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John Vilanova

John Vilanova is a journalist and Ph.D candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania whose work investigates the racial and gendered power dynamics of the mainstream music industry. He is writing a dissertation about the GRAMMY Awards

“I’m Not the Drummer’s Girlfriend”: Merch Stands, Merch Girls, and the Gendered Dynamics of Live Music’s Backline Labor
A ubiquitous part of the live concert is the merch stand, where fans purchase apparel, recordings, and other memorabilia before and after the performance. As recording royalties plummet, merchandise sales at live shows are becoming a larger part of a musician’s income (Kafka, 2003), but adding additional paid labor to a tour can often impact a band’s fragile bottom line. This opens the door for a variety of precarious and volunteer laborers—friends, partners, spouses—including the archetypal proprietor of the stand, the fabled “merch girl.” This multi-media project proposal situates the “merch girl” within a music industry ecosystem, querying the gendered dynamics of industrial participation; the inter-personal dynamics of the “merch girl,” her customers, and co-workers; and the place of the merch stand as a site of tactical belonging. Who sells merch and how does the complicated stereotype of the “merch-girl”, a term so embedded in popular culture it has spawned a young-adult novel (Lewis, 2014), various filmic treatments, and a graphic novel (Murs, Blaylock & Garcia, 2012), affect women working in an industry already rife with pervasive sexism?

Part of an ongoing creative project on the merch stand that combines video interviews and photography with traditional academic writing, this presentation, drawn from a series of ethnographic interviews with merch stand workers, expands our understanding of an under-studied area of creative industries labor while still keeping-in-place an emphasis on the music industry as a gendered culture (Leonard, 2017). The music industry remains an under-theorized industrial organization, where backline creative and creative-adjacent laborers find their contributions to the industrial apparatus missing from academic study. This presentation highlights an overlooked and complex figure, without whom the live music ecosystem could not function, and with whom the industry’s complicated gender dynamics are laid bare in ways worth investigating.