Dinosaur Jr., Operation Ivy, Wu-Tang Clan. These names were foreign to most skaters until Alien Workshop’s mesmerizing Memory Screen, H-Street’s Bootleg, or 101’s forever-underrated Snuff. Skating and music have always been close associates, sometimes by blood in the case of Suicidal Tendencies and Dogtown. The right song in the right video catapulted a band into skate-rock history, bringing with it skateboarders’ coveted respect and years of support. Both sides of this cross-promotional phenomenon got wise quickly as skate companies began hooking up bands with gear and the occasional pro-band model deck, and bands desperately wanted their music in skate vids.
These days, sponsorship is merely a baby step. Launching their own record labels and music tours, skate companies are the ones breaking bands. Getting rock stars to endorse skate gear is a cakewalk, chances are they were wearing it already.
The earliest organized collaboration between the two circles was most likely the Skate Rock cassettes popularized by Thrasher in the early 80s. “Bands like JFA, Agent Orange, TSOL, Big Boys, Gang Green, Minor Threat, et cetera were basically made up of skaters,” explains High Speed Productions? Rick Rotsaert. “Producing the first Skate Rock cassette tape was as easy as asking the bands if they wanted to contribute.” The first Skate Rock show went down in May of 1983 in San Francisco featuring, among others, Steve Caballero’s now legendary band, The Faction.
A decade later, a few other DIY skate-related labels decided to jump in the game. Beer City Records was launced in 1992, the same time as their skateboard company, as a vessel for punk, hardcore, and skate-rock bands to release their music. “Labels were interested in pop-punk, techno, rap, and alternative,” says Mike Beer. “There were a lot of great bands around despite the media labeling punk as dead.” Ten years and 138 releases later, Beer City continues to set the standard with records from The U.S. Bombs, The Faction, and newly signed DRI. The next time you see Duane Peters skating or onstage sans shirt, check the Beer City tat blazing across his stomach.
After years of selling punk vinyl in the Sessions skate shop, Joel Gomez started Sessions’ record label in 1994. Created as a hobby and a way to expose his friends’ bands, Gomez maintains his friends-before-partners ethics to this day: “The bands that sported/sport Sessions stuff were/are my friends. We never send product to bands we don’t have a relationship with, who I’ve never met.” Some of Gomez’ friends include Dennis Dannel of Social Distortion, James Hetfield of Metallica, No Use For a Name, the Beastie Boys, and Sick Of It All.
Fast-forward to reports on Vans in the Wall Street Journal, Nike owning Hurley, and skateboarding as a hot commodity. Volcom, Vans, and Hurley have all started record labels of their own, and shoe companies like DVS and Sole Technology have music and entertainment managers on staff. The focus is no longer on band exposure or for love of the music, it’s now about growth and expansion of companies. Simply put–it’s business.
Because Sessions and Beer City may have been seen as competition by indie labels in the past, it’s all handshakes and back pats with the new crop of skate labels. Take Vans, for example–between their retail stores, Triple Crown contests, skateparks, and the Warped Tour, they’ve got a virtual stranglehold on the target market’s attention. And with Vans willing to collaborate, who wouldn’t want a piece of this pie? “Epitaph wanted to help because we’ve launched many of their bands on Warped Tour,” explains Vans Vice President Of Global Marketing Jay Wilson on the founding of Vans Records. Wilson sees other labels as allies, rather than competition. As Vans has grown, they’ve tried to strike exclusive deals and merge with would-be competitors for the benefit of all parties. The end result is skateboarding and music exposed in the largest scenes possible.
Whille Sole Technology and DVS may not have their own record labels, they definitely stepped into the ring and had their share of successful relationships in the music biz. Etnies was a sponsor at this year’s high-profile Coachella Valley Music Festival, which may be seen as a step at countering the Vans Warped Tour, but Sole’s Carrie Tucker described Etnies’ musical affiliations differently: “In exchange for our support and ability to promote (our artists) in areas where they might otherwise encounter difficulty, they show us loyalty by not wearing our competitor’s shoes, and licensing their music for our video releases, et cetera.”
In a similar move, DVS sponsored this year’s precariously titled Cypress Hill Dr. Greenthumb 420 Harvest Festival. Kevin Dunlap expressed DVS’ involvement with artists as on a more personal level. “We don’t necessarily sponsor an entire band, instead we try and focus on key individuals in the band that best represent what DVS is all about,” he says. “We hook up certain individuals from Incubus, Cypress Hill, System Of A Down, Papa Roach, Alien Ant Farm, Hoobastank, Slipknot, and Linkin Park.” Quite a far cry from the bands that, say, Sessions or Beer City sponsors, but times have changed.
But there’s another unexamined variable in the skate/music scene–the outsiders. You know ’em–Gillette Razors, Microsoft, McDonald’s. The big guys trying to jump on the bandwagon. There’s an old adage about if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. “Paul Frank, Levi’s, and Ben Sherman, who are more lifestyle brands, can be our allies,” says Sole Tech’s Tucker. “By partnering with these types of companies, we can both increase brand exposure in complementing markets.”
Somewhat on the flip side, DVS’ Dunlap explains how skate companies will always have the upper hand: “One thing we have in our advantage is that they are not skate-industry companies. These bands understand that their target market lives the action-sports lifestyle, and by representing our industry, they form that connection with their fans.”
The new has run full circle into the old as Thrasher plans to release a best-of-Skate Rock CD later this year, and guys like Steve Caballero and The Faction have paved the way for young guns like Tony Trujillo and his band. For all the pros who wanted to get into the music industry, that goal is now in the palm of their hands. And as Wilson leaked that Vans is pitching movies and series to MTV and other major broadcasters, the opportunities are endless for skateboarding’s future crossover.