Vice’s avant-garde media revolution

<i>This post has been updated, as indicated below </i>

When Madonna declared herself fed up over the “death of creativity” after a world tour in which religious conservatives protested her concert in Poland, fascist skinheads heckled her in France and she received terrorist threats in Russia, the pop provocateur decided she needed to do more to inspire her followers to fight oppression and stand up for human rights.

She wanted to start a revolution. And she knew she’d need help spreading her message. So the superstar’s longtime manager Guy Oseary made one call — to Vice Media.

Best known for sparking the odd friendship between flamboyant former Chicago Bulls power forward Dennis Rodman and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un for its gonzo magazine series “Vice” on HBO, the company has evolved from contrarian hipster magazine into a media powerhouse valued last summer at $1.4 billion after Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox bought 5% of the enterprise for $70 million.


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The omnivorous, privately held Vice Media now encompasses a network of digital channels, a record label, an in-house ad agency, book publishing and television divisions, and feature film production.

“It’s a great time to be Vice,” deadpans co-founder Suroosh Alvi.

Doubling down on its TV and movie production capacity, the Brooklyn-based company opened a warehouse-like Los Angeles office near Venice Beach this fall, with room for 40 video editing suites. In addition to its Hollywood proximity at a time the company has become an effective movie marketing presence, Vice L.A. geographically situates the company near its strategic partner YouTube, whose Playa Vista campus is a few miles down the coast.

“We’ve got a new season of ‘Vice’ on HBO in the works, and you’re going to see a Vice feature film division emerge within the next year,” says the company’s chief creative officer, Eddy Moretti, pointing to “Fishing Without Nets,” a Vice-produced dramatic thriller about Somali pirates set for release in 2014.

Last month, Advertising Age named Vice Media its publishing company of the year, citing the magazine’s 4% year-over-year ad-page increase and expansion to 24 international editions.


For Madonna, Vice eagerly signed on this year to promote and curateher public art project, Art for Freedom. As part of that initiative, “secretprojectrevolution” — a 17-minute film the singer wrote, co-directed and produced — has been downloaded free from the peer-to-peer file-sharing portal BitTorrent more than 1.3 million times since its September release.

“It felt like the right kind of partnership,” Madonna manager Oseary said of Vice. “They have great reach to the people who are likely to take action — to do something. The Vice audience is not a passive audience. They want to be turned on to things, they want to see things first. They want information they’re not getting on regular channels.”

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With the high-low worldview of 1960s Playboy and the global youth outreach of 1990s MTV, Vice Media has become a viable alternative to mainstream media.

Even before Murdoch’s $70-million investment, the Australian mogul tweeted of Vice, “Wild, interesting effort to interest millennials who don’t read or watch established media.”

By all accounts, 2013 has been a banner year for Vice, which will celebrate its 20th year in operation come January. Its 2012 revenues reportedly topped $175 million.

But beyond simply transcending its punk-rock roots or generating robust revenues in a depressed media market, Vice has achieved a kind of cultural saturation this year. Even while continuing to do exposés such as “Fracking Gave Me Gonorrhea” and “Oktoberfest in Palestine,” the company entered strategic deals with HBO and YouTube. All while promo-blitzing “Spring Breakers,” the indie babes-in-bikinis crime thriller, and helping culturally reestablish international superstars including Daft Punk and Snoop Dogg — the latter as his controversial reggae-performing alter ego Snoop Lion.

“It was a team effort,” Snoop said of Vice’s rebranding push. “They are professional and edgy, just like I am.”

Toward that end, Vice’s HBO magazine series scored a world-class get when it flew Rodman and members of the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea. The Vice crew was not only granted rare face time with Kim but it was also able to show some of the government’s deceptions, including a computer lab where students pretended to use nonworking computers. Vice’s effort was ultimately rewarded with a 2013 Emmy nomination for documentary or nonfiction series.

“Emmy voters are not the most cutting-edge viewers in the world and yet they embraced the show by giving it a nomination in a very competitive category,” says HBO’s president of programming, Michael Lombardo.

Not everyone, however, is a fan of the show or of Vice’s style of journalism. In his review of the HBO series, New York Times critic Mike Hale wrote, “The problem with ‘Vice’ isn’t its insistent aggrandizement but its excessive softheadedness. It’s journalism at the intersection of shallow and gullible, where they meet, high-five and compare tattoos.”

And not every Vice-branded project has achieved cultural lift-off. After weeks of build-up for the first-ever YouTube Music Awards across Vice’s numerous platforms — and despite a rollicking visceral scrum masterminded by the Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze with crying babies, a raw-throated performance by Eminem and a weeping Lady Gaga dressed down in a flannel shirt — the Nov. 3 event attracted a meager 220,000 viewers at its peak and was widely panned as a meandering, shoddily executed mess.

Vice has also been criticized for blurring the lines between editorial and advertising in ways sure to give Fourth Estate traditionalists acid reflux. Working in marketing tandem with such global conglomerates as Nike, Levi’s and Samsung, Vice allows advertisers to bankroll Web series — but only the ones deemed to be in keeping with its image.

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In a backhanded compliment, described Vice as an “ever-expanding machine for selling counterculture cool to the world’s largest and most mainstream corporations.”

It all prompts a distinctly Generation X question that has dogged the decidedly Gen Whatevs company at every step of its evolution: Is Vice selling out to trade up?

“We’re capitalists,” says Moretti. “But as long as you don’t feel bad about the product, service, film or musician you’re promoting, it doesn’t have to be a sellout. Every time we’ve grown, we’ve confronted the risk of diluting whatever it is that makes us. I guess at the end of the day, though, we only do the things we want to do.”

“It’s growing up as opposed to selling out,” says Jonze, who serves as a creative director for Vice. “I don’t think the company’s sold out at all.”

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As Jonze sees it, Vice’s content has evolved as its core brain trust — Alvi, Moretti and larger-than-life co-founder Shane Smith — has grown older and more sophisticated.

“For so long, they were viewed as the ‘party, cool sneakers and cocaine kids,’” Jonze says. “It took a long time to shake that reputation, even though they were maturing.”

At its outset, few beyond a core readership of Quebecois tweakers and ‘zine freaks might have foreseen Vice’s staying power. Started under a Canadian government-funded welfare program as the Voice of Montreal in 1994, the underground give-away newspaper morphed into a monthly glossy with distribution across North America.

Chronicling a crazy quilt of interests including obscure subcultures (Norwegian black metal, South African rap-rave), fashion, drugs (“A Guy Who Was on Acid for a Whole Year”) and sex (“The Vice Guide to Shagging Muslims”), early Vice reveled in barf and bile under the ethos of “doing stupid in a smart way and smart in a stupid way.”

But after a $4-million investment by tech tycoon Richard Szalwinski in 1998 and 1999 expansion into the U.S., the company nearly became a casualty of the dot-com bust in 2000. Burdened with $5 million in debt, Vice was forced to downscale both its payroll and its ambitions, shedding about three-quarters of its employees. Vice’s founders considered pulling the plug but ultimately bought controlling interest back from its investors in 2001 and relocated to Brooklyn in 2002.

“It was really tough,” Moretti recalls. “We came very close to the end.”

By the mid-’00s, however, Vice had rallied, launching editions in Europe, Australia and Asia. At Jonze’s urging, the company began devoting considerable resources to streaming video and entered a partnership with Viacom to launch, Vice’s online television network. By then established as a Gen Y’s go-to online outlet — gimlet-eyed yet extreme, druggy but earnest — Vice finally catapulted into the ranks of media elite thanks to a 2011 infusion of venture capitalist cash (in partnership with MTV founder Tom Freston) reportedly in the “high eight figures.”

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And now, boasting an impressive 3.5 million subscribers on Vice’s YouTube channel with unique visitors spending an average of 26 minutes on (according to its internal estimates), the company’s latest initiatives demonstrate Vice’s ability to serve as a conduit among mainstream corporate concerns, cutting-edge cultural offerings and the highly coveted millennial audience.

UPDATED Nov. 8, 2013 at 11:00am: An earlier version of this story stated that Vice Media produced a series of Web shorts to promote “Random Access Memories.” The short films were produced by the Creators Project, a partnership between Vice and the computer chip maker Intel.

Earlier this year, French electronica trailblazers Daft Punk enlisted Vice’s help to market the duo’s fourth studio album, “Random Access Memories.” Under its Creators Project vertical -- a partnership with the computer chip maker Intel -- Vice produced a series of Web shorts featuring interviews with album collaborators including Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder.

Stoking fan interest while keeping Daft Punk’s cultivated mystique intact, the videos played a key part in making the album arguably the year’s most hotly awaited release. The disc shot to the top of the pop charts in 20 countries upon its debut, including the U.S.

“When Vice started presenting a countercultural point of view, the notion of counterculture had a certain meaning that it doesn’t have now,” observes Hahn. “Now, the line between the mainstream and the underground has been blurred by the Internet. So they’re taking the avant garde and saying, ‘Why wouldn’t this be interesting to a lot of people? Let them judge for themselves.’ At Vice, they don’t compartmentalize culture.”

Awards show misfire aside, Vice co-founder Alvi sees the company’s biggest achievement as having stayed true to it original, freewheeling game plan while the rest of the culture has played catch-up.

“The reason why YouTube and all these big brands are coming to us is we have a kind of stranglehold on this audience, and the audience is loyal, faithful and big,” Alvi said. “After so many years of being the underdogs, we’re not in that position anymore. We became the true alternative to the mainstream instead of something very niche. The mainstream came to us.”


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