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Selling art for the first time + What if no one buys

Before departing for a tour in Europe, I gave The Black Seeds Rootfire t-shirts as farewell gifts. A few weeks later a student in Germany saw one of the band members wearing the shirt in Munich and wrote me an email asking if I would send him one.

The student’s name was Arnab and his email changed everything for what Rootfire would become.

My first reaction was to send Arnab the shirt as a gift. Looking back I understand that I feared selling the shirts because… what if no one bought one?

I have always been shy about self-promotion, and at the beginning giving Rootfire shirts away to the band had been uncomfortable for me. When people asked what the shirts meant I said “Rootfire is this thing I am starting, it has to do with connecting people with modern reggae music, and it’s not just a music management company.”

With some hesitation, I responded to Arnab’s email by sending him a thank you note and promised that the shirt would be for sale later that week. I then opened a Topspin store (at the time it cost $20 a month + 15% of sales) and put the shirt on sale for $20. I purposefully did not add shipping and handling charges into the fee because I was still worried that it would prevent Arnab from buying it.

When I sent Arnab the link to the store, to my surprise, he bought the shirt.

Here is how it broke down:

Shipping to Germany cost $14.40, the shirt cost $7.80, and the store was $20 to open + Topspin took a $3 fee from the sale.

Total cost to sell shirt: $45.20

Price paid by Arnab: $20

Net: – $25.20

Ironically if I had sent the shirt for free the breakdown would have been cheaper:

Total cost to send shirt for free (shipping + unit cost): $22.20

Total savings if shirt was free vs. selling it: $3

Of course both the above options lost money, but they offered radically different opportunities for development. In one case, I could continue giving shirts away for free, primarily because it was hard for me to understand that people would be willing to pay for them. That idea is of course unsustainable, because there is no path to profitability.

Alternatively by putting the shirts up for sale, I learned that people placed value on them, which opened the doors for offering additional products that people might buy (vinyl, hats, tanks, etc). Additionally the cost of selling goods would go down as more people bought products, and this would eventually generate positive net income (assuming I added in shipping costs to the fees).

Arnab taught me that someone on the other side of the world could place value on Rootfire, and not only support the idea, but spend money on a product. The first sale gave me confidence to put more ideas into the world through Rootfire and ultimately lead to partnering with Easy Star Records for our first vinyl release, which debuted earlier this month.

This post is part 1 of a 3 part series that focuses on struggles with selling art, and outlining a path to profitability.

Part 2 will discuss the outcomes from selling products under the honor system (where I mailed packages all over the world hoping that people would be inspired to then pay for them), followed by Part 3 – lessons learned by selling merchandise at the California Roots Music & Arts Festival.

As for Arnab, earlier this year he completed his studies to become a doctor (he is now Dr. Arnab Chakrabarty), and moved home to India a few months ago. Arnab was also involved in the recent Rootfire Mixtape 004; he sent the opening song from Seeed before the music was available in the USA.

Thank you Arnab. You inspired me to share an idea with the world, which has greatly changed my life this year.

 

Seth founded Rootfire while he was managing a group of influential modern reggae acts, including The Green, John Brown’s Body, and Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squad. The goal of the project has always been to connect the people who participate in the modern reggae movement.

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Arnab Chakrabarty
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Arnab Chakrabarty

Hey bro! That Arnab is alive and kicking and wearing your T-shirt to everywhere: It went the length and breadth of the Himalayas including to the roof of the world, Ladakh, India and now, the Rootfire black classic size ‘S’ is back in Munich, Germany. I wore it to my favourite ska, dancehall, reggae and hiphop inspired band called Irie Révoltés’ concert last week. I also went to Habib Koite and his band’s concert with that T-shirt.

So here’s a song from Irie Révoltés for you to associate your first sold T-Shirt with (also from Germany). Pura Vida!