“Skateboarding Is Not Progressive” is the most popular and commented on piece I’ve published on Artless Industria® to date—roughly 18.5 times the open rate of my average entry. I only mention statistics because it speaks to the need for dialog about how skateboarding can address its issues. I want to thank everyone that shared this on their social channels and contributed to the positive dialog. Of course, there were the typical detractors who said, “This article sucks. This person can’t write.” and yes, even after calling it out in the piece “SHUT UP AND SKATE!” Whatever. Also, it’s probably not surprising but those commenters were mostly white dudes who like to argue on the internet, including those who live for posting wordy diatribes that debunk my logic and research. Whatever 2.0. This is part of the reason I deactivated my Facebook account along with accepting friend requests from skaters and punks, only to have a feed full of pro-Trump memes.
You may not know it but I don’t freestyle these pieces and that one, in particular, was something I worked sporadically on for months. Again, I’d like to thank Christian Kerr for his feedback and edits. It’s a one-person operation here so finding the best language to communicate the ideas bouncing around my skull is often difficult. These are inner conversations I’m always having; inequalities and flaws I notice daily and try to find a way to address productively.
The feedback drove me to think about how I could follow up “Skateboarding Is Not Progressive” and subsequently, a massive funk. I rarely get writer’s block but the weight of giving back thoughtful ideas to the readership was massive. If you haven’t noticed, I take this shit very seriously even the lighter pieces. Even though this is mainly self-edited and something I’m not great at, it’s a privilege to have an audience and I want to deliver on expectations, knowing fully that promise is impossible.
On my daily AM trek to procure iced coffee a week ago, my brain sent a surge that signaled that I already knew how to expand on the piece because it’s an extension of conversations I have constantly with peers.
So I present to you an overarching “What If?” based on my experience, research, and understanding of how the industry functions. Not only is this newsletter free, but this is also a larger “Free” idea or marketing strategy in a sense and it would seem that offering up for zero dollars is foolish. Wrong. This is public domain. If any of these concepts make sense or feel scalable, take them and run. I’m not the one to execute them as I semi-fall into the “Gatekeeper/Media” categories discussed in the last piece. What I am presenting is a strategy, not the strategy. It’s something that could happen and yield positive results but it’s also radical.
The text below is a somewhat utopian proposition. The reason I have played this out on such a big scale is to highlight the power of something tangible and feasible, even if it’s a huge undertaking.
Future pieces will explore initiatives that are more actionable but for the purpose of introducing a new ecosystem, using the largest example possible illustrates the “theory” of how to enact progression.
Other factors to know on the front end before reading the entry:
Money is a barrier to entry.
Progression through the corporate lens is difficult and slow. This piece doesn’t detail issues such as pay equality in the sport/competition field in skateboarding or address unionizing.
Mobilizing all the moving parts to enact change can be as difficult as change itself.
This is not a blueprint for progression. This is a speculative scenario that imagines a progressive landscape. What happens in that landscape is where true progression begins.
The focus is on a big idea that opens doors for smaller brands. I will discuss how smaller brands/activists/media outlets can mobilize in a future piece.
And also… money.
Now onto the fun shit.
History Repeats Itself
In 1991, a then nameless company backed by World Industries ran an ad in Transworld Skateboarding Magazine, announcing that five of the ten pros listed below would be leaving their current sponsors to form a new company. The names were both superstars and “I know that skater” level. The subsequent ad revealed the chosen few, announcing the company was called Plan B. Whether or not each rider was A-List didn’t matter as Plan B was presented as a super team and delivered on the promise in their first video, Questionable (1992). The video and rider curation became the epitome of progressive skateboarding, even though their initial board graphics were admitted misfires.
Since the introduction of Plan B and subsequent reboots of the brand, the concept of the “super team” has been attempted several times in different ways. Barely 2 years after Plan B’s origins, riders Mike Carroll and Rick Howard departed forming Girl and a year later, Chocolate skateboards. There was also the A-Team through World Industries with an obvious nod in name to Plan B. We can also cite Baker as not only another “super team” example but also the branding of the “crew as a team” model.
The biggest industry sea change in recent memory has been Fucking Awesome’s transition from boutique clothing company/art project to a hardgoods brand in 2013. Jason Dill and Anthony Van Engelen leveraged their status in skateboarding to create a roster of known commodities and up-and-coming talent, leading to the formation of their second brand, Hockey.
FA’s ascendence hinges on several factors and resonates differently depending on age. To the older sect, FA is a throwback to edgy graphic content, grounded by familiar faces. For younger skaters, it’s the status quo; their introduction to what a cool skate company looks like. Most importantly, like World Industries initially did, FA/Hockey don’t speak down to their audience by trying to make graphics they “think kids would like,” but instead make what they themselves like. The fact that the art direction works is both its relatability and almost anti-marketing.
What’s key to FA’s sustainability is that the brand protects its standing by being selective in what shops they sell to but also maximizes profit by selling direct. This is not dissimilar to Primitive’s model, just less marketed and targeted. Primitive offers different price tiers and packages to their consumers while maintaining an elite team. FA remains an elite brand and price point by leveraging exclusivity and the currency of cool.
Though it’s not public-facing fact, it has been alleged/discussed that riders for FA and Primitive procure a larger royalty from direct sales, allowing them more compensation and incentive to stay with the brands. This is not a critique but rather a smart use of product distribution and revenue sharing. It also calls to mind the complete counter to FA or Primitive, in brands such as Revive or Braille who push inclusivity and use their direct sales as the main purchase funnel to optimize profits. They don’t care about being cool as their brand is about accessibility and catering to those not concerned with the identity but rather the act of skateboarding.
The bottom line is that these brands are dealing with the new buying landscape of skateboarding in different ways and funneling the money back to the riders to different degrees. If we strip them down to businesses, not graphics and images, their models are disruptive and progressive but not necessarily their message or politics. This distinction is important as the purpose of this piece is not to dig into whether any of these brands are pushing a socially progressive agenda but rather, how their practices can be used as a template for those issues going forward.
Plan P: What If Five Progressive Pros Formed a New Brand?
Consider the above ad running in Thrasher Magazine next month stating five riders were leaving their sponsors to form a new brand.
For the sake of our discussion I’ve used the list Thrasher just published titled:
Cher Autumn Straub
Before we envision the following ad running the next month announcing the new team (* I already have a name for this brand and it’s cooler than Plan P) and roster, let’s think about another scenario:
An ominous new Instagram handle launching followed by several tastemakers in skateboarding. The Slap Boards start buzzing and it’s later revealed to be a third FA brand composed of an all-women and non-binary squad.
Let that marinate for a minute and wonder why it hasn’t happened yet.
Anyway, pick your five names from the above list and construct your own progressive-leaning super team. Again, let’s not over-analyze the names but rather think of them as necessary to the mechanics of this proposed concept. This new team immediately has an impact and people will want to know who is backing it.
What if the team was formed as a collective, with each rider receiving the same base pay and receiving a higher royalty rate from individual direct board sales as well as profit share of team-branded products?
What if they considered equality practices in their employment structure, from art direction and management to sales and warehousing?
What if they harnessed their position in skateboarding to create a platform for skaters who haven’t been given a proper opportunity or exposure, such as Candy Jacobs, as well as rising talent?
What if they also used their content as a platform for photographers and videographers who are often ignored by larger brands and media outlets?
Lastly, what if their graphics and art direction conveyed a progressive message both directly and conceptually?
If this company performs as expected, it begins to create a new model by utilizing and subverting the one already in place. The reason to project success is that there is a need for this type of company to exist on a large scale. Furthermore, not only does it create jobs and revenue it presents new opportunities and opens landscapes. For example, what if charity was built into their model? Instead of routinely stating that proceeds go to this foundation or that foundation, it was known that funds were continually being donated to one or more consistent charities with every purchase?
If and When
Something of this scale will eventually happen in skateboarding. It might be a clothing brand, it might be a footwear company or as suggested, it could be a hardgoods brand. We can state this firmly because all these things are happening in tandem as we speak on different levels of visibility. Rather than list out all these companies that currently operate, we can broadly establish that diverse and progressive brands do exist in skateboarding but their presence is fragmented.
This is partially due to scale— for example, Doyenne or Housewife don’t have the budget or perceived need to advertise in Thrasher. The larger issue is distribution. As any new company owner will tell you, distribution is the key factor in success and the biggest barrier to profitability and visibility. Just getting to the level that a larger distribution would consider carrying your brand is a difficult accomplishment and if you reach it, it means compromise sometimes ethically and profit-wise.
Let’s use the term Progressive Brands to categorize these newer companies. We can contextualize things by running a brief survey as to how European brands and boutique independent US companies started to gain market shares from the California-centric skateboarding industry.
The biggest case study for this shift is Theories of Atlantis. The Brooklyn, New York-based distribution company and brand curated a group of companies that shared a creative DNA and were also undervalued in the American market. Though they no longer distribute the biggest brand they introduced in Palace, Theories currently represents Hopps, Traffic, Isle, Magenta, Polar, Evisen, Dial Tone, Chrystie NYC, and Studio, making them one of the most respected distributions in skateboarding. They’re essentially the East Coast Deluxe Distribution with a content arm that extends into independent video production via founder Josh Stewart’s Static series and brand video direction.
Theories of Atlantis built their distribution as a brand. They began by offering quality offerings from unique brands for shops of all scales and sizes. Through this, they created a strong brand, along with new, sustainable options for former “garage brands.”
Redefining D.I.Y.: Distribute Independents Yourself
Rather than our proposed new progressive brand operating independently as a direct sales brand or traditionally by selling to shops and distributions, this brand could have the power to create their own distribution much like Deluxe or Theories. Yes, they could be absolutely sustainable using FA or Primitive’s or Revive’s model and even spawn sub-brands but there’s also a broader strategy to use their channels to carry other progressive brands.
This idea doesn’t have to be limited to hard and soft goods and could extend to media. Although forming a media hub is an entirely new business and extremely difficult to form from the ground up, having a place to distribute content that is not only relevant but has a genuine audience could be another bold lane to open up. It could be as simple as having a content section on the distribution’s website as Theories does, which is also an excellent SEO play.
This isn’t to say that the brands under this new distribution don’t need to advertise through existing channels but that they could bolster that marketing through their own hub, where content lives and is released.
This model also provides a space for smaller, progressive companies who have been operating for years. It’s a shop getting one email communication with the distribution’s offerings, juxtaposing the brands together and presenting a broad spectrum of products that share an agenda. It makes it easier for shops to order and curate their space with fewer channels to go through financially and less digging for seasonal catalogs.
Using Theories’ model, we could imagine a distribution house led by our “new brand,” which could also include carrying Meow, Unity, There, Gnarhunters, Housewife, Doyenne, and others, amplifying each brand and fostering these alternative perspectives in the industry.
Brick by Brick
Though it seems paradoxical in nature, we can analyze Supreme, Palace, Fucking Awesome, Deluxe, Huf, and even Carpet Company and the way they’ve grown their brands. All of the brands mentioned not only through online sales and wholesale, save Deluxe, but by having brick-and-mortar locations. Digital purchases are tracked by data and that consumer journey is quantified in reports and spreadsheets but like fashion, skateboarding and its buying experience are greater than “clicks.” The in-store experience is part of skateboarding and while it can’t be quantified as online sales are there’s a tangible impact in community building and human interaction. Of course, in the case of Supreme, their initial anti-community/intimidation strategy was also part of building the brand’s exclusivity which drove demand for some.
For brands, shops are a space to curate their world. They can be used for activations, for product drops, and for community spaces. The latter is key, as shared spaces are where the ethics of skateboarding are learned and practiced. Brands have little control over what happens in the streets or at skateparks but what’s allowed, condoned or championed in their retail space is completely subject to their regulation and curation.
As an example, we can think of interactions skateparks and how they shape the behaviors of skateboarders. If a young skater goes to a park and hears homophobic language being used, it can normalize it. If that same person is somewhere that the language is not used or is frowned upon when used, it could have an equally powerful impression; one that’s progressive and formative.
We have detailed our theoretical powerhouse brand, its counterpart distribution, and real and conceptual brands/outlets under the umbrella. Since we’re dreaming big, we can conceptualize what that brand brick-and-mortar looks like. It could host art shows, fundraisers, workshops, voter registration initiatives, clothing exchanges, mentoring programs, video premiers, and a grip of activations we’ve yet to think of. The space’s influence is boundless and driven by the creative vision and intentions of the operators.
Most importantly, the proposed space fosters interaction, guided by—once again in theory—progressive figures and or those with a positive agenda. I’m not proposing that the pros on the team are going to be gripping boards but could they be visible and their ethical stands present? That’s completely feasible.
Yes, it’s aiming very high and something that no one can action tomorrow but skateboards are more than pieces of wood with graphics on them. Brands are more than businesses. Tricks are more than movements. Shops are more than places to buy shit, and change is more than unrest.
Unlike the piece that spawned this follow up, what you’re reading is meant to be picked apart. Poke holes in it, tell me it’s impossible or pen a retort detailing a better solution. Finding those cracks could lead to a breakthrough, one that actually enacts change and forms a new ethical standard informed by a more diverse and progressive base that can influence the direction of skateboarding on a larger scale without the present guardrails in place that stifle it.
The following quote is taken from an interview I conducted in 2018 for Huck Magazine with Nora Vasconcellos:
“This is not a phase anymore,” she says. “But what I laugh about is that you have an industry that’s all dudes – they own the brands, they are the team managers – now understanding that the female market is fucking insane. Who’s really spending money? Women are. And yet how many skate shops are going under because they’re alienating women? How much shit does Thrasher sell to 15-year-old girls? We’re half the population, so you’re not gonna fail either way.”
Vasconcellos’ assessment is accurate in that there is often a disconnect between who is actually skateboarding and buying product and who is curating and marketing that product. Since the piece ran there has been gradual change but the reality is that most skate shops and brands are operated predominantly by men.
So even if a company with the weight as the one we discussed existed, it can’t thrive without support. If the energy behind progression is matched with support—committing dollars as well as time—it has a much better chance of becoming successful but the opportunity needs to exist. This is the biggest barrier and variable.
If we look at the ascendance of Welcome in the skateboarding industry, we can see a strong case-study that the support of skateboarding and it’s buying power can force the larger industry to take note. Started in 2010, Welcome’s primary positioning was of an outlier brand that made non traditionally shaped skateboards with hand-drawn graphics—something being largely ignored at the time.
They presented the company as accepting of park skating and other disciplines that were almost taboo—viewed as uncool. As their sales rose their profile rose, causing other brands to offer shaped boards. Eventually, their share of the market was so strong that larger online and brick-and-mortar shops began stocking Welcome.
If the core of a new initiative is strong, focused, and resonates with skateboarders, there’s a much better chance of sustainability, even if the biggest challenge is support from skateboarding’s gatekeepers.
Thank you to everyone who provided feedback on this piece prior to publishing.