Go to any live music event and if the crowd is big enough, there will be photographers snapping away for the first three songs. Concert photography is a blast, but does that blast produce bucks?
Circa 2010 I was living in Chicago, arguably the biggest culture hub of the Midwest. Deeply involved with the local music scene, I went out to shows just about every weekend. As an aspiring photography student, I naturally took my camera with me to many of these shows and quickly found live music was my favorite niche. Most of the shows were small local acts, so I didn't have to worry about press passes.
Unfortunately I also wasn't worried about the monetary side of this as my liberal arts education was teaching me everything about critiquing 20th century paintings and not a single thing about the business end of photography.
Local bands soon caught on to my presence and would occasionally invite me to photograph them in exchange for drink tickets or occasionally a small cash payment. Small bands in any given city are typically struggling to make a buck themselves, so I didn't take offense to an offer for, say, $20 to photograph a set. I might have done it for free back then anyway.
A couple years later I graduated with my liberal arts degree. It was time to make all that tuition money back, right? At the encouragement of friends and family, I sought out advice from more experienced music photographers. Surely some had made a decent living at it, and I could find one.
One day at a camera store, I spotted two large-scale metallic prints: a Tina Turner and a Mick Jagger. Impressed, I got the photographer’s name from a clerk. I looked him up and learned that he’d been a Rolling Stone magazine touring photographer in the 70s and 80s. Clearly he’d been a success, simply focusing on music photography. I sent this photographer an email explaining that I was hoping to also concentrate on live music photography as a career and asked if he had any advice. His words of wisdom?
“Don't Even Bother, Kid.”
That’s how his reply began. "It's not viable anymore,” he wrote, citing performers like Lady GaGa who demand their concert photographers sign copyright release forms.
He explained to me a truth that became obvious once I started paying attention: there are thousands of photographers out there who want to shoot music, and almost all of them are happy to do it for free. Jarod Polin confirmed this in a recent FroKnowsPhoto newsletter, responding to a question from a fan about the viability of concert photography. "Fro" also made the point that one should not sell images of artists to the public as it can land you in legal trouble, aside from that fact that few fans will purchase a digital image of a musician.
Does This Mean Nobody Can Make Money Shooting Live Music?
Absolutely not. There are the rare exceptions who manage to work with a successful touring band. There are also opportunities for photographers to create promotional material for bands (poster, album covers, etc.). Several of them are charging decent money, but they're not spread throughout the country it seems — being based in a city like Nashville or Los Angeles seems to provide your best bet.
I never discourage aspiring photographers. That would go against my love for writing about photography, as well as giving photography lessons. In fact, I'd rather do the exact opposite — I want passionate photographers to succeed. So, I'm going to state that if you love photographing live music as much as I do, continue doing it and maybe try to figure out how to make money off it. Just keep in mind that it's a grind that in itself and that there are much more lucrative avenues of photography that can pay well.
The response I got from the retired music photographer was discouraging, though honest. After receiving this advice, I switched my focus to other areas of photography, though I still photograph concerts from time to time out of passion (and sometimes they pay). I’m a big proponent of passion projects for photographers, as they help avoid the joyless burnout that can be produced by shooting only one subject.
If any of you out there have had a similar experience or actually do take paid live music gigs or music promo photography, please chime in with your advice or stories. I’d like to hear from you.