Even though I am only twenty-nine years old, in professional snowboarding years that’s like seventy-five. It’s kind of like dog years. I haven’t quite figured out the conversion rate, or what happens once you die, but I think instead of being put to sleep you get to move to California and work in marketing or something. (I am trying to make my 100th birthday–in snow years–so it’ll be a little while before I can tell you.) I’ve always known that there was a certain age limit to physical ability but lately I started wondering why the actual culture of snowboarding doesn’t really seem to mature. Do we have to accept that we’re growing out of it at some point? Or is it simply so young that there’s barely a full generation of riders to leave Peter Pan’s target group? I spoke to Jake Burton Carpenter about the culture’s youthfulness, the mainstream and modern-day snowboard parks. The interview is an excerpt from my upcoming book, entitled “Current State: Snowboarding”.
– David Benedek
David Benedek: You’re one of the few people that have been with snowboarding literally from the beginning. Was there ever a moment when you thought: Shit, now we’ve hit the mainstream? A moment when you thought it might grow beyond what’s healthy?
Jake Burton: There was never really a time when I just woke up and thought, “How did that happen?” But a lot of people ask me at what moment did I know it was “on?” From a product perspective everything happened so slowly, you know. It’s been 30 years.
DB: Which isn’t a bad thing. Sustainable growth usually doesn’t happen overnight.
JB: Exactly. I mean, I was really concerned with the Olympics thing and the FIS getting involved. Watching riders like Martin Freinademetz blow up their career because they were so passionate about politics–that sucked. That was sort of scary. And some weird stuff that came with the size of the sport. Like, you’d hear that Dan Quayle–this weird Republican guy that didn’t really have a great image–that he was snowboarding; that was a little strange. But you know, I’ve never been one that misses the old days. I am not that guy. I am not interested in going to a vintage snowboard race or any of that. For me it’s, the newer the better. I think the sport is in a really good place right now, the emphasis is on fun. And even looking at the top pros, like Kevin Pearce for instance. You know, they simply love to ride.
DB: Do you think there’s any danger or threat of the tourism aspect, the normalization aspect, kind of like skiing?
JB: Well, if riders started looking like Nascar drivers, with 50 different patches on their body, you know, that would be terrible–if it got so commercial like that. But it is in the hands of the riders. As long as it stays in the hands of the riders and people who care about it and do it for two-hundred days a year, then I think we’ll be ﬁne. But yeah, it’s always risky.
DB: I heard something interesting the other day…it’s obviously way beyond something I could have experienced, which is why I am curious if you’d agree: In the early 60’s skiing was supposedly this really rebellious, lifestyle-heavy thing, which then obviously got totally commodiﬁed through tourism and everything.
JB: Yeah, I skied as a kid. And it was pretty rad. I used to learn to ski in leather boots, really soft, and you had so much feel, less precision, just a much more looser ride than today–and then, when they started making those plastic boots it just got so performance-driven. The whole thing (skiing) got very elitist, too. Suddenly it was more about the ten best roof racks for your BMW. And with snowboarding, one thing is, we’ve really kept it youth-oriented. As long as it’s youth driven…[it’s on the right track]. And the kids are the most important market.
DB: Do you think there’s a threat within that as well? Keeping it youth-driven? That already implies that the generator of content is not necessarily congruent with the content because it’s “made for youth?” It doesn’t feel too authentic thinking about forty year-olds creating content for 14 year olds.
JB: Yeah, but I just think everybody wants to be young. And the older you get, the more you want to be young (laughs). I mean, I can tell you from experience. And snowboarding gives you that. Kids (in general), I think they are just so much more pure, in so many ways. In how they think about stuff, in the way they look at the world, I think adults can learn more from kids than vice versa. So I don’t think that’s a negative thing, snowboarding being youth-driven. I mean, it’s not the fountain of youth, but it’s got a little bit of that. You do like to jib stuff and have a personality and be irreverent, that’s definitely part of the sport. And I know for me, I don’t ever want to lose that. I’ll really regret the day when I am just a conservative old man, I don’t ever want to go there. I think snowboarding’s a way to keep people’s lives fresh and entertaining.
DB: I am just saying: I am 28 now and I can already tell there’s hardly any content that’s directed toward me. It feels like you’re being bombarded with marketing messages until you’re 25 and then it’s like, you’re free to go.
JB: Yeah, I think that’s definitely just because snowboarding is so young. And as far as content geared toward an older crowd: I think it’ll happen. Some of the (more mature) magazines had a tough time, too, Frequency and Snowboard Journal. And even when we’ve made product, marketed product for the sort of in-between (age), it just doesn’t seem to do much.
DB: I think the problem with the Journal was more that they positioned themselves as this magazine for old men, which is pretty exclusive I think. I don’t really feel old, you know (laughs). I am really into reading about pros and all that, so it’s not the actual content that I feel needs to change as you get older, but rather the maturity level.
JB: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. It probably just needs some time. You know, the sport changes so quick. It used to be so small, everybody knew everybody. And look now, so many companies have gone public…
DB: …how do you feel about that? Do you think that’s a threat?
JB: Yeah, I don’t think it’s good–at all. You can’t live up to the expectations of those bankers, they’ll be on your case. They just want you to make more and more money. I could never do that and I don’t think it’s great for the sport.
DB: Are you content with a certain size of company or are you still looking for growth?
JB: No, you gotta grow. You know, it’s so weird, that whole thing. When I was younger I used to think: Why is everybody so obsessed with growth? I used to have this debate in my head, and then I just sort of ultimately said: Just go for it. Just grow, that’s what everybody wants. What makes the world go ‘round. So I sort of just sold out on that regard. And fully, you know.
DB: Do you think that’s just natural, sort of from the animal instinct of getting to the top of the pack?
JB: Yes. Business. That’s just how it works. It’s funny, I just sort of bought into it. It’s just sort of like I threw in the towel. And you know, so much of what you do is driven by the people that work for you. You want to hire ambitious people. And those people will want to make more money and if everybody in the company wants to make more money there’s just one way that’s going to happen. You will have to grow. But with what’s happening in the economy right now, who knows what that’s telling us?
DB: Whatever happens, I think in a general sense it doesn’t really hurt the cultural model if all of business is getting smaller. Is there anything speciﬁc that you feel is a really good development in snowboarding?
JB: Yeah, big ones. You know The Stash runs we have out there? For me, that is so important. I am really scared of parks becoming these standardized training facilities. You know, jump here, rail here. Bigger and bigger tabletops and kids start getting hurt, I don’t think that’s what it should all be about. For the events and competitions, stuff being huge and watching people do twelves is awesome. But I’d like mountains to just be like a climbing wall, with all these different options on every run, enabling people to use the whole mountain in a totally freestyle spirit. And just being able to ride together on one big playground. Maybe you’re going thirty feet off something while there’s also a small hip or something I can hit. I mean, losing that (social) character of riding just scares me…
DB: I think competitions and the type of riding you are talking about can and should actually be fused. If you had ten options to ride a course…
JB: …and you could capture that…yeah, that would be sick. And that’s what snowboarding is. You’ve got to have an eye.
Current State: Snowboarding is a limited edition book by David Benedek featuring some of the most influential individuals of the past 2 decades. It will be released in the fall of 2010. To reserve a copy and for more info, go to almostanything.com