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Skateboard magazines are an integral part of our world, to many an image on a screen will never compare to the printed page. Historically, magazines served as the gateway for an upcoming skateboarder to gain exposure and chart a potential career. They provided a window into skate culture and are primarily responsible for spreading it around the world. Magazines still do this of course, but they now sit alongside many other forms of media delivery. Their role has shifted towards one of a curator, with each magazine having its own editorial take on the vast world of skateboarding.
In recent years European skateboard magazines have undergone a major shift, the majority now operate a free DIY model, no longer part of big publishing houses. They use skate distribution to get to the best place a skate magazine can be, the skate shop. Being independent and free of charge does not come without challenges. Magazines are reliant on advertising, and print media is not a cheap genre to play around with, they must remain financially viable in an increasingly digital world.
In order to gain some valuable insight into what it's like to run a skateboard magazine, we spoke to the people behind some of the key titles in Europe. Will Harmon at Free Skateboard Magazine, Oliver Tielsch at Solo, Henry Kingsford at Grey, Roland Hoogwater and Daniel Panamann at Place and the editor of the newest title to enter the field, Vague’s Guy Jones.
What’s been the most challenging aspect of getting Vague going? You all work full-time jobs…
Guy (Vague): Reece does so much, not just shooting a borderline incomprehensible amount of rad photos, but pretty much all forms of negotiation and social media with brands and those potentially featured. Hannah does the layout in her own time which I couldn't be more grateful for, especially as she's trying to get own magazine FILTER off the ground with a selection of her amazing friends, it'll also be a full-on patriarchy smasher as an all women-run publication. As for myself, it does get challenging, but at least it gives me something to complain about. In all seriousness it's fun and we only have to answer to ourselves, it's not like we're single mums working two underpaid jobs in an area long forgotten by the government.
You are the only person who works full-time at Grey, how do you manage to juggle everything?
Henry (Grey): You have to accept that you can’t have a 9-5, 5 days a week existence. People are in touch constantly through various channels and there’s all this stuff you need to react to quickly. People often want to shoot at weekends. I’m not complaining though, I do have free time when lots of other people don’t.
What is the biggest challenge to producing a magazine today?
Roland (Place): Probably a lot of the same things that skate shops are battling. First, to keep younger audiences interested, youth equals capital, and open to other non-screen related activities but also, to keep the content we are producing interesting for us as well, you have to want to find and tell these stories.
Daniel (Place): Financing the ideas that we have and finding the compromise to actually make them happen. Most of our ideas sit on a piece of paper for a while until we find the right time and setting for them. It took us three years to actually go for the Stefan Marx idea!
Grey was a totally new platform started by yourself. What obstacles have you overcome to get to where you are now?
Henry (Grey): The workload has increased over the years. Skateboard magazines are expected to do a lot more these days: produce and release videos regularly, run multiple social media accounts, be present at and cover so many events… all that on top of making printed magazines.
You have never run your title on the cover of Free, only the red dot, is this you guys expressing the creative freedom that you didn't previously get being within a publishing company?
Will (Free): One of the reasons we started Free is because we appreciate skateboard photography. When we worked at Kingpin we were always a bit annoyed at having to fit the Kingpin logo on the cover because it would obscure the skate photo. The red dot gives us more freedom. Also, our mag is not on newsstands, only in skate shops, so we don't have to have a barcode on the cover. Plus it's quite fun deciding the placement and size of the dot each issue!
Can you inform how you decide who gets on the cover?
Will (Free): If you owe us pints, mess up our score in a skate trivia game or cover yourself in energy drink logos you probably won't be getting the cover, but then again, anything is possible.
Alongside skateboarding, your magazine always collaboratively features artists and breweries, why is this?
Guy (Vague): Initially it was to get as pissed and as cultured for free whilst attempting to stimulate other parts of the brain without venturing too far from the ethos of skateboarding. However, as time has gone on we've realised that there's less spell checking and general chasing needed for artists and brewers regarding interviews. Regarding the curation of the mag, it's primarily designed to read on transport and on the lav. So, depending on your journey time or break from the world on the bog, there should be a range of articles varying in length to suit your in-between time. Plus attention spans are on the decline, it's nice to attack from every angle.
Each issue has a theme or concept, what's the idea behind this and do you see this as the creative difference of your magazine to others?
Roland (Place): No, the theme or concept does not make us different because other magazines have followed this path, it has been done and done well by print publications like Fluff. I believe the real difference between all the magazines is the interests of the people that make it.
With that being said, we felt that certain avenues of skateboard culture were not really being portrayed and that most magazines were basing their content on skateboard tricks and not the skateboarders who were doing these tricks. To speak for myself, if I liked a skater's skating I was also always interested in the person behind it all, secondly, if I learned stuff about a skateboarder it could make me like that persons’ skating. Now it is my belief that people want to connect with people, we are all in our early years looking for role models, and if we are able to tell a story about a skater with a Tunisian background that connects to young skaters with a similar background more because they can relate.
Also, another idea behind giving every magazine a theme or a concept is that with a lot of digital content being thrown out the ‘news’ function of print has been lost, as has a part of the progression of skate tricks. What we felt print has over digital is that with print media you can coherently bundle multiple pieces of a puzzle and mould them into one broader narrative and that is what we use our paper for.
Daniel (Place): Yes, it makes us different from other magazines but that doesn’t mean the difference will gain more readers. In the beginning, we wanted to separate our work from the others and later we noticed that this is a way better strategy to work on something - if you want to do everything on your own. Most magazines just wait until they get an email with the content, we are actually on the spot for almost every article. No disrespect to the other magazines, it’s a pain in the arse sometimes for us to get shit done because it’s just us working on it, but at the end of the day, we feel more hands-on.
What sort of ethics or level of popularity do you have around who is good enough to be in the magazine?
Henry (Grey): Word of mouth, seeing someone skate first hand, photographers suggesting people they want to shoot and skaters contacting me directly are the main ways. In terms of who’s ‘good’ enough, it’s subjective I guess.
Vague features women almost as much as men, why is this so important?
Guy (Vague): Girls invented punk rock for starters! This ethos is pertinent to so many 'mixed gender' activities where women are still the underdog doing what they do, often incredibly and for the best reasons. It’s just about having a fair representation of the skateboarding community - women are part of it. Hannah has had a huge influence in trying to get the exposure ratios closer to what they should be. Women's football was banned in 1921 and imagine how many more women would be playing football (and participating in numerous other activities) now if it hadn't been. By a similar token, the more women in magazines can only encourage more women to either take it up or get hyped, "wow, I could be doing that". It's more inspiring to see something you can relate to as well, whether it's a weirdo inspiring another weirdo, or a woman inspiring a young girl who wouldn't have tried it otherwise. Things are finally shifting, and if you look at the ratio of girls to boys skating in say Palestine, then it's closer to what it should be. Westerners need to catch up in this respect, but I still put it down to capitalism and Tory wankers. Up the lasses!
Most skate magazines in Europe are free, you are reliant on advertisers to bring in revenue. Can you explain the relationships you need to have with brands in order to operate?
Oli (Solo): It’s mostly a very friendly relationship, since obviously our industry is comparably small, so if you’re part of it for more than 15 years, chances are high you have been skating or drinking beers together at some point. It’s anything from a small company busting their yearly budget into one trip to make an article happen, to global companies working with us on full video parts, and anything in between. Luckily content is part of any conversation at any level nowadays, so it’s barely the case that someone tries to push us into weird things. Actually, it’s more like people trust us to make their stuff look good.
Grey has always used the free distribution model. What informed this, and what are your thoughts on it kind of becoming the standard model now in Europe?
Henry (Grey): I copied AnzeigeBerlin and A Propos. I think it makes life a lot easier for everyone.
European skate magazines in recent years and moved away from publishing houses to a free DIY model. What brought about this shift, and why do think it hasn’t happened in the USA with Slap or TransWorld Skateboarding?
Will (Free): The shift for us was gradual, the last few issues of Kingpin we gave away as free magazines, this was more down to forward-thinking than anything else, we had to think 'if this mag is going to be around in 2, 5, or 10 years, what does it need to be?' We knew that if we wanted to retain a large readership we'd have to leave newsstands and lower the price at some point, so we just got on with it. The 'DIY' thing was more of an opportunity that presented itself to us than anything else. The publisher of Kingpin decided they didn't want to be in print any more, we knew this would leave a large gap in the market, it was up to us to try and jump in it... I think it was easily the best business decision we have ever made.
Regarding Slap, I'd imagine its close ties with Thrasher, as they shared a publisher, would have made it near impossible for the staff to do what we did. I honestly think with TWS that it's just been left too late for them, by the time the print mag was closed Thrasher had completely dominated their print advertising market.
The Solo team previously ran Monster magazine under Factory Media, now you are independent, what freedoms does this give you?
Oli (Solo): The best is to send the mag to print a day after the deadline without giving a shit I guess. Generally, we can take any decision these days without having to explain or it having to make sense necessarily. To be honest we always acted like Monster was our magazine since we pretty much threw our lives into it while making it. Luckily, we did not have too much editorial interference from any publishing company we’ve been with. Just the whole money part was always a big topic, which has obviously changed. Nobody in the magazine business is in it for the money in 2019.
What do you believe is the role of skate magazines today?
Roland (Place): To tell people’s stories, show the different alleyways in which our subculture can lead you, to give you new perspectives on what and how you can think and document skateboarding, and lastly to provide a platform for people to express and develop their skill set.
I believe that for me still, the skate shop is still the place where you can learn about ‘skateboard culture’, it is hopefully where you learn your first things, not about tricks but about attitude and the many side alleys that skateboarding presents. Whether photography, painting, music, architecture, sculpture, youth and community work, writing (even if it is on a forum). For me, the people in the shop were my compass, they gave me my bearings, no pun, to go out and explore my own interests within skateboarding and skateboard magazines are a central part of that skate shop experience.
Browsing through the magazines I expanded my knowledge about skateboard culture in America because there were no European or Dutch magazines available to me at first, and I really developed an understanding about how skateboarders look, think, talk and depict skateboarding. Later on, when Fluff started, it showed me that the format of a skate magazine can be applied to strengthen an idea or concept by playing with product design and graphic design so that it matches the content.
Today it still plays a lot of those formative roles, and with giving out the magazines for free, the threshold for very young skaters, that before had to ask their parents for money to buy a mag, to get their hands on a mag has been somewhat flattened. Preferably I would like for the youngest or beginner of skaters at the shop to get the mag because getting something for free is something they most often still really appreciate, and that means that they really ‘use’ the mag.
Do you see a time in the future where it will be financially possible for you to work on Vague full-time?
Guy (Vague): That would be nice, but the fact we're doing it for ourselves maintains a certain innocence and keeps us as the demographic. Art for art's sake etc. There are a lot of other things with Vague we'd like to progress though. We appreciate everyone who has been featured and helped us, we'd like to provide a bigger platform for those talented bastards who have supported us and move more towards being a magnifying glass for them, be it exhibitions, book launches or a mash-up in an Aldi car park somewhere, just to get everyone together to appreciate one another.
How has the internet, and social media, changed the way magazines functions within skateboarding?
Will (Free): Well, you can't just be a print magazine these days, it's about the whole package. Free Skate Mag is a print magazine, a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Tumblr page and an Instagram account. All of these outlets are important and all appeal to different audiences. A 12-year-old skater might not access Free the same way a 40-year-old skater would, so we try to cater to as many different people as we can.
How important is the balance of digital and print, for example, should your website and social media efforts never outweigh the print magazine?
Oli (Solo): Looking at Thrasher I would say, why not? But, generally, I feel it’s more about standards. There is no recipe that works for everyone. For ourselves, we want to paint one big picture on whatever medium. Thus we don’t have that super aggressive digital strategy, because that’s not us. To sum it up, content is king. We love magazines, so you might have figured that we put a lot of effort into the print issue and try to keep it at the highest standard.
Can a digital-only skate magazine exist and still be seen as 100% legit and taken seriously with both audience and advertisers?
Will (Free): In theory, yes, but when it comes to competing for the best content if you can offer something else/extra, like also being able to put the content in print, that gives you a big advantage.
Do you believe digital is the future and slowly (generationally?) the magazines will all die off?
Oli (Solo): Possibly, they might at one point, mostly because of marketing decisions vs. production and distribution cost. But then again, people appreciate printed products for various reasons in any generation, so let’s hope we will be able to make this happen for as long as it’s fun!
Will print skate magazines be around in ten years time or do you see an eventual shift to digital?
Roland (Place): It depends, what is more, damaging to the environment a piece of A4 paper or an email? All non-jokes aside, I do believe there is a role for print, with the point I made earlier that it allows you to bundle multiple things into one big thing, and with context being so important but also at times hard to find digitally, I do believe it will be there.
Video content is able to provide similar things, but statistics show that people don't make it to the end of a longer video most of the time. The beauty of print is that you don't have to press play, it is always playing at your own pace.
Daniel (Place): Lately if feels like this topic has balanced itself out a little. At first, we all thought that everyone’s dying immediately, it’s quite the long process. Some even said that this time is the golden years of print media since a lot of bullshit got washed away. I think there will always be room for print if it’s on a smaller scale, or maybe even bigger, it doesn’t really matter.
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