Gary James' Interview With
The President Of Virgin Merchandising

Alvin Ross

In the 1980s, one of the biggest sellers of Rock 'n' Roll merchandising was Virgin Merchandising International. Their clients included Elton John, R.E.M., The Thompson Twins, Mr. Mister, U2 and Helix. The President of Virgin Merchandising was Alvin Ross. His background includes co-management of KISS and co-owner of Levinson And Associates, a promotion relations firm.

Alvin Ross talked about an increasingly important part of Rock 'n' Roll with us, merchandising.

Q - Mr. Ross, how did you go from co-managing KISS to getting involved in Rock merchandising?

A - Everything we always did touched on what the merchandising business was. KISS, as you know, was probably the most merchandised group ever. It was just an area that I always had an interest in. I always liked the merchandising business. It used to be a business where you'd have to fight to get your t-shirt sold in every building. You were treated as the bastard children. Now, we've become a very important part of the artist's career. In a lot of cases, the merchandising can make or break a tour.

Q - Who do you approach in securing the licensing rights to the recording artists? Their management? Their attorney?

A - It's the management, the record company, the agent and in a lot of instances you go directly to the attorney. Eventually you get with an attorney anyway.

Q - What influences your decision to go after the licensing of certain groups?

A - Well, you're really basing it on what you believe the popularity of the group will be in front of a 'live' audience. There is no relation between record sales and t-shirt sales. I can take a local Heavy Metal band that may sell in a year, 40,000 albums around the United States. Yet the same band may go out and play for 30 or 40 days and only play to a thousand people a night and I'll do a gross that's comparable to $5 to $6 a head. When you get into the big artists, obviously if you can go in and fill an arena or stadium, then it will reflect in your merchandising sales.

Q - Do Heavy Metal groups tend to sell more merchandise than other groups?

A - Well, I think Heavy Metal has always been and probably always will be the most successful of the merchandisable bands. The Heavy Metal fan just buys a lot of merchandise. It doesn't mean the big bands don't. Big artists sell a lot of merchandise, Bruce Springsteen for example. The amount of merchandise he sold was just astounding. The premier bands that sell merchandise are the Heavy Metal bands.

Q - The music business being as fickle as it is, what's to say that after you've spent a considerable amount of time and money on getting an artist's merchandise ready for sale, that the artist is no longer hot?

A - You're betting on any band. That could happen to any artist. We've seen big bands go in the toilet over night. We basically don't get anything ready to go until there's a tour. We normally bid or make our deals based on when the band is going to tour. All of our advances are geared towards that tour. Once the tour goes on and everything falls apart, there's nothing you can do about that. Normally, you're getting that artist when they're hot with that record at the right time.

Q - How long does it take to get the merchandise in place?

A - We've done it in three days, but you don't like to have that. You normally like to have between four and six weeks.

Q - What seems to sell the best?

A - It's always the t-shirt. It outsells everything else by three or four to one.

Q - Who decides whether to sell other items like bumper stickers or head bands?

A - It's usually a joint decision between the management and the merchandiser or the artist. Everything relates to the artist. Head bands and patches are more popular with Heavy Metal bands. I don't think you'd ever see a Phil Collins head band. It's not the image of the artist.

Q - How big of a problem is bootleg merchandise?

A - It's very big. It's a terrible problem. You're suffering with the big acts. I don't think the laws in the United States are strong enough or enforced enough. We spend lots of money getting injunctions, but it just isn't enough. You put 'em out of business one day and they're back in business the next day. There aren't laws strong enough to stop it. That's a whole other story that someone is going to have to address themselves I guess. On a big tour, bootleggers can take as much as 18 to 19% of your gross.

Q - Do all artists get approached for merchandise deals?

A - We turn down as many artists as we go after. Not every band is a merchandise band. See, in our business, it costs you more money to do a small club tour with a new artist as it does to do a tour, let's say with Judas Priest or Elton John. They're playing big venues. They're going to put a lot of people in. Your chances of getting your advance back are going to be far greater. You know, if Elton John does a tour, he's going to sell 8, 10, 12, 15,000 tickets a night. He's doing his part by putting people in the seats. If no one wants to buy, no one can control that.

Q - With all of the negative publicity being generated about Heavy Metal, has that cut into the business of merchandising at all?

A - No. If anything it's increased the sales. When I managed KISS, we used to get picketed. We used to get preachers coming out. They used to do rallies when we'd come into town. Of course, you know someone started the rumor that KISS meant Knights In Satan's Service. What is that? They were a fun band.

Q - Is the sky the limit for merchandising?

A - Not really. I think that the North American market is probably worth about $150 million. I don't think there's much more than that out there. I think that the potential in North America for merchandise sales for all bands and all companies is about $150 million is a given year.

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