Vice Media

Suroosh Alvi, right, on location in Democratic Republic of Congo, at a Mai Mai camp, east of Goma. (Tim Freccia / Vice Media)

And not every Vice-branded project has achieved cultural lift-off. After weeks of build-up for the first-ever YouTube Music Awards across Vice's numerous platforms — and despite a rollicking visceral scrum masterminded by the Oscar-nominated director Spike Jonze with crying babies, a raw-throated performance by Eminem and a weeping Lady Gaga dressed down in a flannel shirt — the Nov. 3 event attracted a meager 220,000 viewers at its peak and was widely panned as a meandering, shoddily executed mess.

Vice has also been criticized for blurring the lines between editorial and advertising in ways sure to give Fourth Estate traditionalists acid reflux. Working in marketing tandem with such global conglomerates as Nike, Levi's and Samsung, Vice allows advertisers to bankroll Web series — but only the ones deemed to be in keeping with its image.

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In a backhanded compliment, Gawker.com described Vice as an "ever-expanding machine for selling counterculture cool to the world's largest and most mainstream corporations."

It all prompts a distinctly Generation X question that has dogged the decidedly Gen Whatevs company at every step of its evolution: Is Vice selling out to trade up?

"We're capitalists," says Moretti. "But as long as you don't feel bad about the product, service, film or musician you're promoting, it doesn't have to be a sellout. Every time we've grown, we've confronted the risk of diluting whatever it is that makes us. I guess at the end of the day, though, we only do the things we want to do."

"It's growing up as opposed to selling out," says Jonze, who serves as a creative director for Vice. "I don't think the company's sold out at all."

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As Jonze sees it, Vice's content has evolved as its core brain trust — Alvi, Moretti and larger-than-life co-founder Shane Smith — has grown older and more sophisticated.

"For so long, they were viewed as the 'party, cool sneakers and cocaine kids,'" Jonze says. "It took a long time to shake that reputation, even though they were maturing."

At its outset, few beyond a core readership of Quebecois tweakers and 'zine freaks might have foreseen Vice's staying power. Started under a Canadian government-funded welfare program as the Voice of Montreal in 1994, the underground give-away newspaper morphed into a monthly glossy with distribution across North America.

Chronicling a crazy quilt of interests including obscure subcultures (Norwegian black metal, South African rap-rave), fashion, drugs ("A Guy Who Was on Acid for a Whole Year") and sex ("The Vice Guide to Shagging Muslims"), early Vice reveled in barf and bile under the ethos of "doing stupid in a smart way and smart in a stupid way."

But after a $4-million investment by tech tycoon Richard Szalwinski in 1998 and 1999 expansion into the U.S., the company nearly became a casualty of the dot-com bust in 2000. Burdened with $5 million in debt, Vice was forced to downscale both its payroll and its ambitions, shedding about three-quarters of its employees. Vice's founders considered pulling the plug but ultimately bought controlling interest back from its investors in 2001 and relocated to Brooklyn in 2002.

"It was really tough," Moretti recalls. "We came very close to the end."

By the mid-'00s, however, Vice had rallied, launching editions in Europe, Australia and Asia. At Jonze's urging, the company began devoting considerable resources to streaming video and entered a partnership with Viacom to launch VBS.tv, Vice's online television network. By then established as a Gen Y's go-to online outlet — gimlet-eyed yet extreme, druggy but earnest — Vice finally catapulted into the ranks of media elite thanks to a 2011 infusion of venture capitalist cash (in partnership with MTV founder Tom Freston) reportedly in the "high eight figures."

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And now, boasting an impressive 3.5 million subscribers on Vice's YouTube channel with unique visitors spending an average of 26 minutes on vice.com (according to its internal estimates), the company's latest initiatives demonstrate Vice's ability to serve as a conduit among mainstream corporate concerns, cutting-edge cultural offerings and the highly coveted millennial audience.

UPDATED Nov. 8, 2013 at 11:00am:  An earlier version of this story stated that Vice Media produced a series of Web shorts to promote “Random Access Memories.” The short films were produced by the Creators Project, a partnership between Vice and the computer chip maker Intel.

Earlier this year, French electronica trailblazers Daft Punk enlisted Vice’s help to market the duo’s fourth studio album, “Random Access Memories.” Under its Creators Project vertical -- a partnership with the computer chip maker Intel -- Vice produced a series of Web shorts featuring interviews with album collaborators including Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers and Giorgio Moroder.

Stoking fan interest while keeping Daft Punk's cultivated mystique intact, the videos played a key part in making the album arguably the year's most hotly awaited release. The disc shot to the top of the pop charts in 20 countries upon its debut, including the U.S.

"When Vice started presenting a countercultural point of view, the notion of counterculture had a certain meaning that it doesn't have now," observes Hahn. "Now, the line between the mainstream and the underground has been blurred by the Internet. So they're taking the avant garde and saying, 'Why wouldn't this be interesting to a lot of people? Let them judge for themselves.' At Vice, they don't compartmentalize culture."

Awards show misfire aside, Vice co-founder Alvi sees the company's biggest achievement as having stayed true to it original, freewheeling game plan while the rest of the culture has played catch-up.

"The reason why YouTube and all these big brands are coming to us is we have a kind of stranglehold on this audience, and the audience is loyal, faithful and big," Alvi said. "After so many years of being the underdogs, we're not in that position anymore. We became the true alternative to the mainstream instead of something very niche. The mainstream came to us."

chris.lee@latimes.com