Alex Smith: More Than Your Average Merch Guy
By Samantha Warren
When you go to shows, you meet a bunch of cool people in the industry. For most bands they have a regular merch person. Most of the time a lot of them have a cool background story. How they know the band, what they do on the side, or if they even have a line of merch on their own. I was recently at a Sleep On It show and chatted with Alex Smith, who told me a bit about his business and that he’s a writer. I was curious to learn more about him, and he was awesome enough to agree to an email interview with us. We talk about Alex’s business, Pateron Blogs, How he got into the music industry, and much more. Check out the questions below.
1.) I first wanted to thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me today. For our readers who don’t know who you are, can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
Sure! Simply put, I’m a merch person for the pop punk band Sleep On It who also has been documenting their rise in a series of writings I call “The Merch Life: Tour Journals.” I travel with the band, do all my obligations as a merch person and then write about each of our days while we are out on the road. Typically, I don’t have a lot of time to write, so I usually forgo editing and sometimes sleeping in order to get the daily journal written.
2.) How did you get into touring and being able to be on the road with Sleep on it? What advice would you give to people breaking out into the industry trying to do what you do with other bands?
Well for me personally, I got in with Sleep On It because I was friends with Teddy Horansky (guitarist) before the band was created. When they needed help at their first handful of shows, I just offered up help. When they started touring while we were in college they invited me (for no pay) to come with and I just thought it was a neat thing to do with my friends and then it all just snowballed.
As far as advice for other people, I think the key is to start small in your local scene, befriend local bands that may need help, and be willing to do that help for little to no pay. For a long time starting out it’s a labor of love more than a viable job. (I’m still reliant on a job when I’m home, as is Sleep On It.) Make yourself available for when Warped Tour comes through town and be willing to volunteer when those types of shows go through. Growing your network is important, and you have to prove you can do the work before someone is willing to take you with them.
And if you’re looking to be like me (which I encourage), find a way to alleviate the financial burden on the band by finding ways to make your own money on the road. For me, that’s my personal webstore (www.TheMerch.Life) and my Patreon (www.patreon.com/tourjournals). Options (other than writing) could be like… being a photographer who sells prints or an artist who does freelance graphic design work in your off time.
3.) What’s your favorite thing about being on the road? What’s your least favorite thing and how to you deal with it while on the road? How do you guys kill time on long car rides?
I really love interacting with fans/friends when I’m on the road. I love meeting new people who are passionate about music, talented artists, or just fans who are there to rock out. I also feel like I should mention my love for food. Teddy and I make it a point to try any and all local cuisine whenever we can afford to go eat out.
My least favorite thing on the road is the mental stress and anxiety involved with dealing with personal finances. Nobody wants to eat fast food all the time, but you have to because healthier options are typically out of budget. Dealing with it usually involves skipping meals, or just being money conscious and being sure to save up as much money pre-tour.
During the long drives people generally catch up on sleep. Aj Khah (bassist) sometimes sets up a game console for us to pass time playing video games or watching a movie. Of course music is an option, but that wears on you. When it’s real late at night, the driver and copilot typically just find stupid stuff to talk about. Anything is an available topic. Anything that can keep your mind occupied.
Recently, we’ve gotten into playing Dungeons and Dragons during drives! I get to be the Dungeon Master while Jake, Teddy, Aj and Zech play along. (Luka drives during this time.) It’s fun to escape the monotony of endless nothingness by venturing somewhere in our imagination.
4.) Can you describe to us what a typical day on tour is like?
There’s not really a “typical day.” But I reckon if you read the Tour Journals the standard timeline is:
Wake up early
Drive to the venue
Spend way too long looking for parking
Unload/Set up merch table
Then when doors open I’m at the table until the show ends
Drive until we go to sleep in a parking lot
Punctuate all that with random events, encounters and shenanigans, because on tour absolutely nothing goes as plan.
5.) You also have your own clothing line. What made you want to start selling your own merch and how did you come up with your, “Alex Fucking Smith” logo? How did you start up yourown business while touring?
So the “Alex Fucking Smith” brand is a way to differentiate myself from the other hundred thousand people named “Alex Smith” in this country. (including a girl I went to highschool with and the NFL Quarterback.) My grandmother, who was a long time college professor in Tennessee, never liked how much I openly cussed (especially on social media). Being the asshole/rebel that I am, I set out to prove to her that under the right circumstances you can make cussing part of your brand. I really started to push this when I was at DePaul University studying Video Game Design, and became known professionally as Alex Fucking Smith when I crowdfunded and released my own card game I See What You Did There.
Selling my own merch (including my original shirts and books) was a way for me to try to make money while I was on the road. Generally I’m lazy and avoid getting “real” jobs at any cost, plus I have an aversion to authority so it just made sense to be my own boss. WWW.TheMerch.Life webstore is really just an extension of my Tour Journals, and is only necessary because I need a platform to sell my book and I didn’t trust other websites to house my product when I can just do it myself. It all came about with the help of my good friend/manager Connor Skelly, who helps a great deal with the whole business aspect of what I’m doing.
6.) How do you balance your business while on the road? What do you think is your biggest key to your success?
When I’m on the road I put the business in the hands of Connor Skelly. He handles orders, answers emails and helps with @The_Merch_Life Twitter when I’m out and about. If this thing is going to keep growing, he’s a huge part in facilitating that. So far, my biggest key to success has been my relationship with Sleep On It. Without them allowing me to be myself (and encouraging my nonsense), I don’t think any of this would be possible. The relationship is symbiotic; I help them on tour and they give me a platform to be an idiot. It’s great.
7.) I’m also a fan of your Patreon blogs and have a Patreon myself. When you first started writing were you ever worried that being too blunt about the tour life experiences would backfire? How do you decide what goes into your blog posts and what doesn’t?
Firstly, thank you so much for being a patron! When I first started doing this 3 years ago, I had no idea how people were going to react. I wasn’t “afraid” but I was absolutely interested in hearing people’s opinions. Early on it was a lot of friends and family reading it, so their opinion was probably biased. But I was constantly told people truly enjoyed what I was doing, so I kept on. I’ve definitely refined my writing over the years, but the content and the heart has stayed the same. By that, I mean I do my best not to leave anything out. The good times and the bad are all present in my writing. The process is pretty simple and transparent: I sit down and zone out while my fingers go until they stop. Thewonderful thing about touring with Sleep On It is that they’re fantastic humans. We do fun and sometimes dumb things, but it’s never grotesque or obscene, so I don’t ever have to curate my writing. What you read is my best attempt to represent our day the best I can. If people don’t like it, then that’s fine. That’s not going to stop me from doing my thing.
8.) What do you do when you aren’t on tour? Do you have any other side projects that you’re currently working on besides your business? Do you work with any other bands besides Sleep on it?
So far I’ve only worked with Sleep On It. Currently, I’ve been doing work transitioning The Road to Riot Fest Tour Journals into a physical book (that’s available now for pre-order!) I sometimes do contract work for video game companies, most recently I worked at NetherRealm Studios on the game Injustice 2. I always have some personal project (mostly game related) that I am working on but for the most part my main focus is The Merch Life. But come January, I’m going to be looking for a more stable source of income to offset the lull in touring. Maybe writing, maybe more contract work. Who knows. If the Patreon takes off, I would love to dedicate more time to that. It’s all a matter of getting people comfortable with the idea that a merch person has their own hustle outside of the band they work with.
9.) Would you like to add in anything that I may not have asked? Do you have any last words for us?
Well I have the new book (The Road to Riot Fest Tour Journals) coming out that people can pre-order today ( www.TheMerch.Life/preorder ). The goal is to ship those out in early November right before Sleep On It hits the road with Waterparks. And they can use the promo code: BTS15 to get 15% off any order in The Merch Life webstore (by 10/31) as a special thanks for taking the time to read this.
Be sure to follow me and my shenanigans on Twitter: @Im_Alex_Smith
And if you want to follow the action when I’m on the road with Waterparks (and get reunited with our dear friends in As It Is) be sure to sign up to the patreon: www.patreon.com/tourjournals
It’s simple, and you can pay what you want! It goes a long way to ensuring I get to keep documenting the rise of Sleep On It.
Lastly I just wanted to say thank you, this was fun!