HM Editor/Publisher Doug Van Pelt's Hard-Rocking Christian Empire
In a lot of ways, I see myself as a pastoral voice for rock & roll sheep," says Doug Van Pelt in a moment of uncharacteristic immodesty. As founder, editor, and publisher of HM magazine, Van Pelt has become one of the widest-read and most respected Austinites writing about music that you've probably never heard of.
Then again, you've probably never heard of Pete Stewart, Stavesacre, the Huntingtons, Project 86, PAX217, or Extol -- Christian punk, ska, rap-core, and white metal bands who have recently graced HM's cover. The "sheep" Van Pelt speaks of are die-hard Christian rock fans who have been reading HM for 15 years -- from its days as a fanzine covering Stryper to now, when Sept./Oct. '99 cover subjects P.O.D. can claim a gold record and a spot on Ozzfest's main stage.
It's no surprise that Atlantic Records bestowed upon Van Pelt the gold P.O.D. plaque that hangs in his magazine's Austin offices. Gold records are given to industry figures that impact sales, and for years HM was the only place to read about P.O.D. It was also the only place to read about King's X and the Galactic Cowboys in the late Eighties and the best place to discover acts like MxPx, Project 86, Blindside, and Chavelle in the mid-Nineties.
HM calls itself "Your Hard Music Authority," and for a dedicated flock of 15,000 readers, it very much is. "We have a niche that caters to fans that are not just loyal, but fiercely loyal," says Van Pelt, 37. "It's the kind of music they love, but it's also their language and speaking a message that reverberates in their being. The music and faith reinforce each other."
To that end, HM itself is very much a magazine about music and faith. Virtually every story explores the subject's relationship with God, and the theological discussions are not just limited to admittedly Christian acts -- each month the "So and So Sez" column interviews secular acts like Godsmack, Social Distortion, or Megadeth about their take on Christianity.
Despite growing to a jam-packed 92 pages of late, the bimonthly's back page is off-limits to advertisers -- it delivers a Christian essay/ message designed to remind readers there's more to knowing God than buying records made by Christians. But somehow it all comes off as nonthreatening and only occasionally evangelical, almost to the point where HM may look to the casual observer like any other glossy rock mag on the rack.
"Fifteen years ago, I always imagined HM right next to Circus, Hit Parader, and Creem, offering an alternative," Van Pelt says. "It may have looked crude at the beginning, but the quality we're at now is what I always imagined."
In 1985, the same year SPIN and Alternative Press launched with significantly more start-up capital, Van Pelt launched what was then dubbed Heaven's Metal magazine as a six-page Xeroxed fanzine. A friend of his had promised to bring copies of that first issue to the 1985 Cornerstone Festival, a giant Christian-rock festival in Bushnell, Ill. As luck would have it, the classified ad he placed in Kerrang! happened to be in the British rock magazine's 100th issue -- an issue with 100,000 extra copies.
"My friend was so embarrassed at Cornerstone by the lack of quality he kept them in his duffle bag," Van Pelt says. "But people were really responding to the Kerrang! ad and started ordering subscriptions."
Van Pelt soon realized he was in on the ground floor of a genuine movement. Stryper was on its way to platinum certification, and bands like Barron Cross, Saint, REX, and Daniel Band were amassing followings of born-again longhairs that traditional Christian rock magazines didn't know what to make of.
Perhaps Van Pelt wasn't scared off because he too was a recent returnee to the church. As a military brat, Van Pelt grew up in Japan, Florida, California, Virginia, and Texas -- where he witnessed his father's rebirth at a 1972 revival in Dallas featuring Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and 100,000 others. But after his own commitment to Jesus broke down at age 11, Van Pelt says he turned to music.
Not only did he listen to Kiss, Ted Nugent, and Aerosmith, but he read and was inspired by their every word in Creem and Circus. In 1984, between his sophomore and junior years at the University of Texas, a friend of Van Pelt's began a concerted effort to reach him. "This guy was actually praying for me, weeping over my soul, and fasting for me," he says.
Van Pelt says he "got right with God" later that summer, went back to school, and soon after dedicated most of his free time to seeing local Christian rock and collecting news and reviews for Heaven's Metal. To his surprise, the early years weren't much of a struggle -- given Christian metal fans' degree of dedication, word of mouth spread fast. Better yet, around the same time Van Pelt switched from Kinko's to a professional printer capable of regular magazine format, it seemed as if every label in the Christian industry had its attention on metal and was signing acts.
Even Amy Grant's label, Myrrh, had metal acts (including Austin's One Bad Pig). Naturally, most of those labels were more than willing to advertise in the only publication that reached out directly to Christian metal fans. By 1989, Van Pelt gave up his temp work and substitute-teaching gigs and dedicated himself to Heaven's Metal full time. Before long, many of the Christian market's biggest publishing and label powerhouses in Nashville were taking meetings and buying lunch for the outsider from Austin.
"When Nirvana killed metal with one song a few years later, most of the people that were my best friends then weren't around so much," Van Pelt says.
Luckily, just months before "Smells Like Teen Spirit" changed the direction of both secular and Christian rock, Van Pelt opted not to go through with a buyout offer from CCM magazine -- a general-interest Christian music publication Van Pelt believes would have closed down Heaven's Metal as soon as grunge hit.
"Probably for the first time in the history of Christian music, the Christian market responded faster to a trend than their mainstream counterparts," he says. "In 1995, you could still go into a Camelot or Hastings and find a metal section or find a metal division at Epic or Columbia. The Christian record companies, retailers, and magazines seemed to withdraw and run away almost instantly."
Although ad revenue was down between 1994 and 1997, HM rolled with the punches: Its subscription base stayed stable and, after some initially negative feedback, subscribers got used to the new and decidedly less metal name HM. And just as the mid-Nineties rebirth of punk and hardcore brought HM new readers, HM sealed a distribution deal with a major magazine wholesaler that immediately doubled its print-run from 13,000 to 22,000 copies and allowed Van Pelt and Co. to double ad rates. As a business enterprise, HM has been stable ever since. Advertising pays the printing bill, while subscription and newsstand sales pay for the content and five full-time employees.
Editorially, each issue of HM still represents a fairly complex struggle. Who should be on the cover? Can HM cover popular Christian acts that lean toward the mainstream without losing its edge? Can HM cover extreme rap-core or white metal bands without offending the youth pastors who often act as gatekeepers for young Christian music fans? How should HM weigh in on the debate over whether bands should preach from the stage or use symbolism to get their message across? Should HM be a platform to reinforce the Gospel to true believers or rescue and save non-believers?
"On a lot of issues, we've swung like a pendulum," Van Pelt says. "Sometimes I've raised my fists and said, 'We cover heavy stuff,' and sometimes we'll say 'let's cover a band like Third Day to appease the youth-group market.'
"I think we also strike a pretty good balance between feeding the believer and coming off as relevant and informative to the nonbeliever, but each time we're really just trying to identify and focus on our strengths," he continues. "And I think the fact that we'll come to the plate behind a band like Extol and say 'this is what we stand by' -- an extreme Norwegian black metal band -- and put them on the cover is one of our strengths."
Considering Christian rock's reputation as a highly insular and political business, even Van Pelt is a bit surprised by how infrequently HM has been in the eye of controversy. But not even a few early-Nineties scrapes with advertisers over bands speaking out against their former labels could compare to the storm HM created with its May/June 1999 issue.
Since Houston's King's X made its major-label debut in 1988, no magazine championed them more than HM. And why not? King's X may have never considered themselves a "Christian band," but Christian music fans widely claimed them as the biggest mainstream rock crossover since Stryper. But that issue's interview with frontman Doug Pinnick dropped a bombshell -- Pinnick was gay.
Van Pelt says he'd known that for two years, but didn't think he needed to address it in HM because it was merely a struggle -- just as a Christian might struggle with drugs, shoplifting, or spousal abuse. But after an interview with an online zine broached the subject and Pinnick began sporting a gay pride sticker on his bass, Van Pelt decided the situation warranted a full feature.
"No Room Inside the Box" -- an interview with Pinnick and a theological discussion of the Christian perspective on homosexuality -- quickly became the magazine's most-talked-about article ever. Online chat rooms overflowed with debate, and many conservative HM readers weren't shy in sharing their belief that Van Pelt went too lightly on Pinnick. And while Van Pelt now agrees that he may have erred on the side of grace, Christian music distributors and retailers were even less forgiving -- those that hadn't already banned the band did so after the HM piece made the rounds.
"The Christian world banned us immediately," says Pinnick of the aftermath. "They'd rather judge me on my personal life than the music. They display and debate the most intimate details of my life in youth-group meetings and chat rooms. It disgusts me."
Ultimately, Pinnick has become persona non grata in the Christian music world. And while even a year later, there are still Christians offering unsolicited prayer and barraging him with nasty notes -- plus newspapers that still insist on calling King's X a Christian band -- he says he doesn't really hold HM or Van Pelt responsible.
"Sure, I got mad when the people that had spent so much time saying they loved me dismissed me and banned my work," Pinnick says. "But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the Bible does say homosexuality is wrong, and as people that so closely follow the Bible, they're doing their jobs. I've come to accept it for what it is. I just don't want or have to be a part of their hypocrisy and lies anymore."
Although Van Pelt has never weighed in on whether he believes the ban is justified, to avoid having to ask Pinnick about his personal life again he says HM won't be writing about King's X anytime in the immediate future, if ever. More importantly, he says, the Pinnick affair has brought to the forefront the primary challenge of Christian publishing -- balancing journalistic integrity with biblical integrity.
"I think we've done a pretty good job," Van Pelt says, "of not being scandalous for the sake of magazine sales. It can ruin someone's life, and my interpretation of the Bible really values people. In my mind, people mattered so much to God that he sent us his only son. Love should be something that characterizes you, and exposing people or dragging people through the mud doesn't fit with my interpretation of the Bible."
Even with the lesson learned, the Pinnick affair had one other effect -- the industrywide backlash against King's X proved how well-read and influential a magazine with a paid circulation of 15,000 can be. It's a figure that Van Pelt says makes HM comfortably profitable, but one he'd like see double over the next two years. In truth, it will be an uphill battle -- even the addition of a free compilation CD with each issue and a "Six CDs, Six Issues for $15" campaign hasn't noticeably expanded HM's subscriber base. Considering how many churches, youth groups, and festivals feature Christian music in some form, Van Pelt knows there's still a large untapped base of subscribers.
"I'm often so busy with the day-to-day grind I haven't been able to sit back and ask, 'How do I market this magazine more effectively?'" he says. "When I go to Christian rock festivals, especially festivals with a conservative bent, there are entire youth groups, thousands of kids that have never heard of HM. Every day there's a new generation born we have to reach. We have a lot of work to do. We've been kind of coasting for 15 years on our own success."
While Van Pelt hopes to soon delegate more responsibility for HM to his staff, he's also considering launching a new magazine. The as-yet-untitled effort will be a football magazine from a faith perspective, and hopefully bring new readers to HM. The magazine is also starting to do brisk retail business at its Web site, offering its own video magazines, CD compilations, and tribute albums.
Better yet, as many as 50,000 secular and Christian music fans could be exposed to HM when the magazine is featured on a foldout panel of the CD booklet accompanying the a reissue of P.O.D.'s first album, Brown. Like the gold record, the opportunity was a gift from the band as a show of thanks for the magazine's support.
That may not be the last opportunity a band HM supported gets to give something back; along with P.O.D., bands like Project 86 and Stavesacre seem destined for mainstream breakthroughs that could very well create new Christian music fans and new HM readers. Whereas hard Christian music was a foreign concept to mainstream music fans 15 years ago, in these days of P.O.D., it looks as if there might be plenty of new sheep in the near future.
"I like to leave the bragging to the advertising guys, and maybe somebody else would have stepped in and taken up the cause, but for 15 years, virtually nobody else has presented a platform for these bands," Van Pelt says. "Advertisers know this market is really proactive and does a lot of purchasing, and readers know we're gonna cram the issue tight with a lot of news, reviews, and features. All we have to do to survive is to continue to grow in a quiet and distinctive way where people want to advertise, they want to read, and they want to be interviewed by HM. That's what we've done for 15 years."