Live Music’s Latest Battle Isn’t Onstage. It’s at the Merch Booth

·11 min read
merch-booth-2 - Credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images
merch-booth-2 - Credit: Daniel Knighton/Getty Images

Merchandise vendors who were hired to work the RuPaul’s Drag Race: Werq the World tour earlier this month came to the venue ready to work like any other show, expecting a potentially lucrative day hawking T-shirts and knick knacks to hundreds of attendees for a concert tied to the long-running TV franchise.

Now, multiple merch sellers from separate shows tell Rolling Stone they’re frustrated, claiming the tour paid them hundreds of dollars less than they were expecting. But the money they say they were shorted didn’t come out of their previously agreed upon base rate: They claim it was taken right out of the tip jar.

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“When I saw what happened, I was seething, livid,” says one local merch vendor who worked multiple dates on the tour. “That’s not industry standard, that wasn’t communicated to us, no one told us that was going to happen. And if they did beforehand, I would’ve refused or said no to working the show.”

How to handle tips for merchandise vendors at concerts has become a heated issue within the live music business, particularly as tipping has become more frequent in the post-pandemic landscape in which transactions are going increasingly cashless. Years ago, merch reps say, seeing anything more than $100 in the tip jar was considered a strong night, but now it isn’t uncommon to see even a theater-sized show bring in $1,000 (if not more) through credit card tips.

Before, when tips were less significant, a tour didn’t even think to look at revenue at the physical tip jar. But higher-volume cash coupled with management now able to quantify exactly how much customers are tipping on their cards since it’s counted in the same system as the sale, tours have enacted more stringent policies that have cut into the vendors’ tips.

“Management wasn’t worried about us putting a brown paper box on the table and Joe Schmo putting a dollar in the box; that’s been prevalent for a long time and we weren’t asked about it,” says another vendor who worked one of the RuPaul shows just over a month ago. “But now with these credit card point of sale systems, they seem to care more. There’s more tips, and now they see the reports. If you have a high-volume show and people are hitting those tip buttons the whole time, they’ll see how much a merch rep is bringing in every night.”

The dispute is, in some ways, a philosophical question about fair pay among the workforce. The base rate for most of the merchandise workers who spoke with Rolling Stone was $150 for a show plus some form of split tips, which they described as the industry standard. For less demanding shows that take only an evening’s work, the base rate could mean somewhere between $20 to $30 an hour, but shows that call for earlier start times mean the base rate equates to minimum wage or less.

High-volume tips are changing the calculus, though. On a particularly strong night, tips could mean the vendors walk away with hundreds of dollars more, and sometimes enough that without any intervention, the merchandise workers would get paid more than anyone else on the tour for the evening.

Some tours have cut out the option to tip outright. Others have adopted a “tip-pooling” practice in which tips are divided evenly among the merch vendors and the rest of the touring crew who aren’t in a customer-facing position. It’s not dissimilar to how some restaurants pool tips so that chefs or dishwashers get a percentage as well.

In the case of the RuPaul shows, though, it was a bit more complicated. As the two merchandise workers from the shows recall, they initially expected tips would be evenly distributed three ways between two local merch workers hired for individual shows and a third merch manager touring across the country for each event. Instead, when they got paid about a week after their respective shows, their paychecks were just under $100 less than what they expected as they learned the tips were split a fourth way, with Voss Events, a creative agency managing the tour, taking a cut of the tips for themselves.

“It’s not about the total amount of money, it’s about the principle,” the second worker says. “I’d have said no because they’re splitting our tips four ways with a management company that isn’t here and isn’t working the booth. I’m setting up, counting all the inventory out, packing it all up, and then giving tips away to someone sitting in an office hundreds of miles away? Absolutely not.”

A hundred dollars doesn’t sound like much for a tour selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of merchandise, but for the individual merchandise sellers, it can often be the difference between whether or not they would have taken on a gig.

As the first RuPaul worker says: “That extra money is the difference between getting an 18-year veteran who knows what they’re doing and does this job well, and taking a fresher, more naive person with less experience,” they say. “I’m driving to Illinois for my next gig, my base price is $150, I wouldn’t say yes to a show that takes me that far, especially with the price of gas nowadays, without knowing I’m getting my full cut of my tips.”

Voss, for its part, denied that it took a cut of the tips for itself, maintaining that only the merchandise workers from the shows kept their tips.

“Voss Events does not take a cut of the tips but we do allocate an equal share to our merchandise staff who travel with the tour.  We travel with one or two people depending on the tour and market,” Jonathan Morris, an executive at Voss, says in a statement. “Said person(s) helps set up, oversee operations and sells while the booth is open. Because of that, we gave her an equal share of the tips. In our opinion, that is entirely fair. We’re happy to turn off tipping entirely if local merch sellers have a problem with that.”

Since Voss’s initial response, however, Rolling Stone obtained an email a Voss representative sent to one of the merchandise workers explaining why the company got one-fourth of the tips, noting that “Voss’s portion is to cover the cost of handling and material costs, and the merch seller’s fee.”

The merchandise vendors have questioned the legality of Voss’s tip-cutting. (Most states, including the two states the merch vendors worked in, don’t allow employers to take tips but do allow for companies to take a “tip credit” that contributes to an employee’s hourly wage.) When asked for comment on the emails, Morris further stated that Voss didn’t take a cut of the tips themselves, but that the cut went to a fourth Voss employee who was on the road for a select number of dates training the tour’s touring merchandise manager. Neither merch vendor who spoke with Rolling Stone recalled seeing a fourth merchandise rep at their booth at their respective shows.

“The burden is not of the merch sellers and their tips to pay for the cost materials of merchandise,” the second merch rep says. “That is a business expense that you as the management company should already have priced out before. It’s not up to us to cover the cost of that with our tips.”

Other instances merch workers have faced haven’t been as extreme but have still left the vendors angry over miscommunications. During the first night of Rage Against the Machine’s long-anticipated reunion tour in Wisconsin, for example, as two merchandise sellers from the show recall, tips were inexplicably turned off within a couple hours of doors opening, a shock to the vendors who were previously told they’d get split tips as part of their payment.

Once they realized tips had shut off, one merch seller employed by Live Nation spoke with a higher-ranking merchandise rep, who informed them that Rage’s management had requested the tipping feature be turned off because they wanted to keep fans from feeling obligated to add another financial burden onto their purchase.

“Do I think Tom Morello was specifically thinking ‘the merch people make too much money?’ No. I think it was a management call,” The Live Nation employee says. “I think they didn’t want to pass the buck onto fans.”

As a second merch seller employed by Live Nation says: “It completely destroyed our moods; everyone was in a bad mood after that,” they recall. “We dedicated our weekends to that. We talked about walking off the gig. Live Nation assured us we’d get paid for the loss, but I can’t help but wonder what the conversations were around the decision. It’s unusual, and I was really disappointed, especially given the stance the band has always taken on [labor].”

Both workers tell Rolling Stone that after the miscommunication, Live Nation fronted money to make up the lost cash, which one of the workers said totaled $25,000 divided between 70 merch vendors who worked the show. It’s unclear how the group handled tipping for the rest of the tour. (Reps for Live Nation and the band’s guitarist Tom Morello did not immediately reply to requests for comment. A rep handling merchandise for Rage Against The Machine declined to comment.)

Elsewhere, a former touring merchandise rep for synthwave band The Midnight tells Rolling Stone they were uncomfortable with how the tour handled its tipping policy, which divided the tips from the merch table between the sellers and the rest of the tour workers. In some instances, the rep says, the locals weren’t aware their tips were going to be split 12 ways between them and the touring crew. The rep was unhappy giving the local vendors so much less, but said they were too low on the totem pole to stop it.

“Me giving the workers $100 from their tips a night just didn’t feel fair,” the former merchandise rep says. “Splitting between the three people working merchandise booth is how it should’ve been.”

The bigger concern, the rep says, was the lack of communication they felt the locals were getting before they started working the gigs. The rep says they understand the tour’s stance on wanting to ensure the crew workers who aren’t in a position to get tips can also get a bonus, but they add that rather than go through tips — which aren’t any money lost for the tour since they aren’t tied to earnings or expenses — the tour should just pay its staff more.

“If management’s argument is their merch person is making more money, they need to raise everyone’s salary,” the rep says.

Justin Little, The Midnight’s manager, acknowledges that they’d seen a couple of complaints when the tour first enacted the tipping policy last fall, but added that since then they’ve relayed their policy to the locals they hire, and he says the tour’s had no issue with the policy since then. Little says the local vendors they hired for the tour would make $75 to $100 per hour for their work, which he feels is commensurate to the rest of the touring crew.

“It’s a difficult scenario and there isn’t a universal answer. We considered turning off tipping, but it didn’t feel right to take away the option when there’s fans who want to give a worker extra for their work. I don’t know if tipping $7 on a $35 shirt is fair for fans, but I don’t know if I should make that call,” he says. “If people are willing to tip for a good job, yes it comes at the point of sale, but it’s also our lighting guy, our sound person, our tech. They’re working 18-hour days and they’re also working hard. Are they any less responsible for your experience and why you’re giving a tip?”

Little also says that while the merch workers see lots of purchases each night, he doesn’t think it’s a fair reflection of what the tour actually makes after factoring in taxes, tour expenses, payments to the merchandise company and other deducing factors.

Deciding to give the tips to the entire crew, Little says, comes more from wanting all his staff to be awarded than from frustration that merch workers were getting more money.

“The merchandisers are doing a lot, they’re setting up, they’re selling, they’re dealing directly with fans face-to-face. When it comes down to it, how do we systematize this in a way that’s fair to everyone?” Little asks. “We want everyone to be paid fairly. In a high-volume merch business, if the merch workers gets their base rate, plus the cash tips — which aren’t insignificant — and the credit card tips, they’re walking away with $1,200 to $1,500 in tips for basically a few hours of work. That’s a lot of money, and it’s not to discredit the job at all, but I have to look at this in a relative sense. What’s fair here?”

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