So You Want to Shoot a Rock and Roll Star
Image by Thomas Hawk
One of my favorite types of photography is concert photography. I’m not sure why, but music is one of the only things that comes close to photography for me personally in terms of art that I enjoy consuming the most. So when the two collide it creates a super powerful way for me to enjoy my favorite bands.
Concerts especially hold special memories for me. Watching Jerry Garcia and the Dead play Sugar Magnolia, that super hot tight Caterpilar t-shirt that made me fall in love with Kim Deal from the Pixies at the Ventura Theater in 1988, Holding Exene Cervenka’s hand at the edge of a stage at the Palace in Hollywood. Social D at Fender’s Stardust Ballroom in Long Beach.
But before I digress into a long endless rambling stream of all the great bands I’ve ever had the good fortune to see, let’s get back to the topic of hand. Concert photography.
In general, with most reasonably well known bands and artists you are not allowed to just shoot them with DSLRs at concerts. Most artists and their managers try to maintain a certain amount of control over their high quality images and especially the commercialization of these images. And so most venues that you see major acts at will have no photography policies. Most of the time it’s pretty easy to smuggle in a little point and shoot or camera phone. And most of the time bands don’t really care about these point and shoot type images. These pictures almost always end up on fan sites, MySpace, photo sharing sites and the like and are generally not commercially viable images of a band.
High grade professional DSLR systems and lenses though are another story. And these are the cameras that typically are not allowed into most concerts. With a little work ahead of time though I’ve found that most concerts are actually reasonably easy to shoot. The key is to obtain permission ahead of time and get a photo pass. Once you get a photo pass you pretty much have carte blanche to shoot most shows, although I’ll mention some limitations later in this article.
Before obtaining a photo pass for a show the first thing is to understand why they are given out. The reason why Rolling Stone gets a photo pass and the general photography hobbyist doesn’t is that most artists (and even more so their managers) would *love* to see a nice big double page photo spread of their act in Rolling Stone. What they don’t want to see is someone selling "official" posters of their band on eBay without their permission. But it’s not just Rolling Stone that gets the photo pass. These days bands are looking for exposure and publicity anywhere they can get it. This means magazines, newspapers, websites, blogs, etc. So the number one thing to remember when trying to get a photo pass is that bands and their managers basically are looking for some type of publicity in exchange for giving you the photo pass.
In my case I use my blog. My blog has reasonably decent readership and I can point to my blog stats, or technorati rank or Google Page Rank, etc. and say that I want to cover their act for my blog (which I do).
But what if you don’t have a blog (by the way, you should think about starting one if you don’t)?
There are lots of other outlets for you to still give a band publicity. In college I covered concerts frequently for my college newspaper. Even if you are not on the newspaper staff, if you are student consider contacting the arts and entertainment editor, let them know you’d like to shoot a show and write a review and see if they would be interested in letting you cover it for them. Same goes with local arts papers, and especially music blogs.
A while back a friend of mine (who is an amazing photographer) wanted to try to get in to shoot a Depeche Mode concert. I told him to go ahead and use my blog to try and get the photo pass and that we’d publish a write up and photos of the show on my blog afterwards. Lots of music blogs especially are looking for good band coverage and content. Google the name of the band you want to shoot with the word "blog" next to it and check out some of the blogs that come up. Chances are these might be fans of the music and then email them and say, hey, XYZ band is coming to my town, I’m a fan and was wondering if you would be interested in a short write up and a photoset to publish on your blog of the show. Chance are a blog might be interested in this and then you can contact band management saying that you would like to cover the band for this publication and site their statistics, etc.
So now that we’ve established why people get photo passes. Lets talk about who to ask for them. In general, most acts have management. It’s your job to find their management representatives. Sometimes this is easy. You just go to the band’s website and they have a contact us section. Other times you have to work a little harder. The band’s record label is typically the best place to start. There is almost always one to four people whose job are to deal with these things at record labels for specific acts. I typically find their email addresses pretty easy. It’s best to send your email request to multiple people if you can. So if you find the PR person for the band and you also have their assistant’s email cc them as well. You can also write people that run blogs or fan sites dedicated to the band and ask if they know who you should contact, etc.
Once you have this email address you’ll want to make your pitch to the band’s management. Things that they are looking for. Number one and most important, again, is publicity. Number two is that you are doing this for non commercial purposes.
It will also help if you state that you don’t use flash with your photography. It’s good to mention that you are a fan of the artist. And then show in the email representative samples of your work. Include links to other bands that you’ve photographed, other music reviews you’ve written, etc. If you’ve never shot a band before this will be harder, but even here, try to go see any band, even a very small one at a club that welcomes photography, in order to get some decent band shots that you can share with the management. It will help if they can see that the quality of your work is high.
I also let the band and management know that they can feel free to use any of the images that I take. I don’t think you have to offer this, but I think it’s a nice gesture. Personally I like sharing my work so this is not much of a problem for me.
So after you go through this process there is a good chance that band management will issue you a photo pass. If they balk at issuing you the photo pass (which generally includes free admittance) tell them that you’d be happy to buy a ticket but just want the pass to go with it. Chances are if you are nice and reasonable and are in contact with the right person you will get it.
Now once you get the photo pass also be sure to ask for the name and cell phone number of a contact who will be there at the show that evening. This is important because sometimes screw ups happen and your name does not end up on the list and you can reference this person and call them to come help you out. Also be sure to bring ID to the show to get the photo pass. You might also want to print out the email giving you approval, just in case you need to show this to the person at the door.
Typically once you have a photo pass you have carte blanche to shoot the entire show. Arrive early and get near the front of the stage for the clearest view. Make room for your backpack and camera gear on the floor and wait for the show to start and start shooting. If you can get actually right at the stage it’s helpful as well because you can use the edge of the stage to set your lenses on when you change them, etc.
Be mindful of the other people enjoying the show. Don’t hold your camera up high or obstruct their view. Keep your arms tightly to your body when you shoot to minimize the obstruction of others. Get lower to shoot up. And once you fire off enough shots that you are happy with consider leaving the front of the stage to give others that spot and allow you to shoot different perspective shots from further back.
Some larger bands will have a three song rule. These bands oftentimes also have an actual photographer’s pit in front of the stage. What this means is that you can shoot away as much as you want for the first three songs but after that you can’t shoot anymore. You will likely be told if this is the case when you get the photo pass. If this is the case too you’ll be moved from the photo pit after the first three songs.
Finally, after you’ve photographed the band, make sure to follow up with band management thanking them and sending them a link to your photos and your coverage. Also consider sending the link to any fan sites for the artist as they will likely want to share your photos as well.
Another thing to keep in mind is that shooting bands at concert venues is not the only way to get shots. Also consider open public concerts and especially free concerts. Typically open public concerts like the New Orleans Jazzfest (where I shot Bob Dylan) or Jefferson Starship’s concert in Justin Hermann Plaza in San Francisco, New York’s Central Park, etc. give you more flexibility in getting your DSLR in without any type of approval at all. Also consider industry events. I got my Killer’s and Pussycat Dolls shots at Microsoft’s party at CES in 2006. Bands frequently play for industry events and there is more flexibility in getting your camera into these events.
Also if you can’t get through to management of a big act, consider trying to contact the management of the opening act. They may be easier to get a hold of and be able to get you a photo pass that you can then use to continue shooting the bigger act later.
To see a set of various concert photography I’ve done you can click through here. To see specific band sets you can click through with the names below.