In its notorious "Dos and Don'ts" column, the Vice magazine of the 1990s would have called "partnering with mainstream media moguls" a big fat DON'T. But the Vice of yore-a cross between a style bible and a lad mag, founded by three broke Montrealers on a grant-is deader than the trucker hat. The new Vice is a media behemoth with a hit online video portal, VBS.tv, offices in 24 countries and partnerships with CNN and Intel. On the heels of a round of new funding rumoured to be $50 million (see above), co-founder (and star of MTV reality show The Vice Guide to Everything) Shane Smith regaled us from his Brooklyn office about the company's plans.
You've had an injection of cash before. How does this compare with being backed by Richard Szalwinski during the dot-com era, when Vice was left with heavy debts? It's a great thing that we did go through it with Richard, because we were stupid kids from Montreal who didn't know anything, and it's a very hard lesson-selling the company, buying it back, reversing stock swaps. We saw a global opportunity for Vice with Richard, and then when we bought the company back, we said, "That's a great idea, we're just going to do it completely differently." We believe in growing organically: finding the Vice people, making them our partners, teaching them how to do stuff and learning from them.
What will you do with the new funding? When the Creators Project [an online art channel developed with Intel]went to China, 85,000 people came to our event there over three days. The Travel Channel filmed a series on it-their viewership is 350 million. We realized, "Oh shit, we're huge in China, and we're not even there yet." In India, people are consuming media on mobile, so we want to go there and get our mobile content right. These things cost money.
It's a bit like the early days of the magazine, when you built your own distribution network so you didn't have to worry about what mainstream distributors thought of your content. Exactly. Because there's two distribution networks in America, and if they don't like your content, they'll put you on the rack by the bathroom, and then you're done. So we had to own our distribution. It's the same thing with VBS. We don't really license content; we do everything in-house, because generally when you do things with other people, it's shitty and it costs you a lot and it's not what you want at the end of the day.
What parts of the business are doing the best and which ones are you trying to strengthen? We came up in a recession, and we're very simplistic in our business models. We believe that every division has to make money. But it's no secret that magazines are not doing as well as they used to. Our magazine is great and makes a lot of money for us, but it's not going to be what we pin our future on. Our future is coming from content. Nobody's creating as much or as high-quality content as us. So now, all of a sudden, Google TV realizes that they can't make a deal for content with NBC that's going to bring them any meaningful amount of traffic, so guess what? You have to talk to me now. That's a really exciting place to be, and by the way-you can name your price.
Few youth-oriented brands have lasted. Was there a point where you said, If we keep doing this, it's not going to survive? We really realized that when we built VBS. It took us 10 years to get to a million copies of the mag, and it took us one month to get to 10 million unique visitors. We were just like, "Oh, this is the future. This is scale." We also realized that for the first time in history, kids in Stockholm, Shanghai, São Paulo knew the same about music and culture and fashion because of the Internet. So we realized that if we wanted to be the voice of this first international generation, we had to be online, because that's where they're living.