Spotify, iTunes, Pandora, SoundCloud and the like have made discovering new music easy, but it wasn't so long ago that the process took real effort. You had to visit a record store, maybe pore over some music magazines. Or, if you were into punk rock, you'd keep an eye on your favorite distro.
Distros were mail-order repositories of independent music and merch. They also functioned as tastemakers of sorts. There still are a handful of distros out there, but times have changed. For Lawrence's best-known distro, Blue Collar Distro, the cultural shifts hit a boiling point in 2008. The phone stopped ringing.
"When the stock market crashed," owner Sean Ingram says, "we saw an immediate effect here. ... Business stopped. Immediately. Done. Seriously, I had my guys cleaning presses for two weeks. It was horrible."
When The Pitch checked in with the youthful Blue Collar in early 2005, the business was somewhat nascent but already printing T-shirts for well-known bands, including Linkin Park and Dashboard Confessional. The press was operating in downtown Eudora, Kansas, and just beginning to expand into poster printing, principally for local bands and businesses. It later relocated to a larger (and more expensive) space in Lawrence and continued to grow, adding bigger touring bands and distribution for more and more labels and artists.
"Back then, the music scene was different, what was selling was different, how people bought things was really different," Ingram says. "Music was the big driver."
When the crash hit, Ingram recognized that it was time to adapt. And he has. Today, if you go to Blue Collar's website, you still find local music well represented, with merch available from such acts as Coalesce (Ingram is the frontman), Cowboy Indian Bear, Matt Pryor, Mac Lethal, RecordBar and more. But you also see a much wider range of products and customers, including distribution and merchandise for such record labels as Kill Rock Stars and Mad Decent (Diplo's label), the Hold Steady, and a slate of stand-up comedians. Blue Collar even sells sports equipment for the underground sport of bike polo. (It manufactures proprietary equipment for the mallets and bikes.)
"We started the promotions — things like whistles, lighters, weed grinders, the bike stuff — pretty soon after then ," Ingram says. "I remember we were reading an AP article about one of our bands, a band that accounted for, like, 40 percent of our business that year or the year before. And it's about how they were dealing with drug issues and had broken up without announcing it. I was reading it like, 'Oh my God, I was out of a job like five times and didn't even know it.' "
In search of another revenue stream, Burton Parker, a co-owner at Blue Collar, began pursuing comedians and podcast hosts as potential customers. Blue Collar's comedy ranks now include Denis Leary, Jonah Ray, Pete Holmes, Maria Bamford and Marc Maron (host of one of the Web's most successful podcasts, WTF with Marc Maron).
Perhaps the biggest change of all for Blue Collar is the one that will take the longest to implement: The name "Blue Collar Distro" is eventually going away, to be subsumed by merchtable.com, a format for an artist's merchandise that integrates directly onto the artist's website (rather than originating at Blue Collar's site). "For example," Ingram says, "when you go to Mad Decent or Diplo's websites, you're not even going to know that we're doing it. They've got the customer's own undivided attention." (Blue Collar's T-shirt press will retain its name.)
But Blue Collar's original DIY spirit is still strong. Employees take turns on DJ duty. Watching Riff Raff videos online qualifies as keeping up with the client base. The business is also working on a platform that will enable users to build custom bikes, and one of Blue Collar's employees, Craig Bolivar, is working on a special limited-edition vinyl release of the music from the Star Wars trilogy, for which he managed to acquire the vinyl rights. (Ingram jokes: "Soon, I'll be working for him."). And judging by how full the company's current space is, a move to an even larger building seems imminent.
Ingram shrugs. "The thing is, nobody knows what a distro is anymore," he says. "It's just a carryover from the punk days."