Hello and welcome to a very special edition of the Haulix Blogger Spotlight series. We have featured a number of young journalists in recent months, but today we could not be more excited to highlight the efforts of someone who has been writing about music since before the internet was a thing average people cared about. If you or someone you know would make would like to be considered for a future installment of this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and share your story.
In 1985 a young man by the name of Doug Van Pelt started a fanzine called Heaven’s Metal to discuss and promote the world of Christian hard rock and metal after developing a love for journalism while working for his college newspaper. This was the same year Alternative Press, Spin, and Metal Edge Magazine launched, and like each of those now iconic publications the efforts of Van Pelt would soon begin to impact the lives of countless people around the world. He placed an ad for his new publication in the classified sections of numerous music rags (aka “old school Craigslist”), and before he knew it subscriptions began rolling in.
In 1995 Heaven’s Metal reached a crossroads. A change in the industry lead to the word ‘metal’ being somewhat tainted from a marketing perspective and Van Pelt decided it was best to change the magazine’s name to HM. The publication still focused on the heavier side of Christian rock, but also opened its doors up to a variety of new, rising alternative artists as well. It was a risk that could have drove away subscribers, but instead paid off in continued sustainability and news readers.
Things remained more or less good for HM magazine in the years following the name change until the rise of digital publications and social networking brought a new world of challenges to print publications in the mid-2000s. HM held on as long as possible to its physical format, including offering simultaneous digital editions beginning in 2007, but in December 2011 the zine was forced to go completely digital in an effort to cut costs. Van Pelt remained editor for another year, then in February of 2013 sold HM to current editor David Stagg. He remains on staff as a contributor, and today we’re honored to share his story.
We spoke with Doug Van Pelt about his life in the music industry from the beginning of Heaven’s Metal to today, and I think you’ll find the stories he has to share are truly one-of-a-kind. Doug has seen the best and worst the industry has to offer, and I guarantee you there is something everyone can learn from his experiences.
If you want to stay up-to-date with Doug’s efforts moving forward, be sure you bookmark and frequent HM. Additional questions or comments can be left at the end of this post.
H: You are by far the person with the most experience in music journalism that we have featured to date. Do you remember the first album you truly fell in love with? How did you discover it?
DVP: First album I truly fell in love with? Wow. That’s a tough one. Early albums I spent many “miles” with in life:
Kiss - Destroyer
Aerosmith - Rocks
Led Zeppelin - Physical Graffiti
UFO - Strangers in the Night
Frank Marino & Mahogany Rush - Live
I can hear the next song start to play in my head before the previous one finishes tracking on all those albums above.
Kiss had me listening closely. I loved the grooves of Aerosmith and felt they were superior to Kiss.
Physical Graffiti might be my Desert Island disc, or one of them, if I get about five to bring with.
Ten Years Gone, Down by the Seaside, Kashmir, Bron-y-aur. Great, tunes that stand up to the test of time, for sure.
UFO - Strangers in the Night. Michael Schenker’s lead breaks are just so fluid, melodic and have so much feeling. They’re like musical songs within a song. Love the UFO song structure, the backdrop of keys, drums, rhythms. Great songs all. Best live album ever. The solo that builds and builds and then explodes in “I’m A Loser” is so sweet. The solo in “Rock Bottom” kinda does that as well. “Love to Love” has so much building emotion. Love that tune. Frank Marino was the living guitar hero of my day. Such an expert at controlling feedback and crafting great, hypnotizing guitar sounds and leads. His solo - “Electric Reflections of War,” followed by “World Anthem” and then “Purple Haze” is such a great concert closer.
Scorpions - Tokyo Tapes has two epic songs - no three - that are just beautiful, featuring Uli Jon Roth just going off: “We’ll Burn the Sky,” which is just a majestic melodic metal tune. Klaus Meine’s vocals and Uli’s singing leads are beyond great in this tune. The song “In Trance” is another killer tune and “Fly to the Rainbow” has a divebombing solo a la Hendrix/Marino that is fantastic.
First album I fell in love with might be Stryper’s Soldiers Under Command and the song “First Love” specifically. It mixed my love for a forgiving Messiah (Jesus) with my love for melodic metal - both flowing beautiful lead vocals and emotive guitar leads. It was one of the first albums I loved that I was able to express myself with writing about and helped me get into doing music journalism.
H: You started HM as a fanzine in 1985. What attracted you to the world of journalism in the first place?
DVP: I was a student at the University of Texas in Austin and their policy of letting students write for the school paper (The Daily Texan) allowed me to write album reviews of recent Christian rock albums, so I was able to express my love for Christian rock, evaluate in a critical way and even turn people on to artists of faith, which would, in some ways, expose others to my faith. Using art to start a spiritual conversation was kind of a natural thing and it left room for people to be more comfortable entering into this conversation than did, say, street evangelism, which was kind of confrontational to a fault sometimes. These reviews of albums led to a concert review here and then a feature article to promote an upcoming concert with Stryper, which was their first out-of-California tour for the band - hitting five or so cities in Texas. This experience of working with an editor, planning the editorial, setting up the interview with Rick Orienza - the publicist at Enigma Records - and doing the interview with Robert Sweet and selecting the photos to use and writing the piece was my first big experience in rock journalism. That was kind of when the idea of starting a Christian heavy metal magazine started to gel.
H: According to the Magazine wikipedia, you found early success thanks to a classified ad place in Kerrang! Magazine. Could you share with us a bit about the early days of HM (then called ‘Heaven’s Metal’) and the aforementioned ad?
DVP: Yeah, this was in 1985 - long before the days of “filesharing.” We shared music back then by making “mixtapes" on cassette and sending them through the mail with heavy metal "penpals,” so to speak. Metal Edge had a section in their magazine (Metal Edge started in 1985, by the way, as did Alternative Press, Spin and HM.) There was an “underground” of music traders, music fans and metalheads. Word was spread in those days through classified ads in magazines, free local music newspapers and actual (physical) bulletin boards with notes like, “Looking to start metal band. Need guitarist. Must have chops without attitude,” or “must have look,” hahaha. I took out classified ads in other underground Christian rock publications, like The Advocate, The Cutting Edge and also bought a classified ad in CCM Magazine, Cornerstone Magazine and Kerrang! Magazine. The ad in Kerrang! was booked at a good time, because unbeknownst to me it was going to be the magazine’s 100th issue and feature a new distribution onto US soil with an increased print run of 100,000 more copies than usual. How beneficial was that? It had Motley Crue on the cover (of course, they ruled metal mags in those days). The response I got from all those classified ads was positive and the growth was on. Heaven’s Metal Magazine started to spread by word of mouth and via classified ads like those.
H: Who was the first artist you worked with for HM? Why did you seek them out?
DVP: The first issue had photos I took of Stryper in Austin, Texas, on that show that I referenced earlier, which I had written about in the local student newspaper - The Daily Texan. The next issue had Jerusalem on the cover, but that feature article was done without an interview. I did my first real “So & So Says” interview without really trying in that issue, by interviewing a band called Prophet, which had a beautiful melodic rock song,called “Everything You Are,” which bled like a Christian metal worship song, I tell ya. Check out the video (let’s see if a quick search on youtube can drag it out): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jsa8D_lMBac
Yeah! Tell me that doesn’t hint at being faith-based. Turns out it was not, at least according to Scott Metaxas, the bass player (I think) that I interviewed for that issue.
H: You changed the name from Heaven’s Metal to HM Magazine in 1995, then brought back the name in the 2000s for a fanzine accompaniment to the magazine that later became a part of the regular publication. What inspired you to make this change initially, and why did you choose to bring it back?
DVP: The name change came in 1995, when metal as a viable mainstream and commercial genre took severe hits and the industry considered metal dead. I shortened Heaven’s Metal to HM as a way to transition beyond that change.
Later in 2004 I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea and about seven or eight points to relaunch Heaven’s Metal as a dude publication to serve those older and new metal bands and fans. We had been trying to serve this part of the scene, but the mix was important, as the younger readers didn’t think bands like Bride or Whitecross were hip. At that point (around 2001 to 2004) this metal coverage was relegated to one or two pages. I still wanted to be able to champion what was good, so this idea sounded like a good platform to do that. We got nearly 600 subscribers in just a few short months (no retail distro), so it seemed like a success. My wife (at the time) didn’t like the idea of doing more work and I look back now and wish I hadn’t, but I’m not sure that would’ve saved our marriage that was severed by her in 2012/2013. After awhile the fanzine (which is what I called it since it was printed on standard bond paper and all black and white), started to lose money. I decided at that point to move it to a section inside the magazine. Like a zine within a magazine.
H: Aside from focusing on heavy-leaning Christian rock bands, what would you say separates the content offered by HM from that being created by your competitors?
DVP: It depends on what you mean by competitors. If you’re referring to Alternative Press, that’s one thing. If you’re referring to Jesus Freak Hideout or CCM or some other online Christian hard music publication, that’s another. The content differences may not be that great. From time to time the content you’ll find in HM is from hard music veterans, which makes a big difference. Not all of our content is written from these types of writers, but when it is it can be engaging and excellent. I don’t think HM (and I’m speaking of my own writing for the magazine) has been 100% brilliant. At times, though, it’s been really good. And good rock journalism is an artform and fun to read. There’s some other good coverage of music out there, to be sure.
H: You were a journalist before social media was even an idea, and in the years since Myspace launched have evolved your publications in many ways to meet the demands of our hyper-connected society. Do you ever have nostalgia for the days before the internet, or do you prefer the urgency of modern times?
DVP: That’s a great question. It’s true that HM predates that stuff. When HM (Heaven’s Metal Magazine) started in the mid-80s, music sharing was on mixtapes sent through the USPS. It was as fun or funner, but obviously a lot less immediate than digital file sharing.
If I was to choose time travel vs. staying in the present, I would choose the present. I like technology. If I was going to use time travel (as I spell out in my novel, Desert High), I’d use that technology to go back to a specific time in my high school football career and right a terrible wrong that occurred.
H: HM went strictly digital in recent years, but remained a print publication well into the 2000s. How do you feel about having made the transition away from physical the product, and do you ever think we’ll see a time when print is popular once again?
DVP: Advertising sales went from 30K per issue to 15 and below. It wouldn’t cover the print bills and other overhead, so it’s not so much about print as it was economics. I’d love to see print make a comeback. Holding something in your hands is superior to the value-less (or less valued) online content. With the right investment and right marketing to promote the magazine and increase circulation, it could be successful. Not sure how you could interest record companies whose advertising budgets have been cut could make it up and start advertising again.
H: What is the biggest drawback to running an all digital publication?
DVP: Hmmmm? Good question. Perhaps it is the public’s perception that it should be free.
H: As a writer with decades of experiences, what is the most common mistake you see younger writers make when starting their journalism careers?
DVP: Maybe not knowing or learning the balance of knowing when to avoid first person language (most of the time) and when to use it. Not sure what to criticize here. I don’t have any fresh mistakes in my mind to use. One problem might be lack of confidence. A shyness and hesitancy to go for anything.
H: HM has been responsible for breaking a number of heavy acts over the years. When you want to discover new music, where do you turn? How has your search for new music changed over the years?
DVP: Part of it is just being a part of the scene. When you care, you just pay attention and you stay caught up. Also, when you become a respected media outlet, then publicists and news comes to you. It makes scouting easier and not so necessary. Due to this aspect, I didn’t have to do much scouting over the years. A magnet attracts metal. (smile).
H: I see bands on Twitter looking for coverage from HM from time to time. What advice would you offer artists hoping to stand out from others vying for attention in your inbox and social feeds?
DVP: Hmmm. I would say avoid begging. Avoid the assumption that i’m looking for links to click and new music to hear. You know, journalists are like anyone, we listen to our friends. when you have a bro that tells you, “Dude, you need to hear this band such and such. They are so cool.” Getting credibility isn’t easy, but just doing your job - making music and playing live - and credibility will come (if it’s good).
H: Do you think there is still a need for physical press kits?
DVP: Yeah, I sure like to hear music on different platforms (before my car stereo broke, playing a cd in my car was very helpful and it offered undivided and very loud attention.
H: What is the biggest mistake you see young artists make?
DVP: rushing their music production, not letting time and tweaking “season” their music. An easy criticism would be “trying to look like all the rest” of the bands out there.
H: When it comes to receiving music for review and feature consideration, which services do you prefer and why?
DVP: any platform that allows me to download the tracks, along with album artwork and lyrics … and the ability to do this without an expiration date coming too soon. if i drag my feet, i hate to have to chase down the publicist and request a download again. that’s happened more than a few times.
H: If you could change one thing about the music industry, what would it be?
DVP: hmmmm. small, independent labels and festivals not paying their ad invoices!
H: Before we let you go, can you tell us a bit about what you have planned in the months ahead?
DVP: I plan on illustrating a children’s book I’ve written. and I’m writing a book about the suffering and lessons learned experienced during the last year and a half of my life. I’m writing articles and reviews for HM still.