Montreal’s magic worked before
CREATIVE FIRE Spirit of Vice empire firmly rooted here
When Arcade Fire credited Montreal’s creative atmosphere for helping the indie rock band snag a Grammy award this week, they were repeating sentiments I’d heard a few days earlier from Suroosh Alvi. Cofounder of an international new media and publishing empire now valued in the hundreds of millions, Alvi has been through the ups and downs of success. (Currently, he’s on a big up). Though he’s been gone from Montreal since the late ’90s, certain street corners, bars and zany experiences remain firmly bookmarked in his mind. The spirit of Montreal still guides his business sense, keeps him from being ruined by the horse flies that buzz around success.
Here’s how it all started: in 1994, armed with an arts degree from McGill, Alvi joined Gavin McInnes and Shane Smith to found a broadsheet-style punk ’zine called Voice of Montreal, featuring irreverent coverage of music, newslike features and fashion ads. Unconsciously following the tradition of such local legends as the tabloid Midnight, Voice of Montreal didn’t pull back from creative coverage, doctoring up photos, stretching facts, all in the cause of gaining a following among boho denizens of the Plateau. Their startup strategy included getting themselves on welfare in order to snag employment grants and cash for office expenses, etc.
Asthepublicationevolved,theyneeded a snappier name, like simply Voice. But of course that one had been taken by a certain NYC Village tab. After the Mirrorpublishedastorysayingthereal Voice was threatening a law suit, Alvi and Co. announced they had decided to “back down” and drop the o, creating Vice, as well as considerable free publicity from the stunt. When they started shipping bundles of the giveaway publication to trendy clothing and music stores west and south of the border, ads became easier to sell and Vice took off.
Flush with success, Alvi told a La Presse journalist that the company was entertaining offers of investment from such high-flyers as Condé Nast, Larry Flynt and new media ringmaster Richard Szalwinski, who had just made a bundle from Discreet Logic and was on an acquisition spree. Szalwinski, who’d never heard of them, read the piece and called asking for a meeting. He ended up bankrolling their expansion and move to New York. A dark fairy tale indeed: Szalwinski’s vision of getting into retail went well at first, but collapsed with the dot-com bubble in 2000, leaving the three original founders $5-million indebt.Theyboughtthecompanyback, moved into a warehouse in Brooklyn and went back to their original idea of being simply outrageous in a magazine for the 18-34 demographic.
Vice re-emerged stronger than ever, its founders clear on where they had to go: everywhere, but in the spirit of Vice. Alvi credits Szalwinski for getting them to New York and proving the importance of sticking to core values. At no point had he asked for the traditional business plan, or for that matter, to look at their books. (They didn’t keep accounts in those days). He’d judged potential written on their faces.
Today, Vice is a stylish monthly with a worldwide readership of 1.1 million, published in 13 languages from offices in 27 countries. In addition to a mega-popular Web version, spinoffs from the magazine include VBS.TV, an online broadcasting partnership with Spike Jonze (with a monthly viewership of 4 million); Vice Music, with top indie bands such as The Raveonettes and Black Lips – and 2 million albums sold; Vice Films, producer of (among others) Suroosh Alvi’s documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad, the story of an aspiring band trying to get their act off the ground amid battle in Iraq; and Vice Books, featuring two volumes of their iconic series of caustically cutlined photos, Dos and Don’ts. For the essence of Vice, check out this feature on the website, www.viceland.com. And then there’s the futuristic advertising and creative agency, Virtue Worldwide, based in London.
These days, Alvi’s New York office includes a staff of 100, and recently, a person tasked with managing human resources, because “apparently people have issues.” At 41, he still seems faintly surprised by it all, even a little nostalgic for those early crazy times.
“Montreal is the only city where we could have started all this,” he says. “We made so many mistakes in public. People were very forgiving.” His main point is that during the desperate ’90s, when the Rest of Canada was writing this city off as a grumpy, bankrupt hasbeen, certain youthful residents were taking advantage of indifference to turn attitude and ideas into a sustainable and, as it turns out, globally successful venture. They succeeded not by diluting their winning mixture of satire, sarcasm and trenchant taste in order to please the mass market, but by reaching out to kindred Plateau-rats around the world.
Lesson from Vice: the essence of a truly creative environment is not one in which all is immediately possible, or salable. It’s a feeling that there is nothing stopping good ideas from going far. All you have to do is find the stepping stones beneath the surface of what to some may look like stagnant water.