The Merch Church is a merchandising store located at Railways Cafe in Irene. It was started in August 2017 by Hugene Koekemoer, Tristan Green dos Santos and Tiago Wepener. Hugene and Tristan are two members of Scarlotte Will, amongst other projects, and Tiago was behind the clothing brand Jammer Meneer. I spoke to Tristan to get a bit more information on the idea behind it all.

In the past, bands have always had to lug all of their merch (or however much they hoped to sell) along with them to shows. Personally, I felt that this practise was extremely unpractical, as well as risky on a band’s part, for risk of theft or damaging of merch. Was this issue the inspiration behind The Church or was it something else?

I think what inspired the idea was the fact that as musicians ourselves, we just had overall bad experience with merch from the start. It’s expensive and impractical to organise and run the merch side of the band unless you have investments or inherited a small fortune. Also, the window of opportunity to sell your merch is limited to live shows and online (something South Africans seem to be behind with). So unless you have an extra person there who is willing and able to run your merch on the night you’re pretty limited. Frustrating, but it pushed us to come up with solutions for bands/artists specifically. So, we now have the opportunity to handle and sell the artists’ merch as a full time retailer as well as on performance nights.

Besides The Greek Merchant, there hasn’t really been a local provider of band merchandise over the past couple of years, which is strange considering the boom in our local music scene over the past fifteen years. Did you see this as a gap in the market?

If there had been any projects similar to this one, it had to be a small and unknown venture otherwise this would have existed already. What really surprised me was that no one had one this already. The gap was as clear as daylight.

When it started out, you guys mostly stocked merch from a handful of bands from who regularly perform at Railways. That catalogue has expanded to more than 50 artists at the time of writing. What do you attribute the fast growing success to?

Most importantly, the bands/artists that first trusted us with their merch, Railways for openly allowing us to be a part of their venue and for believing in us, and of course the public. There are countless people thanking us for doing the work we do because it exposes local music. And it’s them, the public, buying these artists’ merch.

There is also an online store for people outside of the Gauteng area who would like to purchase merchandise. Has the online store been as busy as the physical store or do people still prefer the old school way of doing business?

As mentioned above, it seems that South Africans are just not as interested in e-commerce. It’s definitely growing as the interest outside of our local sphere grows but it’s something to work towards and achieve within the next year. I think as we grow as a business, we’ll be able to connect with more and more people who are looking for such a service. Old school walk-in business is the most popular. People want to see and touch the product.

Besides the selling of merch, screen printing is also a part of your business. Is this mainly a way for artists who don’t have their own suppliers to get their merch done?

Yes. The main idea is to encourage bands/artists who don’t have T-Shirts already to get them done without breaking the bank. It’s also to develop somewhat of a central place where the bands can get their merch done and have it done by artists. For artists, by artists. We don’t want artists to struggle with large corporate printers who often don’t really care who the client is. We’ve got your back!

There is merchandise from established acts like Shortstraw, The Tazers, Pollinator and Scarlotte Will, as well as from fresh bands Misty Milk and HAWK with everything in between. How would bands go about having their merch stocked by you?

Generally we’d get into contact with the band/artist when they have an upcoming show at railways. They’ll “sign in” whatever they want to be sold in the shop and we sell it on consignment agreement. Bands can drop off their march at anytime and we’ll stock and sell it.

It feels like every base is covered in the way you go about the The Merch Church, with every band you stock even having a biography on your website. You and Hugene have been in a multitude of bands over the past couple of years. Do you think that grants you more of an insight on how to properly manage the artist aspect of the business?

I definitely think It formed the way we approached this whole project. We would always complain among ourselves about how we would handle and do things if we ever had the power and opportunity. We know how artists are treated and its pretty much “Bottom of the food chain” territory in most cases, so from our side we want to try make at least one aspect of this industry a bit more approachable and affordable for artists.

Thanks for the time and input into the inner workings of The Merch Church, Tristan.

For any interested parties, be it bands or fans, you can reach The Merch Church on Facebook and Instagram, or visit their website.

If the personal touch is more your prerogative, give them a visit at Railways Cafe in Irene. They’re open whenever Railways is open.