Better Than Cheap

I’m listening to the New York Philharmonic’s program “Summertime Classics: Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Friends” (introductions by Alec Baldwin) on SoundCloud, right now, for free. A brief ad was read at the beginning and another toward the end, but nobody ever asked me for any money. My SoundCloud account is free. (Though the Philharmonic’s is not.) The performance has been made available to me by the Philharmonic for free. I could be wrong about our Russian comrades, but I suspect their work is in the public domain and their estates are no longer being compensated for their compositions.

If neither SoundCloud nor the Philharmonic nor the deceased composers are being paid by me, the customer, and the revenue from ads and SoundCloud Pro subscriptions is limited, why is everyone okay with it? Kevin Kelly provided the answers all the way back in 2008 in his seminal post on the economics of the Internet, Better Than Free. “In short,” Kelly wrote, “the money in this networked economy does not follow the path of the copies. Rather it follows the path of attention, and attention has its own circuits.” Both SoundCloud and the Philharmonic are perfectly happy—thrilled, even—to accept our attention as payment, today. Each, of course, would like to collect real money from us at some point in the future.

How will they do this? What do they have to sell that can’t be copied? Kelly lists eight possibilities: immediacy, personalization, intepretation, authenticity, embodiment, patronage, and findability. While SoundCloud does not offer a for-pay service (waiting to be acquired, probs) there are services that you can pay for, depending on which of those generatives you value most. The Philharmonic, for example, makes its performances available on Rdio, a service known for its personalization. Alternatively, if I prefer the Philharmonic to receive the lion’s share of my money, I can buy access to this performance directly from their store. Of course, iTunes and Spotify also carry their recordings. Spotify in particular has had reason recently to claim that theirs is a business in which both they and the artists are thriving—all because not despite living in a universe of super abundant copies.


What does any of this have to do with t-shirts? In our world, things cost money. There’s no way around that. How much money though? Some things are cheap and some things—usually our things, as it turns out—are not. Price is supposed be a simple function of supply and demand. That’s what classical economics teaches us. The number of people that want a thing combined with the available quantity of that thing should yield the price people are willing to pay. In the case of recordings of Tchaikovsky, the supply is infinite—which means price ought to be zero. With t-shirts, the supply isn’t infinite, but it’s certainly quite large, which should make price correspondingly small. While that’s an undeniably valid explanation, it’s not even close to complete. We have to go further. Demand for what? Why shouldn’t you buy a cheaper version of the same thing? I’m glad you asked. Because—and here’s where we blow your mind—there is no cheaper version of the same thing. (Hold that thought, if you can.)

I’m going to introduce one more economic concept here, and that’s the idea of a substitute good. You can read all about it if you like, but the essence is that all goods (things we buy) are in some ways similar to each other and can do the same jobs. You might want a t-shirt to keep yourself warm. You know what could do the job just as well, or better? A blanket or a coat. You might want a t-shirt to make a fashion statement. But a new watch or a stylish haircut might be a better use of your money. After paying your bills and setting aside some money for a rainy day, you may wish to spend some of the money you have left over. You could go to the movies or an amusement park or a restaurant or a concert. Or you could buy a t-shirt. When you think about it that way, the potential supply of “dollars for t-shirts” (that’s just another way of saying the demand for t-shirts) is enormous.

What about the t-shirt itself? Surely we can at least agree on that, you plead. Absolutely. A t-shirt is a t-shirt is a t-shirt… except when it’s not. A t-shirt is not just a t-shirt when you care about, say, how long it will last or whether it boasts your favorite sports team’s logo or your rival’s, or, in fact, whether it has a genuine copy of your team’s logo as opposed to a shoddy ripoff. You might care where and how the shirt was made. In America? By people being fairly compensated and well-treated? It might matter a lot to you if the t-shirt profits are going to a mega-corporation or a mom-and-pop shop. All of these attributes—and many more—are integral parts of what it is exactly that you are purchasing.

There’s an inherent duality or tension in every exchange. Goods are both mere elements on a spectrum of more or less perfect substitutes and utterly unique snowflakes, sui generis bundles of traits that not only can’t be obtained anywhere else but also vary according to the preferences of you, the customer. That’s a long-winded explanation for what I wrote earlier: there is no cheaper version of the same thing.

Let’s talk, then, about how that all applies to Cotton Bureau. First, unequivocally, yes, you can buy cheap t-shirts on the Internet. No, you cannot buy cheap t-shirts (and hoodies and sweatshirts and, someday, hopefully even more things) on Cotton Bureau. Cotton Bureau t-shirts qua t-shirts are nowhere near the bottom of the price spectrum. If the price of your shirt is critical, by all means, shop somewhere else. Shop at Walmart or Woot or any of a thousand million other places you can buy cheap t-shirts. Just know that you, friend, are not buying the same thing that we are selling. You think we are selling t-shirts, expensive t-shirts. We are not. We are selling quality. We are selling community. We are selling convenience. We are selling authenticity. We are selling longevity. We are selling trust.

Every time you buy a shirt from Cotton Bureau, you know it’s going to be a good one. We work with a tremendous local print shop, and we pack every order right here in our office by hand. If—this happens every so often—there is a problem, you know Sara is going to take care of you. When you come to the site, the selection is guaranteed to be fantastic—unique designs in a diverse array of styles from the best graphic designers in the world printed on a growing variety of product types. We are absolutely committed to making Cotton Bureau a haven for designers and people that love design, a place to support and be supported. You + us + designers is an iron triangle of awesomeness. Every feature we add that makes it easier to check out, easier to follow designers your care about, easier to see what’s new; every design that goes to print; every shirt and hoodie that we deliver; every new year that we’re in business; every soul-searching blog post that we write only strengthens those relationships. You believe in what we’re doing because we’ve been straight with you from the beginning. We don’t have investors, we have customers. We don’t exploit designers, we pay them. We don’t sell cheap t-shirts. We sell the incarnation of our blood, sweat, and tears—and we do it at a fair, sustainable price. That is what nobody else can copy.


Many, many, many of you have supported us in the past and are supporting us right now because the ideas expressed above are meaningful to you, and we love you for it. Let’s pause for just a second to celebrate that support and the fact that the number of t-shirts, hoodies, and sweatshirts we sell each month is enough to pay our bills. Cotton Bureau is a business—a small one and a young one, but a business nonetheless, not a startup without revenue or one just hoping the numbers begin to add up before the play money runs out—that pays a living wage to every person working on its behalf and still manages to pay designers real money. (If making a big pile of money by growing quickly and selling out was what we wanted to do, we would have raised funding a long time ago.) We will continue to make Cotton Bureau better for as long as people keep coming back to us with new designs and you all keep buying them. We are beyond thrilled that each day we come into the office we get to work on improving Cotton Bureau for the long haul. We have ourselves a real, sustainable business. We might be biased, but that sounds a whole lot better than cheap t-shirts to us.

If you think so too, we covet your support. Share this blog post, subscribe to the RSS feed, follow us on Twitter, join the newsletter, buy a shirt, tell a friend—we can’t do this without you.