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.

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