If you haven't had a chance to read part one of our in-depth interview with Adam Johnson, please click the button below. For part two of this interview we dive deep into some of his projects prior to what he's working on currently. We dig into his time shooting the Razors team videos, the roots of Street Artist, and what the future of the industry looks like.
(T-Travis) Let's talk about Street Artist and the Razors video. I totally forgot about somethings that you had shoved into the Razors video in between a couple of cuts here and there. I believe it was some messaging along the lines of our wheels are cured for 4 months. Wanna elaborate on it a little on that process?
(A-Adam) We created Street Artist while we were still making the Razors Video. We just sat on the wheels for a really long time to let them bond and let them cure. We had floated the idea to a few different manufacturers to freeze cure our wheels and all sorts of things that now seem really gimmicky. We were young, and none of us had a history in urethane. None of us are chemical engineers. We were people who wanted to see a change, but didn’t have a background to facilitate that change. We were reaching out to different people, Shane Coburn had already shut the doors at Mindgame. He’s the one who gave us contacts, people to talk to, and was the one who mentored the very beginning of Street Artist. He was very wonderful in helping me understand how that side of the business worked. The same way Dave Temple was instrumental in helping us bridge the gap between making videos to making clothes. Shane Coburn was instrumental in taking us from clothes and videos into wheels.
(T) So let's talk about the Razors video before we jump away from it. How much stuff did you manage to shove into that video? Did Andy or anyone at Sunshine know you did this prior to release?
(A) Nobody knew, and there really wasn’t that much I put into it. The Razors videos were more about creating a different persona or different looks for the people we were working with. It was really an attempt at commentary on the state of skating at the time. Same way that Shane did it, but Shane did it really well in my opinion. It was trying to talk in a satirical way about people's perceptions in skating and about how the inner workings of skating went.
The idea behind Ego was that everyone would just talk about how tight they were before their section. It’d be different than the way Coup De Tat did it. In Coup De Tat everybody was talking about the other skaters before that skaters part. This was going to be completely self absorbed. There is a perception that if a pro doesn’t talk to you before a contest or if they don’t remember your name, that person is a dick. People just don’t understand the other side of that. You have people that are really good about going to contests and remembering everyone and everything about them. Dre Powell. I don’t understand how that man works, but Dre has the best brain for shit like that. But not everyone is like Dre and just because someone doesn’t remember a brief interaction with you, or is focused on winning a contest or whatever, it doesn’t make them a bad person
While we were producing the video, a lot of people backed out of that idea, and if they didn’t back out they were just really bad at talking about themselves with this self-absorbed attitude because they aren’t like that in real life. Unfortunately I’m really bad about abandoning an idea. For some reason, no one would ever tell me when something was a really horrible concept. No one would ever tap me on the shoulder and say “AJ, this is super corny. Stop”. Since no one is saying anything negative about stuff like that, it ends up in the final cut. Rather than everybody talking about how tight they were, I ended up getting in front of the camera and doing a bunch of stupid shit which is how Ego happened. It’s really how all of those mistakes of the past happened, any of the really silly / dumb stuff that ended up in otherwise cool skate videos was a lack of oversight from the other skaters. There just wasn’t a system of checks and balances. After those videos people got really good about saying “hey, stop”. The bad ideas don’t creep in as much now that I have a handful of people to check out projects and bounce ideas off.
(T) The videos ended up working out in the end though?
(A) Depends what you consider “working out” because they certainly weren’t profitable. Looking back, Andy is a smart guy. My deal with Andy was he would pay one plane ticket for each of the riders to go anywhere. I would finance the rest of the video and we would make the profits from the video. Two things went bad here. First, I’m creating marketing for his entire brand, a company that’s super successful and makes a lot of money with no guarantee of earning a dime. Second thing is, at that point I had created a relationship with the skaters I’ve worked with where I pay them for their parts in the video which to this day I believe is a noble pursuit. While the Razors guys are making their salary, and if they have pro skates and are making royalties on that, I was also going to pay them for their part so it’s even more incentive to do what Andy is paying them to do.
They didn’t have any incentive to make the video cost effective though. The budgets spiraled wildly out of control. We lost money on the project. So we lost money and I still owed money to skaters for their parts. And that's where the problem comes in. It’s like I created a promo for someone else's brand, but I don’t see any profits from that brand. I lost money of my own and now I have my friends being owed money from making a video that would either help them get raises, help them get on a pro team from AM, help them get a pro skate, or add longevity to their career. If we're being honest, the easiest way to have longevity back then and continue getting a paycheck every year is you should probably come out with a profile. If you just get paid to inline skate, but never get seen skating, when it comes back at the end of the year “what have you done for me lately,” you get axed. So making Ego was fulfilling their obligations for the brand, but on my budget. To be perfectly clear this is an arrangement that I entered into, that I thought up, and that I accept. None of these circumstances were manipulation on any parties part, but the end result was a loss of a significant amount of money and some people being very upset with how it all shook out. That’s also probably the biggest lesson I learned which was not to make projects for other peoples brands. Unless you believe in the brand and care about those people.
(T) With that said, was that your last project with Razors?
(A) No, I made Icons. This is the thing, I always think the market is going to even out. When I agreed to those terms with Andy I had just come off KFC 4 which was kind of successful. KFC 3 was our best selling video we’ve ever made. Generic Tour Video wasn’t as successful, but I still had money from KFC 3 to pay the guys from KFC 4. I thought that I could kinda re-up and level out using our popularity of the KFC series with that of Razors and sell maybe 5,000 copies of a video. It just didn’t happen. I thought “well, I owe these people money, I lost money. Let's do it again.” In my head if I owe people money from skating I’m going to earn it through skating. I work regular jobs to finance skating projects, I’m not trying to work at Family Video to pay off some video debt to someone who was getting paid to skate.
Going in to round two of making the Razors video, we set a budget that we’re going to spend per person. This is how we planned on not letting the budget balloon out of control. The thought being that we can make the money back that we lost on the first video, pay people for the first video, and pay people for the second video. Seems easy, don’t go to Europe to film, keep the trips short, and bust some serious ass. I had made videos on a limited budget before, surely I could do this again.
Wrong, we got about half way into the video and realized that it’s not working. At this point I had made a promise to Don Bambrick that if he skated really hard I could guarantee him that he could go from flow to pro on Razors. He was just flow when he was making his Icons section, just getting skates. No money, no anything. I just loved hanging out with Don, Don’s one of my favorite people in the world. So I just kept flying him down from Detroit and we go and skate and we make this epic Icons section. At the end of the day, Don was one of those few people who kept me going through that project.
We lost money again, but Don became pro. That's about the time where the recurring theme in skating was shoot for the moon, finish a project, not make back your money. But it comes full circle to this is a hobby that’s partially getting paid off. All of the best times of my life have come from going and making videos like that. I don’t wanna sound bitter or ungrateful or anything like that. I’m happy for everything skating has given me, every opportunity it’s given me, and the chances to go hang out with cool people and do cool things. It is sad and stifling to watch your friends work so hard to not get any of the benefits of it. I feel dumb trying 100 different ways to hopefully make it work for everybody and just nothing pans out. That’s why, to segway into the VxVII skate stuff, this is the last thing I can think of where there is a healthy margin. We just decided to take this risk and make some skates.
(T) Where do you draw the line? Is there ever going to be a point you get to where you see videos aren’t profitable, clothing isn’t profitable, skates aren’t profitable, I’m done with all this. Or do you continue to see late nights, beating yourself over the head for these projects?
(A) You wanna know what my last skate video was? It was KFC 2. I told myself after KFC 2 I’m never making a skate video again. I found this girl, and I was in love, and the rigors of going out and making skate videos just were too tough. Then boom, Vibralux pops out. And then after Ego and Icons I said I’m never making skate videos again. After Charging, I’m never making skate videos again. I was in a van 3 months later because I missed being in a van with my friends so much. I don’t think there will ever be a point where I’m not involved in skating. There is definitely going to be a point where I stop making t-shirts. The idea that I would ever not do the thing I love the most in the world is just crazy. I lie to myself every time because it pushes me harder to try to execute a good idea. My brain just wants to help, I want to make cool stuff. At some point it’s not gonna work and we can’t make the cool stuff we wanna make and then my heart will break. We’ll probably stop making physical things but we'll still skate, still put out content, still see me at contests.
The last thing I want is to be that guy, still around, making crap for people to buy so he can have $5 to make more crap. I don’t see it ever being sustainable where I don’t have a job and my friends don’t have a job. I would love if there was a rebound and all of these new faces came into skating. Where we could make a company where none of my friends had to work. But right now we’re doing it because we love it. We’re making cool shit because if your going to make something you might as well make it cool, and take some time to do it right. That's the level of accountability that everyone should be held to. Make dope shit or just skate, not everybody has to have a “company” to stay in skating and if we have to close a brand because it can’t make cool stuff and keep up, let it happen. Hell it happened with Street Artist. We couldn’t sell enough wheels to pay the riders, so why bother?
(T) Since there likely won’t be a point that you’ll be out of this position, do you ever see a time you’ll finally be out of copies of On Top?
(A) Yes. There are 85 copies of On Top right now in my office. The only reason we even have those is that the box they were in was mislabeled. When I moved into my van for Charging I had put all my stuff into my friend Joseph’s basement. I finally moved my things out of his basement and this box just gets moved from house to house. I finally realized what I had been moving for years when I went to sell all my junk.
(T) I just remember a point in my life where anything I ordered online came with a copy of On Top. Even ordering On Top came with a copy of On Top. What happened there? Did you order a million copies and it didn’t sell?
(A) It’s not that it didn’t sell, you just get that economy of scale that is too good to pass up. For us to make 2,000 copies was $2,500, and for us to make 4,000 copies was $3,000. Well why wouldn’t I spend the extra $500 to have an extra 2,000 copies I can give away. For me there has always been a reason we scale up with things like media as opposed to t-shirts. If you saw someone wearing a dead t-shirt walking down the road who doesn’t skate, that doesn’t do anything for skating, giving a stranger a t-shirt doesn’t help skating, but if you can go around and see a cool kid who’s like 15 and give him a magazine that can possibly influence what he decides to do with his free time, I think that is worth the $1.50 or $2 that that magazine costs.
(T) What do you see as a path forward from here? Is there anything in your mind that can save inline skating? Is there anything we can do proactively as a group of people who love it and want to keep doing it?
(A) Inline skating doesn’t need saving. Done. The industry could use some help, but inline skating as an activity does not need saving. You skate, I skate, Alex skates, thousands of people around the world skate. Inline skating will never need saving and the idea of saving it is beyond all of us. To save the industry we need to reevaluate the business model. There are different ways brands are surviving because traditional retail is dying. You can’t drive across this country without seeing strip malls that are abandoned. What used to be a JC Penny is now a new church. So everything in this world is changing and adapting, except skating.
So why is the industry so afraid to change? You could ask 10 different people that and you’ll get 10 different answers. My belief is that the future of inline skating is customer direct. The problem with the customer direct retail model is that it takes away what used to make the scene thrive. It takes away brick and mortars like Oak City, Intuition, and Shop Task where people can go and hang out and talk to charismatic knowledgeable people who know about inline skating. Where they can meet up to have a scene. However I think more than anything that online spaces are replacing the actual skate shops as far as meetups and information sharing go. So you have Facebook groups that act as the local skate shops. So you have the Philadelphia rollers facebook group that they use to organize sessions, as opposed to going to Neglected Truth. It’s about walking that thin line with doing customer direct sales without alienating shops. The smart brick and mortars in skating do a great job at skater outreach and talking to people online and fostering their clientele, but from a brand standpoint there are some cash flow issues that we can touch on that are alleviated when selling customer direct and fostering your own clientele.
If you have someone faced with the dilemma of selling wholesale to a shop and having to sell twice as many goods to make the same return on investment as they would selling directly, which would you choose? If we’re looking purely from a stock perspective, if I can only stock 150 skates and I only have to sell 150 skates direct to customers to make the same money as investing into 300 pairs of skates to sell to a skate shop, I have less liability producing 150 pairs of skates and selling them direct. If you’re talking about the money your putting into inline skating from a company’s standpoint you can lessen your financial exposure by producing half as many products selling them customer direct and have the same exact financial outcome. In an industry that already struggles to sell products, I think that might be one of those routes to go. That’s on the sales side of things. Participation is a whole other issue.
Ray Mendez and Jon Ortiz who started Go! Sports teaching skate lessons to 600 kids a week for schools in New York, now that is a progressive idea to bring kids into skating. So Ray and Jon act as ambassadors for skating at these schools, getting young people into the skate community and giving them something worthwhile to do. All their instructors are certified by Skate IA and carry million dollar insurance policies. I think things like that, and what Mike Obedoza is doing with the Thrive Inline and the Carson kids, to get kids on skates and giving them an opportunity to see what skating is like at a young age is instrumental in building a new core group. Getting kids while they’re in school through afterschool programs could possibly be an alternative to local skate shops that no longer exist most places. It’s important to be forward thinking about how to handle these things.
I feel the people who will be most successful moving forward will be the people who step aside from “how are we going to get the most return on our investment, how are we going to keep selling these products” and will instead figure out how we can make an impact on who is seeing skating and how they’re interacting with skating. How do we reach out to kids and get them involved in inline skating?
Skating will never die. People are always going to jump down stairs and grind handrails. There will always be skates being made because there is money in making skates. It’s just more how do we get more people into it, and how do we maximize brand profits so that companies can actually pay their riders what they need to survive so that they can go out and promote skating and push forward.
(T) Do you believe we will see that happen? Obviously we all have hope that it will happen, but do you truly believe it will?
(A) Unfortunately, I do. I do think it’s going to happen. I say unfortunately because I hate having hope sometimes. I always have hope, and a lot of the times I’m disappointed. I’m hopeful for everyone I know who’s working their ass off.
(T) So in your opinion, what are things that aren’t successful currently, like what things that we’re just blowing right now?
(A) I believe skater accountability is a big thing, earning whatever scraps of dollars are left in skating, but some companies are doing it in a way that makes the promotions seem forced and disingenuous. So it's taken away from the persona of that skater. You’re taking your biggest assets, your team, and watering down the cool things they are doing by juxtaposing cool content with garbage. I understand it from the company side as well. In the past these companies were paying a lot of money in salaries every month and not seeing a return on their investment. People collecting checks and getting high and playing Xbox. It's hard to strike that balance between paying a pro their salary for an entire year and having hope they’ll come out with a banger part and get a couple of photos in a magazine and saying you’ll only pay them if they post about some corny shit. I feel like both sides have trust issues at this point since everyone has been burned so many times.
That's the thing I think we’re blowing in this industry. JC told me recently that we might be telling the wrong story to people outside our industry and within the industry. You have a whole lot of talented people, wonderful characters, and great skaters who just need a reason to believe in a product and a reason to tell a great story, their story of skating. If they believe in that product and believe in what they’re doing, then they are going to sing its praises and I think those people deserve some compensation for doing so, we are looking for people who can tell stories, not just skate.
You don’t want the girl who’s holding up her teeth whitening strips with her tits hanging out saying “Oh these are so great, thanks so much! Use my promo code Stacy-32 to get 5% off your…” whatever. I don’t want a spokesman like that in inline skating. I want someone like Jon fucking Julio who just goes and skates. He just has some regular description like “you can go and get these skates here” or “hey, these are over there” or even “this is ThemGoods,” that's it. Let your skating talk for you.
I think we’re getting the whole big wheel, big frame thing right. There is a need to have a crossover market between rec skating and aggressive skating. The reason you don’t see Dead making 60mm wheels, 72mm wheels, 80mm wheels right now is that none of our riders really back them.. It comes full circle to creating things that you’re proud of, things that your brand stands behind, and being true to yourself. We’re not here to chase money, we make shit that we believe in and products we want to use. I just wish more things were like that these days.
Next week, we'll dig deep into the current workings of Vibralux, Dead, Champagne, and more. Companies and people like Adam are pouring blood, sweat, and tears into projects like VXVII and Dead. Give some support to him, his projects, other content creators, or your local shops. If you'd like to purchase a pair of the new Valo X Vibralux skates, they are available exclusively through Straightjacket Distribution (linked below). Shipping inside the states is still available to get those fresh skates under the tree in time. If you didn't get a chance to read part 1 of our interview, I highly recommend it (link at the top of the article). The last part of our interview will be available very early next week. Stay tuned!