If the Black Crowes Adapted to Ecommerce During the Pandemic, So Can You
The band's manager talks about how he got the brothers Robinson to not only reunite, but make the best of this summer by opening a new digital retail shop.
It's no secret that the Black Crowes — helmed on and off for the past three decades by brothers Chris and Rich Robinson — have had their differences. Nevertheless, as the 30th anniversary of their 1990 debut LP, Shake Your Money Maker, neared, the sibling songwriters saw the light of reason and announced a celebratory reunion tour. The 46-date nationwide swing was supposed to take place this June through September. That, of course, was waylaid once the coronavirus eclipsed all other concerns. For a band with multiple hiatuses due to interpersonal accord on its ledger, this was one deferment that was purely a force of nature.
The Crowes hope to reboot the endeavor in 2021, but in the interim, they and their manager, Mark DiDia, faced a conundrum: How do we continue to generate income and maintain enthusiasm for a band whose connection to its fan base is deeply rooted in the live experience? And so, in this instance, all parties were on the same page that it was time to launch the band's first official digital retail store in nearly a decade. Thus, earlier this month, shop.theblackcrowes.com — a collaboration with music-industry merch and branding titan Bravado — was launched as a one-stop shop for classic and newly designed Crowes tees, hoodies, hats et al.
We caught up with DiDia, who was hanging at his house in Los Angeles, for a phone conversation about the prevailingly analog-minded band's willingness to ramp up ecommerce efforts, enticing fans more accustomed to buying directly from vendors at arenas and how the pandemic has already changed how the Crowes intend to stay in the black for some time to come.
What was the thought process behind being proactive with the band's ecommerce side during this delay?
We had this whole plan to get back together and reconcile and celebrate the 30th anniversary of Shake Your Money Maker and do 50 shows this summer and go to Europe this fall. We announced our reunion on Howard Stern and did a bunch of promo, and everything was rolling; tickets were selling. And we had just made this deal with Bravado, and the ecommerce site was kind of going to be, not an afterthought, but it was kind of secondary. So when Covid hit, we obviously had to scramble a bit like everyone else and look for ways to try to garner some income for the guys, cause you're going to move a lot more merch on tour than you will online. So we decided to ramp up and announce and market our ecommerce store.
Did it feel like a brave new world for a band that tended to keep things esoteric?
They had an ecommerce store 10 years ago, but obviously ecommerce wasn't where it is now. We feel good about it. We only launched a few items on the store just to start, but there's a bunch of initiatives coming, and we'll be doing digital mailers and a lot of advertising.
So there was no resistance from the band?
They laid down their guns with each other, the brothers, and one of the things we talked about from early days is if we're going to do this, we're going to do it right. We're going to go celebrate the anniversary of the record. We're going to play hits. They never actually even played that record in its entirety back when it was out, you know what I mean? This is a commercial adventure as much as it is an artistic adventure, so no resistance at all. They both helped with the designs. Mainly Chris has a bunch of artist friends over the years that we tapped into to come up with some of these designs. The ones that are on the store now are kind of just more of the generic Shake Your Money Maker era, but we have close to 30, 40 designs. We were saving most of them for tour, but now, since we're not touring, we're going to start rolling those out. It's also the first time the band's ventured into retail. They've never, ever allowed the Hot Topics or Targets of the world to license their brand and band. We just approved Hot Topic, and we're about to do a lot more of that. We're going to get into socks and masks and everything else.
How do you decide what gets saved for your store versus what gets approved for outside retail?
It's small steps right now. We picked seven of the better designs to introduce to our fan base. We presented a deck to retail, and Hot Topic picked one, and they're about to start featuring that on their ecommerce sites, and more will be coming the next few weeks. We want to focus everyone for now on the Shake Your Money Maker era because it's the anniversary year.
We also have a box set coming, which we'll be rolling out mainly on ecommerce sites — the Amazons of the world and our own universe. It's a three-album, three-disc box set. There's a live album that was recorded back on that first tour in 1990, that's going to be part of the box. That stuff's coming between now and Christmas.
Were you worried about getting fans so wedded to the live experience to shop on the site?
Well, we did a lot of business on Nugs, which is a live ecommerce site where you can buy old Black Crowes shows from back in the day. And we were going to tour this summer; we were going to be releasing all those shows online. There are some fans who are old school and engage with the band as they go and see them on tour who are not inclined to be e-consumers. Our fans still like physical product and DVDs, which is why we're excited about this box set, because it's going to be mainly physical. You'll be able to listen to it on Spotify and all that, but we feel pretty good about selling physical product, and we're going to be doing T-shirt bundles with it.
So there's a little bit of: If you build the ecommerce site while it's the only way for people to be engaged with the band, they will come.
We hope so. I mean, where else are people shopping right now? You can't go to the mall. An income stream for a mainly touring band right now is pretty limited. You have your ecommerce sites, your merchants in your physical goods, people are fooling around with these pay-per-view live streams. We did one actually with Chris and Rich playing acoustic songs from their homes that ran up in Canada. Besides that, it's your publishing money and your royalty money and whatever licensing you can get. This band was never really one to approve any commercial syncs or licenses, but you know, we're up for a Ford commercial right now. We'll do stuff like that.
Essentially, you're being entrepreneurial in the way you're reintroducing the band.
Cause of Covid, that's half the battle, right? The guys are open to ideas, they're still young and want to work, so it's great.
Were there any technical hiccups in readying the site for launch?
No, not at all. There's no bells and whistles really yet, but we wanted to start small, and we'll grow it as it goes. We didn't want to print a bunch of shirts until we knew what kind of demand we had. So we're in a preorder phase for a couple of weeks, and then once we get our tallies, we'll start printing and packing and shipping.
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Have any of these recent adjustments informed how you might run the band when they're back out on the road?
Yeah, I would say the first thing this has helped me to realize is costs. When you strike a deal with Live Nation for 50 shows and you look at your grosses and start doing your budgets and paying bus companies and staging and lighting and sound and crew, it definitely makes you look at everything. You know: Do we have to pay this that much? If we're all taking haircuts next year or the next couple of years until the live business gets back to where we think it's going to go — and we all think it's going to get stronger once this passes — what it's done is make me look at all of our numbers. I was maybe not paying as much attention as I should. It's led me to really dig down deep and look at everything and kind of pinch every penny, cause you have to.