Cotton King: Joey Lemble

If you think slinging T-shirts at a concert looks easy, think again. On any given tour date, merchandise maven Joey Lemble might have to face off with Canadian border patrols, pesky Excel spreadsheets, and fans who don’t even know their own shirt size, yet he’s ready for it all. For this cotton master, it’s equal parts personality and preparation.

If you’ve attended a concert over the last five years and bought a T-shirt, there’s a very good chance merchandise manager Joey Lemble sold it to you. The Toledo, Ohio native-turned perpetual road dog has worked with everyone from pop idols Adele and Ellie Goulding to Icelandic space-rockers Sigur Ros and metal crunch masters Lamb of God, and he has no plans of unpacking his suitcase any time soon.

After first coming up through the DIY touring ranks with bands like Hit The Lights and Hawthorne Heights—seeing much of the nation from a van window—“Joe-Ledo” jumped to the big leagues by joining a series of merchandise companies with stacked artist rosters, ensuring a steady stream of work. Nowadays he’s virtually everywhere, sometimes still selling merch from smaller clubs, or on the other end of the spectrum, in massive arenas.

But regardless of the room, Lemble’s role on any given tour is perhaps the most critical of all, from a business perspective: With album sales gradually rebounding, merchandise remains a vital source of income for artists, particularly smaller acts. Thus his consummate professionalism and easygoing, friendly personality—not to mention some major skills in Excel—keep him in constant demand. Without a doubt, Lemble will soon be appearing at a venue near you.

Get In Media: How did you get started in the business? 

Joey Lemble: When I was living in Toledo, I started street-teaming for local promoters, and booking some small bands coming into town. Through that I met my friend Brad [Gilboe], who was playing in a local band in Detroit called Before I Go. We started a small independent label called Silent Movie Records when I was in high school. One of the deals we’d make to bands—one of our selling points—was not charging a merch rate. That was my first experience with merchandise.

GIM: Do you have any formal music industry education?

JL: School of hard knocks, unfortunately. It’s one of those industries people say there’s really not an education for, but there definitely is, even if it’s small business management or just having a better background in accounting. I’ve gotten most of my stuff just from building my experience myself, and equal parts luck.

GIM: You also worked at Victory Records?

JL: Yeah, I went from my label to Victory, doing tour marketing and street team work. I was there for roughly a year. We were in vehicles following tours that Victory bands were on. We’d flyer outside the shows, and during the day go to independent stores and talk up Victory, and ask them if we could do anything for them, like put up displays. You got to learn a lot, especially from a label point of view, about how much a relationship helps with certain clients.

RELATED: When Sebastian Cowan was offered a job with Sony Records fresh out of college, he did what any self-respecting 21 year-old would do—he turned them down to do his own thing. 

GIM: So after Victory you got into touring?

JL: I always wanted to tour. Because I was running the label, at first I would ride with Hit The Lights—they started touring with New Found Glory and some bands I grew up really liking. I’d be like, “I’m kind of bored just sitting here. What can I do to help?” They’d be like, “Go help our merch guy,” which I thought was pretty fun. I kept saying, “Ok, one year of touring, just to see a little of the U.S., then I’ll figure something else out,” but it turned into a lot more than that.

When I was thinking about leaving Victory, because I had the same lawyer as Hawthorne Heights (who were also leaving the label), he let me know that the band was looking for a merch guy. I saw it as a sign that it was time to move on and join the road life. Originally I only wanted to try it for a year, and that was when I was 21. Now I’m 27.

GIM: What did you have to learn to get going?

JL: When you’re great at one level but have no experience at another level, when you jump up it’s another crash course. A lot of times, it’s meeting a friend who doesn’t think you’re completely annoying for asking questions. There’s everything from spreadsheets to how you organize your merch in the trailer to organizing things at the actual gig. There’s not a standard in terms of the organization, just whatever works best for you.

You get thrown into learning Excel really quickly; the more you know Excel, the more a merch company is going to love you and hire you again. There are also little things I never knew about customs issues with Canada: You can’t just take merch across the border in a semi without it being a big deal.

GIM: What’s a typical day like?

JL: Usually around 9 or 10 a.m. my day starts. I’ll go into the venue, get my merch off the back of the truck. I’ll bring stuff in, look at the merch area, then grab my computer and look at the sales from the night before, to figure out what we need to get off the truck. Sometimes the truck moves in that time and I’ll need to go walk a quarter of a mile to find it, which is always fun.

Next you visit the merch area, set up your display and make sure everything looks good, then be ready a half-hour before doors. I can usually be all set up in my area by 1 p.m. and then doors are usually around 7, so between 1 and 7 p.m. I’ll usually advance the rest of the tour.

The show is typically 7 p.m. until 10:30 or 11, and then afterward you have to count out all the merchandise. Then you load out, and you have to send in a report to the merch company management that night, or else you wake up to a phone call in the morning asking where it’s at.

GIM: Is there a difference between various crowds?

JL: With metal fans it’s a bit easier, because they tend to go to a lot more concerts a year than the standard pop fan, so they kind of understand. They’ll walk up and know exactly what they want, what size shirt they want, so it tends to go a little quicker. You’d be surprised at how many people walk up to the table and go, “What size do you think I am?” or “Can you see what size shirt I’m wearing right now?” And metal fans will walk up and buy things consistently throughout the night. It’s not all rushed at the end or beginning.

GIM: How important are social skills?

JL: The least intimidating I can look, the better. Doing this actually helps me out in a personality kind of way; I used to be very shy and not outgoing. You kind of learn very quickly that to sell merch, even just saying hi to people helps so much. Maybe they’ll stop by the merch booth and look at things, or at least they know you’re approachable. It might be the difference between somebody being too apprehensive to walk up. As simple as it sounds, there’s still the intimidation factor with some people.

“We definitely get reminded constantly that we’re the only position that’s bringing in money. We need to do as well as we can.”
GIM: What’s your advice in terms of climbing the ladder?

JL: It’s definitely about the networking and being a chill person. It sounds very cliché, but you just want to be that person people want to bring on tour. You want to be the person who gets along with everybody, regardless of what your personality is.

It’s also going from working for a band directly, to finding a way to jump over to an actual merchandise company that has a lot of different bands. Even being freelance, you can jump between different companies, or they can hit you up and say, “We have this tour coming up. Do you want to do it?” and you always have the ability to say no. It’s nice to have other people looking out for you as well, so you’re not always looking for gigs.

GIM: What are the hardest parts of the job?

JL: Managing inventory on the road. Even with the merch company looking out for you, ultimately, if you’re going to run out of something, there’s a very good chance you’re going to get blamed, since to the band, you’re the face of the merch company. And anytime we go into Canada it’s always a challenge. To ship stuff around Canada, managing the logistical points of shipping, importing, forecasting sales, it can be a serious headache.

RELATED: Emily White put in her time and wracked up miles on the road before starting her own talent managment company. Find out how studying under Amanda Palmer, and eight internships, prepared her for a career in music business. 

GIM: How critical has merch become to the overall livelihood of bands?

JL: There’s a point where bands could do it without it, except that it wouldn’t be as comfortable. It definitely does help. It depends on the band as well, and what their [nightly show payment] guarantees are. For support bands, half the time their guarantees really only cover transportation to the next gig, and maybe a small per diem for each band member to eat food. Merchandise for the most part is their only source of income. We definitely get reminded constantly that we’re the only position that’s bringing in money. We need to do as well as we can.

GIM: Don’t you ever miss home?

JL: It’s going to sound like a jab at my hometown, but when I was living in Toledo, I loved being on the road more. There’s not that much to do in Toledo. You always miss family no matter where you go, but especially when I was younger, being home one day a year was optimal. Now I’m settled in Long Beach (Calif.), and kind of find myself wanting to tour less, because I really do like where I live now, and I really do like my roommates. When we moved in, it was three merch guys living in a house, which in retrospect was probably a bad idea, but now we have one person who’s a tattoo artist and doesn’t tour.

I like touring a lot, but down the road I’m definitely going to pursue some sort of off-the-road position. Someday I’d like to be home and develop a relationship with somebody, and do all those “normal people” things that you don’t get to do on tour.

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