Taking on a major project by yourself takes guts. It also takes a lot more from you and out of you, as I learned when I attempted to launch my own digital heavy music and horror magazine, Retaliate, in 2010. A road briefly traveled, then abandoned.
I’d spent the seven years prior years knocking myself out working my way up through the tiers of music and film journalism and I’d been writing simultaneously for numerous magazines and websites. I wrote monthly columns, conducted more than 300 personality interviews and reviewed more than a thousand promotional albums and videos. Blabbermouth, Metal Maniacs, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Pit, Rough Edge.com, About.com Heavy Metal, Fangoria Musick, Horror News.net, DVD Review, Unrestrained to name a few, along with numerous others.
I slept very little. I worked a full-time job, then went out to cover shows, interview bands, staying up in the late hours after gigs to transcribe and turn in copy for deadlines. Up until 4:30 a.m. in the rock life, back up at 7:30 a.m. for the mortgage title life. I did a lot of my phoner interviews during lunch breaks in the conference room of my employer, sometimes with a small audience. Repeat, rinse, all with horns hoisted high in the air. With the transition in media toward the digital age, however, the fatigue finally struck once I found myself, along with my colleagues, dropped to the bricks as trad print mags folded, one-by-one.
It was a very difficult and upsetting thing for me to digest since one, a lot of my secondary income was tied into my freelancing work for those rags, especially once I became a new father when we adopted my son. I’d already learned to fight for work, having been downsized from the mortgage title industry on numerous occasions, since the rollercoaster nature of that business dictates employment.
One thing that kept me going during this bruising time to my writing life was my old heavy metal blog, The Metal Minute. I used it as outlet for the countless promotional albums hitting my mailbox which I couldn’t cover for assignment. I did my “Take 5” interview series with artists, and I was able to service many of my longtime publicist and record label contacts that way. The Metal Minute boomed. I wrangled a large, devoted audience and before I laid it to rest, I’d collected more than 900,000 hits and was bestowed the honor of “Best Personal Blog” by Metal Hammer magazine.
While building and branding The Metal Minute, I found myself being courted by loads of websites who couldn’t afford to pay me. Would that I could write merely for the passion of it as I’d first done, but I’d become a paid professional by then. I’d nearly bowed out of media journalism altogether during this phasing out period. My attempts as a veteran scene writer to coax assignment froms editors of the few remaining big dog hubs were met with frustration. So too became the fate of many of my peers, since those periodicals still hanging on were well-fortified with staffers and freelancers already. I think most writers reading this, regardless of experience and time involved, can relate.
I’ve worn many hats in small-league journalism, and with mounting bills and a young mouth to feed, I turned to beat reporting for a local newspaper, as well as field data collection for Patch.com. I was grateful for the work but still feeling that itch of addiction from being in the music scene. I’d done interviews backstage, on tour buses, in pubs and restaurants. I’d even taken one of my guests to 7-11 after our chat in his hotel room and our off-the-record extension was one of the more memorable times of my writing life. The promos kept logjamming my mailbox, since I was receiving hard copy materials before those went digital like the magazines.
It wasn’t a long layoff, but I quickly missed the road dogging, shooting concert photos from the pit, talking with artists and sharing pints and life stories after their gigs. As The Metal Minute gathered steam, I got a smarmy bug up my butt and came up with the idea that maybe I should take on the digital realm and begin my own venture. I had all the industry contacts I needed to get launched, so why the hell not?
Wolf Hoffmann – Accept
To this day, I still thank every publicist and record label who got on board with me when I proposed to launch Retaliate, a digital magazine focused on heavy metal, punk rock, hard and classic rock and horror films. By now, it’s been a proven fact horror and heavy music are natural bed partners, which I’ve said and lived since the Eighties. It was a winning concept my industry friends and guests all believed in and I can’t express my gratitude enough for their generous time and friendship.
I deemed myself Editor-in-Chief, and recalling my time as Assistant Editor on my college newspaper, Spectrum, I used my old layout techniques and learned to apply them in a digital format. Just this part of the process took a bit of time to refine before I began the months-intensive succession in assembling my debut issue.
Wearing multiple hats, I took on every aspect in making Retaliate a reality. I booked and conducted every interview. I fielded the music reviews. I did the live photography and used a handful of supplemental press photos donated from the labels. I laid it all out and banged my head against my desk when the pages wouldn’t merge in succession, then rejoiced when they finally did. Outside of the cover fonts and logo, which I owe to my dear friend in Denmark, Sheila Eggenberger, everything was done my me. I sometimes bounced my son (then a toddler) on my knee while I edited my articles and told him I was going to do something big for our family. It sounded good, anyway.
Jacoby Shaddix – Papa Roach
I engaged a partner, who was going to handle online production and distribution. By the time I was ready to release Retaliate # 1 with a test price of $2.50 per download, I was already finding hints of gray on my head. Twelve years ago, hard to get my nearly grayed-out head around it.
I’d assembled a hell of a guest list for Retaliate #1: Marky Ramone, Dave Lombardo from Slayer, Jacoby Shaddix from Papa Roach, Stevie Benton from Drowning Pool, Richard Patrick of Filter, Chris Adler from Lamb of God, Wolf Hoffmann of Accept, Jim Gustafson of Poobah, former Overkill drummer Rat Skates, Nick Cantanese, formerly of Black Label Society, Steve Von Till of Neurosis, Alexx Calisse and others. I had esteemed horror directors Mick Garris and Adam Green on board for my “Van of the Dead” horror section. It was newbie gold.
I took to the pre-launch campaign trail and staged some goofy promotional photos with me pimping Retaliate. One has me standing amidst a flurry of regional political candidate placards with my own stating “RETALIATE FOR READERSHIP.” Another one has me dressed up as Pinhead from Hellraiser hitchhiking along an interstate with a sign stating “RETALIATE OR BUST.” These photos were sent to all of my press contacts and I was offered publicity services from a few firms out there. I wanted to get the first issue running and then take them up on it to implement my marketing plan. All of it felt red-hot.
I’d grinded for many weeks hitting concerts to gather my live photos and interviews. I took phone calls at ungodly hours to conduct chats with those who I couldn’t connect with on the road. I was giddy beyond words through the whole thing, though, most especially when Marky Ramone and I kept playing phone tag with bad connections on our cells. I hightailed it back to my work office at the time and begged the use of their phone to get it done with Marky. As a Ramones freak, it was one of the most gratifying interviews I’ve ever done.
I could spend the rest of this post gabbing about the wonderful interviews I had for Retaliate # 1. I won’t forget Adam Green getting on a roll about the production behind his frigid terror zone in his horror film, Frozen, and him generously asking me if he could call back after fielding other scheduled chats, because he had plenty more to talk about. He kept his word and we were back on the phone with shivery stories on his crew working with live wolves.
On the nuttier side of things, my interview with Dave Lombardo was completely insane as I waited for my liaison to come get me, which ended up being pretty danged long. I was scheduled to photograph Slayer and Anthrax’s sets at the Baltimore Arena and by the time I was finally brought back to Lombardo on Slayer’s bus, I was given a meager five minutes. We did a lightning round that I think left both us dizzy afterwards. Dave Lombardo, one of the finest metal drummers to ever pick up the sticks, was a gentleman. I’m sorry to see what happened later in the Slayer camp, since I’ve also had an amazing chat with Tom Araya in the past.
I’ll never forget seeing the late Jeff Hanneman lounging on Slayer’s bus and jamming to Led Zeppelin with a hundred lit candles around him. We said hello to each other in passing and that still strikes me today now that Jeff has passed. Afterwards, I had to blitz and navigate my way from the arena loading docks to the rear of the stage on mere instinct for the layout. I waved my laminate badge like a lunatic to the bouncers and stage hands as I bolted into the photo pit as Anthrax began their set. It’s something you can’t necessarily put into words, but it was a huge rush, disorganized as that night ended up being. Anyone in the biz would simply say, that’s just rock ‘n roll for you.
Running into Stevie Benton of Drowning Pool a week after we’d interviewed in the photo pit of Godsmack was a kick and Stevie was cool enough to take a selfie with me, center stage. I’d done phoners with Benton, Jacoby Shaddix of Papa Roach and Adam Green back-to-back, another chaotic but wonderful night of the Retaliate cycle. Arch Enemy, I’d been asked by their record label to have a shipment of merch and CDs sent to my house the day of the gig I covered, since they were running out on the road. It was my pleasure to do so, and guitarist Mike Amott gave me a terrifc on-site chat in accordance.
Angela Gossow – former lead vocalist, Arch Enemy
And then reality struck.
As I was ready to hand over my work to my partner upon execution of a formal business agreement, the guy flaked out on me. No response, no further communication. I had to find out from a mutual friend he’d blown off our little enterprise despite his enthusiasm by my progress. In scrambling mode, I found another party who expressed interest but once again, those overtures fizzled out. This was all before I taught myself DIY digital press.
I attempted to pitch Retaliate on Kickstarter and was shot down. I even had donations from my guests as incentives. I then opened ties with one of my guests and we nearly got Retaliate off the ground together, but his prior commitments took precedence. Fair enough, and by that time, my material was in danger of being too old to be marketable. Besides, the true reality of things is nobody wants to pay for what they get for free everywhere else on the web, regardless of product quality.
With gnashed teeth and a heavy heart, I decided to throw the pages of Retaliate onto The Metal Minute for free as a commitment to everyone who participated in my endeavor.
To be honest, the entire experience ragged me out and I was in the throes of fatherhood anyway. Thus I pulled the plug on Retaliate, even as I received a nice outpouring of support from the industry. I’d had high hopes, as the song goes, but it takes more than a mere man these days to accomplish anything of significance. Retaliate was and still is my baby and I look at those pages with tremendous pride and gratitude toward the musicians, directors, publicists and labels who gave me their time.
I thank them all for the crazy adventure that was Retaliate. To the good, it was an indirect path to leading to my six-year writing stint with industry leader, Blabbermouth. To all who helped me, encouraged me, pushed me when I wanted to say forget it and above all, hung out with me at the aftershows, cheers, you beautiful people…
–Ray Van Horn, Jr.