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.

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