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Merch Tent is an online platform founded by Adam Kreeft and Heather Kelly, both of whom have worked in the music industry for over a decade, with the intention to support the independent music scene. Though at first the focus was to forge partnerships with venues to facilitate the sale of artists' merchandise online, the pandemic prompted a pivot into selling uniquely designed merchandise to help bars stay above water.
The idea to collaborate with bars came about after Kreeft and Kelly stumbled upon a conversation with Charlotte Mars, an artist and bartender at Sweaty Betty's and Black Dice. Their platform already existed, but Mars helped to bring the local bar campaign into fruition by reaching out to her contacts on the bar scene and lending her design skills.
Part of Merch Tent's mission is to add substance to standard methods of monetary support.
"Instead of just blindly donating $25 to save a bar, why not do it in a way where you get something in return?" they said.
For example, Black Dice––owned by Hideki Saito––is one of the bars they've supported through merch sales.
"We were able to go in with a turn-key model of 'here's a way to generate revenue were gonna handle it for you, all you need to do is share it on your socials.'"
In other words, Kreeft and Kelly are alleviating the burden of bar owners having to find funding without any help or resources, and they've witnessed the impact of their efforts first hand. Something as simple as bar merch can help to form a real sense of community. According to Kelly, Saito felt that having his customers support him by wearing their custom merch showed that they cared about the bar and had his back.
"We dropped some shirts off a couple of weeks ago and [Saito] was so excited. People were showing up at the bar to grab beers to go, wearing the shirt," she said.
Each item has a unique design conceptualized by Mars, and her idea for the Black Dice shirt features a widely recognizable image.
"There's a sticker in the bathroom that's just kind of iconic to the bar and that's what was designed on the shirt, so anybody that's been to the bar, knows of this sticker," said Mars. "It's kind of an inside joke for everybody."
It is also worth mentioning that all merch is pre-ordered, meaning they only make as many garments as there are purchased. Working to a pre-order model ties perfectly into the notion of sustainability, a seminal pillar of Merch Tent's ethos.
"For us, it was about not wanting to contribute to the problem. We wanted to make organic or recycled garments more affordable or accessible," they said.
Merch Tent has built relationships with local suppliers who make garments using environmentally friendly materials. Additionally, they also ship locally within the GTA to reduce travel distances, and are shifting into using compostable and biodegradable mailers, as well as carbon neutral shipping.
Merch Tent have tapped into perhaps the defining feature of the independent music and bar scene––loyal and long-standing followers who want exclusive made-to-order items. The last thing regular customers want is to see their favourite bar go under, which is why they flock to show support, especially when it comes in the form of a uniquely designed piece of clothing.