For the words of the prophets were written on the studio wall…concert hall!
An upcoming series of posts for Question & Artist will be centered around some photojournalism career queries. Hooray! I’ll be splitting it up into three segments: news, music, and fashion (turn to the left!).
As I’ve been conversing with a peer of mine who has shot dozens of concerts, and is now a Rolling Stone contributor, I reflected on how the heck I got into concert photography myself. It’s still a hobby of mine, if you can call it that, but I don’t consider myself anything fancy. Then again, I need to fortify my self esteem and say, gosh darn it, I’m proud of some of the shots I’ve taken and it’s quite a thrill to be up at the stage.
So, to preface the photojournalist series, here’s my story.
I’d switched out of the journalism program at Emerson College. I decided that I wanted to keep writing, but I’d already been writing for some local papers and websites, and wanted to learn something new. I wanted to stay connected to arts and music, and had long loved audio and video. I applied and transferred to the Visual and Media Arts Department.
Since I was still writing for the school’s paper, and wanted to mainly write about music, I just started pitching. I actually got through step one of pitching to Modern Drummer (I have yet to have this luck since. We’ll see about that!), when I thought, “hey, I didn’t think I’d get through that”. I ended up writing for some online zines, and wrote for a metal site for a while. Rest assured, these album and band reviews have left the interwebs. I wrote a blog post for Drummerworld’s website. I can’t remember what else.
I’d been taking classes at Berklee, through the ProArts Consortium. One day I checked my Berklee email to find a call for music journalists. MyFox Boston’s music page, which also has left the interwebs, needed someone to review albums and go to concerts. My first review was for the White Rabbits.
I received press releases and press kits from artists, and pitched my own assignments. For instance, I was going to see Fiction Plane, so I offered to cover the show and interview the band. It was my first big phone interview! And, no, we didn’t have iPhones and Google Voice back then, so I wrote the whole thing down with a pencil while I was talking. Nerd.
Toward the end of the summer, the site’s content producer asked if I’d cover a show as a writer and photographer. It was a super 90s show. Emerson Hart (from Tonic), Collective Soul, and Live. Get out your flannel and Doc Martens! Oh, wait. Those are in style again.
I’d never shot a show in the pit before. I had a little Kodak camera (that little guy carried a lot of shows, next to lots of high powered Nikon and Canons), and I didn’t even know what the pit was.
If you’re unfamiliar, as I was, the pit is the area at the stage, before the barricades where the audience starts. The pit may also house the video track.
The woman rep from Live Nation met me, a completely wide eyed and nervous student, and basically laid it out for me. The rules that follow every photo set.
“I’m going to bring all the photographers out in the pit and Mr. Hart will start his set. He’s allowing three songs and then you’re out. Stevie Wonder was here last night and he only allows thirty seconds, so you’re lucky you get three songs. After that you can go back out to your seats.”
This felt so exciting, yet natural, that when I had tickets to see The Police a few months from then, I wanted to review the show. I was already going. Why don’t I…cover press and photo?
My producer wrote back. “There’s no way we can get you a press pass to The Police, but you can certainly review it. If you want to try and get a press pass, go for it, but it’s not likely.”
So, I shrugged, sighed, and gave up.
WRONG. So, I sat down at my computer and put those journalism skills to use.
I was seeing one of my favorite bands, one that I never thought would perform together again.
I was reviewing it for a Boston news site.
You’re darn tootin’ I’m going to see if I can get a press pass for photos.
There is one skill I have that I am very proud of, aside from Name That Tune or imitating R2D2’s scream.
And that skill is being able to track people down. You can run from Farah, but you can’t hide. That’s one reason why Question and Artist is quite the happy challenge, too. The challenge of finding the artist!
Anyway, I’m pretty sure I emailed Sting’s wife by accident at some point, or something. Awkward much? I didn’t want to feel like this:
Eventually Sting’s manager sent me to The Police’s tour manager. I was put on a waiting list to review my credentials. Days later, I received confirmation with instructions on where to go and who to meet.
Being backstage with Stewart Copeland’s drum set (can we call it a drum set? Drum land?) was magical. The roar of the audience behind you is such a buzz! And then seeing a performance from that perspective is just out of this world. It’s like the bass just soars right through you.
I was definitely hooked. I wasn’t paid, but when you cover shows you usually get a comp ticket with the option, sometimes, to bring a guest. Some high security or sold out shows will not offer a comp ticket.
From there I pitched a lot of the shows I wanted to cover. The tour manager for The Police notified me that I could cover their last stop in Massachusetts, about ten months later. And a few years back one of these photos was optioned as a press shot for Andy Summers. Point being: don’t burn bridges.
Can you imagine some of the junk tour managers and agents have to put up with? Let us not forget the Sting Stalker, and other follies. After interviewing the friendly guys of Gentlemen Hall, for instance, they and their manager agreed to let me photograph their soundcheck. I had a brand new Nikon. Not only did it present a defect at the soundcheck, the strap on it gave out and I dropped it. All of the photos came out terribly. After all that. I was embarrassed to show my shots!
Even if I don’t cover shows much anymore, it led me to so many opportunities, and gave me a lot of work skills. I made working relationships with tour managers, PR reps at labels, venue managers, and some of the musicians. Some of these people have helped me with obtaining other press passes, interview subjects, or even job applications.
And, as I went on to finally cover an event as just myself for the first time, I met the photographer who will be first up for the Question and Artist photojournalism series. Do you have any music photography specific questions for him? Questions about this post? Send those questions my way!
More photos here.