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Behind the Scene Features Interviews

An Interview With Don Angelillo of Heavy Headlines

Indy Metal Vault hasn’t always been the massive, globe-spanning, faceless corporation that it proudly is today [ed. note: Reese’s views do not necessarily reflect those of Indy Metal Vault or its regional subsidiaries]. As hard as it is to believe, there was indeed a time when we were just a humble metal blog, living in the shadow of giants that we’ve since squashed underfoot [ed. note: see previous ed. note]. A big part of our site’s recent astronomical growth has been Heavy Headlines. While I’m not at liberty to talk numbers (lest I be given an extended stay in the IMV “break room”) [ed. note: is it real, or is it all in Reese’s head?],  we’ve been enjoying quite the traffic bump since we were added to the site’s roster of excellent blogs. We’ve sat down with Don Angelillo, the developer behind Heavy Headlines, to pick his brain a bit about the unseen (and often underappreciated) labours that go into maintaining the app, the realities of app development, and even recent metal releases.

Indy Metal Vault: So first of all, thanks for taking the time to talk to us! This interview’s been in the works for a while, so I’m glad to finally be getting down to it! I’ll start by asking you a question that many of my colleagues have been eager to hear answered: Are there plans for an Android app in the near future?

Don Angelillo: Unfortunately no, not at this time.  While I definitely realize there’s a big market for it out there, Android development is not really something that I do, and it takes quite a bit of time to maintain the iOS version as it is – so adding Android on top of that isn’t super feasible.  I’m not saying it will never happen, but definitely not in the near future.

IMV: When you were compiling the list of websites to be featured on Heavy Headlines, did you have to reach out individually to each site, did they come to you, or did you just simply add them?

DA: I’ve never actually had any contact with most of the sites that Heavy Headlines pulls metal news from.  At its core, the app is really just a fancy RSS reader with a ton of other (I think) cool features like Favorites, etc. thrown in on top. So the idea there is “Hey these guys publish feeds so that RSS readers can use them. Then I guess I can too!” I have had a few sites reach out to me directly and ask to be added, but with the exclusion of Indy Metal Vault none of them had workable, error-free RSS feeds that I could use so unfortunately I couldn’t get them into the app.

IMV: Were there any sites that asked to be left out for any reason?

DA: Fortunately no.  I’m not sure if it’s because the app isn’t really as popular as I think it is and no one has noticed, or (hopefully) it’s more that I’ve been really respectful of their content.  I don’t “sell” access to anything or play favorites by listing certain sites’ content higher in the feed than others.  I’m also super conscious of not cutting into their ad revenue at all because while I COULD extract all the content and display it natively in the app, I don’t.  This is specifically to make sure all of the sites’ ads render and that they’re able to stay in business.  Also, I like to think that by including them in the app I’m actually helping them get more exposure and in turn earn a little bit more cash.

IMV: Well, you’re certainly right about your app helping with web traffic. I won’t disclose any numbers, since that’d earn me a stay in the Indy Metal Correctional Facility [ed note: sigh…], but we’ve been enjoying quite the traffic bump since we were added.

DA: I’m super happy I could help get Indy Metal Vault some more exposure.  I will be the first to admit that I was not aware of the site until you guys contacted me, but as soon as I checked it out it was obvious that you were all very dedicated to producing some really great content.  So I’m honored to be able to share that with my users in the app.

IMV: When going through and updating the app, is it ever a problem getting each of the websites to work with the new version of the app?

DA: I have had a couple of issues with feeds changing URLs or starting to return malformed RSS, but it’s actually more about pruning feeds that aren’t being updated anymore so I’m not wasting my users’ data making requests for content that is no longer current.  I also pay attention to what feeds users are turning off a lot and those can be candidates for removal as well.

The list of available feeds, complete with everyone’s favourite metal blog. And Indy Metal Vault.

IMV: Do you work with feeds professionally, or was it something you learned specifically for Heavy Headlines?

DA: Yeah I’ve been developing professionally for 20 years now and have been programming for over 30.  Yeah I’m old.  Ha.  I’ve done lots of different kinds of development but when the iPhone first came out I was just like “This is it.  Star Trek in your pocket.  Sign me up.” and I focused on learning how to develop for iOS.  I shifted my career from web to mobile and I’ve been doing that professionally pretty much ever since.

IMV: What are some of the difficulties of developing on IOS? I know from our previous conversations that a lot more goes into keeping HH running smoothly than most people would guess, but are there any aspects of it that are particularly headache-inducing?

DA: Man, that could take a whole separate interview.  First off, I can’t just release an update whenever I want because iOS apps have to go through a review process with Apple that until last year took up to a week.  That’s down to a couple of days now, but still, iOS devs have to be really careful about what they release because if we release a bug out into the wild it’s at least a couple of days before it can be fixed, and we also can’t guarantee that users will actually download the fix.The other big pain point is that as you know every year Apple releases a new major version of iOS and that always brings changes to how we have to develop and what we have to support if we want to be able to update our apps and keep them in the App Store.  Some years it’s worse than others.  A few years ago they introduced an entirely new programming language called Swift, and while I didn’t absolutely have to switch to it at the time, I knew I was going to have to at some point or not be able to continue to offer Heavy Headlines to all the metalheads out there. So I literally spent almost a year rebuilding the app from scratch in that new language.

IMV Having to rebuild the whole app from the ground up… that’s gotta be rough.

DA: Well it was very much worth it in the end because now it’s written in a very modern programming language and it’s much easier to maintain.  This also benefits my users obviously because it enables me to put out more frequent updates with less effort.  And I don’t dread working on my own app because it’s written in an archaic programming language that I would no longer agree to use even in a paid gig.  Ha.

IMV: In the “themes” section, there are a bunch of really clever references (I especially appreciated the Avenged Sevenfold [ed. note: sigh…] nods), and after a little while, I think I have them all figured out. But just to put my conscience at ease, mind sharing all the bands the themes are based off of?

DA: Ha thanks for noticing!  I totally based them off the color schemes from various iconic metal album covers or in some cases metal band makeup colors.  The bands the themes are inspired by are Avenged Sevenfold, Steel Panther, Demon Hunter, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Pantera and Turisas.  I guess it’s no coincidence that most of the bands mentioned are among my all-time favorites as well.

A demonstration of the app’s “favourites” feature. Note Don’s good taste, because he included Avenged Sevenfold.

IMV: I wasn’t sure about the Demon Hunter reference, but I suspected it! My friend and fellow writer Lyle wanted me to tell you that it’s people like you that “make the metal world go ’round”.  Despite the fact that app development is a rather “anonymous” job, have you ever had someone telling you how useful/how much they enjoy the app?

DA: Oh man, thank you and Lyle so much!  That is an amazing and extremely humbling compliment.

I built Heavy Headlines because I felt there was pretty much nothing in the App Store that catered to metal fans (always a pretty marginalized group in my opinion) in the way we deserve.  There were a couple of apps, but they didn’t have the greatest production values or much in the way of features.  So since building apps is what I do for a living I egotistically was just like “Oh I can totally do that better!”  So I spent a little over a year building Heavy Headlines in my spare time really as a labor of love.

I’m fortunate to have received a lot of amazing reviews in the App Store and super positive direct feedback from the feedback form in the app.  It’s so amazing when someone takes the time to say thank you or say how Heavy Headlines is an app they use every day.  Most apps don’t receive many ratings or reviews. In fact, the statistics are something along the lines of about 6% of apps have over 50 reviews.  Over the course of the almost four years, Heavy Headlines has been available it has almost 200 reviews and close to 500 ratings.  That’s huge.  And I chalk that up to the fact that metalheads are extremely passionate and dedicated – and if they like something they’re gonna let other metalheads know about it.  So thank YOU metal fans.  You made a niche metal news app perform far better than the vast majority of other apps out there.

IMV: Has there ever been a time when a big, superfluous story breaks big, and you get sick of seeing it on your own app? I remember a while back, it was a running joke/competition between a friend and I to see how many articles we could find about Phil Anselmo after his “incident” last year, and I know Heavy Headlines was a big part of how I beat him.

DA: Pretty much anything related to politics.  Everything is so insanely politicized, and in turn, polarizing nowadays.  When I open the app I just wanna read about my favorite metal bands.  I hear enough about that other stuff elsewhere.

IMV: My last couple of questions mostly cover app development. How long does it take you to create an update for the app? Obviously, like you said, you have to jump through some hoops at Apple to get it out, but how many days does an update usually spend in development?

DA: Well that varies wildly based on what I’m trying to get into the update.  Version 4.0.0 spent about a year in development because that was the Swift rebuild.  The most recent update only spent about a month total in dev cause it was a much smaller update.  I have an iOS 11 compatibility update in development right now that only took about a day’s worth of coding.

The app’s news feed, featuring customizable preference options

IMV: Are there any features you’re hoping to add in the near future?

DA: The one big feature I’ve been wanting to add for a while relates to something that most metal fans love:  t-shirts!  I mean, can you think of a more perfect, almost cliched, item to try to offer to metal heads?  Because I can’t.  Much like I offer listings of newly and recently released albums, I’d love to offer my users the ability to easily find and purchase t-shirts supporting the bands that they love.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to make this happen yet because I haven’t been able to find an affiliate program that will a) allow to me join and/or permit use in a mobile app or b) provide usable product shots.  I’ve come close a couple of times but unfortunately no cigar as of yet.  I’m still looking, though, and if you’re reading this Hot Topic and actually want to get your act together and approve me let me know! If any Indy Metal Vault readers have any awesome ideas or feature requests, I’m always listening!  Just hit the “Send Feedback” item in the main menu of the app.  It all goes directly to me and my responses will go right back to you in the app.  I absolutely love to hear from my users.

IMV: Out of everything you’ve done and put into the app, which element of it are you most proud of?

DA: Well, I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve built a pretty slick-looking, relatively bug-free experience that a whole bunch of people that love the same music I do use on a daily basis and really appreciate.  As far as specific features, if I had to pick one I would say it’s the whole “Favorites” concept and how that ties into different pieces of the app.  It’s one thing to get a huge list of metal news, but it’s another thing entirely to have an app looking out for stories about the bands you actually care the most about and surfacing those, and even sending you notifications when it finds stories while it’s running in the background.

IMV: My last question is one I like to ask at the end of every interview: What’re your favourite albums of 2017 so far? It’s always interesting to see the different kinds of answers different people give to this question.

DA: Not to be too negative, but I have to say that I’ve actually been really disappointed by metal releases so far this year.  There hasn’t really been anything “stand-out” in my opinion.  Some of my favorite bands such as All That Remains, Demon Hunter, Ayreon, and Steel Panther have all dropped albums this year, and I really didn’t think any of them were all that great.  Unlike last year when we got The Stage from Avenged Sevenfold [note: Once again, Don Angelillo has excellent taste in music.] and Jomsviking from Amon Amarth – both of which are still in heavy rotation on my Spotify.  I do obviously tend to gravitate towards the more melodic/progressive subgenres, so I’m sure there have been some great releases in the more extreme subgenera that I haven’t been exposed to.

IMV: Thanks a million for doing this interview with us!  And on a side note, The Stage was by FAR my AotY last year [ed. note: Reese’s views do not represent…yadda yadda yadda], so I’m definitely with you on that one! The Indy Metal Instagram group chat/hive mind also wanted me to let you know they’re super grateful for being put on the app, and they all love the using it. Anything you wanna add before we wrap up?

DA: I just want to thank Reese and everyone else at Indy Metal Vault for taking the time to talk with me and give Heavy Headlines some exposure.  It’s been my pleasure to bring the app to all the mobile metal heads out there and I really do hope everyone enjoys it and finds it as useful as I do!

You can find and download Heavy Headlines (And I highly recommend you do) on the App Store for iOS.

 

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