Saturday, 30 March 2013

Things Done Change

A couple of days ago, my buddy sent me a link to the minutes from a crisis meeting in 1994 between industry luminaries, including the likes of Chris Carter (Alien Workshop), Jim Thiebaud (Real), Steve Rocco (World) and the late Mike Ternasky (Plan B).  Steeply declining board sales drove their panic, and the reasons given were:
1) the proliferation of price-point blank boards;
2) the inaccessibility of skating to new entrants, due to the way it was presented in magazines and video, and the related inconsistency of pros at demos; and
3) the behaviour of pros, including their failure to consistently rock their sponsor's tees and boards, as well as unsavoury demo conduct and poor attendance at comps.
My buddy's motives in sending me this, as an industry honcho himself, were rooted in his knowledge of current world board sales - apparently down to 1999 levels, and a fraction of the sales associated with the Tony Hawk Pro Skater fuelled boom of the early 2000s - especially amongst the 11-19 year old cohort responsible for the majority of board purchases.  He proposed a different set of contemporary woes.  Rather than the inaccessibility of skating, it was now insufficiently eye-popping - due to lingering 90s-era pros keeping the levels of athleticism down and crowding young guns out of the lime-light.  The preference of over-30s street snobs like myself, along with Slap forum geeks and the age of most magazine editors, photographers and company owners (i.e. the same generation as the older pros themselves), were skewing the pro population towards low impact skating that may be underwhelming to newcomers who perhaps don't appreciate things like trick aesthetics and good spot selection. 

However, if we look at any similar modern market -  music for example - aren't declining board sales inevitable?  We are measuring the contemporary market with historic indicators.  In a world of Hellaclips instant gratification, major sportswear label competition, round the clock Berrics updates, and everyone and their dog starting a skate company, we can't expect the young-guns to be consuming traditional product in the bulk numbers they once did.  The average level of ability has gone through the roof, but there are way less people actually doing it.  We've lost the armies of groms of yesteryear, but have gained a far smaller group of yoot who absolutely kill it.  The end of the early 2000s boom is one reason (both in terms of the wider economy, but also as the Tony Hawk-driven fad amongst the very young has petered out), but exacerbating this in the US, UK and much of Northern Europe, and - most extremely - in Japan, is the fact that all our populations are ageing - birth rates are falling whilst life expectancies continue to increase.
Moreover, obsessing about the fleeting whims of the vaguely-defined target 11-19 punter sounds eerily similar to the death throws of traditional media in the UK - especially Radio 1:  this is the cohort that drives trends and has consumed most, thus we must unquestioningly meet their needs, even though we don't really know what they are any more.  In music, the cool kids can make and broadcast their own stuff, and can collect and share their take on what's good without the middleman of traditional media. And bravo...  the media middleman has long been a bit shit (Chris Moyles as the 'saviour of Radio 1' for years, for the love of God).   In skating, kids... and the rest of us.... can and do make their own video edits, buy up and print their own planks and tees, and write tiresome blogs like this.
This is a challenge for all luxury industries (sorry dudes, our world is all about trivial luxuries) - especially those that exist predominantly in visual media.  But further to my previous post, I reckon our little luxury world is meeting this challenge in a pretty positive way -  but a way that has yet to translate into board sales.  And probably never will. 
Who would have thought that you could seriously shake things up via a Norwegian language (with a lil' English translation booklet) quarterly mag that looks more like an art-house or fashion periodical?  Nice one, Dank!  Your beautiful product retails at £10 a pop (!!!!), and sits on my coffee table (and the coffee tables of most of my friends) to be poured over again and again, outlasting several months' worth of Sidewalks, Transworlds and Kingpins.  And Magenta - doing really rather well, broadcasting a take on skating that, in purely athletic, performance terms, may be underwhelming -  but aesthetically is ... just fucking dope.  And yes, the values of these indie media outlets and companies closely reflect what the street-obsessed, Mixtape-era 30-something dude loves - but maybe we've come of age as a culture as well as an industry, were we can effectively diversify to meet the preferences of different cohorts.  Deathwish, Shake Junt and Baker may be just what the late teen/early 20s dude digs, and Dank, Magenta and Static may be more to the tastes (and wallet) of dudes like me -  but that's what markets do, they diversify as the consumer base diversifies. 
We're getting older, all of us, and our tastes change....  but that doesn't have to be a bad thing.  And.... and here's my point (finally, soz)...  it means that there is a market for Mike Carroll, when he's done with nollie flipping stair sets, skating beautiful flat-ground lines, just like there's a market for tomorrow's heavy hitter grinding a squillion stair rail.  The challenge for industry honchos is to work with this diversifying market (which, due to population ageing, is also getting older....  in ten years' time, 11-19 year olds will not account for the majority of board sales, its just not demographically possible, unless you start selling more stuff in India, China etc.), and work out how to make money.  This will not be about board sales any more.  It cannot be.  That's using the same thinking as is currently driving the scorched earth polices at Radio 1, Sony or Time Warner.  The world done change, son  - but for fans of the art as well of the sport of skating, the future looks pretty bright.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

If you don't know, now you know

In order to 1) cheer Scotty up with the warm glow of nostalgia whilst recovering from his knee injury and 2) contribute to the hype around 42's amazing Sunday Circuit idea, thought I'd put some of the old copies of Sidewalk gathering dust in the spare room to good use (though this is by no means a start of Chromeball-esque archiving...  Chops is the undisputed Franciscan Friar of skateboarding, no one can compete):
These 3 scans are from the end of the mid-90s-early 2000s period when Nottingham was a dominant fixture in UK skating.  A fair proportion of Sidewalk staff lived in Notts, as did two of the founding fathers of Unabomber, Harry and Rushbrooke -  and tricks at Old Market Square, Broadmarsh Banks and the Amphitheatre were in Sidewalk every month.
This handrail front-board, from Scotty Underpants himself, graced the cover of the June 2000 edition of Sidewalk - I think the handrail is at the side of a loading bay at the back of a hotel between St James Street and the Castle/Amphitheatre, but I may well be wrong.  This was a banger of an issue to boot - with an article on a New York trip featuring Andy Simpson, Matt Prichard and Dave Chesson.

Also in 2000 (Oct/November - before Sidewalk started producing 12 issues a year), this cover snap is of Smedley and his scarily consistent switch front-side flips, down the Amphitheatre big three, and well in 'The Storm' sweatpant era.

Back a couple of years to 1998, and this example of Jon Weatherall's impeccable switch kickflips down the Old Mark Square 5/6 (depending on whether you count the big gap in the first set of slabs at the bottom as an additional step).  Got loads more Weatherall steeziness in the magazine piles, so will be chucking them up as soon as I can think of an excuse.

Crikey its cold...  Flo on Monday night anyone...?

Monday, 11 March 2013


Quick post (or, more accurately, another re-post): those fine fellows at Quartersnacks just posted this link to a news story on an art installation & public realm project in Berlin, where granite slabs salvaged from the redevelopment of  Palace of the Republic have been carted off to an abandoned airfield and re-constituted as an amazing looking plaza development...  at limited cost to the public purse, and maximum fun and aesthetic pleasure for the city's skate brotherhood.

Most Nottingham locals still miss (the communal skate facility, not the pigeon shit covering of) old market square.  Sneinton market - despite its arguably better construction - has yet to fully fill that gap, even if it got fairly prevalent in 2012's Big Push edits.  How great would it have been if some of those crusty old slabs from the square could have been handed over to us, so we could have carted them off to one of the abandoned airfields in Nottinghamshire?  Hell, East Midlands Airport is bound to be usable for such things sooner or later, with the departure of EasyJet and demise of BMI... leaving us with frickin' Ryan Air for our Barcelona escapes.  Stalin-square-on-Trent, yo.  As ever, the Germans (and Scandinavians and Dutch - Northern Europeans generally) are miles ahead of both us in the UK and the Americans with this sort of inspired lateral thinking.  The newish plaza in Cologne is another testament to this, which has presumably made locals happier about the loss of much of the iconic Doms platz of many a Puzzle section.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Slam recently posted a new edit by Chris Mulhern, Static contributor and maker of 'This Time Tomorrow' - one of the best indie vids to come out of the US in the last 2-3 years (and if you've not seen it, it features killer sections from Brits Steph Morgan and Lucien Clarke and honorary Brit and OG SF head Will Harmon, skating London and Philly spots). 
'The Philadelphia Experiment' isn't far off the perfect edit... new footage of Ishod Wair combined with archive footage of Ricky Oyola.  The rugged Philly spots even make Mark Suciu's (admittedly amazing) skating look interesting.  Mulhern's consistent aesthetic - illustrated in This Time Tomorrow and his promo work for 5Boro and Pusher Wheels (all on the This Time Tomorrow DVD extras... buy it!) - is in full effect in this edit: the filming of proper street skating, finished with a feel-good red/brown palette that makes Philly brick-work look amazing.   Also dig the imagery: architectural diagrams, old maps, and night-time shots of eerily lit, grand old buildings - reminiscent of the 90s brand Silverstar, and early Blueprint stuff (when all those masonic conspiracy references were en vogue on both sides of the pond - for those 90s survivors still geeking out on conspiracy theories and weird-but-maybe-true moments in modern history, look up the Philadelphia experiment).
Replace the 60s/70s soul and classic rock n' pop with some ignorant ass hip-hop, and you really would have the perfect template for a skate flick.  Its just been deleted from youtube, so you'll have to view it on Vimeo here:


The Philadelphia Experiment from Caste Quality on Vimeo.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

For a first post, it seems opportune to jump on the hype wagon and enthuse about the amazing mini explosion of indie companies coming in strong and shaking up our little world - and many good dudes have already enthused about this very thing, notably in Jenkem mag, Boil the Ocean, Frozen in Carbonite, and in pretty much every Quartersnacks update of the last 12 months.

Soooo.....  despite loving the emergence of Palace, Polar, Magenta, Hopps, Scumco and Sons, etc. every bit as much as the next dude who appreciates relateable street skating, in real spots, in interesting cities, from dudes who generally know how to execute their tricks AND throw an outfit together....  I wanted to come at it all from a different angle.  The economics of it, son.

Any student of this shiznitz would know that skateboarding is a pretty weird market.  Rather than entering the market because they want a slice of the super-normal profits made by existing players, dudes launch their new skate companies in already saturated sub-markets, in the full knowledge that the existing players are squabbling over ever depleting board sales (making anything but super-normal profits), because: 1) they're done with skating for a living themselves, want to make a living post-35, and want to stamp 'their vision' onto our little world or; 2) they're fans like the rest of us, who want to avoid a proper job and play out their hobby for a living.  Both understandable, but hardly rational decisions based on any weighing up of costs and benefits, let alone a thought out business strategy.  The thing that enables this to happen time and time again is that there's virtually no entry or exit costs in a small skate company.  You come up with a few graphics and a name, purchase a small run of boards with your pocket money (likewise with a bunch of t-shirts), and survive for as long as you can.  Once its all over, you've not invested in any capital to speak of (i.e. there are very few sunk costs), so can walk away without being ruined.

This is great in one respect, because we as consumers get a diverse and constantly changing range of companies to back, and we can merrily pat ourselves on the back for supporting 'punk rock ethics', and dudes starting companies for the love of skating not for the expectation of profit, blah blah blah.  However, up until recently, we - both as a community of fans/participants and skating as a culture/artform (que fart noise) - were all the poorer for this.   Why?  Firstly, all these half-baked new companies, lacking any unique vision that made them stand out from the rest, provide no competition for the big dudes.  Competition forces established players to innovate, diversify, improve their products, reach their customers in new ways, etc..  Hardly any of the 50ish new UK companies we've seen over the last decade (up until Palace) pose any kind of competition to Girl/Element/Plan B/Baker/Tum Yeto/Kayo etc.  So we get umpteen logo board runs from beloved established companies like Girl (who used to be so fresh), and a succession of forgettable ams being hyped.

Second and thirdly, half-baked new companies can't pay their riders - but squeeze the margins for those legit smaller companies who do pay their riders ( Dan Magee's moan when Blueprint reigned supreme).  This is an old observation.  But additional to that, and more personal, in terms of the skaters I like (and after all, I'm interested in this as a fan... not because I give a shit about the business side of skating), it pushes out older skaters when they still have years of pop left in their sticks (take Vincent Bressol and Thiebaud Fradin from Cliche), and it makes it difficult for smaller legit companies to properly help up good young dudes, who may not have the cross-over appeal of the Dylan Reiders of this world.  This is my theory for why we see so much more of the yawn-fest ATV, comp winner, tight pant-wearing youth in a certain UK mag - and a lot less of the more interesting, young street guys (Danny Beall, Shaun Witherup, etc).  Its the same in the US.

On the other side of the coin, its a weird market because we - as consumers and fans - have such a mixed and contradictory range of preferences.  Companies like Element (rightly) get a harsh time because they screw over skaters when they get injured, have a dull, corporate aesthetic, and care more about cross-over appeal and high-street action-sport point-of-sale than they do about the core scene and its values.  We thus dig companies with punk-rock, DIY, or 'family' ethics - even if this is a load of old PR bull (the aforementioned sacking from the Cliche 'family' is a case in point... for all their current ills, one presumes Girl/Choc would never do anything like that to their OG team riders).  Conversely, like most consumers, we like nice looking products, that have thought, innovation and artistry put into them.  This is how many of us, me included, live with ourselves when we buy Nike or Addidas - they're inarguably good products, beautifully presented to us, and worthy of our pennies.  Not many companies can succesfully respond to these conflicting preferences - and all make trade-offs.

And then along comes Magenta, Polar, Palace etc. -  with Polar a particularly great example of DIY ethics, a family attitude to supporting the team, amazing, high quality products and general 'feel' -  presenting a unique take on this saturated little world.  Palace also, though with a very different strategy (how accidental is their limited distribution, creating the well-documented Supreme-like demand for their Ts and caps, from skaters and non-skaters alike?). 

The impact this has had is amazing.  In terms of the market, we've seen the big players start investing in their art direction again (and on a surface level, producing a load of vid edits with Palace-lite VHS fetishism).  Competition drives innovation.  But for the wider culture and act of skateboarding, the outcome is arguably even cooler....  its not just a case of 'everything in skating is cool' again, but that something very specific has been shown to be cool: relateable skating, in spots we can all access, that is aesthetically pleasing rather than all that risk-laden, top 0.05% pre-teen stuntery.  In short, its stuff 35 year olds and 21 year olds alike can get hyped on before they go out skating....  which is why we buy vids and boards in the first place.  Polar, Palace, Magenta etc. reflect the culture that normal grass-roots skaters experience straight back at us - and prove that we're all way better than all that Street League/Plan B/Red Bull extreme nonsense.  We're consuming an image of skating as we experience it -  and that's pretty darn healthy when you compare to other sports.