The Unwanted: A Photographer’s Perspective On The Music Industry Today

By Dan Harr

I have to wonder when media and concert photographers became the unwanted step-children of the music industry.

Over the last decade, the industry has undergone some significant changes in the way media is allowed – or, more aptly put, not allowed – access to artists, concerts and events.  We used to be wanted, even needed, by artists who understood that it was our photos, our articles, that helped them get to where they are today.

In recent years, though, we’ve been shuffled to the back of the bus and only granted passage for a limited time, preventing us from garnering the shots that helped put the artists on the magazine pages in the first place.

The advent of the internet and easy access to anything published is definitely a contributing factor to the changes made.  After all, a photograph that appears anywhere on the net can be captured, taken and disseminated everywhere despite copyright laws that exist to supposedly prevent such theft.  In the past, a photograph in a magazine could be photocopied, but not digitally reproduced in a quality that was close to the original.

Today, someone can grab one of my photos and, using editing software like Photoshop, reproduce the image, enhance it or even change it altogether and then sell it without my knowledge.

The access to digital cameras is also another factor I’m sure publicists and managements take into consideration.  Anyone with a few thousand dollars and the ability to build a website can put up a blog and call themselves a media outlet.  As a result, the number of requests an artist receives for access has increased exponentially and it is understandable why an artist’s team has to pick and choose who they will allow in to a show.

Unfortunately, there has been a growing trend to restrict all media access to artists, even when the photographer, writer or radio station personality has a proven track record of working to create material that is beneficial to the artist in some manner.

Media, for the most part, has become unwanted except in those situations where a publicist or manager sets up the situation or circumstances to create the most favorable impression of the artist possible.  Staged “candids” and posed “fun” shots have become the norm.

Does this make sense?  Yes, and no.

Yes, in that the people surrounding a singer or band are there to help enhance their client’s career and provide the best public image possible.  No one wants a photograph of their artist with a finger up a nose making the rounds on the net.  No artist likes to be portrayed in a negative light, having their wrinkles or cellulite displayed for everyone to see or get captured in a compromising position backstage with someone who isn’t their significant other.

When a new photographer or media outlet appears on the scene, it is completely understandable to begin by restricting their access until they have had a chance to prove themselves.

But what happens after a “probationary” period of time when the photographer has established that they can follow the unwritten “rules” by not posting something detrimental to an artist?  Should the restrictions be eased and the photographer granted more access beyond the first three songs of a show, or given backstage access to capture the candid and fun shots so many magazine readers what to see?

In days gone by, photographers were allowed to shoot a good portion of a concert, capturing the best parts of a show when artists are warmed up, rocking the stage, having guest performers come out to join them, etc.  Today, they are generally limited to the first two or three songs of the show, frequently restricted to soundboard placement which means long shots with nothing unique, and then escorted from the venue like children who have overstayed their welcome.

And forget about backstage. No more photos of an artist in a relaxed, un-posed, non-choreographed  environment.

However, photographers who have been on the scene and proven they are there to enhance an artist’s image rather than destroy it should, in my opinion, have greater access to the shows and backstages.  When a photographer is assigned to a larger magazine or wire service, they’ve already been around long enough to establish their credentials as a legitimate shooter, someone who will capture the best possible images for distribution.

Yet, these days, even those individuals are being barred from the additional access to artists and shows, and the result is a loss of documentation of the music industry’s historic moments and individuals in ways different from the past.

I like to use the example of Jim Marshall’s backstage photo of Janis Joplin kicked back on a couch after a concert, a bottle of Southern Comfort in her hand (CLICK HERE to view the photo).  While publicists today would generally think a photo like that might negatively impact their artist’s public image, the reality is that fans want to see photos of their idols appearing human.  It puts the star on the same footing as the fan and makes the fan feel closer to their favorite artist.

It makes the fan want to buy the music or go see the artist in person, paying even more money to get the meet-n-greet passes.

The sad fact, though, is that with today’s restrictive attitudes toward the media, a photo like Marshall’s would never be allowed to be taken, much less be made public.  And, thus, historical records of an era would be less complete.

Even more impactful, though, is that photos like the one of Janis also generate publicity for an artist which ends up resulting in more record and concert ticket sales despite the immediate perception of it being a “negative” image.  And with today’s decline in record sales and concert attendance, one would think the record labels and artist teams would want increased exposure of their money makers.

Which leads to an even more disturbing practice being put into place by some acts today.

Recently, there has been significant discussion on the internet about the alternative rock band The Foo Fighters, formed by former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.  When concert photographers are applying for credentials to cover the Foo Fighters’ shows, they are being asked to sign what is being referred to as a “rights-grabbing” photo release.  No signature, no photos.

Click above to view the full release

What is a “rights-grabbing” release, you ask?

Generally, when a photographer requests to shoot a concert, they are asked to sign a photo release guaranteeing they will only use the photos for the publication or wire service they are credentialed through and will not sell the photos for profit without the artist’s permission.  This has been an industry practice for many years and is understandable in that an artist has a legitimate interest in protecting how their images are disseminated.

But, as in the case of the Foo Fighters, a “rights-grabbing” release demands that the photographer turn over ownership copyrights for the photos to the Foo Fighters, allowing the band to use – and even resell – the photos without any payment to the photographer whatsoever.

If a photographer signed such a release, it would give the Foo Fighters the right to literally take the photos and use them for merchandise resale on t-shirts, album liners or covers, or sell the images for profit directly to fans.  And the person creating the image would never see a dime of that money.

For several years bands have been fighting online piracy of their material, shutting down sharing services like Napster and others.  They want their songs protected by the copyright laws, preventing someone from taking their songs and selling them for profits without compensation to the artists.

And yet, a number of these same bands – like the Foo Fighters – are wanting to take the created work of the photographer without any compensation for the material.  Seems a bit hypocritical.

Why would they want to grab rights to the photos?

As in everything regarding the music industry these days, it’s all about the bottom line: money.  Record labels, artists and singers don’t want to spend – or even have – the money to pay for professionally-taken concert photos the way they did before the economy took a dump.  It’s understandable that they have the need to find ways to cut corners and decrease expenditures.

But taking the creative work of another without any payment to the photographer is simply cutting off their nose to spite their face.

The Foo Fighters have become the public “face” of the rights-grabbing controversy and, as a result of their actions, are now the target of a boycott by professional concert photographers.  Most of the industry pros out there will not sign over their rights in order to photograph a band.  Only an amateur who wants to add the band to their personal collection would even consider it.

The consequence to the Foo Fighters is fewer photographs in big-name publications and less coverage of their concerts or new albums.  And the result?  Empty seats at their concerts and lower album sales.

When professionally-created photographs don’t appear in newspapers and magazines, publicity for a band decreases which causes a decrease in their revenue stream.

My suggestion to the labels and artists is this: instead of trying to get photos for free to help save money, cut the high-dollar freebies for the artist.  Take away the Lear jets, the $1000-a-night hotel rooms and other over-the-top costs associated with putting a band on the road or keeping an artist happy.

Instead, grant full access to professional industry photographers and allow us to capture the images that fans want to see and magazines want to print.  Give us the entire show to shoot, the backstage access to get the “fun” shots, and watch your bottom line increase.

When you start letting us capture the photos which will help make your band even more famous, you’ll start generating more income for your artist and can once again give them the Lear Jet and expensive hotel rooms.

But take note: without us, you’ll be relegated to asking for fan shots which, while taken with good cameras, simply won’t be shot with the same eye as someone who knows what they are doing and can give you those better photos you not only want, but are afraid to admit you actually need.


Dan Harr is the owner of Music News Nashville, an online magazine providing information worldwide about the music industry.  Dan has been a concert and event photographer for many years and, along with MNN, shoots for an international wire service.  His photos have appeared in numerous U.S. and international publications over the years.

Jim Marshall, the photographer behind some of the music industry’s most historic and iconic photographs from the rock era, is quoted on his website saying “The access was great”, and the photographs prove it.  View more about Jim at www.jimmarshallphotographyllc.com

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