Fueling the music: Raleigh’s Port Merch plays key backstage role

Chip Taylor, Portmerch.com

by Tracy Davis

photographs by Nick Pironio

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about how bands are actually in the T-shirt business? It’s typically told by the musicians themselves – talented ones – and they’re only half-joking.

Merchandise – “merch,” in the biz – fills the gas tanks and pays a big chunk of the bills for every touring band. Merch is the music itself, be it on CD or vinyl, plus T-shirts, posters, stickers, whatever a band can cook up. Whether your live music plans involve a plush reserved seat in Memorial Auditorium or standing on Lincoln Theatre’s concrete floor, you’re destined to pass by the merch table.

Now going into its seventh year, Raleigh’s homegrown Port Merchandise is the online version of that merch table, and its creator, Chip Taylor, is the friendly guy sitting (virtually) behind it. Port is a leader in the space, combining online sales with Raleigh-based hustle to make the merch world – and through it, the live-music world – a better funded, more vibrant place. Clients include marquee talents like JJ Cale, Jason Isbell, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, but what Taylor does is by definition a behind-the-scenes job. It’s also an important one, and that’s not lost on the artists Port serves.

Bonnie Raitt, for one. During an encore at her recent Greensboro Coliseum show, Raitt sent Taylor an on-stage shout-out thanking him for his help with her merch and the release of her latest record, Slipstream. After the show, the two got a chance to meet in person for the first time.

It was a treat to meet Raitt, Taylor says, though he’s not a picture-taking kind of guy and allows that he doesn’t “do the schmoozing thing very well or very often.”  Instead, he says, “the majority of my time is spent bean counting and bookkeeping, Photoshopping, and basic HTML coding.”  But he likes that he’s bean counting for artists, and when the schmoozing thing does come his way?  “I’m always happy to find out that I work for such nice folks.”

The operation outgrew its basement beginnings long ago, but Port’s most basic function has been the same from day one: A fan orders from a Port client’s online store, and Taylor’s small but mighty staff ships it out the next morning. The crew shares “a dry sense of humor, good taste in music, and colorful vocabulary,” which comes in handy when the hours get long. Occasionally the hours get both long and weird, because Port keeps bands stocked with merch when they’re touring, too. That’s usually as simple as shipping boxes to hotels in advance of a band’s stay, or dropping the goods at a local venue. Other times, it’s not.

“We take pride in being Johnny-on-the-spot for bands that need T-shirts in Poughkeepsie tomorrow night,” Taylor says. That reputation invites some pretty tall orders. He recalls one client’s insistence on using a traveling fan to pick up a bunch of T-shirts at Port’s warehouse for delivery two states away when conventional delivery couldn’t possibly get it there in time. The effort disintegrated into a version of Cannonball Run, involving lost directions, 3 a.m. phone calls, the attention (and ultimately the assistance) of the Raleigh Police Department, and finally, T-shirts handed off in a pouring pre-dawn rain. Yes, the merch made it to the band, and they’re all still pals.

Chip Taylor, Portmerch.comSailing in to Port

A native of Albemarle, Taylor, 43, has always had music in his life. After graduating from Appalachian State in 1993 intending to teach, he took a musical detour to start a band called Sticky. The band had a good four-year run, though Taylor kept his day job and didn’t see it as a lifetime thing. With that out of his system, he married his longtime sweetheart Beth Neel, detoured to Chattanooga, then moved to Raleigh in 2003. Here, Taylor took a job with Raleigh-based artist management group Deep South Entertainment, and started another band on the side: The Port Huron Statement.

Fast forward to 2006, by which time Taylor had a daughter, a son on the way, and a two-part epiphany. First: He needed a more flexible work schedule. Second: Bands needed to be better at selling their stuff. There had to be, Taylor thought, a way to meet both needs, and he thought he knew how to do it. Enlisting a web developer friend as his programming guru, he built an online store system that could be customized for each band. With only a handful of clients to start, he claimed his guest room as his office, his basement as a warehouse, and opened shop.

Today, Port’s self-proclaimed “world headquarters” in a sedate West Raleigh office park is busy and full of music. You hear it and you see it, in all its physical forms. Towering shelves reach the ceiling, piled high with heaps of  T-shirts and stacks of records. Screenprinted posters line the walls.

Port’s clients are a talented and eclectic bunch, and they hang out together on the shelves in a fascinating (but, sadly, silent) merchandise jam. Gorgeous posters for bluegrass group The Black Lillies sit on a table not far from vinyl and shirts from Okkervill River and Over the Rhine. There are some trucker caps here, stickers over there. Merch for Girls Rock NC is squeezed in next to Styx.

If there’s an organizational system in place, it sure is subtle. “Hmm,” Taylor says, glancing around the stockroom. “A system? Yes. Our system is, if it doesn’t sell well, we put it way up high.” That, one presumes, explains those Loverboy bandanas in the rafters.

The system is his alone, and so is his time. He’s in that carpool line for his kids when he needs to be, and he sees lots of really great shows. There’s no office dress code. He likes that Port helps to float the livelihood boat for artists he respects and enjoys. And especially, Taylor says, he appreciates “that moment when I put the needle down on a great album and think, ‘Wow, I had a small part in this.’ ”


For more information, go to portmerch.com.