The Business of Blue Man

When Chris Wink talks about the challenges facing his organization, he doesn’t start quoting from Who Moved My Cheese? He quotes from The White Stripes. He points to the song "Little Room," from the Detroit duo's album White Blood Cells, the lyrics to which run in full: "Well, you’re in your little room, and you’re working on something good. But if it’s really good, you’re gonna need a bigger room. And when you’re in the bigger room, you might not know what to do. You might have to think of how you got started, sitting in your little room."

The organization that Wink and partners Matt Goldman and Phil Stanton founded in 1988 is Blue Man Group. "Little Room" is on the founders' mind because Blue Man faces a similar conundrum: How to define their enterprise, stretch it, and reach a larger audience — without losing the things that made it special when they were starting out.

If you have never heard of Blue Man, here is what you need to know. Their shows are nothing like traditional theater. There's no obvious plot. The three performers are slathered in brilliant blue greasepaint and never speak. Instead they do things like twirl a canvas while spitting paint on it, creating a small work of art. Sometimes they play music by drumming on homemade instruments built from PVC pipe. They make rhythmic noises by chomping on Cap'n Crunch cereal, and in a bit involving Twinkies they split one in half with a saw. It's hard to describe, but the most important thing is this — it's fun.

Blue Man shows are now permanently established in four U.S. cities. The first Blue Man CD recently went gold, and a second is due out this spring. They've appeared in ads for Intel, and landed a spot on Moby's Area 2 tour last summer, joining a bill that also included David Bowie and Busta Rhymes (who subsequently called the Blue Man set "fucking incredible"). The three founders manage more than 500 employees, and while they politely decline to give any financial details, Blue Man Group performers put on 38 shows a week for more than 20,000 people paying $43 to $88 a ticket. So by rough estimate, if every show sells out, that's about $1.4 million in revenue every week from the performances alone.

We've all heard stories about enterprises that start off like a rocket — then crash and burn because they didn't stay in control of their original vision. Fifteen years after its birth, Blue Man has managed to avoid that fate, largely by making smart choices and turning down opportunities that a lot of entrepreneurs might have jumped at.

To find out how they have maintained the balance between vision and growth, I made my way to a battered-looking door on Third Street, between Avenues C and D, in lower Manhattan's East Village, next door to the Nuyorican Poets Café, and followed Wink, Goldman, and Stanton up a narrow flight of stairs to small office. Not surprisingly, they don't use words like "branding," but it is something they've thought about, in their own way. Nobody mentioned Tom Peters or Peter Drucker, but at times they did cite Penn & Teller and Francis Ford Coppola. This was pretty much what I'd hoped for.

• • •

Like the founders of William Hewlett and Davic Packard, who started a company without any idea of what they would make, the creators of Blue Man Group began by tinkering. Instead of a garage, they shared a Manhattan apartment with no furniture. All three were in their mid-20s. Wink and Stanton worked for a catering company, and Goldman, Wink's childhood friend, was a software designer. In 1988 they put on bald wigs, painted themselves blue, and held a "funeral for the '80s." With friends (also blue) they carried a coffin of objects representing the worst aspects of the decade — such as a yuppie effigy and a Rambo doll — into New York City's Central Park and burned them in a barrel. MTV recorded the event for posterity. Soon the trio started staging small performances, sometimes on the street, sometimes in venues like PS 122.

After one of the group's earliest gigs, a performance artist named Sallie Mae offered an offhand critique that sparked an epiphany. "I don't like that part where you smashed the Jell-o on the chair," she said. "I don't think Blue Man would do that." They realized that she was right, and something more: That the character wasn't just the gimmick that held the bits together. He was the whole point. He was the organizing sensibility. He was the heart of the brand. The trio thus learned to serve the character, rather than make the character serve them. Three years later they had an off-Broadway hit called Tubes and were spitting paint on The Tonight Show and Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee.

The next major breakthrough didn't come until several years later, when they belatedly saw the wisdom of advice they received from Penn Jilette. "He saw the show in, like, the first month," says Goldman, who has a recurring grin that suggests he just got away with something. Jilette is a big man, and to recreate the moment, Goldman stands and looms over me, waving his hands. "He said, 'Oh, my God! You guys can do what Teller and I can never do! You can clone yourselves!'

"And we said, 'No, you don't get it, we're more like a band.' I actually thought he was, like ..." he searches momentarily and finally settles on, "a wackhead."

So they continued on, three friends, doing their show. Six days a week, three years without a break, more than 1,200 consecutive performances. There was one understudy, to satisfy the group's financial backers, but while he'd studied the show, he never so much as rehearsed it.

Eventually, the three began to feel like prisoners of their success. They weren't creating new material, just performing Tubes over and over. Finally Stanton cut his hand one day while fooling around with a router. The understudy stepped in — and it worked.

"It was a catalytic event," Goldman says, because it showed that Blue Man Group wasn't a cult of personality. The founders could oversee the show without necessarily being in the show. That allowed them to take time off at last, but, more important, it gave them time to think about how to expand on what they'd started.

All along they'd had opportunities. After their initial success they were offered product endorsements and a bigger theater on Broadway. Disney talked of not just a movie but a related theme ride. Wink, Stanton, and Goldman rejected almost all of it. There was a conscious effort, they say, not to grab the quick payoff and risk flaming out. As Goldman puts it, they knew they wanted to create with the Blue Man character over decades, and they also knew that a steep growth curve — he holds his arm at about an 80-degree angle — "can come down on this kind of slope" — he tilts his arm so that it looks like an Enron stock chart.

"You have success in some area and you get all these doors that open," says Wink, who has a piercing gaze, and seems the most comfortable in fielding theoretical questions. "It’s funny, when you try to get something off the ground, you can’t even get a door, and it’s all about making your own damn door. Then you finally get there and all the doors open — and it’s about not going through them."

• • • •

Instead, they decided in 1995 to start a second show in Boston. But in a scenario familiar to any entrepreneur who has dealt with expansion, everything in Boston ran fine as long as the founders were on hand. The production ran into problems soon after opening. Wink, Stanton, and Goldman were alternating with new Blue Man performers, shuttling between New York and Boston, and the more they stepped away, the more flaws they noticed. The music, for example, had never been formally scored — it was only discussed in terms of the emotion it was supposed to evoke. One tune, "Tension Song," was meant to convey fright, but the founders discovered that "tension" can mean different things to different musicians, especially when there's no sheet music to refer to.

In New York, Blue Man Group functioned in the state of osmosis that 100-hour work weeks create. Everyone was there all the time, so small problems got taken care of before ballooning into big ones. But in Boston there were 60 new people and no institutional memory. Because so much depended on the presence of the original three performers, they found themselves entering another prison: the prison of meetings.

So they did what a lot of businesses never get around to — writing down a detailed manual of exactly how they operate. They created a 132-page template for the show and the Blue Man character. Based on notes taken over a year, the document came into being when the three founders locked themselves in an apartment with one of their creative directors, Michael Quinn, and a tape recorder. The journal is an edited transcript of the tapes they made.

This "Actors' Journal" is not so much a how-to manual as a why-to manual; it's not about stage directions, but rather tells the story of the show step by step, from the point of view of the Blue Men. As a decoding and deconstruction of Blue Man's at-times baffling, even mystical behavior, it's a fascinating document, thick with references to everything from Being There to George Bernard Shaw to Robert Motherwell to the caves of Lascaux. Some explanations are straightforward — "The Blue Men are not aliens" — and others are more subtle, as when the trio's harmonic "three as one" relationship is described in terms of "blesh," a mix of blend and mesh borrowed from Theodore Sturgeon's science fiction novel More Than Human.

Some bits of the show that seem silliest — the Blue Men slicing up Twinkies or turning the consumption of Cap'n Crunch cereal into a (messy) percussion piece — are explained as being driven by complex ideas about shamanistic ritual and reaching beyond our civilized, modern personas to our primal selves. Moments when the Blue Men appear to be goofing off turn out to be freighted with do-or-die import to their peculiar project, which basically boils down to a kind of mega-blesh with the whole audience. ("We are trying to destroy the Captain Crunch without letting it destroy us.")

Whether anyone in the audience can possibly "get" the motivational machinations and drive the Blue Men and their message is beside the point. What mattered was that the actors and everyone else who makes Blue Man happens really got it. That crucial notion of what is Blue Man took on a whole new level of meaning, and transportability within the organization. The manual is a highly nontraditional set of instructions, but writing it all down forced the founders to articulate ideas that had always simply been understood among them. It also taught them not just about their brand but also about a basic concept of management. Goldman cites Francis Ford Coppola's theory that what makes the difference between a good movie and a bad movie is getting everyone involved to make the same movie.

These days Blue Man regularly holds open calls in cities across North America, and over the years thousands of people have auditioned to join a club that currently has just 38 members (counting the original three). Certain physical attributes are important, such as height and build, but other than that it's wide open. One of the current Blue Men is African American, and for a few years there was a Blue Man in Boston who was actually a woman. The most important factor is not just memorizing a set of movements but truly understanding the character, which was only defined and recorded during the period when the manual was born. Looking back, Goldman says, "Everything in our project lives either before that moment or after that moment."

• • •

For a creative person, "brand" is an ugly word. Actually, brand is an ugly word in general — it has a tendency to reduce even the most complex and lofty ideas into lowest-common denominator jargon. But like a lot of ugly things, the word is also useful.

For the first few years, Blue Man Group didn't do much advertising. The basic branding — marketing — plan was: If the show is good enough, then reviewers will be impressed, audience members will tell their friends, and the founders would be invited onto talk shows. (They’re a favorite of Jay Leno’s, having appeared on The Tonight Show 11 times). At first even the interview process seemed to make them uncomfortable. Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show back in 1991, Wink mused, "There's something kind of weird, given how we started, about us going on these shows and sort of peddling it."

Their first real campaign came in 1997, when they opened a third show, in Chicago. Because the show is so difficult to explain, the founders tried to create ads that would give a sense of what to expect — ads clever enough that they themselves could almost appear in a Blue Man performance. First they ran traditional-looking newspaper ads for their own show with ads for other productions — which did not actually exist. These included Boat Mime, "the master of silent nautical performance," and a Riverdance-like performance called Cloggers. After a few days, the Blue Man characters began to wander out of their own ads and into the fake ones, for example leaping about with the Cloggers clan. Related spots appeared on the radio, including one in which an ominous-sounding announcer says, "In a world of words and images, of previews and advertisements. In a world of hype and promotional gobbledygook. Shtickity plickety. In a world of blah blah blah. Blahbbity blabhbity blahhbbity. Blah Blah. In a world of whatever. Blue Man Group."

Their next marketing gambit was even more creative — Blue Man’s most aggressive foray into advertising was in someone else’s ads. They’d been approached about endorsements many times in the past, to tout credit cards, soft drinks, breath mints, a line of paints — almost any marketing campaign that relied on the color blue. They had always turned them down, and they did the same thing when Intel came calling, a few years after the Chicago show opened. Intel was persistent, but they said no on three occasions. "We weren’t like, ‘Oh, we want to do it, but let’s negotiate,’" Goldman emphasizes. "We said, ‘No, we don’t want to do it.’ They said, ‘What would it take?’"

That gave them pause.

Not long before, the group had acquired the East Village space as a sort of R&D lab. After the treadmill of getting a third show up, the founders ended up spending a lot of time on Third Street, tinkering, as they had in the old days. The difference was that now they had a 25-foot ceiling, and their home-made "instruments" were getting big. Wink walked me around among them, pausing to explain a piano rested on its side with most of the strings removed. The idea is that several of these are stacked atop each other, and Blue Man pounds the remaining batches of strings with a big mallet. Then there's the Backpack Tubulum, which takes the PVC-pipe concept and turns it into an instrument you can actually wear — allowing the performers to walk around, but not on a stage as small as the ones they’d been using. In the early 1990s, Blue Man Group had shied away from Broadway because they didn’t feel they could do a show that would be suitably impressive in such a huge space. But now they were thinking up pieces that actually needed more space. And then Vegas called.

Actually it was an executive with Mandalay Resorts who approached the group about doing a show in Las Vegas. Chicago was self-sustaining by then, and coming up with a newer, more elaborate show that packed enough audio-visual firepower to satisfy a 1,200-seat room sounded more compelling than simply setting up another Tubes run.

Intel happened to pop up when the Vegas show was in development and headed toward a 2000 opening. The founders were confident that they could repeat their success, but on the other hand wished there was a way to spread their name to a national audience — something bigger than another Tonight show appearance. So they went back to Intel with some key terms. First, the ads had to say "Blue Man Group," and the three founders had to be actively involved, working with the ad agency on ideas and committing only after the storyboards were approved. (Of the seven commercials that eventually aired, five were based on ideas that originated with Blue Man Group; none of the ad agency's original ideas made the cut.)

Two series of TV spots were produced, each a clever 23-second skit in which the Blue Men interacted with an Intel logo. In one spot a Blue Man covers himself in paint and slides down a wall to create the third stripe in the Pentium III logo. Watching them, it’s hard not to notice that the popular spots come across as ads almost as much as for Blue Man as for the chip-maker. They certainly got the words "Blue Man Group" in front of millions more Americans than had previously heard of them. Not long after that, they launched Live At Luxor in Vegas, which is part Tubes and part new material, with a bigger band and a lot more special effects. It’s become the most successful Blue Man venture to date.

• • •

It's worth noting that the three founders have not only managed their growth better than most creative groups, but they've managed it better than most businesses of any kind. "We’re different than a lot of arts organizations," Phil Stanton says. Originally from Savannah, Ga., he’s probably the quietest member of the trio. "With this idea of the project as lifestyle, what takes place while you’re gone is just as important as what’s on stage — the management of it, the business of it. That’s been there from the very beginning. We never made a separation. It’s not like we were — "

Wink jumps in, " — crazy artists, with some manager taking care of us — "

" — and then later we realized, ‘Oh, we better get into this business thing,’" Stanton resumes.

Blue Man Group definitely operates in a "bigger room" these days, yet the founders make a concerted effort to stay in touch with their original, little-room vision. All decisions are still made by unanimous agreement. (In fact, the three still share a single office.) Wink compares the struggle not to betray their vision to that of a recovering alcoholic who at any moment could make one wrong move and wreck years of careful discipline. The trick is to avoid the safe path of repeating themselves — but without straying too far and losing focus. It's the same "Preserve the Core/Stimulate Progress" yin-yang that James B. Collins and Jerry I. Porras describe in Built to Last.

For example, the group is putting out its second CD this spring, The Complex, and it features actual lyrics — a pretty big departure for the silent Blue Man — sung by Dave Matthews, Esthero, Tracey Bonham, and others. This could put off some purists among the group's fans, but it's also likely to attract new ones. And the founders point out that the lyrics deal with themes very close to the Blue Man idea — songs like the title track and another called "Persona" are about the "cultural masks" most of us wear to get through the day. Some of the material on that CD will be the centerpiece of the first-ever Blue Man tour, scheduled to start winding through 35 cities this April.

The founders still occasionally put the blue paint on — they'll do their 12th Tonight Show appearance that same month — but they won't be performing in the tour. Instead, it will feature a rotating set of senior Blue Men, as well as a lot of video elements and what Wink calls "flying jellyfish." And the group is carefully exploring Berlin, London, and Tokyo, with the general idea of making a home in each of those cities over a six-year span, tweaking the show in each place to deal with cultural differences. "We have the longest plan now we’ve ever had," Stanton says. "We’ve known we wanted to be in it for the long haul, but we’ve never really known more than 18 or 24 months out."

With each new project, though, they confront the same decisions they've faced since the beginning. As Wink says, "We're gonna have to go through each idea and say, 'Okay, that's all good and well, that's a nice thought — but is it Blue Man?' "

• • • • •

A shorter version of this article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Fortune Small Business.

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