Tuesday, July 01, 2014


My monthly Classic Bike Guide page, with an illustration by Martin Squires
I've been writing a monthly column for Classic Bike Guide for over a year now, and I tend to focus my essays on motorcycle culture, when not simply poking fun.  A few columns have hit a nerve, but none more so than my meditation on the Custom bike-building scene, and the struggles I've observed with my friends, trying to make a business of their craft, or art, or vision. The BikeExif post on the demise of Spain's Radical Ducati inspired my thoughts last March, when I wrote 'Instafamous/Instabroke', as did a conversation with David Borras, also of Spain, who's El Solitario is recognized globally, yet he and his crew daily confront the realities of running a business to support David's radical design sensibility.  Chris Hunter of BikeExif asked to reproduce the essay, which I think is a first for his website; no motorcycle images! Not all my readers frequent BikeExif, but might enjoy the read.  Thanks to Classic Bike Guide for ok'ing the BikeExif post, and this one too:
The hilarious illustration of 'self-papparizing blogo-grammers' from BikeExif 
"I’ve been mucking around with old motorcycles since the 1980s, and like many, financed my bike habit via the sport of Arbitrage. That is, turning a profit on a bike after giving it some love.
It wasn’t an income; the only people living off the motorcycle game were (impoverished) moto-journalists and employees of legitimate dealerships. I knew lots of fellows, and a few ladies, who spent all their time repairing and modifying bikes, and none aspired to be anything but a garagiste. At the time, Von Dutch lived in a trailer, Ed Roth had long-ago lost his Revell contract, and only bands sold t-shirts.

It never occurred to us that someday we’d be aglow with some sort of notoriety. But ‘some sort’ is now within the purview of every human on the planet, via the joys of InstaFame. A downloadable phone trick has the power to make us globally recognizable in weeks. Via the savvy curation of images, we trigger a mutual oxytocin drip in our fans and ourselves, liking and being liked, tapping away like starving lab monkeys, who’ve chosen the button for ‘attention’ over the one for ‘food’.

It’s fame, man, to the hungry end, and maybe even bigger when you’re dead; is that the ghost of TuPac or Indian Larry I hear laughing over posthumous sales? Don’t think I’m judging; I owe the mysterious gods of the Internet a debt of gratitude for my own lifestyle; let’s just hope I don’t owe them my soul.

The shimmering dust of glamour has always coated parts of the motorcycle scene, and right now it’s falling on handsome, bearded guys wearing heritage work clothing and riding ’69-clone choppers or knobby-tyred customs, or girls doing seat-top acrobatics aboard same.

The original meaning of ‘glamour’ was the art of enchantment, a spell-caster’s ability to create an illusion around a person, place, or thing. And while the packs of self-paparazzing blogo-grammers crowding custom bike events are indeed beautiful and achingly cool, I fear our glamour is a spell cast in the mirror.

A mix of hopes and pleasures motivate today’s custom motorcycle builders; the joy of creativity mingled with glow of Web attention, and now there’s an established recipe for making a ‘cool’ bike, tested via the comments section on a hundred moto-blogs.

It’s easy to mistake the whoosh of online chatter for a wind to fill your sails, and a virtual wind is exactly that, while selling garage-altered metal to strangers has always been difficult. Savvy shops sell logo’d up clothing and calendars and keyfobs, scattering brand stickers in an Autumn of moto-foliage… but even such sales will only pay the bills, not the salary of a desperately-needed employee – or your own.

There are two ways to profit in business; large sales volumes with small profit margins, or high-end retail, and the successful moto-businesses sell the tanks and levers and rearsets the Wannabes need for an InstaFamous custom.

At the rich end of the spectrum, the market for hundred grand choppers evaporated in 2008, and I know exactly one builder who’s sold an art-gallery motorcycle for big bucks. Every other shop, then, is in competition for a limited audience, even if it seems at times that ‘everyone’ thinks we’re cool and ‘everyone’ wants your bikes…but is that the magic mirror?
The demise of Radical Ducati, as per this example, inspired this essay...
The first signs of iCustom casualties have recently appeared even in the luminous portal of Bike EXIF; shops going belly up, euphemistically ‘starting other projects’, i.e., jobs which pay. It hasn’t exactly been a Gold Rush (that’s happening in the App-creation world itself), and I know young bike builders don’t expect to get rich.

Still, it seems the business of pushing aesthetic boundaries with a motorcycle is best trod with a trust fund springing your step, or proceeding with deep humility and little expectation of worldly increase; the hackneyed rule for artists.

I’ve spoken with genius motorcycle builders whose controversial but gloriously innovative customs have netted them almost zero sales. A ‘like’ isn’t a dollar. But then again, as they slowly go broke or accustomed to reduced circumstances, the refrain is ‘there’s nothing I’d rather be doing’.

The coolest bike boom since the 1970s has kids buzzing like bees at Wheels + Waves, DirtQuake, and Born Free, and featured in popular books like the ‘The Ride’, to which I contributed. Riding bikes while young, beautiful and creative is a heady cocktail, as is the glamour of InstaFame.

But let’s not confuse the rain of electrons, following our every move, for a rain of cash. Because in the end, bikes are just motorcycles, but business is business."

[Want to read this in Spanish?  Click here.]

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GuitarSlinger said...

Well written good sir ! As well as more true than 99% of the wishful thinking wanna be's of all genres would be willing to admit . In general and with very few exceptions the Web/Net is able to offer tons of InstaFame [ I'll be borrowing/stealing that one if you do not mind ] and recognition while in fact being all but unable to generate one thin dime of profitability .

The funny albeit sad thing is a lot of us saw the realities and limitations of the Web/Net from the beginning while so many today worship at its doorstep expecting the dollars to come flowing in like water over Niagra at any moment

In closing and to keep this short [ I could go on for pages ] its official Paul . You're now one of us . A Philosopher of the Age .. regardless of title . Welcome ! We're a rare but needed breed in this present zeitgeist we're in

The French Owl said...

Can't see what's wrong with business failing... Just proves you've got no market... Geniuses have come before in all manners of art forms that couldn't sell f.all, just check Albert Ayler... Some I like, some I laugh about, some I miss...

That's life and no amount of "brosse a reluire" or "copinage" from dizzy friends will keep them open...

Proper customs or specials should just be one offs made by yourself for your own enjoyment, that will get diluted no end once money enters the fray...


The Vintagent said...

No market, no marketing, no business model, no plan. Which sounds like 'no guru, no method, no teacher', but we're talking business here.

I encourage clever people to invent their own work (I've always been self-employed, and was a muralist/decorative paint contractor for 25 years), because there's nothing like steering your own boat. It's not for everyone, and it's more work than selling your time for pay, but what price freedom? The cynical say, 'freedom to starve', and that happens sometimes, but less so when inspiration is combined with clear-eyed goals.

Richard Worsham said...


I appreciate how your article balances the potential pitfall of the custom motorcycle market with the good news of the unprecedented popularity of the motorcycle throughout society. Even though the custom motorcycle shop isn’t necessarily a good business model, there are custom builders out there making a living and even employing people. I love perusing BikeExif and seeing what other people’s vision of a perfect motorcycle would be, but it seems to me that a “custom” is what every great bike becomes if it is truly loved and ridden. No motorcycle that is “ridden as the maker intended” will remain stock. That’s what all the great pedigreed bikes are, and, in a sense, what every factory race bike is. A custom is really just a stock bike that has been loved or abused enough, or both, that it has adjusted to the form and function of the rider. In a sense, bikes customize themselves.

Something could be amiss in the state of custom because the current worship of the motorcycle is not about motorcycles. I refer to all the _&_ T-shirt companies that also sell or work on motorcycles, and especially that horrid RRL video that came out recently. The real way custom motorcycles make money is through a strange relationship with larger, very profitable brands. As soon as “branding” becomes more important then motorcycle design and function, the whole concept of the hand-wrought, “perfect” motorcycle is lost and replaced with something far worse, and unfortunately, highly self-destructive. I’m still thinking about what the factory sponsored custom R9Ts mean, but I think it’s very good, almost as though BMW is extending its design arm out to the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I love branding: “Barred from Competition”, “The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles”, “Built in the Light of Experience”, “You Meet the Nicest People”… And the logos… it doesn’t get better then motorcycle logos. But those were (and are) real products, built by real people, being sold to real people, to really ride and make their own (read, customized). Their branding was in the service of motorcycles and motorcycle sales, not lifestyles. People who really live a motorcycle lifestyle do so because they like riding, or tinkering, or breaking down, or other motorcycle-related activities, not because they own an expensive prop to get to that new opening. That’s Bruce Wayne, not Batman.

This wouldn’t really be a cause for alarm, except for the fact that it’s already looking dingy and fake: witness how Honda’s April Fool’s video actually referenced hipsterbikevideos.com. The scary part is that the pretend might drag down the genuine. That’s a sign folks—they look great and all, but the manicured beards and lumberjack’s panache is about to look very tacky. When a phenomenon like this is based on making money for something else or an image devoid of actual meaning, it’s shaky, trendy ground and it doesn’t last. The real threat is not to custom shops or riders, but to the motorcycle in general. I believe that motorcycles are stronger then all this, but I think your article does a great job of pointing out the pitfall.


jerrykap said...

Another great piece Paul! Very insightful and honest. My take? Isn't it just another instance of the same old story? The real motivation for us is the love of what we do. It's just been enlarged and inflamed by the convenience of our e-culture where we can share everything all the time with everybody. It's very seductive but ultimately not likely to be enduring. In the mean time you've been a terrific spokesman for many of us. And even though you've managed to ride the coat tails of this glamorous phenomenon, I'm sure it's filled with pain in the ass travel. deadlines and occasionally boorish people that you'd rather have nothing to do with.. C-ya soon, Jer

Don OReilly said...

excellent article, shared thoughts and comments!

I too have found the interweb to be both a blessing and a bane, and your contributions definitely fall under the former.



Anonymous said...

Well put Paul.
I think the machines we love Harken to times when people had room to grow and be creative, could improvise, had challenges and could meet them. Machines designed and built by people not computers and robots. I love working on old bikes, but I have a day job too.
You should do a piece on Johnny Pagg.
Tom Oil

Leon said...

Thanks for acknowledging the elephant in the room Paul. It's all becoming something of a social media back hole. Some guys, obviously brighter then I, have figured out how to make money in the motorcycle business. I found it to be a far better hobby then business. Not wanting to take up golf or fly fishing as a new hobby now that bikes were "work" (and loving bikes too much to continue hating them) I decided to let my shop find its natural equilibrium. Which is to say it is no longer a commercial enterprise. It's a place where now we play with our shit for fun, and look to make our livings elsewhere. At least, for me, bikes are fun again. Thanks again for the much needed navigational re-set.

Anonymous said...

Almost expected a write-up on this crafty artist (note the word choice), Sebastian Errazuriz, who could or could not be considered your subject matter although he nonetheless built a custom bike and promptly sold it for six figures: http://mocoloco.com/archives/029483.php


The Vintagent said...

Jared, I scheduled a talk with Kenny Cummings of NYC Norton about this machine (Kenny built the bike in question), but the pressures of writing -another- book this year meant I dropped the ball. It's a very interesting bike, and deserves a writeup still, but it differs from my subject matter of 'Instafamous', as Sebastien Errazuriz is an established fine artist with a career, a reputation, and gallery shows; he isn't a custom bike builder.

Our two art-bike gallery-builders - Chicara Nagata and Ian Barry - have had differing success. At last check Nagata had lowered the price of his $1M art bikes (discussed on theVintagent back in 2008!) to the $350k range and below, and has only sold his least expensive creation, for around $100k, which is near what Errazuriz sold his Norton for.

Ian Barry has sold two machines for very much more than that, on par or above the most expensive bikes ever sold at auction (see my 'Top 20' for that info), and thus he is the most successful artist-working-with-motorcycles today, by a long shot.

Anonymous said...

Aha! So Errazuriz never built the bike he - and all media - claim he created! Interesting and not surprising. Now you are obligated to write about this "custom bike".

Is this like Rodin putting his signature on a work by Camille Claudel, except that she was never commissioned and Cummings was?

As for Barry, whoever owns his Black is a fortunate man indeed.