling merch at your gigs?
If you are a musician, you understand that you are selling music and the way to do that is with CDs, downloads, or vinyl. So goes the conventional wisdom. However, in a very short time — from the mid-’90s when I first got started to today — a lot has changed.
I have always had a handful of t-shirts to sell, but when I first got started, the standard approach was to slap the album cover on the shirt and put your name on it. Problem is, full-color printing is expensive and you had to print a lot of shirts to get the price down. It was a major investment. So, the shirts were costing me about $25 each and I just wasn’t famous enough to make that kind of price work. I had to sell the shirts at cost and honestly, while the album covers were cool, they weren’t really compelling enough to make great t-shirts.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that much of the power to control content would be coming back into the hands of the artists. That is good, but anyone can be on iTunes — just pay your distribution fee and you are accessible to everyone. But that doesn’t mean you can compete in the digital marketplace. So how do you stand out? You have to create a brand and market your brand. Music is at the heart of what I do, but people also like to feel like they’re part of my journey and like to buy something that can serve as a souvenir after they see me perform.
A CD is great, so is vinyl. But as a branding/promotional item — and something that can turn a profit — nothing beats a great t-shirt! If you are on a tight budget, so much the better because it forces you to be more creative.
What kind of difference did selling merch make in your music career?
Man, it was amazing! I started bundling products — a t-shirt, a CD, or vinyl LP and a download card in different combinations — and I was amazed to see how many people wanted to wear my shirts and how many people would actually spend their money on them. Again, this comes from people wanting to take home a souvenir of the time they spent with you as a memento of the experience. Mostly, people know they can stream your music later or buy the download of your music anytime. Only the hardcore music lovers and audiophiles want to get CDs or vinyl at shows.
The most incredible thing is, if we put on a good show and have some merch that is interesting and accurately represents my brand and my sense of humor, everyone at the show — including the bar staff — usually buys something. We always sell at least $200 worth of merch at every show — and it’s mostly T-shirts.
How important is branding for the independent musician? How do you build and strengthen your brand?
Branding is critical for any business. The problem is that a lot of people don’t understand what branding actually means. To create a brand requires that you ask yourself a few obvious but sometimes difficult questions and it requires that you answer those questions honestly.
The first question you should ask is: Why am I doing this? My answer to that question is that music is a natural extension of my spirit. To create music is a compulsion I feel that is akin to the compulsion my body has to circulate blood and take in oxygen. And while the compulsion to create is at the very heart of what it means to be human, I also make music because it is the best way I know to make positive change in our world. Human beings are storytellers and we learn and evolve through the sharing of stories.
The next question is: Who would like to purchase my goods or services? In marketing terms, we call this targeting your audience. There’s a lot of hard work that has to be done to understand your audience. Fortunately, in the age of the Internet, there are lots of data points you can gather to understand who your audience is and how to reach them.
The third question is: What is it I do better than anyone else I know? This will be at the heart of all your branding efforts. For example, if you are a great guitar player, then conveying that information, so guitar enthusiasts can come get their fix, will be a critical component of your messaging for your brand.
In my case, I am known as a gifted guitarist and vocalist. But I’m also an inspirational speaker and I have an irreverent and sometimes gallows sense of humor. I have to find creative ways of encapsulating those ideas into my merchandise and branding efforts for the people who find these traits appealing.
So the magic recipe for my merchandise would be: blind + guitarist + comedian.
The all-important final ingredient: make the most of your budget. That led me to create my “avatar,” which we have named Blink. As you can see, Blink is a simple stick figure who is blind and has the required accoutrement of dark sunglasses and a cane and a ridiculously large guitar. The drive to create Blink was that I wanted something immediately recognizable as a Joey Stuckey product — something that would make people take a second look, but also affordable to produce on a multitude of different merch products. Blink, being a stick figure, is easily replicated on a solid background of any color with only one-color ink. This helps to keep costs down. Blink is also a perfect way to reinforce the core concepts of my brand — music, inspiration, and humor. I am deeply concerned about making sure people focus on the joyful aspects of life and the fact is that while being blind has many challenges that I strive to overcome daily, the word “blind” is not a dirty word or offensive and sometimes being blind puts one in humorous situations.
What do you look for when choosing the type of merchandise you sell?
Affordability, of course, is key. And I do like to experiment with unique items such as flashlight pens, because I thought it was funny that a blind guy would have a flashlight. But the novelty items, while popular, weren’t really cost-effective. The items that we know will sell at every gig are signed CDs and t-shirts. Those are the best sellers and really easy to create and manufacture. They also don’t take up much room, which is important when you’re touring as space is always at a premium.
Do you sell merch online or exclusively at your shows?
We do both. Online sales are a little more cumbersome because they require the extra step of shipping and it takes more effort to get someone to make an online purchase. I prefer selling merch at shows because it’s an immediate transaction and you’re taking advantage of the impulse buy. If you’ve just played a great show or said something funny from the stage, you want to take advantage of that fan’s enthusiasm at that moment. This is why you MUST have someone at your merch table the entire time you are performing. If you only go to the merch booth between sets — the way we used to do it — your success in selling merch will be limited. There really isn’t a downside to selling merch at shows except that you have to carry it with you. Plus, when you are fully stocked, it takes up space, and when you’re running low, it’s hard to resupply while you’re on the road.
In the age of digital streaming, is a CD considered “merch” now? Do you make an appearance at your merch table before or after your set?
I think that is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves. We are starting to find that most new automobiles don’t have CD players anymore and the same is true for laptops. People are used to consuming on-demand digital content and this trend is going to continue. CDs have become more of a merch/souvenir item, especially if the band signs it for the fan. My philosophy is to come early and stay late, making sure to shake hands, sign merch, take pictures with fans, and kiss babies.
We do all those things before the show, after the show, and during breaks between sets but we also have our merch space manned for the entire time we are at the venue.
What advice do you have for those artists who feel it’s too much up-front cost to stock up on merchandise?
You have to be honest about your budget and what you can realistically afford. But in the music business, there are some things that you can’t afford NOT to do. One of them is merchandise. The best thing about the modern digital era and all of the social media tools we have is that you can do very effective direct-to-fan marketing and literally ask your fans what type of merch they would like to buy. If your fans are into vinyl LPs, then you should consider pressing vinyl. If, on the other hand, you discover your fans all share a love of coffee, then coffee mugs with a logo or some of your lyrics on them might be a better choice.
However, I cannot stress enough that the best sellers will almost always be t-shirts and CDs. I have found that the most popular sizes are large and extra-large, then mediums, then 2X. And with the amazing prices that Merch.ly can offer with t-shirts, there is no reason not to have at least 50 on hand. I am not a proponent of investing tons of money in merch only to have it sit in the closet. I like to order stuff that I know will sell and re-order when I start running low.
How does a blind individual such as yourself design or approve the look of your merchandise?
I will come up with a concept and ask a very select group of people what they think. If they understand my design and think it sounds interesting, we will create that design and then pick the merch that it applies to. My business model is something we call DIO: do it ourselves. This model gathers creative people, all of whom are really good at one or two specific tasks, who understand my brand. I will trust their eyesight and judgement when it comes to approving the final product.
Do you have any other advice for aspiring musicians?
Be honest with yourself about what is reasonable for you and realize that you are unique and that what works for another artist might not work for you. Trust your instincts. Don’t try to be something you’re not. And, most importantly, if you want to be in the music business, or any business for that matter, you must commit yourself 100%. Do not work with anyone who does not believe in your music. You must always work with people who have as much faith in your music as you do.
Learn more about Joey Stuckey at www.joeystuckey.com.