Demographic research constantly finds funny ways to characterize certain generations. You, the reader, will very likely be part of either "Generation X" (until 1980) or even more likely, the "Millennials" (1981 and after).
Were I part of the latter, by definition I might not put a lot of effort into writing this intro, but nevertheless expect to be rewarded for my efforts alone and applauded for my (to me) obvious potential. Luckily that's not the case, and since researchers consider me someone who's "cynical" and "lives to work," I am giving these lines some serious thought.
From pro riding to filmmaking to being seven years into growing one of the most progressive brands in the industry, Mikey LeBlanc (Go X!) has truly seen every aspect of the snowboarding world.
I spoke to Mikey about where snowboarding arrived and how that might have affected its culture.
David Benedek ––
David Benedek: Mikey, where do you think snowboarding is right now?
Mikey LeBlanc: You mean, actually the size of snowboarding, where we are?
Yes, the size and however that might have been influencing the culture of it.
I think there's two ways to look at it. Right now we're probably at one of the peaks that it could probably come back to again, or eventually become much bigger again, but I know right now the statistics show that more kids are starting to ski than snowboard.
Is that a statistical fact?
Yes, for little kids. There are more skiers starting than snowboarders.
And that wasn't the case in the past?
No, that wasn't the case in the past. It's a newer thing that probably has to do with the turn towards the freeskiing thing and all that. So I think snowboarding is at its peak right now; at least, we're not going to see huge growth or anything. In general, we may see a little bit of a loss of attendance due to the increasing cost of going, and also through the worldwide recession. It's expensive. Snowboarding is definitely a sport for people with money en masse. And as far as that subcultural place is concerned, the overall size of the sport doesn't really interfere with that too dramatically.
So you think with how much snowboarding has grown in the past it didn't change much of the actual content?
Yes. No matter how big it is, it is one of the soul sports. And it's a heart sport as people make a connection to themselves: You're only responsible for yourself, as opposed to soccer, football, or whatever, where you have all these team elements. It's an individualistic sport that makes you alone completely responsible for what you're doing, so I think no matter how big it gets there's still going to be a common thread between snowboarders, because they have this true connection to something they absolutely love. They cultivate that in themselves alone, and that makes the subculture. When you individualize it down to the kid, they still love it as much as anybody did. There may have been a pride in like, "I am one of the only five snowboarders in Maine" or wherever you were, and there was definitely a punk rock element to it in the beginning. When I used to go to the mountain, there really were only like five kids snowboarding, and all the skiers hated us; that definitely created this fun thing. But even though that's matured now, kids are still punks and they still have that heart connection to it. That's never going to die; it's just something people love.
What's changed compared to the time when you came up?
Well, when I started snowboarding it was a changing of guard. I mean, there were pros that were undeniably incredibly talented, like Terje or Noah Salasnek, Roan Rodgers, and Peter Line. But there were also all these guys that were just sponsored and weren't that talented. Personality played a big role—I mean, it was like a party, it was fun. Now every kid is so gnarly; they are so good. But essentially, if I compare it to when I was coming up and how hungry I was to progress, I see the exact same shit in these kids today. They've seen what we've been doing and they just see the possibilities. So the progression element never changed—that's always going to be there. What is different is the way they're dealt with through their sponsors. Before, the snowboarder was the one that dictated more, [but] now the companies are trying to consolidate all products and they are trying to tell their riders what they need to do and when they need to do it, and I think that type of rider management does kill some fire in the love for snowboarding, in the heart.
Well, with a certain size of sport comes the burden of professionalism, where people want to get the most out of their investment.
What I believe they don't realize is that in order to get the most out of any investment, you need be dedicated to its needs as well. It's like growing a plant. You need to give it love, sunlight, water. And if you're dealing with a rider and you're not giving them all those things, you won't be getting the most of that relationship.
Have you been able to create that at Holden?
Yes, I definitely think so. But I focus on a certain type of kid, so I am biased. I look for pros and ams that are somewhat like I was: rebellious to team management, rebellious to their sponsors, to the world—that's what draws me to them. So those are the ones I hang out with, and I am really lucky to, because to me, they are totally repping snowboarding and progression in a very similar way to back in the day. And it's not like they are recreating anything we've done; they're doing it their own way. With Holden, I'm trying to support riders that preserve that and have an outlet for creative things like photography and film, simply creating a space for culture that's rad in snowboarding and the ability for the riders to do what the fuck they want. That's our formula, and it's a wide open one. But we also pick the riders that are motivated to get shit done.
What about the average kid on the ground? Do you notice any big differences today?
Well, that's a lot more general, but yes, I think there've been pretty heavy changes, even compared to ten years ago. The generation that's coming, "Generation Next" or whatever they call it, who cares for stupid names… I think one big change is how they've been brought up by their parents with this sense of entitlement. I get a lot of sponsor-me tapes these days from kids that can barely snowboard, but they want to be the star. And you hear it a lot in business, too. When I came up, my generation was like, "You work hard to get it." And I really do think a lot the kids coming up have this sense of entitlement.
Where do you think that comes from?
Parenting. The American culture went through transformations in every one of the past decades, and the new one is "we deserve everything, now." And that's where the technology thing comes in—everybody gets everything, now. They want instant messaging, instant gratification. And by gratification, I mean not only on the Internet or from their products, but from their job, from their snowboarding, or anything, basically. It could be that you start working at Subway and you think you should be the manager immediately. You believe you know everything because you have this sense of entitlement that you've been brought up with. And I really hear and see that a lot, from some of our riders as well as people we hire. Kids have access to a ton of knowledge, and simply see the possibilities without having to put much effort in. My point is, kids are already at the destination, but they kind of skipped the middle part, which is the meat and bones. It's as if someone went to the gym and made their muscles all big, but they're actually really weak, 'cause there's no time in that.
You mean it's just so well mapped out that it makes people believe they should be at the destination just by understanding the route?
Yes, exactly. But you know, there's some good in that, too. There are exceptional standout kids that come from that generation of entitlement, but that don't have that. They just see the possibilities more clearly and have that necessary raw talent. Those are the ones I am trying to support, and I don't think I'll ever cease to be amazed by them. So you know, I can get paranoid thinking there's not going to be a kid to carry the torch, like they are going to fall victim to whatever lame aspects you might find in snowboarding. But kids can smell bullshit. It's in the essential nature of humans to not believe what they see, and that's a major cause of progression and creativity. Snowboarding, being such an individual sport, is really what inspires me the most. And I am confident that's always going to be there.
Current State: Snowboarding is a limited edition book by David Benedek featuring some of the most influential individuals of the past two decades. It will be released in the fall of 2010. To reserve a copy and for more info, go to http://www.almostanything.com
This interview is an excerpt from David's upcoming book, Current State: Snowboarding.
This content was originally published in the December 2009 issue.