Tuesday, August 7, 2012


“Kids are what they read…”

This is a quote that I’ve said to myself, and others, more times than I’d like to count in my life. I say it often, because it happens to be true. Granted, maybe it should really say, “Kids are what they read, see, and hear”, given that so much information is conveyed via audio and visuals these days (skate videos, etc).

Still, regardless of the finer aspects of the argument, the basic premise still holds true. Kids don’t form their own thoughts and opinions about the world around them (as much as they’d like to believe that they do). Kids, as it turns out, are horribly incapable of thinking for themselves. Rather, they tend to inherit the bulk of their worldview from the media that feeds them. Whether that “media” comes from their parents, their church, their school… or, in the case of most skateboarders, the magazines, YouTube, messageboards, their peers, and videos… the premise remains the same. Kids are merely a reflection of whatever they’re being told. As such, their outlook and vision really depends on who they’re choosing to listen to, and what that influence is ultimately telling them to think.

As a skateboard businessman, this is all very interesting to me. Most skateboard businesspeople think that their ultimate job is to sell skateboards to kids. And the more skateboards that we sell to kids, the more successful we think we are. Which is a typically American, short-term, and overly simplified view of the nature of our business. The truth is that, if you own a skateboard company today… and, you think your job is to buy skateboards at price “A”, and re-sell them at price “B”… then, you’re probably hopelessly lost, and more than likely on the verge of running yourself straight out of business.

The fact is that most “skateboard companies” today, aren’t really “skateboard companies” at all. Because when I think of a “skateboard company”, I think of an entity that actually manufactures a skateboard product. But as we all know, most “skateboard companies” today don’t manufacture a gawddamned thing. Instead, they outsource the tedious work of actually creating a saleable product to some lowest bidder somewhere, with very little regard to product quality, and even less regard toward product innovation. Well, shit. If these “skateboard companies” don’t exist to manufacture skateboards, then what in the hell do they manufacture…?

If we look at the genesis of most skateboard companies, we realize right quick that what they’re in business to manufacture aren’t really skateboards at all. What most “skateboard companies” actually manufacture, is media. Think about it: What’s the prime concern of any start-up skateboard company today? Is it developing a better concave, utilizing a new material, or implementing a better construction? Nope. Typically, the first order of business of any start-up skateboard company is to come up with a name. Because the name is all-important to conveying an image, or a vibe. Once that’s nailed down, it’s time to tie that in to some artwork, and begin building a team that reflects the company’s values and outlook. Then once we have a team, it’s time to start shooting some advertisements, and begin work on the all-important [promotional] video. And lastly, once all that has been accomplished, it’s time to begin whoring ourselves out to the magazines, and maybe even to the television networks, so that we can insure that we get some coverage for ourselves.

Name. Image. Vibe. Artwork. Team. Advertising. Video. Coverage. These things are not skateboards. They have nothing to do with skateboards. It’s all media, guys. Media is what makes the skateboard industry go ‘round.

Most small skateboard companies that I deal with are, on one hand, completely aware of the role that media plays in their businesses. Most of us, after all, are direct results of “the skateboard media” of a bygone era. Think of those ‘80s era Thrashers, and you’ll see the mindset that most small-company-owners of today have. Independence! Discovery! Travel! Adventure! DIY! These aren’t values that we invented; they’re values that we, as kids, had rammed down our throats by guys like Larry Balma and Fausto Vitello. So yeah… we all intuitively understand the role that media plays in the life of the average skater.

On the other hand, most small-company-owners today are also blissfully unaware of how to engage the media, and to use this simple truth to their advantage. Some of the reasons for this are simple. For one, the skateboard mass-media of today is increasingly becoming small-company-hostile. It’s not like it was in 1991, when I started my small company. In those days, all skateboard companies were “small companies”. And skateboarding was a lot smaller back then. In those days, ad rates were still fairly reasonable, and generally accessible for most small companies. Magazines were begging for business during the recession, and thus the small companies had a lot of sway in the relationship.

But today, skateboarding is obviously huge. And the nature of the media has changed. Ad rates are now entirely out of the question for any company that doesn’t have a three-gazillion-dollar-a-year advertising budget. And as far as magazines are concerned, if you can’t pay, then you can’t play. Of course, the big fish like to prebook their choice ad spaces months in advance, effectively elbowing out a lot of their competitors. And as far as the “industry politics” go, the magazines are no longer the voices of journalistic independence that they once were. Instead, they’ve become just another cog in the companies’ media agenda, saying whatever it takes to keep those ad dollars rolling in, the overhead covered, and the bills paid.

“Kids are what they read”. The simple truth is that, if you’re not playing by the mass media’s rules, then you simply don’t exist. True, the internet has leveled the playing field somewhat. True, we all have our websites that do get some traffic. True, there are still messageboards that haven’t become fascist regimes in the hands of overzealous moderators and overly politicized administrators [yet]. True, the blogosphere gives us a readily searchable voice where we can, and will, say whatever the hell we want. And all of these things are really, really great. But still, I have to ask... how effective are these means…? And, how many kids are actually reading these things in the first place…?

While it’s true that we do have some media on our side... that being, the media that we create for ourselves, using the tools that we have at hand... I’d have to say once again that it’s the mass media that the kids tune in to the most, and latch on to the hardest. So while it’s true that we do have “media”, I’d have to say that the problem is that we still don’t have the “mass” working in our favor.

What am I getting at here? Here’s what I’m getting at: Small companies need to work together to create a truly mass media that advocates for their points of view, their business interests, and their legitimacy. “Legitimacy”, after all, is a huge buzzword in skateboarding today. If you’re not “legit”, then you’re just fucked. Again, the key question becomes, “what’s legit”…? Well, for most kids, whatever the mass media says is “legit”, is probably pretty “legit” for most kids. But I find it strange that companies like Element, Deathwish, and Baker are somehow seen as “legit”… even though they don’t really make anything at all, and what they do manage to churn out sucks ass… while Danny Creadon, Mike Money, Kirb, and Lew Ross… guys that I perceive as being “fully legit”… don’t even get a mention in a sidebar article somewhere. I’m sorry, but that’s just stupid. That alone goes to show how wayward the mass media has become, and how badly we need a massive alternative to the mass-minded mediocrity that we’re saddled and cursed with today.

There’s another old adage that I tend to live by, and it says this: “Trying to organize skaters is a lot like trying to herd cats”. Have you ever owned cats? Have you ever tried to herd them? Or even, try to get them to do something simple and/or useful for your benefit? Believe me, as a cat owner myself, I can tell ya that it’s damn near impossible. But still, I’d take that any day over trying to organize skateboarders, and mobilize them toward any sort of common cause. Skateboarders, like cats, are a mighty independent and ornery bunch. Even if you try to talk perfectly sensible sense at them, they’re still likely to do whatever the opposite of your perfectly sensible advice is.

But somehow, somewhere, and some way, at the end of the day... if we all want to see small companies survive and prevail in the marketplace… and, I think that we all do… then small companies, en mass, are going to have to come together, and start working toward this common goal of building a small-company-friendly mass media. Because as of right now, the bigger companies have a virtual monopoly on bullshitting the kids, with nothing on the horizon capable of neutralizing the threat.

Of course, for a mass media to work practically in the favor of small companies, it’s probably gonna have to have certain attributes that will be largely dictated by the kids that it’s aimed at. It’s going to have to be free for the readers (because kids erroneously think that everything’s free these days). Which means that it’s going to have to be affordable (since we’ve established that the kids won’t be paying for jack shit… and given the small advertising budgets of most small companies, neither will the manufacturers). Yet, this media will have to be widely accessible (so that anybody can read it), and more than likely mobile (so that they can read it anywhere). Which probably adds up to a web-based paradigm (since only the internet can offer true cost-effectiveness, on a widely accessible and mobile platform). And the companies themselves will be responsible for generating the content, as well as promoting the media to potential readers.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s probably because it is. I’ve been saying this for years now. And indeed, Everything Skateboarding still serves as the working prototype for many of these concepts. Everything Skateboarding, at the end of the day, was neither a total success, nor a total failure. Rather, it was shades of gray that we all learned a lot from. I think that the companies did see that it would be in the better interests of all small companies to contribute to, and widely promote, a web-based mass media paradigm that serves their needs, and promotes their agendas. It's definitely cheap (free), widely accessible, and totally mobile. However, we never really did get the engagement (contributions) from the advertisers that I really wanted to see. And nobody (including myself) ever promoted it.

The reason for the failures are easy to see: Companies still perceive that their “job”, so to speak, is to perpetuate a passive engagement with the media. And in the past, this might have been true. The job of any company, as it relates to the media, is pretty much to pay the advertising bills, shut up, and get the hell out of the way while the magazine editors, writers, and photographers do the heavy lifting of putting a magazine together, editing it, promoting it, and selling it to the kids.

But in the future, this will no longer be the case. The monetary constraints alone will kill the bigger part of this paradigm. And what the money doesn’t kill, the ethics will. After all, is it really ethical in a 2012 world to cut down trees, transport them to a mill, where various chemicals and machines turn them into paper, that ultimately gets printed with highly biased propaganda that’s bought and paid for by a few mega-corporations with deep pockets, long agendas, a very narrow profit perspective, and no accountability whatsoever...? Is this the machine that we really want feeding our kids the information that they’re going to build their lives around for the foreseeable future…?

In the future, small companies will be forced- by circumstance, and necessity- to have a much more active engagement with the media. Instead of paying writers and photographers to create content, why not cut out the profit-police middle men, and just do it for ourselves? We can save time, headaches, and a whole load of bullshit in the process. At the end of the day, I’d rather hear 100 small company owners telling their stories, than hear 10 mega-corporations and a handful of editors bastardizing theirs. True, small company owners might not be the most skilled writers and photographers in the world; if they were, they would probably be writers and photographers, instead of small company owners. But I don’t think that small company owners should be at all shy about engaging the media, and making the effort to make content contributions. At least small-company owners are real. And I still believe that reality counts for a lot these days.

At the end of the day, though, this is not necessarily my fight to engage, or win. I retired from the world of small-company-ownership in 2001. These days, I’m just a writer that doesn’t own anything. It’s not my war to wage, and I’m not particularly concerned if small companies ultimately win, or lose. In a very real sense, it rests in the hands of small company owners to see the fight through, learn how to collaborate effectively, and figure out how to build a mass media that truly works for them. I’ll help out in any way I can. But really, all I want to do is read it. I’m sick and tired of the mass-market bullshit. And it would be really refreshing to read something interesting for a change.

Make it happen, guys. The world is waiting.