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A VICE Grip on Cool

VICE Magazine is expanding its label and going international

 

Story and Photos by Chris Fry

Success is a funny thing. One day you’re living off welfare cheques, eating beans, producing a newsprint zine about anglophone punk culture in Montreal and then, before you know it, your zine has morphed into something much bigger than you ever could've imagined.

VICE co-founders Gavin McInnes, Shane Smith and Suroosh Alvi never dreamed their zine would one day become a global empire with a worldwide circulation of nearly one million copies per edition.

VICE magazine has been around since 1994
Since 1994, VICE has been one of Canada's most influential magazines.

“I remember when we first started," Smith recalls. "I’d call Suroosh at four in the morning and go, ‘We’re going to totally huge, we’re going to be so huge.’  But to me, we were going to the size of RearGuard, which was like a Commie, redskin, punk zine.”

But the undreamt dream came true, even though the road which it traveled wasn't exactly smooth.

The short and somewhat hazy history of VICE is this: In 1994, Alvi, Smith and McInnes launched a newsprint zine called Voice of Montreal, funded by welfare cheques and government grants.   Two years later, the Voice became VICE – a free, do-it-yourself magazine focused mainly on urban culture.  Three years later, software millionaire Richard Szalwinski bought one quarter of the VICE name and financed the magazine's move to Manhattan.  After the dot-com bust, the VICE boys bought the 25 per cent back from Szakwinski and relocated to the centre of the hipster universe: Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

"We're the only Canadian magazine ever, in the history of . . . publishing, to come out of Canada and do well on an international stage."

- Shane Smith
Co-founder of VICE

In the process, VICE has become a media juggernaut.

How much of a juggernaut? Well, according to a VICE representative, VICE's estimated worth at last check is somewhere in the $100-million range.

“The thing you have to look at with VICE is the way they’ve extended the brand beyond the magazine," says Marco Ursi, the hip, twenty-something editor of Canadas pre-eminent magazine about magazines, Masthead.  "It’s always been part of the story and they continue to do it.  They’ve just got that VBS.TV, they’ve got the record label, they’ve got the clothing line, and they’ve got offices in all those different cities.”

Different guides by VICE

VICE's empire is expanding in the coming years.

VICE has offices in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, NewZealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. They also plan to open more offices in the next year in Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Poland and Greece.

In addition to the magazine, the VICE brand includes VICE Films, which is currently enjoying critical success for its feature-length documentary, Heavy Metal Baghdad; VICE music, a fully-independent label with a roster including bands like The Black Lips, Bloc Party and Justice to name a few; VICE DVD, a joint-venture with MTV Networks, producing original material including the wildly entertaining VICE Guide to Travel; and, VICE books, that has released five titles since 2002.

But, the hottest piece of the VICE these days is the high-resolution, original material on VBS.TV.

VBS is mostly for people that wouldn't go to those places [urban centres] who spend a lot of time online finding out cool shit,” Smith told Mercedes La Rosa of Masionneuve magazine in June of 2007.

So how exactly did VICE become the reigning king of all-things media? By being the coolest, smartest, and loudest kid on the block.

VICE basically has positioned itself as the magazine that arbitrates what cool and what’s not," says Ursi. "Anything that’s cool is what they say is cool, and what’s not is what they say is not.”

More often than not, to be cool is to be young, because older folks sometimes just don't get what young people are talking about, Rafael Katigbak, Canadian editor at VICE, says.

"I've talked recently to someone who was like, probably in her sixties, and she was like still kinda hip and whatever but she took a look at the website and was like 'What? Like I guess you just have to be young'. For us, we're young, we don't even think about it.  It's just how we speak." 

VICE is obviously speaking to the right young people because Ursi’s magazine thought VICE was not only cool, but influential as well.  So influential, in fact, Masthead named the magazine one of the top 20 most influential Canadian magazines of all time.

VICE offices in Toronto
Even with recent staff changes, VICE is still going strong.

Then, Masthead posed this question in their January 2008 issue:  “Will founders Gavin McInnes, Suroosh Alvi and Shane Smith think it’s cool that their mag made the list?  Who fucking knows?”

Smith's response is to say he doesn’t really care. But he's quick to remind anyone how rare it is for a Canadian magazine to succeed overseas.

“We’re the only, and I’ll say that again, only Canadian magazine ever, in the history of . . . publishing, to come out of Canada and do well on an international stage.”

Katigbak doesn’t really pay much attention to the Masthead list either.

"What got us here today is doing what we want to do, doing it kinda on our own terms, and saying what we want. I think that's what people are latching onto – the idea that we're not pandering, and we're not censoring ourselves to other people."

VICE was, after all, founded on the spirit of punk rock and the Do-It-Yourself movement. But it's that same freewheeling attitude that has some people, both inside and out of the media, thinking VICE is nothing more than a magazine with zero journalistic credibility that is more concerned with publishing semi-libelous statements than real articles.

Writing in The Globe and Mail on December 14, 2002, Hal Niedzviecki, co-founder of Broken Pencil, a popular zine dedicated to zine culture and independent arts, wrote of VICE’s Guide To Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll: “This potty-mouth tome for the post literate is devoid of redeeming value. Let me save you time and cash (and even the trouble of reading the rest of this review) by stating that The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll is ugly to look at, ugly to read and, most egregious sin of all, not even remotely funny.”

Niedzviecki's words were all the more biting since they came from a former fan who believed a quality product had gone to hell.

Smith doesn’t see where people get off saying the magazine was better back in the day.

“I'm like, 'Did you read the fucking magazine back then? Because I was writing it, it was shit. I mean, go back and read the old issues. They were crap!"

Katigbak also thinks the editorial content in VICE has matured over the years, saying, "As we grow up, as I grew up with it, the people who are reading it are becoming more media savvy.  They're caring about other issues beyond, you know, some of the funny jokes that we would put in there."

But growing up sometimes means growing apart. In late January of 2008, co-founder McInnes wrote an e-mail to his close friends stating he had cut his ties with VICE. The e-mail was leaked shortly thereafter via gawker.com. It reads: “Dear children of my corn, I no longer have anything to do with VICE or VBS or DO’s & DON’T’s or any of that. It’s a long story but we’ve all agreed to leave it at ‘creative differences’, so please don’t ask me about it. I’m going to continue to make fun of people’s pants and offend as many of you as possible, but I’ll be doing it at streetcarnage.com, a new company I started with Big Pinky.”

Derrick “Big Pinky” Beckles is an actor who has worked for VBS.TV and he was the face of The Truth campaign. TheTruth.com is an anti-smoking website.

Many in the know weren’t really surprised with McInnes’ departure.

“We just say, ‘He left for creative differences.’ Yeah, nobody is surprised,” says Smith.

In the meantime Smith is pumped for the future. “This year, we have three feature films coming out that we’re really excited about,” he says. “VICE is about to blow up this year – especially online and on television.  So that’s exciting.”