The Biz: 'Vice' finds virtue with trend-setters

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Some surprising findings came up in the trend-spotting "Cassandra Report" last April. For instance, the second-favorite magazine for men ages 25 to 30 and the favorite magazine for women ages 19 to 24 was a free 135,000-circulation monthly run by Canadian expatriates out of a dingy warehouse space in Brooklyn, a potty-mouthed title taking an extremely casual approach to sex, nudity, all manner of intoxicants and customary conversational and journalistic sensitivities.

More to the point, Vice-which beat out well-known names like Hearst Magazines' Cosmopolitan, Fairchild Publications' Jane and Time Inc.'s Wallpaper for those honors-is far and away the sharpest, darkest and most wickedly funny title out there. Each generation has a small-run, intensely hip magazine that proves influential far beyond its circulation numbers, be it Wenner Media's Rolling Stone or independents Spy or Might, where 30-ish novelist Dave Eggers got his start last decade. Vice is this generation's model. Think a music-obsessed early-days Spy with a street-culture tilt, better photography, shorter articles and an even meaner wit. Among Ad Age's Magazines to Watch (see P. S-15), it's by far the smartest and most entertaining.

humble beginnings

Vice started life in 1994 as a newsprint `zine in Montreal called Voice of Montreal. "The initial idea was the voice of the street," says co-founder Suroosh Alvi. "If you're gonna write about drugs, you get a junkie to write about it. If you're gonna write about sex, get a sex worker to write about it. If you're gonna write about bands, get a band to write about it." And "get criminals to write about how to steal cars."

Vice went glossy on its fourth-year anniversary issue, and moved much of its operations to Brooklyn in `99, during an ill-fated venture with what Alvi calls "an eccentric dot-com nudist billionaire."

"We thought [readers] would be 16-year-old, glue-sniffing Dungeons & Dragons players," says co-founder Shane Smith, waxing hyperbolic while supine on a couch at Vice's headquarters. "It turns out what we get are hyper-urban crossover-fashion trendsetters," he says.

That's pushing it somewhat. Still, among a certain kind of urban hipster, the hilarious and extraordinarily pointed do's-and-don't's fashion column-not to be confused with that offering from Conde Nast Publications' Glamour-is read as ravenously as Walter Winchell once was. (One of the few printable don't's: "Hi guy who thinks he's going to be a model. Todd, you don't have to spend $500 on head shots because we got you right here, buddy. PS: You're ugly and stupid and we hate you-nice headband.")

Vice is primarily distributed through boutique-ish music, fashion and skate stores in major urban markets. A color ad page is $5,925. The magazine's full-time staff is eight, says Alvi. Mainstream advertisers unafraid to share space in a title running articles with headlines like "You Can Shoot Crack"-a harrowing and hilarious first-person account of severely misguided drug abuse-include Nike and Sony Computer Entertainment's PlayStation.

challenge

Now Vice, having survived transitions from Canada to New York and boom to bust, faces its biggest challenge-maintaining in the face of ambitious expansion.

Distribution in Europe is underway, as is a multimillion-dollar deal with Atlantic Records (to launch an imprint called Vice, naturally), and substantial movie development deals are being discussed.

Some observers fear the new relationships mean Vice's unique content may be compromised. Smith disagrees. "If people say, `oh, they're gonna be watered down,' then they're just junkies not wanting to realize this is a [expletive] revolution."

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