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Silver Spring’s Lionize can lay claim to a unique stat: This summer, the band will be the first to perform at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival and on the Vans Warped Tour in the same year. It makes sense: The band plays heavy reggae, a sub-genre that borrows equally from Sublime’s alt-ska and jam bands’ blissed out grooves. Last year, Lionize’s album Space Pope and the Glass Machine won a Doobie award from High Times magazine for best reggae/soul record of 2010, even beating out Hasidic reggae superstar Matisyahu.
But this isn’t a story about Lionize. It’s a story about their merch guy.
When Lionize ends its set and the lights go dim, 23-old-year Adam Jimenez goes to work. He snakes through the crowd looking for converts who could use a copy of the quartet’s new album, Destruction Manual. “Usually, I hit them with a ‘Hey, did you see Lionize play tonight? What did you think?’” Jimenez says. “If they say, ‘Oh, yeah, they were great.’ I’d say, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll hook you up with a deal here: two CDs for $10.’”
Conventional wisdom holds that these days, records are loss-leaders for tours, which is where a band has to make most of its money. That’s true, which is why Lionize plays more than 200 shows a year, sometimes opening for well-known holdovers of alt-rock and ska like Clutch, CKY, and Streetlight Manifesto. The group has backed dub legend Lee “Scratch” Perry on several tours.
But the band can’t make a living on the performances alone: Sometimes it gets guarantees as high as a few thousand dollars, but more often, it’s closer to a couple hundred. Factor in the off-stage variables that plague any traveling band—vans that break down, rising gas prices—and even a whole year’s worth of tour dates is a risky situation. Sales of T-shirts and CDs can make up to 60 percent of Lionize’s gross on a tour.
“Merchandise is where bands make their money now,” says Lionize frontman Nate Bergman, 28.
On tour, Jimenez provides something of a safety net if the guarantee is low. (On the other hand, an unreceptive crowd can kill merch sales.) He doubles as roadie: After Lionize arrives at a venue, Jimenez will spend most of his day there helping the band load in, setting up his show-time workplace, and negotiating with promoters. Many venues will collect a portion of the total merchandise sales, and it’s up to Jimenez to fight for Lionize.
Bergman says some venues take away as much as 30 percent of merch sales, though Jimenez says it’s typically 10 percent—perhaps a sign that he’s got a real knack for the job.
It’s not a great living. Jimenez makes enough to get by touring most of the year; when Lionize isn’t on the road, he lives in the basement of his dad’s house in Olney. But touring with Lionize has been something of a redemptive experience for Jimenez.
Jimenez was a high-school junior when he met Bergman, then the manager of Asylum Wake Skate Snow in Bethesda. “[Jimenez] hung around so much that eventually we gave him a job there,” Bergman says.
Jimenez’s talents as a salesman were apparent even then. “He’s a people person, which is the No. 1 requirement,” Bergman says. “You need to have a way with people. Being affable, but also being able to control chaotic situations.”
Jimenez graduated from Blake High School in 2006, and worked a number of skateboard-related jobs, including a short stint in 2009 at a skate park in Tampa, Fla. (He helped a friend move there, and when his girlfriend back home dumped him, he decided to stay.) He returned to Maryland in fall 2009, and was unemployed for four months. He was feeling lost. Then, last February, Jimenez met up with some friends where he bumped into Bergman. Two days later, Bergman offered Jimenez the full-time merchandiser job. He’d never left the East Coast.
“They saved me, man,” Jimenez says. “They literally saved me.”