Vice Rising: Corporate Media Woos Magazine World's Punks

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:07

    The mainstream found out about Vice last April, when a marketing survey called the Cassandra Report revealed that the Brooklyn-based magazine is more popular with readers in their 20s than famous "trendsetting" monthlies with more than 10 times the circulation are.

    In June, Vice's founders got a book deal for a compilation of the magazine's best articles, which will be titled The Vice Guide to Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. In August, they forged a unique partnership with Atlantic Records that allows them to release underground acts, starting with a cockney rap artist from Birmingham who records as the Streets. They're currently in separate negotiations for a half-hour cable-tv show called Vice TV and a first-look deal with a major movie studio for their own production company, Vice Films. Immediately before April 2002, Vice was just an hilarious and trenchant underground glossy, distributed for free at places like Kim's. Earlier, it had been an overfunded, poorly managed website, clothing label and chain of boutiques, as well as a magazine. Before that, Vice was a Canadian newsprint zine.

    Three middle-class guys founded it fresh out of college, in Montreal, in 1994. They rode into New York on a wave of investment capital during the dotcom boom. After the bust, Suroosh Alvi, Shane Smith and Gavin McInnes regrouped and refocused, setting the stage for their current round of successes.

    November will see the launch of Vice in the UK. Also this month, the Streets' Original Pirate Material will hit shelves in the U.S., and the Vice book will come out in Canada. An improved version of the retail store will open on Lafayette St. The founders will celebrate the magazine's birthday, and probably the inking of a tv, film and/or American book deal as well.

    This interview took place at the Vice office in Williamsburg. Shane Smith arrived late, hungover.


    In the early 90s, when there was a flood of bad Gen-X magazines all of a sudden, it was clear they lacked for ideas. Were there any particular ideas behind Vice?

    Gavin McInnes: The first thing is that we all grew up with punk-rock backgrounds. I was listening to Snuff yesterday and it occurred to me that a lot of our articles start like a punk rock song. They start heavy, and we're always concerned about the lede. And it never really slows down. There are no lulls. And there's always a good hook.

    ?and you cut out of there before it can get boring.

    GM: Yeah. Secondly, there's the reason we've been able to stick it out, and that's that we all have asshole fathers. Suroosh's dad is hard to describe as an asshole, but he is a fucking Nazi.

    Suroosh Alvi: My parents were textbook immigrants. They came over from Pakistan and were like [adopts accent], "You have to work twice as hard to get anywhere in this white world."

    GM: You should have said, "Why don't you work on your accent a little bit?"

    Vice's approach to homosexuality and race isn't traditionally punk rock.

    GM: The punk rock-ness of that is just plain honesty. We seem really racist and homophobic because we hang around with fags and niggers so much. It just becomes part of our vernacular.

    SA: Also, in '94, when these magazines were coming out, the political correctness in North America was overwhelming. Especially in the academic settings we'd just come out of. So we were reacting against that.

    GM: I think we got pissed off only after we wrote what came naturally to us and it offended people. We were determined to leave it in. It was just the way we talked. It's surprising how brainwashed by hippies most of our generation is. Pro-love, pro-diversity, pro-tolerance?that's the hippies' bag. You want to hear people talk about niggers, try hanging around with black people. They are harsh. You want to hear anti-Semitism, go hang around with some Jews. You should hear Suroosh talk about fucking Pakis. It's ear-burning. I'd argue that racists like the KKK don't really have anything to say about niggers and fags because they don't know any. They don't go, "I am so sick of fucking drag queens. They are so self-indulgent. Fashion this, fashion that. Can't you talk about politics for one second, you fucking transsexual?" They don't know. We're in the thick of it. When we're pitching our television show, I say, "Understand that we are freaks. We're not delving into the freak world. We live with the dregs of humanity. So when we say that we're going to do a little questionnaire, like, 'Do you think Saddam has weapons?' we're not going to talk to dentists and stuff. We're going to ask our friends, and it'll be a stripper, a junkie lying on the sidewalk, a bald guy with AIDS?"

    But how did you get from punk rock to being sort of an arty fashion magazine?

    SA: We were always ambitious. We realized that we had to be willing to do anything at all to get advertising. Sending drugs to clients, sleeping with clients, whatever it took, we would do. Plus, there were a lot more girls in fashion than in music.

    GM: That's true about the entire magazine. The capitalism is inseparable from the content. Shane and I were talking about this in L.A. all night, on coke. I was saying that an Anal Guide is one thing if I do it myself and put it in a hand-stapled zine. You have that clown woman with the big tits [Ducky Doolittle], she has a zine with an Anal Guide. But when you see it in a glossy magazine with ads, it changes the joke. It changes the whole delivery when it's a reputable business. That's true of all the jokes in the magazine. It makes it more shocking and hilarious.

    So first you were a humor magazine?

    SA: We were essentially a music and culture magazine. We weren't fashion- or style-oriented at all.

    So you were one of a million.

    SA: One of a million. But we were in Canada. Trying to grow the magazine. We couldn't get more than 40 or 50 pages. We noticed that the American streetwear industry had no place to advertise in Canada. So Shane started going to these trade shows with our shitty little newsprint zine to try and convince them to buy advertising. These companies, like Stussy and Freshjive, weren't happy with our production quality. They wanted glossy pages. Then there was a papermill strike around the same time. That's why we became a fancier publication and inadvertently became a style magazine. We were forced into it. It was all a big accident.

    What about using fewer words and shorter articles than other magazines?

    GM: That's a pretty recent development. One thing we noticed is that people don't want to read about music, really. Nor should they. Do you really want to hear that much about the process? It should just be: This is a great band, they're called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, they're from Brooklyn, the singer is crazy onstage and it's blues-driven rock 'n' roll. What more do you fucking need to know?

    Do either of you have a design background? Who gave Vice its look?

    GM: The most recent template is this crazy Serbian Muslim who lives in Winnipeg?

    SA: Bosnian Muslim.

    GM: Yeah. He wouldn't like if I said that. Sorry, the Serbs are the ones who played soccer with his people's heads. I always confuse that. But with design we're always trying to be anti-design. We use two fonts for the whole magazine.


    Let's talk about your experience with IPOmania...

    SA: We had an investor who bought a piece of the magazine and took us to New York. He was an eccentric software nudist billionaire. He sold his company, bought a piece of Vice?he also owned Shift?and funded our stores, website and clothing line. He was going to take us public. We spent millions of dollars of his money. It made no sense. We'd started with the three of us doing a 16-page newsprint publication. We had to sell enough ads to cover our rent and print costs. Then we went into the whole dotcom thing, not knowing anything about big business, and these guys in suits were telling us, "We're going to do an IPO and you're going to be worth $40 million each. So here's five million, now spend, spend, spend." We were literally eating beans 10 months before that.

    GM: Our website office was bigger than this whole office.

    SA: We had 25 people working on the site full-time. A huge office in Manhattan and a huge office in Montreal.

    GM: There was a white back room for photographing things. Now we use a piece of paper and digital camera. But there was a $300,000 camera with a robot arm, and a woman there in a lab coat, not wanting to get dust on anything. It was a James Bond parody of a website.

    How did "The Vice Guide to Getting Sued" come about?

    GM: We had this organized crime dude, Robbie Dillon, who we learned a lot from. He came out of jail and wrote "The Vice Guide to Surviving Prison." Amazing tips like, "When you get in there, the first day, there's going to be a guy who really wants to talk to you. A real chatty guy. Don't talk to him. There's a reason why he doesn't have any friends. You have to be quiet for at least two weeks." What we learned from him is, Don't get lost in contracts. If someone wants to fuck with you, they'll fuck with you. If someone wants to sue you, they'll sue you. Even if they have no point and they're just angry. So the real way to talk is with fists. Have them killed. So we started doing that. Not actually killing anyone, but threatening people, going to their homes and just talking face-to-face. When we found out the dotcom deal was over, we had to go to our investor's house in Nantucket, just to say to his face, "What the fuck is going on?"

    SA: Which he was not expecting. He offered us steaks.

    GM: How's this for symbolism? He picked us up in a Mercedes Benz convertible with no power steering. He had to use all his strength to turn the wheel.

    I notice that while naming Vice "Hot Magazine," Rolling Stone called it a "hipsters' bible." As if people are learning how to be cool from "The Vice Guide to All of the Races" or "Hooray for Hate."

    SA: All I know about that is we got a lot of money because of that little blurb. We were pitching Levi's and the big boss came in with that Rolling Stone. We hadn't even seen it yet. We've never had to change our content. We never had to put the Chili Peppers on the cover. After years of being told to fuck off because our content was too risque, they're all jocking us now. We slowly forced our way into the system. As far as the readers go, they either totally get it or totally hate us.

    Now you're probably going to see a competitor copying you.

    SA: Good luck. If they can do it, more power to 'em. We're at the point now where Spin and those guys have fallen off. It's a changing of the guard. At a certain point someone will come and knock us off, too. We're at 135,000 copies and we're ranking with magazines that circulate over a million. Everyone said we had to go on the newsstand, but we stayed free and it worked. Now we're the only independent, glossy, free international fashion magazine out there.

    Tell me about the tv show.

    GM: Vice TV, a tv version of the magazine, with David Cross as executive producer. He's the Mr. Show guy, you know him? HBO and Showtime are the only two eligible broadcasters. We went to a bunch of meetings with Comedy Central and FX and they licked our ass! Then we realized that they were only licking our ass because they were so happy to have something to tell their boss that day. They had no intention of ever taking the show. At FX?you know their show The Shield, where they say "fuck" occasionally and have whores? I'm pitching to them and they're like, "Yeah, and another thing?" and end up pitching it right back to me. I'm like, "Yes, that's what I'm saying too." We walked out and said, "That went really well, didn't it?" They had no intention of fucking taking the show.

    We had a great idea for revenge. When we get the show we're going to go back to these people, and Hollywood people, and pitch nursery rhymes. You know that song, [sings] "?Batman smells/Robin laid an egg"? We'll go in there and go, "Here's the thing. The Batmobile comes in. Batman and Robin are totally messed up. You don't know what they've been through, but Robin farts at one point. They both stink, really bad. Then the Batmobile spins out of control, and a wheel goes flying off!" And just do the whole thing.

    And now you're also pitching Hollywood?

    Shane Smith: We have a little bidding war. That's why we were fucked up last night. In the middle of our IFC meeting, the president of Lion's Gate called and said, "I want to suck your fucking wazoo." We have a bunch of screenplays that [Vice managing editor] Eddy [Moretti] and I have been working on nights and weekends, and now everybody is freaking out.

    Isn't it weird that people are confident you guys can make films?

    SS: The film industry is the fucking most ludicrous business on Earth. In terms of ludicrousness?

    GM: Ludiocrity.

    SA: In terms of ludiocrity, it's publishing, records, tv, then film. The first time we went to L.A., they treated us like rock stars. They were like, "So you guys read books?"

    Eddy Moretti: What the studios are interested in is creative direction, directors and screenplays. Ideas, basically.

    SS: Everyone always asks, "How can you run all these businesses?" but it's the same thing at its root. Film, tv, music, Vice, Vice U.K., Japan Vice?it's all the exact same thing: us living our lives. Last night we did 100 fucking things, just the four of us getting drunk. Seeing bands, hanging out with promoters who're going to do our events, hanging out with the film people?it's our life. We just live our lives and it happens. We're busier than we've ever been, but we're hiring people, and we have a lot of partners.

    Do you have a hiring philosophy?

    SS: Yeah?do the opposite of what we used to do. We had a big growth period where we went from five to 50, and they were all terrible. Everyone was shitty. The best guys we have working for us started out at the absolute bottom. Cleaning toilets and shoveling shit.

    GM: Eddy's job was cleaning the stairs. He had to hose away all the crack vials, heroin needles and condoms every morning. And he flooded the basement of this building?which is the storage area of a furniture store?with fucking heroin sludge.

    SA: $100,000 worth of damage, that wop did.

    GM: We build people up from nothing.

    SA: And make them in our own image.

    GM: They have no other life. We give them everything. "Wear these clothes, go see this show, read these books."

    What's on the reading list?

    SA: Confederacy of Dunces.

    SS: Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer. Among the Thugs. Anything by Harry Crews. Martin Amis.

    GM: Death of the West by Pat Buchanan. Coloring the News. Down and Out in Paris and London.

    SA: The really young ones, we have to start them with Charles Bukowski and Hunter Thompson.

    GM: There have been some we've had to start with Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

    As for your UK and Japan versions of the magazine, what makes you think it will translate?

    SS: It's the universality of youth subculture. With magazines being read internationally and so many tv shows and movies going international, the trendsetting kids in France, Germany, the UK or fucking New York are wearing the same jeans and listening to the same music. I would say that people in London and Manchester are more excited [about Vice] than people in New York and L.A. The response here is insane, but there it's fanatical, with 1000 copies or whatever the hell we seeded it with. We've been called the best magazine in the world by four of the best magazines in England. Coming from Montreal was like coming from Reykjavik to some people. Like, "How can they talk about hiphop, the frozen troglodytes?" I don't know if it's the foreign thing or just the renaissance in New York, but you can open up any English magazine and see, like, a picture of the coffee guy over on the corner.

    GM: Yeah, they're really impressed by Williamsburg. You're like, "You mean the big dorm? The fucking flipflop capital of the world?"

    Don't you get hostile being in this neighborhood every day?

    GM: Well, at least they're not fucking niggers or Puerto Ricans. At least they're white.


    We've covered everything but your foray into the music business.

    SA: We had a discussion with Atlantic Records about the dire state of the music industry. We were telling them the industry is saturated with shit, and we asked them why they passed on the Streets record, which we thought was an insane thing to do. And [Atlantic president] Craig Kallman said, "You should put it out," and had the wherewithal to give us a label. We didn't go in there with any designs to get ourselves a record label. We went for the free dinner.

    And you also wanted to give them a lecture?

    GM: It's just such a bad business model. It's begging to be rewritten. You spend a million dollars on an artist, and they have to sell a million copies to break even. So 100,000 copies sold is considered bad. That's, like, triple-platinum in Canada.

    SA: If a major sells 75,000 copies they lose $400,000. There's no middle ground between majors and indie.

    GM: It's a lottery. They need one Alanis Morissette to pay for all their bad signings.

    SA: Indie bands are scared to sign to a major now. We got this deal from Atlantic where we have a lot of freedom. It's pretty radical from a major-label perspective. We get to attract bands and be this safe home for indie bands but offer them major levels of tour support and recording budget.

    GM: The idea is we spend a moderate amount of money on you, and if you explode then we have the major-label backup to help with distribution and so on. If you don't, then you're not in debt.

    SA: If a band sells over 250,000 copies, we'll be maxed out, so we'll put them in WEA [the Warner-Atlantic distribution system]. Instead of having to sign to a bigger label, they'll be "upstreamed." So we can develop an artist like an indie label should, and like a major never does anymore, and when they hit we do this upstream thing and switch distributors.

    GM: Back in Montreal [where the Vice founders ran punk-rock indie SSG] we learned the secrets of the music business: Don't sign your friends. Don't put out anything you're not really passionate about. And don't sign too many. Sign one or two acts you're really into, don't expect to get rich and just work it.

    SS: For the mag, the music, the movies, everything, we act as A&R or content producers. We're also really good at marketing and promoting. But all the nuts-and-bolts stuff, that's why we have partners like Atlantic.

    SA: In Canada we had a shitty deal with EMI. And with the magazine we had the deal with the dotcom investor. In both cases we survived, and now we're trying again, older, balder and wiser.

    GM: It's such an obvious lesson. If you do something just for money and you're not into it, it fucking taps your soul. When we were spending millions, it was a dark, shitty time.

    SA: We're happy now because we have our integrity back.

    GM: Although it was good making $80,000 a year because we could fly bitches in. Any girl you met, anywhere in North America, you could fly her in. Meet 'em at South By Southwest or something. Once you give a girl a plane ticket, that's a weekend of anal sex, guaranteed.

    The Streets play Sun.-Mon., Oct. 27-28, at Mercury Lounge, 217 E. Houston St. (betw. Ludlow & Essex Sts.), 260-4700.