VICE: The Hipster Media Empire

The business model of VICE Media Inc., from its foundation in 1994 to its expansion, in late 2013, through partnerships with Viacom and more.

VICE: The Hipster Media Empire

Looking for a definition to hipsters, this is roughly what you’ll get: “Hipsters are hard to define”. Urban Dictionary gives, nonetheless, a fairly precise definition:

“Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.”

Further, the definition includes: “Hipsters reject the culturally ignorant attitudes of mainstream consumers”. Mainstream media products are usually rejected by this sub-culture, too, and hipsters were seeking for media products that appeal to their interests. That is how hipsters found VICE and VICE editors found a fleet of needy consumers worldwide.

VICE's timeline
What is VICE? Screenshot from the SlideShare presentation (full presentation bellow).

In 2008, The Observer interviewed Shane Smith, VICE‘s co-founder, about the story of the magazine: “We wanted to be the first international voice for the universality of youth sub-culture,” Smith said.

In 1990s, three friends – Shane Smith, Suroosh Alvi and Gavine McInnes – met in Montreal working on a community newspaper, Voice of Montreal.

Shane Smith, wanted to be a fiction writer, not a reporter. He ended up working at Voice of Montreal after graduate with honors in Political Economy at Carleton University (Ottawa). In the community newspapers’ newsroom he met Suroosh Alvi, graduated in Philosophy at McGill University (Montreal). Thirdly, Gavin McInnes was a graphic artist and cartoonist also working at the community newspaper.

In 1994, Smith, Alvi and McInnes bought the community newspaper in order to change the editorial line; in 1996, they broke the contract with Voice of Montereal’s original publisher, Alix Laurent, and in 1999 they finally moved VICE headquarters from Montreal to New York.

VICE had being growing up and extending its influence over time. Another meaningful year on its almost 20 years of existence was 2007, when Gavin McInnes left VICE due to “creative differences” and started his own website: Street Carnage. Critics pointed out those “creative differences” might be the partnerships Vice Media Inc. (VICE publisher) was building with Viacom, one of the largest American mass media companies, which owns MTV Networks among others.

VICE's timeline
VICE’s timeline. Screenshot from the SlideShare presentation(full presentation bellow).

Mainly, VICE is a magazine distributed for free. Revenue comes from advertisement included in the pages of the magazine, products in other media industries (books, films, DVD’s, music…) and partnerships with different companies and investors. In March 2012, Forbes staff reporter Jeff Bercovici reported Vice Media Inc. profits in April (2011) were “totaling somewhere between $50 million and $100 million.” As the report said, those profits were possible specially after the investment put in the company mainly by Tom Freston, former Viacom Chief, but also by Joe Ravitch and Jeff Sine from The Raine Group, a media merchant bank, and Martin Sorrell, from the gigantic advertising firm WPP.

Contents in VICE’s magazine issues are unconventional and controversial. When The Independent interviewed Andy Capperk, VICE UK editor, in July 2008, he was asked about a polemic special issue edited by people with disabilities. He answered:

(…)” We want people to realize there’s nothing offensive about people with disabilities being funny and expressive. The mainstream media [are] too afraid we will offend their audience.”

Generally, the main concern for a magazine funded from advertising is not only to offend the audience but also to offend advertisers.

Nonetheless, the advertisers are willing to appear on each monthly issue to reach VICE consumers. Its Media Kit in 2012 defined the target as “metropolitan 21 to 24 years old”, the mean age of their audience is actually defined in “27.4 years old”. VICE readers are global minded youth unsatisfied with the contents from mainstream media.

The demographics from the media kit showed a connected readership (90% have a movie phone and 94% use email daily) that loves VICE sense of humor (93%), the “international nature of its content” (76%) and “the fact that advertising is not disguised as editorial, unlike other magazines” (77%). Readers have strong trendsetting attitudes (83% like “to know about music/bands/releases before everyone else”) and a mean individual income of $38,225. Finally, 63% are male, 37% are female.

VICE’s worldwide distribution in 2012 went beyond one million copies – the precise number from the media kit is 1,174,000 copies – and these includes 24 city or country editions in New York, Montreal, Italy, Russia, Austria, Spain, United Kingdom, France, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina or South Africa, among others.

Each ‘local’ edition has its own staff, editors and contributors who put in common the best features from each edition into their own.

‘DOs & DONTs’ are one of the most recognizable contents at VICE, featured in every issue of the magazine and also on special edition books. Screenshot from the SlideShare presentation.

Even the printed magazine is the main business for VICE, it is not alone. Its strategy online gained relevance in the last years, with a website that works as a multi-language multimedia platform – essentially print, photo and video – and social network profiles – essentially Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube – that spread their contents and build community. Through ideas such as the VICE Bloggers’ Network , which works independently on each country where VICE operates, they recruit talented writers, build audience loyalty and reinforce the brand.

The empire Vice Media Inc. is creating has grown not only internationally but also in other forms of media, as an example of media convergence.

In 2008, VICE Films co-produced with UK Film Council the fictional film White Lightnin’: The Jesco White Murders, directed by Dominic Murphy with Ed Hogg and Carrie Fisher playing the main roles. The Ride (2009) is a documentary about the professional Bull Riding Circuit and Bad 25 (2012) is Spike Lee’s documentary about Michael Jackson. Last year, VICE released The Fourth Dimension, three short films by three different directors put together on a full-length film available for free.

On VICE DVD they published the VICE Guide to Travel, which is being described as “60 minutes meets Jackass”, and series about skateboarding such as Epicly Later’d (2009).

At VICE Books, the magazine’s staff compilations have put together compilations of the best features and DOs & DONTs , alternative travel guides and photography collections.

VICE Music has released albums from bands such as The Raveonettes, Black Lips, OFF! or Win Win. They also work as a management agency for many of these bands.

But if there is a production that actually shows the media convergence strategy of VICE that is Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a documentary released in 2007 about the exile of an Iraqi heavy metal band. This shows how, lately, VICE takes serious new topics (such as Iraq War) and approaches them in a truly non-conventional way.

After the good reactions for the movie produced by VICE Films, a book was released by VICE Books and Acrassicauda, the heavy metal band from the documentary, signed with VICE music which released their first EP Only the Dead See the End of the War in 2010 through VICE Records.

The media empire Vice Media Inc. is building also includes custom publishing for brands, theme websites, a TV-show on MTV and HBO, the digital publishers company AdVICE or the full-service agency VIRTUE.

The business strategy VICE followed during the last decade shows that there are audiences unsatisfied with the contents from mainstream media, looking for alternatives that appeal to their interests and speak their same language. As those audiences exist, there are advertisers looking for these targets of consumers and fund from advertisement is one of the revenues that make it profitable.

VICE also shows that the future of the media industry is on media convergence, modeling your content to fit it in all the platforms available.

Some of the criticism VICE received is that is turning mainstream and probably does but just as happened every time in the history of mass media: innovations started as developments available to a minority that later became widely accessible.

Often, the empire falls later on but it looks like hipsters are here to stay.

This was originally published on February 1st, 2013. The essay and the presentation were assignments for the course Mass Communication and the Popular Culture Industry, when I studied abroad in Canada. 

Check out #fromkamloops for more about this experience.

Author: Oriol Salvador

Journalist in the age of new media. Pop culture nerd and social media Jedi. Over ten years of experience producing, managing and distributing digital content on online platforms and social media channels.

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