(This is an article that has been stewing around in my head for the past week or two but which I finally decided to write this morning while prepping for the TCU TV episode that I will be filming with Augie tonight. I will be getting his side of things on the show, but these are my thoughts on the topic prior to having spoke to Augie)
The BMX Internet exploded last Wednesday when it was announced that Adam LZ had been added to the Stranger team. Just a few hours later, Augie Simoncini quit in response, going so far as to include a #FUCKSTRANGERCO hashtag. On one hand this was a fairly obvious turn of events that anyone could have predicted. But I think that when we look at the evolution of BMX sponsorships over history, it will become clear that this was a seminal moment for BMX, whether you like the direction we’re going or not. I’ve often spoke of the “BMX generation gap” but I’ve never seen such a clear representation of the two warring sides until now.
On one side we have Augie, a traditionalist, a street rider, a set up oriented street rider at that. He smokes weed, drinks beer and doesn’t try to hide it. At 28, he’s a bit older than the average BMX consumer.
On the other hand we have Adam LZ. At just 20 years of age, Adam is a relative neophyte. He started off making videos of him and his friends riding bikes, much like any kid with a video camera might do and then slowly developed a fan base that compounded upon itself. It is now easy to make the argument that he is the most well known BMX rider in the world and having been to many BMX events with him, I can vouch for the fact that he is easily just as popular if not more so than top BMX pros. While LZ is capable of filming full length video parts, that’s not his specialty. He is an expert at going to the skatepark with his friends (or his now omnipresent girlfriend Nicole) and for better or for worse, making you feel like you’re there. If you watch enough LZ videos, you start to feel like these people are your friends and as a result, you want to see Spencer pull that switch whip. The same awkwardness and zany attitude that LZ gives off, which presumably turns off many older viewers, endears his younger viewers to him.
Augie is of my generation and as such, he makes sense to me. As a rider he fits nicely into the pro rider archetype laid out before him by guys like Edwin. He’s humble. He socially networks enough to get by, but not too much. He lets his riding speak for him. He films crazy rail tricks and then deliver them to the world in the form of a full length video part every couple years. For a long time, every pro rider seemed to fit into a similar box.
Adam LZ is interesting because his very existence (and his overwhelming popularity) suggests to everyone paying attention that the BMX industry has been getting it very wrong, for a very long time. The average BMX consumer is a teenager. They care about stuff like high school, acne, getting a girlfriend and going to the skatepark, all topics which Adam LZ covers from a truly authentic perspective. Augie is the kind of guy that the average 16 year old BMX kid might want to be when he’s 28, but 16 year olds don’t typically think that far ahead. Adam LZ is who they want to be right now, or at least he’s interesting enough to keep them entertained.
The LZ phenomenon has also taken place without any support from the BMX industry (until now) or the BMX media. Aside from the 3 interviews (this old one, his first TCU TV and the new one) and the webisode content we’ve done with LZ over the years, it’s hard to think of a time that anyone in the BMX media world has promoted Adam in any way. But it hasn’t mattered one bit. Adam’s reach is now dramatically larger than any of those same media outlets. Adam’s existence suggests inconclusively that BMX media has become so personalized by the advent of social media that the cold-eyed traditional BMX media companies might now be all but irrelevant. Your legacy brand might now be more liability than strength. While BMX magazines and videos once got to call the shots on what was cool and what wasn’t, LZ’s success proves that those gatekeepers (both brands and media entities) no longer hold the same weight that they once did.
It’s also worth mentioning that nearly everyone in the BMX media world has tried their own version of LZ’s content and they have pretty much unanimously failed. I’ll save myself some beef by not linking to some of the more hilarious examples, but it says a lot that Scotty Cranmer, a massive name in BMX hasn’t yet reached 10,000 views on his new webisode while LZ has almost 400,000 on this video of him and his girlfriend from a week ago:
So yeah, Augie and LZ are very different people with very different outlooks on what it is to be a BMX rider. There’s 2 sides to every coin, right? Shouldn’t BMX be open minded enough to accept that both sides can co-exist? I expect that in time that will be the case, but the 872 comments on Augie’s public resignation letter suggest that the BMX world is going to have a hard time getting used to LZ and the new generation he represents.
Where is this bile coming from? On the surface it seems like quite a bit of that hate is directed at LZ himself. For all his positive traits, LZ just seems to annoy the older BMX crowd. He’s a relentless self promoter. He’s hyper. He talks, a lot. LZ gets hate from the prior generation in a way that his contemporary Josh James (who invented the webisode and who makes very similar videos to LZ’s) doesn’t get because Josh quite frankly just has a little more tact. He too makes webisodes about his car, but he expresses a little bit less glee than LZ throughout them. So on one hand, this is a personal problem. A lot of those 872 comments are from people who quite frankly just don’t like LZ.
Undoubtedly some people are just upset seeing the Stranger team, which once appeared to be a very tight, unified group, turn into something different. Stranger has been through quite a few incarnations throughout its existence and while many of those changes were made with relatively little fanfare (Charlie Crumlish and Craig Passero transitioned smoothly onto the S&M team, Zach Krejmas moved on to Volume etc), some people take LZ’s addition to mean that the Stranger team is now devoid of any substance. Rich Hirsch told me that he didn’t view this as the decimation of the OG Stranger team, just an addition of somebody different to stay diverse and move the brand forward. I believe him, but clearly, Augie and whoever started a message board thread calling Rich a “horrible person” either didn’t get the memo or disagree.
It seems to me that a lot of that anger is coming from people who see this as the end of an era of professional BMX that they loved. And perhaps they’re right, because we’ve already seen some pretty huge changes in what it is to be a BMX pro over the past couple years. The average pro is now expected to Instagram himself nearly daily, shout out his sponsors, re-post content and basically just do whatever possible to help out the brand. This is a relevantly recent change, one that might have seemed like anathema to the average BMX pro just a few short years ago. But we live in a fast paced world where the rules of the digital playground are still being established and refined, and there will certainly be more changes to come as social networking matures and brands seek to better navigate the post-magazine media landscape.
BMX progression is far from peaking, but it seems possible that the audience’s ability to comprehend and appreciate that progress might have peaked a few years back. The same strides in street riding that drove BMX sales up in the early 2000’s might now be a sticking point. We see it all the time now where amazing BMX riding come out online to relatively little fanfare. Usually this happens because the audience, the people who might potentially click, don’t know enough about the riders in question to care. I see it all the time where well known riders get tons of views while amazing riding by unknowns goes mostly ignored. This isn’t a unique phenomenon, in fact it occurs in every niche and walk of life when there is a battle for online attention; the cream rises to the top and it’s eternally tough to get noticed unless you’re already established.
But is LZ the harbinger of death for all of BMX’s traditions? I don’t think so, I just think he’s been the best so far at capturing and encapsulating what the average BMX consumer wants from their idols. The kids want a connection. It’s great that you can crook a 20 stair rail, but what does that really mean to a viewer unless they know what your personality is like? The BMX industry loves pumping out polished 3 minute video parts that make riders look like superhumans who never fall, speak or do much of anything besides grind stuff and then ride away silently, but is that enough?
That’s why I think things like podcasts and webisodes are important. You don’t need any assistance to appreciate a Devon Smillie video part, but how much better is that section once you’ve watched him talk on camera for an hour and can vouch for the fact that he’s a great guy with a positive outlook? One time I filmed an Instagram Slam (embedded above) and included footage of some kid trying to feeble a little ledge. You can see us cheering him on and he almost cries once he pulls it. I’ve had hundreds of people mention this specific clip to me as something they really loved because it showed that the OSS/Common crew as regular people, happy to help a young kid learn a basic trick. That’s the kind of depth and personality that most BMX videos are lacking, and LZ’s videos are full of these kind of moments.
Is the video part dead, doomed to be replaced by the webisode? I highly doubt it, I see the two as separate genres that can play off of each other but which are so different that they’re not really competing for the same attention. Most of TCU’s most popular videos on YouTube are traditional video parts and full length video projects. We shouldn’t be quick to assume that the emergence of a new video format is going to eliminate the video part as we know it, even though it may not be as obvious to the upcoming generation of BMX riders why video parts are important. It seems to me that good, young bike riders usually gravitate towards conventions like the video part even though they innately understand the value of say, filming a How To or a Bike Check in a way that isn’t so obvious to older riders.
One thing that we can all hopefully agree on is that it is important for BMX to grow, and there is no denying that Adam LZ gets more kids into riding bikes than anyone else by an order of magnitude. BMX appears to be in a recession, and perhaps instead of trashing LZ and Stranger’s decision to support him, the BMX industry should be looking at Adam’s approach and asking themselves if maybe he knows something that they don’t. The spectrum of hobbies available to a young kid has splintered into a million different potential paths and BMX is now just one of many options. If the industry wants to keep kids on bikes, it needs to stop acting tough, let it’s guard down and meet those young riders where they are, on their own terms.