Rockabilly and the Subculture Economy

Ella Mobbs

Rockabilly gents and pin-up girls. Tattoos. Hotrods. Dapper motorheads & lowbrow artists. These are the hallmarks of Greazefest, a 3 day Brisbane-based festival in August, celebrating everything kustom kulture.

As I walked in, I was struck by a plethora of beautiful cars, raucous music & well-dressed people. However, lurking behind the pompadours & beehives is a quiet evolution in retail; a world where setting up a business is as simple as having a Facebook page, or an Etsy store. A world where having a shop—an actual physical store— is somewhat of an oddity, and your best customers aren’t walking in a front door; they’re liking your pics on Instagram, re-pinning you on Pinterest or buying via your Facebook page.


GreazefestAs you walk into Greazefest, you’re struck by two things. Firstly, everyone looks amazing. Men sporting freshly shaven quiffs & immaculately ironed cowboy button-ups; people rocking Tiki shirts —to fit in, I repurposed one from a few weeks back. There’s also cohorts representing from the black punk, psychobilly & metal genres too.

Ladies wear gorgeous, bright dresses; retro-inspired outfits in a stunning array of colours. I’m certainly no expert, but I was informed by a reliable source that there were a huge variety of styles; from rock ‘n’ roll to rockabilly, punkabilly and more.

Quite honestly, I don’t know if I could tell you what most of those are exactly, but I was very impressed indeed (you can see more at my photo album on Everpix).

This isn’t the kind of stuff you buy off the rack at your local shopping mall. Yet, a great deal of it is brand-new. The majority of stuff on display that I saw (though most certainly vintage inspired) was decidedly not vintage stuff being re-purposed. And this leads to the second thing about Greazefest.

The shops.

Rockin’ Retail

Set in the dust-bowl of the Rocklea showgrounds, Greazefest casts a large footprint. The whole sports oval is jam-packed with all the hotrods on the inside, and all the shops on the outer ring. And there were a lot of them!

Most of the shops are small-time outfits. Sure, you’ve got larger stores like your Trash Monkey and more established retailers. You also see rockabilly’s bigger names, with successes like Hell Bunny, Tres Noir or Deadbeat Magazine on display. But for every Greazefest veteran, there were multiple tiny shops offering custom, handmade clothes, accessories, artwork or vintage knick-knacks.

As I wandered around, most of the shops I spoke to were from Brisbane too; small-time outfits with just one or two people. As I wandered, I kept seeing the same patterns & signs emerge again and again:

“Oh, there’s more stuff available online.”

“Go look at our Instagram account.”

“Much more on our Etsy store.”

“We do weekly specials on our Facebook page.”

At first I didn’t really get it. Why would a whole bunch of marketplace sellers want to shyly push me off to their website? I’m right here! Then it struck me; these aren’t normally people who sell their goods face-to-face. I was staring at a field of people who do most of their business online. In the same way a typical store flirts with online sales, Greazefest revealed the inverse; mostly online sellers flirting with a physical store.

I needed to know more.


My Little Rockabilly

Kat Creasey aka My Little RockabillyAfter Greazefest ended, I went in search of someone I could chat to in person about the whole scene. I came across My Little Rockabilly (aka Kat Creasey), a Gold Coast-based retailer who recently moved to a Kustom Kulture Co-op in Brisbane called Chops’s Place. She specialises in pin-up accessories, clothing, make-up courses and even vintage furniture & homewares.

She has nearly 30 thousand people who like her Facebook page and nearly 6 thousand on her Instagram account. She regularly updates both with new products, and does most of her business through those two channels.

Her approach to selling products completely flipped my perceptions about how people sell stuff online.

“Firstly, I don’t have a website these days,” she told me. “I used to, but I just don’t have time to keep it up to date, plus I do most of my business through Facebook & Instagram anyway.”

Kat began her retail life in a rockabilly store on the Gold Coast, working behind the register. Once that store closed up, she decided to take her own jewellery business full time. In fact, she was featured on the ABC show The Collectors in 2010:

Over the last few years, she’s gone from selling jewellery to expanding into fashion and lifestyle products of all kinds. Her products are simple, stylish & affordable. A simple Instagram post instantly spurs questions about where customers can buy items. In fact, she has no formal online storefront per se; almost everything she sells is simply photographed, posted on these social sites & bought up by followers. She manages payment through direct bank deposits or Paypal.

In fact, she thinks this method has contributed to her success. “A lot of my sales come from what I call wars,” she told me. “These are sales where the first person to comment on the item wins it. I find this way of selling a lot more successful for one-off items than simply listing items in a store. If there’s the possibility that someone else will jump in, people are more inclined to snap them up quickly.”

She has formal wars organised on her page every few months, but this first-in-best-dressed approach has permeated her other sales too. Most of her customers are conditioned to know that if they want that item? They’d better act now. Her posts are littered with buyers writing ‘taken’ or ‘sold’ on the item as a bookmark for a sale.

So it begs the question; why go to something like Greazefest at all?

“Lots of the time at Greazefest I just want to reach the people that don’t buy things online,” Kat told me. “There’s definitely people who’ll lurk on my page, but if they can see me face-to-face, that’s when they’ll buy something.”

“I also just want to be able to thank people too,” she added. “It’s so great to meet people face-to-face who buy from me. It’s one of the main reasons I go.”

“I still feel weird taking actual money from people though,” she added, fidgeting in her chair. “It’s something I’ve never really gotten used to. Sometimes I just have this impulse to say, oh just take it, you know? It’s bad, but accepting cash for my work is still strange.”

“In that sense, selling online is great!” she exclaims, laughing.

Something I also found fascinating is how marketing works in this unique world. Kat’s a living extension of her business. She documents her life on Facebook, Instagram & Tumblr, and that’s essentially her marketing strategy. It’s effective too—a quick look at any of her pages shows she’s a prolific poster. Her feeds are peppered with fashion shoots, vintage cars & makeup techniques.

This glamorous snapshot into the world of rockabilly is certainly beautiful. But it masks a harsh reality of the subculture; the local rockabilly scene is not always kind to the local retailers that dwell within it.

Rockabilly dresses in a rack

I’ve seen that everywhere

Here’s a hard truth about the Australian scene; most of the rockabilly folk in Australia buy their clothing from overseas sellers, or from op-shops directly.

Unfortunately, this comes part and parcel with the territory of fashion. Rockabilly has a big bold aesthetic, and part of the appeal is the ability to wear what nobody else is wearing. It’s a classic fashion dichotomy that forces local retailers to look elsewhere for customers.

Fortunately, things have changed and there’s a whole world of buyers out there. In fact, many overseas buyers reciprocate this behaviour. Buyers from the US, the UK & South America will buy Australian-made fashion too for its uniqueness in their own scene.

“For the most part, my customers aren’t from the Australian rockabilly scene,” Kat told me. “I have two main types of buyers; firstly, those locals who love the style but aren’t necessarily a part of the subculture. They might just accessorize with touches of vintage or rockabilly here or there. The other type is rockabilly or vintage lovers from overseas.”

“Timezones haven’t really been a barrier to me,” Kat says. “People from across the world have let me know they’ll stay up late if a sale war is coming.”

That’s part of what I find compelling about this new wave of retail indies. Ten years ago, someone like Kat may not have existed at all. Selling to a subculture, a retail niche is difficult at the best of times. But it’s viable today because it’s not just a niche in Brisbane (that may or may not be sustainable) that they’re selling to.

It’s a global niche. A subculture that extends, and touches groups of people across the world. Technology has changed that; linked us all up.

Global marketplace

I think that’s the disconnect for me when I read and hear about how people think about technology; especially the NBN. It’s presented as a way for downloaders to get their illegal shows faster, or it’s a way for people to be able to have a slightly better video conference. I don’t understand why it’s not being highlighted in this way: simply, a way for Aussies to market & sell their unique products to the rest of the world.

These sellers at Greazefest aren’t tech-savvy specialists, or people doing online retail with a dedicated team of developers. The platforms & services are out there already, enabling Australians to sell to the world. In fact, a lot of the time we’re doing it in spite of the roadblocks, like Etsy taking a cut, Facebook changing their policies for page visibility (a concern for Kat) or storefronts only trading in US currency.

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I hope this trend continues. I hope these dapper gents and beautiful ladies can leverage nerdy technology to make a living, and even be a little bit successful in their businesses, doing what they love. Building out tech infrastructure across the country will render these barriers even lower, so adventurous Aussies can truly take their place on the global online marketplace.

If my time at Greazefest was any indication, there’ll be no stopping them.

Reckoner had its humble beginnings way back in June of 2013.

Founded by James Croft, along with Peter Wells and Anthony Agius they created what would go on to become one of Australia’s most highly regarded and award winning independent tech blogs.

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