HAS A FREE MARKET F*CKED $KATEBOARDING?
Unregulated Capitalism Probably Isn't a Good System.
Depending on what report you Google, skateboarding is some type of a multi-billion dollar industry and driver of youth culture. We don’t need to crunch numbers but rather, look at it as a massive economy that slips through the cracks as “outlaw culture,” mostly for its own financial benefit.
So what if I told you that all these issues I offer up on Artless Industria® may stem from the industry being a brazen example of unregulated Capitalism?
Could I trick you into reading an economically-based analysis of skating, written by someone who is not an economist?
Fuck it, let’s go.
Many right-leaning economists want less government regulation in our economy. They eschew a minimum wage or health care for all under the belief that it eliminates competition for services, resulting in the consumer overpaying for lower quality. The example is that if you pay a worker at least $15-per-hour to for a service, you have lowered the baseline and the worker no longer has the motivation to provide a quality service. If you remove that, then you can decide if you want a minimum wage service or a premium service and there’s inherent value in paying the higher price.
This sounds neat but it’s a ruse. The reality is that it hurts those with less experience of all education levels. Think of the college grad who has yet to work in their field, in an unregulated scenario, they may take a lower wage to get experience or in some cases, take an unpaid internship, in the hopes of moving up the ladder. The trick is that once they gain the experience and ask for the raise, they are replaced with a cheaper worker much like they were a few years prior. Now to the unskilled worker. They want to work and make money to live but they lack the skills so they work to learn and “pay” for their education by making less money than skilled workers.
In healthcare, the disparity is even more obvious. If all healthcare was fully privatized in the United States, many economists surmise that would simply offer better care to those who could afford it. That’s not hard to imagine.
As Adam Gaffney wrote in The Nation in 2019:
“A nation like ours—with enormous unmet medical needs, an inadequate safety net, and galling inequality—is a poor fit with a multi-payer system that divides the population into a hierarchy of public and private plans with inequitable levels of access, varied copays and deductibles, and unequal benefits and provider networks. This would never achieve the equity, universality, or efficiency of a public plan that provides complete coverage to everyone.”
So here we are, wondering what in the hell this has to do with skateboarding and I’m going to get there in a moment.
Let’s set a baseline that any financial crisis in the US sparks political debate about government regulation of our economy. In the US it’s a mix of free-market and regulated capitalism and the right is blaming the left for causing economic ruin that was already mounting before the pandemic due to shutting down our economy under the guise of safety in an attempt to make the President look bad before an election.
Instead of turning this into a partisan issue, we’ll use “the economy,” sans the stock market, to look at the skate industry. *Remember, the stock market is largely imaginary much like the economy itself.
Aside from paying taxes and the general regulations that businesses operate under the United States, the actual skateboarding industry is largely unregulated.
There are no internal governing bodies, no unions, no public salaries, no healthcare mandates, no ethical guidelines, no sustainability standards for a thing based on creating goods out of natural resources and toxic polyurethanes, or even a code of ethics that brands operate under.
The issues this survey raises are larger than we have space to discuss but what I’d like to do is bullet out how a lack of any regulation—an example of what a truly free market might look like—directly causes.
SKATERS AS WORKERS
There is no minimum wage for skaters. Yes, warehouse workers and salespeople may be paid a minimum wage but that can also be circumvented by paying in cash or offering commissions. In the case of a sales job, it could be structured like a service worker, where you receive a very minimal hourly wage with the incentive that if you work hard, you’ll be tipped/get a commission on sales.
For riders, it’s a lot more confusing. There are contracts, especially for the athletic brands but unlike the NBA or NFL, they are private—no press releases announcing that Skater X has signed to a brand for whatever million dollars over four years with a vesting option.
Skaters are paid as independent contractors which is why you hear of so many young skaters falling into tax problems due to not filing taxes or not realizing that half of their check is owed back to the government. They do not really understand their value or have a baseline as to what a monthly salary should be. Many are only paid in royalties, without knowing how many boards are actually pressed. They often need to procure their own healthcare which as an independent contractor is expensive.
How many GoFundMes do you see for injured pros?
How much does your favorite pro make?
How many pros have a second job?
Is there any pay equality at all?
Benefits? Retirement? A 401K? You’re shitting me, right?
QUALITY OF GOODS
An unregulated market in skateboarding has not lead to a higher quality of goods. Most of us understand that there are only a few woodshops who provide all the skateboards for the industry, most of which are not sourced from wood in the United States. Wheels, bearings, and trucks fall into two categories: Trusted legacy brands and shit.
Some brands have tried to raise the price of a deck but are largely met with pushback from consumers who still want to pay the $50-ish standard price which has been in place since the 1980s. I’ve mentioned this before but it’s akin to Fugazi only charging $5.00 for a show. The thing is, as inflation rose Fugazi scaled that price, albeit a dollar or two. Fugazi as a band was almost a non-profit, skateboard companies are not.
Skateboarding as an industry is closer to major labels in music than it is DIY independents. Bands are independent contractors who are paid an advance to make their goods, then a small royalty on sales. Skaters don’t even get that advance and their royalty percentage is akin to what musicians are paid off streaming royalties. (kind of)
So there is this weird dynamic where brands feel that they can’t charge more for items and don’t need to really offer better quality goods than other brands, just a “better’ image. If you do offer a higher quality shoe or wheel or board and raise the price, it could be met with anything from disdain to calls of this new tech being “corny.”
The bottom line is that this system benefits neither the brands nor the consumer.
SOCIAL ISSUES, ETHICS, AND INDUSTRY POLITICS
Damn, where do we start? Well, we can see how a lack of any regulation has lead skateboarding into a weird space where you can print racist, sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, and every type of not good graphic possible. Riders and employees can operate as they like until they are called out on social media, often having the accusers taking more flack than those accused.
Also, the industry, as it stands naturally, creates classism.
If your sponsors are DVS, Darkstar, and Arizona Iced Tea, you’re thought of differently than someone who rides for Nike SB, FA, Spitfire, and Independent.
I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing but it’s a thing.
There is no actual media and what does exist on a large scale is essentially fashion editorial. Even sporting publications take on harder issues. This is not to slight the smaller, socially aware publications but simply reporting the state of the industry.
While there’s a push to change this, change is slow and for those who are marginalized, it’s frustrating and painful. For weeks I’ve seen a post going around on Instagram pointing out that many male skaters have voiced that brands/media wouldn’t “have posted that trick if a guy did it.” Not only is this just annoying but it’s also not true. A “guy,” especially one dubbed a “legend” can have a photo of a basic trick and coupled with a “legend” photographer, it can be a two-page magazine spread that will be heralded as “so fucking sick” whereas a woman, LGTBTQ+ skater could do a “better” or more difficult trick, photographed better, and be blasted for being who they are and not the trick. Why? This is partially because the media’s traditional coverage of non-white CIS male skaters comes with a qualifier:
As a girl…
As one of the dopest black skaters in the game…
Or when Big Brother featured openly gay pro Jarret Berry on their cover, nosegrinding a rail in leather chaps and vest it read, “Jarret Berry and Other Fruits and Fairies”
THE NEW NORMAL
Ha, just kidding, I’m so fucking sick of that phrase but here we are. It’s been reported that skating is having a bit of a boom and that might lead to an unprecedented spike once a new Tony Hawk game lands in our consoles and no one has anything to do but play it.
There is also a hardgoods shortage. We’ve all seen the “we finally have wheels” posts etc.
And larger brands are making social progress and that shouldn’t be discounted. As consumers/civilians, we don’t know if that’s the result of being genuine or a spreadsheet but it is happening and conversely, the voice of the community is louder, more visible, and having a much larger impact.
Skateboarding will never reset—we aren’t taking the cartridge out, blowing on it to see if it will get unstuck and work all nice again.
Like capitalism or the United States itself, it cannot be fixed with one sweeping act or a single election but instead, it will take sustained awareness, engagement, activism, and an understanding of what the thing actually is in order to reform and advance it to a place that mirrors what we all love about skateboarding and how skateboarding can actually give that back to not only individuals but everyone in the industry who deserves to be there.
I added that caveat because it’s obvious a lot of folks have legit skated by for years and that’s… it’s not good.
And depending on where you lie on the political spectrum—remember, even saying “fuck the system” is political—sweeping reform is alluring and exciting but it’s not going to work. It comes down to your personal involvement—how you act to others at a skatepark, what brands you give your dollars to, even how you comment on social media or post.
You control those things, not “the industry,” and the more you send a message with your actions, the harder it becomes to pretend those voices aren’t loud. And like capitalism, the oldness is dying off and being shaken out, and that creates opportunity. What happens, I’m not even going to predict. I suck at betting, I fear the stock market, and I never bet on sports. I know, skating is and isn’t a sport but it’s a thing and it’s as fucked as it is amazing but as much as we want to champion that strange dichotomy, we might want to acknowledge that it’s causing everyone inside and out a lot of exhaustion, grief, anxiety, confusion, malaise, and yeah, some great shit too… just like capitalism.
This is such a well written and thought out article. Would love to get in touch as your research and writing overlaps w/ my work :)