Blue Collar began when it became apparent that local musicians wanted a way to commission band merchandise for themselves without having to go out of state.
"We wanted to cater specifically to bands so that people could sell T-shirts for 10 bucks and actually make 5 bucks," says Sean Ingram, Blue Collar's president.
The simplicity of that idea meant that Blue Collar didn't have to, you know, grow up or anything. For instance, the company has a little rule when it comes to salespeople who enter the company's building in Eudora -- an air horn sitting near the entrance must be blown until the salesperson leaves.
An unsuspecting member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who unwittingly stops by on a recent afternoon is spared the horn. But he is still sent away as a person of little consequence.
"Chamber of Commerce doesn't count," Ingram explains as the man walks out the door.
And though Blue Collar started small by creating band merch for local acts, it's no longer peddling in chump change. The business typically works on items for about 20 bands at a time, ranging from Linkin Park, Dashboard Confessional, the Blood Brothers and Hoobastank to small local bands still struggling to get on their feet. Then there's Blue Collar's Web site, which offers an impressive array of products -- the obligatory band pins, T-shirts, CDs and sweatshirts as well as Blue Collar products and toys, such as T-shirts with messages like "Jesus is my leadoff man" (think Red Sox), the inexplicable "I'm all gay about hobbits and shit," and the political "Mideast Jihad! Midwest Yeehaw!"
Though Ingram insists, "This is now a business -- this is no longer a punk-rock press," the employees' behavior reflects an environment that embraces youth, the humor that goes with it and the belief in the importance of local music. Nary an employee, including Ingram, has reached the 30-year mark, and most aren't even close.
But if it's working, screw being mature. When someone placed a Kris Kobach sign on the lawn in front of the company's building before last November's election, Blue Collar's Jim David was inspired to run for the office of state coroner as "Duffy Bullcock." Flashy red-white-and-blue signs were pressed and displayed in front of Blue Collar emblazoned with a picture of "Bullcock" and the campaign slogan "Because the Duff Knows Some Stuff ... About Dead Things." Come November 2, Bullock earned a nod from at least one Eudoran:
"I voted for you," Burton Parker, Blue Collar's Web guru, tells David.
Despite its success with national acts, Blue Collar keeps most of its business local, which has made the company vital to a staggering list of regional musicians. And whereas the vast majority of the company's business comes from bands, Blue Collar represents various other local ventures, such as University of Kansas student radio station KJHK 90.7, Black Lodge Recording Studios, Lawrence.com, and KRBZ 96.5.
"We really have fun with this," Ingram says. "This is a company where everyone who works here is in a band or is a big fan of music. We're kind of like a family, or even a band. Well, at least the drinkers."
The employees' firsthand experience with the music business may indeed be a big factor in the company's success. To them, it's intuitive what will work for a band and what won't. They are a dysfunctional and piecemeal type of family, with employees who are or have been members of some of the area's biggest acts, including Coalesce, the Get Up Kids, the Anniversary, the Only Children, Filthy Jim and Koufax.
Take last month's Jimmy Eat World, Donnas and New Amsterdams show: Blue Collar employees secured their backstage passes partly with the intention of continuing a scuffle between the Donnas and Blue Collar employees Jim David and Josh Berwanger that began when David and members of his old band, the Anniversary, encountered the pop rockers at a party in Cleveland a couple of years ago.
"I grabbed a, like, hundred-degree Budweiser, just took a sip, and it was gross," David explains. "So I smashed the can, and it just douches [Donnas singer] Brett Anderson in the face. It was like a movie scene where the record scratches and everybody stops. I got slammed against the wall, and we got kicked out. We were trying to leave, sitting in the Superdrag van, when [Donnas bass player] Maya Ford comes out, opens the door ... coming in swinging. So Josh and I just lean back, put our feet on her head, and shoved her out."
"And then they wrote a song about it," Parker chimes in.
"Yeah," David says, laughing. "'Who Invited You?' But their story was different."
Ingram -- like any good older brother would -- had ideas about how to handle Blue Collar's reunion with the Donnas at the December show at the Uptown Theater.
"We had beans and red wine," Ingram begins.
"Sean was starting his own incident," David interjects.
"But nothing happened," Ingram says. He sighs. "We just got pretty drunk."
No matter how much red wine and beans the company consumes -- or how many bassists or members of the Chamber of Commerce they have to expel -- Blue Collar isn't planning to move its operations anywhere (other than maybe back to Lawrence) anytime soon. However, the company is looking to expand its product line to include skateboards, stickers and more posters.
But don't expect stoic maturity to accompany Blue Collar's growth. Most burgeoning businesses have coffee breaks and water-cooler conversations. Here, a minimotorcycle sits by the front door waiting to be crashed in the foyer by employees who have built ramps out of extra shelving. After that, it's only a matter of time before another air-horn-worthy salesperson walks through the door, erasing all semblance of workplace professionalism once again.