The first time I visited Mesa-based Heavy Metal Television (www.heavymetaltelevision.com), this past spring, I was sure there had to be a catch. The more I watched, the more sure I was. It was too simple: A local website was serving a metal cocktail with current technology and a television format nobody had tried since the '90s.
Back when MTV hit cable in 1981, the 16th video it played was its first dose of heavy metal, Iron Maiden's "Iron Maiden." One would think that, over the next three decades, the format would have advanced and flourished, even after MTV's original videos-all-day format mutated to TRL video snippets and shovelfuls of reality garbage.
But even on the Internet, spiritual successors like Vevo and Utubify get bogged down in navigation and licensing negotiations. We all know what we want in 2013: an outlet that digs through the music vaults 24-7 along with news and interviews — and without accounts, ad interruptions, and subscription fees.
With Heavy Metal Television, metal fans are (for once) ahead of the technology curve, with a deceptively simple idea executed well — and it all started here in the Valley.
Director Eric Braverman founded the network with an eye toward restoring the classic MTV format of VJs and music videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Seven VJs emcee the broadcast around the world — to more than 300,000 unique users to date. That's the crucial difference between HMTV and YouTube-influenced outlets like Vevo: Viewers from Russia to Australia to Kansas are watching the same program at the same time, whether it's legends like Judas Priest and Pantera or newer acts like Ghost B.C. and Volbeat.
"In rotation, we have 40 years of heavy metal," Braverman says, "everything from Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, and Led Zeppelin to Amon Amarth and Butcher Babies." It also plays local bands, including Job for a Cowboy, St. Madness, and Soulfly. "It's not just limited to local signed bands," adds Braverman. "We'll play local unsigned bands if they've got a cool video. Why not?"
Let's face it — being in the limelight is both a blessing and a curse for a genre like heavy metal. With fame and occasional fortune comes the risk of having to compromise a musical image and the wrath of parents, politicians, and the pop music industry. When it comes to combining heavy metal and television, things can get complicated; think of the successes (That Metal Show, Headbanger's Ball) and utter failures (such reality shows as Rock of Love).
So, in sticking with the classic format of a handful of eclectic VJs, Heavy Metal Television decided to dig for some local talent in a traditional on-camera VJ competition. When I was asked to be a part of the judges' panel (alongside Sacred Reich drummer Greg Hall, St. Madness vocalist Prophet, and Braverman), I was pumped to participate but also a little skeptical. I wanted to know that it was a legitimate effort in the name of heavy metal, not something they'd randomly thrown together in the hope that it might last a few years.
Soon enough, I realized this is something that could help revolutionize Internet television. After years of attempts from the likes of Google and Apple, Heavy Metal Television has beaten major media companies to an experience that replicates the spontaneity of TV on the Internet. It's beaten its Internet-native competitors to a business model, too: The royalties HMT pays artists are modeled after terrestrial radio, a better rate than on streaming services like Pandora and Spotify.
"We're not charging labels and bands," Braverman says. "We are trying to give bands a new place and way to expose and promote their music. Most importantly, we're offering the whole cable TV/dish experience on the Internet for free."
Potential logistical problems aside, the main question about Heavy Metal Television for metalheads — the issue that will make or break it — is simple. But it's one that every other music television outlet has eventually failed to answer, over the years: Can it stay true to its original format and values without being swayed to the dark side by demanding sponsors, labels pushing pay-to-play bands, cheap reality TV, and all the other pitfalls that have blighted the industry?
Braverman is confident it can. "The reason we started Heavy Metal Television is because there was no place for new bands to expose themselves. The record industry's dying, and older bands can't sell records anymore. We're going to keep to the format by not forgetting to play music. That's [how] we're going to keep the integrity. Heavy Metal Television has just begun to spread its black demon wings!"
The VJ competition is the first of a number of events the network has planned ahead of its one-year anniversary in November. In conjunction with Zia Record Exchange, Metal Blade Records, and Troop Fuel Energy Drink, the American Idol-style open VJ auditions are scheduled to take place on Saturday, August 10.
Applicants just have to head to Zia's flagship store at 19th Avenue and Camelback Road between 5 and 6 p.m. to sign up, and there's no pre-registration necessary. The winner will receive a prize package courtesy of Metal Blade Records, and two runners-up will snag a prize of, well, considerably lesser value. But the first 50 participants have the chance to score a ton of free stuff, too.
Anyone can try out to be a VJ, because in the end, it's about getting someone who is exciting or amusing to watch. And everyone who tries out will be filmed, so they may find themselves on a Heavy Metal Television special in the end.
Heavy Metal Television VJ Susie, a raven-haired British alternative fashion model, offers some simple advice to aspiring VJs: Be yourself and be open. "Any fake persona you try to put on, everyone will see past it — especially on camera." She's been with Heavy Metal Television since its debut, when she was linked up with the station through a friend who thought she would be a good fit.
"For me, the experience is always exciting as a whole," she says. "Being a part of something so huge that's about to skyrocket . . . To me, Heavy Metal Television is like my baby. I want nothing more than for it to succeed."