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When His Punk Dream Faded, This Kansas City Rocker Saw The Future Was In Merch

R.L. Brooks
In the 2000s, R.L. Brooks' band Flee the Seen broke out big. But his real key to success was on the merch table.

If you’ve been to a rock show and bought a T-shirt, there’s a chance it was made in a non-descript factory on Merriam Drive just off of I-35.

That’s the site of R.L. Brooks's  Seen Merch, where high-speed screen-printing machines can turn out more than a thousand rock-and-roll T-shirts an hour.

Brooks doesn’t like to brag, but his clients include some of the world’s biggest stars.

“Blondie, Led Zeppelin, Willie Nelson, Blood Orange,” he says, ticking off a list that also includes Kansas City-based acts like Mac Lethal and Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear.

“We work across the whole world,” Brooks says.

He oversees 26 employees in two states. They design and print those T-shirts, along with posters, keychains, bobbleheads, and other logo-emblazoned gear, and ship it to fans and performance venues throughout North America. Some of his other employees make websites where musicians can sell their merchandise.

“Anything that you need as an artist that you want to do beyond ticketing,” he says, “we can do for you.”

Last year, Brooks bought the merchandising arm of Omaha’s Saddle Creek Records, an acquisition that brought dozens of popular indie-rock acts like Bright Eyes, Big Thief and Cursive into the Seen Merch fold. Six of his employees work in Nebraska.

Inside Seen Merch's factory in Merriam, Kansas:

“My plans are to acquire other businesses within my realm,” Brooks says. “I'd like to see us grow by another 20 employees in the next five years.”

Brooks, who is 38, didn’t always sound like a focused and ambitious businessman.

Twenty years ago, he sounded like a screaming punk rocker.

Brooks was an indignant teenager when he founded the Kansas City band Flee the Seen. It toured heavily and released an album to critical acclaim in 2005.

“We got a record deal very early in my twenties, and that sort of shaped my identity for a really long time,” he says. “It was incredible. I'll never forget that feeling of the fire that we caught.”

That success was even sweeter, considering where Brooks had come from.

“The beginning of my years were pretty brutal. There's just a lot of things that I overcame,” Brooks says with characteristic understatement.

Brooks was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, to “very young parents.”

“It was a one-night stand kind of gone wrong. My dad was, for all intents and purposes, in the drug trade,” he says.

The family ended up in a tiny trailer park in St. Joseph, Missouri.

“There was a lot of poverty there,” he says.

There was also domestic violence. All of which provided inspiration for Brooks’ young music career. But after catching fire, the band started to lose momentum.

“I started to realize my band wasn't going to take me into the very, very far future,” Brooks recalls. “It had a very short shelf life. I had to figure something else out.”

He saw the future on Flee the Seen’s merch table.

These days, savvy musicians often joke that they’re no longer in the music business — instead, they’re in the T-shirt business, playing music on the side.

“While merchandising has always been a huge part of bands making money, it's becoming even more so as the generations change and we have this digital thing,” says Brooks.

Streaming services have made it even harder for artists to make money from their music, so merchandise sales have become an essential source of revenue.

Credit Bill Brownlee / For KCUR 89.3
For KCUR 89.3
A pile of blank T-shirts await their screen-printed fate at Seen Merch.

“People don't need that physical CD or record,” he says, “but there's still that desire to connect.”

Brooks facilitates those connections without compromising his values. Seen Merch’s business manager, Sara Okun, says “there is no corporate vibe here.”

Instead, Okun suggests that Brooks has created a stable atmosphere that his childhood lacked.

“He’s a relationship person,” she says. “His private life and his business life are one and the same.”

Yet Brooks hasn’t mellowed entirely. He blows off steam by playing guitar and singing backup vocals for a group called 34.

“It's a hardcore band,” he says. “Kind of a joke gone awesome.”

He professes not to care that 34 isn’t a big draw, and insists that he and his bandmates give their their all to the few dozen fans who show up for typical 34 performances.

“Those 30 people, I’m going to treat them like we’re at Wembley Stadium and we’re going to have this experience together, and I hope they feel that from me,” he says.

“I couldn't force myself to be anything else other than this.”

The punk rock dream Brooks harbored as a battle-scarred teenager has faded like an old T-shirt. But that’s OK, because bright new ones are coming off his assembly line.

KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.

KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at plasticsax.com.
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