From growing up skateboarding alone in Alaska to running skateboarding’s most important website, this is the story of Mike Gilbert.
Thrasher has emerged as the leader in skateboard media. What have you guys done to get the site and social media to where it is today? What’s the strategy behind how you guys run the two?
We just keep it skateboarding, it’s that simple. There are no gimmicks. We just want to provide you with the coolest shit in skateboarding and I think viewers latch onto that. They don’t go onto our site feeling like they’re trying to be sold something and that goes a long way.
Also, there’s the consistency side of things. Some would say too much at times, but putting videos up, connecting the dots for our audience between Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It all crosses over, and no matter where you’re at, you’re getting awesome content with that Thrasher seal of approval. When we put that shit on our site, or on our pages, it means something. There is no bias on anything. It’s all skateboarding. There is no hidden agenda to any of it. That’s why it’s hard to actually describe. It’s organic. It’s raw. It is what it is. It’s skateboarding.
It felt like a few years back, maybe 2012, 2013 every brand was dropping their most important videos with Thrasher. You could go to the site and there was a gnarly part dropping almost every day. During that time did you guys see a huge spike in web traffic?
Well, that continues today and it hasn’t changed. I think the brands look at it like this: if they release on their own channels, they might reach 50,000 – 100,000 people. If they release it on Thrasher they can potentially reach almost 2 million people instantly. That’s a huge incentive for brands to do projects with Thrasher where their goal is just to be seen. There isn’t a definitive answer as to how the beast has gotten so big, but I think the game changer was the David Gonzalez “Possessed to Skate” part. You remember that part?
To me, the way that part came out was just a whole new experience. I remember being on tour somewhere in middle America, driving down the highway late as hell with everyone on their phones in the back of the van waiting for that to go live. That was one of the first times that I remember people being really excited for an online video premiere. It was just instantly at your fingertips. You see the impact that had: he was Skater of the Year, the part had millions of views and people really started upping the anti for online video parts. As a company, if your end goal is to get as many people to see your stuff as possible, wouldn’t you want to do the same thing?
True. You talked about why brands want to partner with Thrasher, but what is Thrasher hoping to achieve when you guys partner with a brand on a video project? What are you looking for the brands to deliver to you?
Great skateboarding. It really is just that simple. If there’s something that obviously is eye-catching or insane, then awesome. But look, I feel it’s easy for any skate rat to see through all the bullshit. They can watch something and instantly tell if this is fabricated for an advertisement or if it’s real. They may not always be into it, but they can appreciate real skateboarding. We don’t care about what cameras it was filmed with or any of that other behind the scenes nonsense, it’s all about ripping skating. There’s not really any rules or guidelines, but it’s unique for every situation.
Are there brands coming to you pitching content that you have to turn down?
For sure. I’ve been in skateboarding for the past 25 years. I understand skateboarding. I watch the videos that come in. A lot of the times, I’m the first viewer and if I feel like they’re trying to sell me something, the response is pretty easy. “Hey, this is awesome, but it’s not really a piece to be hosted on Thrasher. This is advertising, so we can put a link in the Junk Drawer. If you wanna make changes then we can look at it again.” Again though, it’s unique for every situation. In all fairness though, most people when they pitch content to us, have a pretty good sense of what works for Thrasher. Some of the bigger corporate sponsors of the world pitch some wild stuff at times, but Thrasher has pretty much drawn its line in the sand and we can’t go anywhere from there. That’s fine though, this is where we are as a company, as a media outlet and we stand by it. If Thrasher has to stand for something, I guess it’s for skateboarding’s best interest.
That’s a great pull quote.
(Laughs) Yeah, but I mean who are we in reality? This is just our opinion. Who am I? Or who is Tony? Or who is Burnett? Or Jake? We stand for something, but we don’t think everyone has to agree with us. We just respect skateboarding and show skateboarding for what it is.
Is there ever too much skateboarding content?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the amount of skateboard content coming out. As an older guy, yeah, it’s a little bit overwhelming, but to the kids, they’ve grown up in this environment so it’s not crazy to them. They can sit there, stare at their phone and digest all the skateboarding their little hearts desire: picking and choosing what they want to watch and when they want to watch it. I think it’s rad.
I do feel as though it has an adverse affect on companies because companies start trying to jump into the rat race. For sure. They think they have to start making like four posts a day. But they’d be better served making one really good post a week that will actually have impact. I think brands need to think of it like: “less is more. When we do put something out it’s got to be awesome.” There are several brands out there right now that do that model and people think those are some of the best brands in skateboarding. They don’t bang people over the head tirelessly with just bullshit to fill the void. They do stuff that they are stoked on and that’s all the matters.
Going back to your original question, from a Thrasher standpoint, as a media house, I could never deliver too much to the audience. You could run a 24 hour cycle putting a new part up every hour and it would never be too much. Because there are people all across the world and they’re not watching the stuff in a linear fashion. They’re stumbling across it. Somebody’s tagging them in it. They are finding it months or years later. They are consuming it on their own time and on their own terms.
How can brands differentiate themselves? Going off your last point, is creating good, meaningful content the first step?
Yeah, that’s the first step. Making yourself stand out in your videos. The stuff that is doing the best on the site has a vibe, a theme, a point of view, an art direction, something that people can relate to or buy into. For a while, every skate video had three different roll-up lifestyle shots, HD, slow mo, duh, duh, duh. It wasn’t interesting, it wasn’t about skateboarding. Now we’re getting back to a creative point, where small brands and independent individuals can put their content out how they want to and still reach a lot of people. Right now, everything is at your fingertips. You can film something on your phone and it can just take off. It isn’t about the camera. It’s about the content. Make something interesting. Make something that will have impact and stand out. Make something unique.
Switching gears a little bit, how do you feel about Thrasher clothing being so embraced by the world outside of skateboarding?
I feel over the last few years, as the clothing has been more and more embraced by people outside of skateboarding, I haven’t seen it slow down being embraced by actual skateboarders. Actually it’s the opposite. I see it more.
I mean it’s a good thing for Thrasher and a good thing for skateboarding. But I don’t think we are in the same position that some brands were previously, where they lost their identity. Thrasher in itself has not changed, so our message is still the same. We know who we are still, so does our audience, our viewers and most of the people wearing the gear. There’s no grey area.
A lot of brands, once they get embraced by celebrity culture or pop culture, they start trying to cater to that consumer, they start chasing it. Then they lose their identity and lose their core fan base. Then when the pop trends change, and their brand isn’t cool in pop culture any more, they’ve lost both: their core and the masses.
Exactly, we’re not changing ourselves. Who we are just happened to get a little more popular. I mean, Thrasher shirts were in Vogue? That’s ridiculous. It’s funny. It’s weird. They’re writing about fashion and it’s a Thrasher tee. What are you guys even talking about? It’s a fucking tee shirt.
I want to go back a little bit and talk about you personally. You moved around a lot growing up, right?
Yeah, I was born at Loring A.F.B in Maine.
How did you first see skateboarding?
My first exposure to a skateboard was when I was about four years old and some of the local kids were skating on my street doing street plants. And I’m a four-year-old on the side like “what is going on? I wanna try this!” Then I moved up to Alaska and bought some garage board for 10 dollars.
How old were you then?
About eight at that point. The way I experienced skateboarding was unique because I didn’t have exposure to magazines and videos at that time, so I thought I was learning stuff that wasn’t necessarily possible. When I started to learn to ollie, I had a sense that people were out there doing ollies, but when I started learning to flip my board and grind and tricks like that, it was a completely new experience. It was all stumbled upon just by accident and I didn’t know if anybody else was doing it. I wasn’t skating with anybody else at that time. Then I was in seventh grade when I really started getting into skateboarding a lot more, started dressing like a skate rat and shit like that.
How did that evolve then? Where and how did you get your first job in skateboarding and what was it?
Out of Alaska, I moved to Colorado Springs, started skating there and met up with some bros. I had started filming buddies from time to time in 9th grade, like everyone passing a camera around filming each other style. Then for me it turned into “hey, you’re better at filming than the other guys, so can you film me?” You know how that goes. Now you’re filming four of your homies and not skating as much yourself. My parents ended up separating for a bit, so I went back to Alaska to live with my mom. That’s when I met some dudes up there; Micah Hollinger, Adrian Williams and Jerry Smythe. Those dudes were a big part of Borderline, the premier skate shop in Anchorage, Alaska at that time. I started skating with those dudes as they filmed for the shop video. It was a rad time full of randomness. I moved back to Colorado for my senior year in High School and once I had failed at that, Micah Hollinger actually moved down to Colorado and lived with me for a bit. Through Micah, I met Adam Crew. He was riding for Popwar at the time and came to visit Colorado. We started talking and he said they needed a filmer. I thought about it for a while and was like “Fuck it, I’m taking a pay cut to move to California, but I’ll be working towards something.” So, I did it. Took that leap of faith and moved out to California. The rest is history. Eventually I ended up at Blackbox working with Jamie Thomas after Popwar went under. I spent 11 years there making Zero, Fallen and Mystery videos.
What were you doing in Colorado for work before you moved to Cali?
I worked at the skate shop, 303 Boards. I was also filming and working with Ryan Mallard on making the 303 Boards videos, which were pretty good for a local video. Prior to that, I was juggling multiple jobs, working on whatever, being a restaurant server, small engines mechanic, whatever it took to get by.
What was it like working for Jamie at Black Box all those years?
Well……it was awesome. Working with Jamie prepares you for doing anything in skateboarding. You can do anything after that. The dude knows what he wants, has his vision and will work harder than anyone to get it. As his employee, his homie, you’re along for that ride. You’ve got to be down. If you’re going to maintain, last ten years next to that dude, you have to have a good work ethic. You can’t burn out because ten years on the road with Jamie is an intense experience. There was great times, the early days of Black Box when I started working there, were awesome times. Everybody was doing their thing, they were killing it, it seemed like so much was happening. Zero was growing at a massive rate, there was Mystery, Fallen, which was really growing, getting bigger, it was a year old at that time. You can’t forget about all those awesome times, like when money was good and people were happy. That’s more of the true colors of Black Box, than at the end when stuff is messed up and they had to make some hard choices. I don’t want the last few years of doom and gloom to be what’s remembered of Black Box. The market completely flipped and it was what it is. But you can’t forget the amazing times and the amazing run Black Box had. For me personally, I got to experience such amazing things that I would have never experienced back home in Colorado. I have been able to see the world because of my employment at Black Box and Jamie.
How did you end up working at Black Box initially?
Popwar was going under and Jamie reached out to me after a friend, Andy Lievrouw had put in a word for me at Black Box. I think Jamie talked to Cairo to feel me out and before I knew it he had me on this little trial period of three months to film the very end of Chris Cole’s New Blood part. I was just thrown into the fire. I remember going out and being nervous because the tricks he was trying were just so gnarly and you don’t want to mess anything up. The first thing I ever filmed for Zero was Cole’s backside 270 noseblunt. (Laughs)
Which is insane still to this day. Sink or swim style.
Jamie provided me with a lot of opportunities. And we weren’t always best friends at times, but I will always be appreciative for what he did. Yes, it was a job and he was paying me and I worked hard, but still he could have found someone else to do it.
So did you go from Black Box to Thrasher?
Yeah. Early 2014, Jamie gave me a heads up that Black Box was going to dissolve. He no longer could afford me and some of the other staff, including team managers. I was one of the last dudes that had been around for a long time. Jamie and I had enough of a relationship that I just asked him straight up “hey, dude, I have a wife, I have kids. If you’re gonna have to let me go, please give me some advance.” And he didn’t have to tell me this, but he’s just like, “I can pretty much pay you up until this point and after that, I can’t guarantee anything. So if you have another opportunity, maybe it’s best you take it.” So I took that advice. I reached out to a few people, one of them being Mike Burnett at Thrasher and explained the situation. He said that they had been needing a Director of Digital Media and that we would talk to Tony about it. Not long after, Tony offered me the job.
As the Director of Digital Media for Thrasher Magazine, what does that role entail? What’s your day to day?
(Laughs) The very glamorous role of a ton of emails, a ton of texts and a lot of talking on the phone, coordinating the releases of all the awesome videos that you get to see online. That’s what it is. Everything that goes online, I have a say in or have my hands in most of it. Tony handles a lot of the Instagram, I stay completely out of the ad buys. I’m responsible for managing everything that falls under online editorial. Event coverage, King of The Road, video part releases, if it’s Thrasher online editorial, I’m responsible for it.
Where do you hope to see skateboard video and content go in the future?
I think that skateboarding represented in video form is at a really good place right now. We have such a wide variety of content. People are doing things really raw and organic and other people are doing things really polished. You’re free to create whatever you want. As a viewer, there’s a lot of diversity out there to choose from. Think about 20 years ago. A video came out every six months or every year and that’s what you watched because there was nothing else to watch. Now we’re at the point where you can pick and choose daily.
Where would I like to see it go? Here’s some armchair quarterbacking (laughs). I want to see more energy from filmmakers. Put some more energy into using these expensive ass cameras and actually film like skateboarders. I mean, hey, you wanna get your b-roll shot? Have that b-roll shot moving. I wanna see fast paced shit. Jon Miner and Mike Manzoori do a really good job of that. Movement. Keep the energy going. Keep it fast paced. Quicker cuts. That’s my style. Just because you have really expensive gear doesn’t mean you need to suck the energy and excitement out of the skating.
To wrap this up: you’re from Maine and Alaska and figured out how to work for Thrasher and have this really important role at the biggest media outlet in skate culture. That’s really impressive and it also means that someone doesn’t need to be born in Cali or New York to work in skateboarding. What advice would you give to someone who loves skateboarding and wants to work in it?
Apply yourself. It sounds like a lame statement, but that’s what it is. It all depends on what you want to do in the industry, but whatever it is, you have to chase after it. It’s not going to fall in your lap. There isn’t a cure all for every situation, but I will say this: you have to be willing to work ten times harder than the other guy to get your foot in the door. Especially if you’re not already in the circle.
The beauty of the skate industry is you make lifelong friendships. Once you’re in there, if you’re working hard and doing a good job you’re basically in for life. How you do that is different for everyone, but busting your ass and being good to people never is wrong. Also, you’ve got to be able to thank people and show gratitude. That’s big. Being humble and appreciative is important. In reality, I’m a high school drop out so without all the people along the way opening doors, I’d probably be shoveling shit in a ditch somewhere. So thanks!