The Assault on Professional Concert Photography Finally Comes Into Focus

Country music artist Cody Jinks takes a moment during a concert to acknowledge the photographers covering the show. Jinks and others often pay special tribute to the concert photographers who make them look good. But unfortunately, an increasing amount of artists and their management treat concert media with disdain.                    (photo by Brad Coolidge)

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Often, much of what happens via the cause of Saving Country Music doesn’t make it into article form, nor is it offered up for public consumption via social media. These behind-the-scenes activities could include mentoring artists, working with venue owners and promoters to make connections or open doors, or championing issues that writing articles about just is not an effective tool for enacting change in the marketplace, and can even be detrimental to the cause if the timing is not right.

It’s in this behind-the-scenes capacity that for the majority of 2017, Saving Country Music has been engaged in a private war against the increasingly intrusive restrictions being placed upon music journalists—and photographers especially—who take time out of their evenings and weekends, leave their families at home, and often pay their own expenses with little or no financial return, to cover live music events and offer what amounts to free promotion for the artists and the venue.

Now I know what you’re thinking; one of the perks of being a music journalist or a photographer is that you get into concerts for free, and often get better access to artists and special areas than the general public. That may be true, sometimes, and that is the reason the general public never has much sympathy when music journalists begin to complain about access.

But if you’re truly a professional journalist, access just comes with the territory. It is a necessary tool to do your job. Yes, there usually is a passion for music there if you choose to get into the business of covering live music events, so getting into concerts for free can be a reward. But often the reward is much more marginal than it may appear from the outside looking in. As a journalist, you attend music events to work, and this is your priority above any personal enjoyment. It is often challenging and stressful, especially since the deadlines for covering live events are much tighter compared to other topics. Photographers and journalists, even in part-time or non-paid situations, still are doing a professional task, and one that is often of great value to the artists, fans, venues, and the public.

This war that Saving Country Music had been waging came to a head when I was kicked out of a Jason Isbell concert at the Moody Theatre in downtown Austin after three songs on July 14th, 2017. Though similar restrictions had reared their head many times before this incident, this is when it occurred to me quite personally that journalists were quickly losing their rights to cover events in public spaces, and something needed to be done.

Without going into great detail, I had secured what I believed to be press credentials which would allow me to attend the Jason Isbell show to review it for Saving Country Music, as well as shoot photographs during the the first three songs of the concert that I could then use in the review. Often, photographers are given this “three song rule” when shooting concerts (more on this soon), and so that was not out of the ordinary. The fact that I was working as a print journalist playing double duty by shooting my own photographs was irrelevant to the the ACL Live staff. Basically it was, “Thanks for taking time out of your evening, driving downtown, paying $15 for parking to come and promote our venue and the performing artist, now get out!”

If I wanted to remain in the building, I needed a ticket. If I wanted a ticket, I would have to purchase one. I couldn’t purchase a ticket because the show was sold out. And even if I could have purchased a ticket, I would also have to take my photography equipment and stow it in my vehicle, because I could not be trusted to not take photographs for the rest of the show. So along with half a dozen other photographers, I was personally escorted from the venue after three songs. The simple gesture of being allowed to partake in the same show you had taken from your evening to work was not extended to any of the photographers. So even that perk of the often thankless profession of concert photography wasn’t present.

It wasn’t even about the lack of space at the back wall of the floor level for the photographers to stand at, or fire code restrictions. It was simply part of the venue’s effort to keep control. The photographers were escorted out to make sure no worker bees got a free peep at the presentation, and because they couldn’t be trusted to keep their lens caps on throughout the show, even though they were all credentialed and vetted professionals.

It wasn’t Jason Isbell’s fault whatsoever that I personally was unable to attend his concert to share my experience with readers. Most often these restrictions come from managers, publicists, and venues. One reason I chose to start Saving Country Music a decade ago was from the principle that music sounds better when it is shared. Unfortunately, this effort was taken away.

But this was just one experience of many in 2017 where Saving Country Music was denied access, and seeing a dramatically-increasing trend arising throughout the industry, I started sending emails to publicists and venues challenging their increasingly intrusive efforts to restrict or eliminate journalists and photographers from covering events. To a man (and woman), the response to Saving Country Music’s queries and concerns was, “We’re not aware of any new restrictions or emerging trends affecting journalists and photographers,” despite overwhelming feedback from colleagues in the business complaining about similar experiences.

Unfortunately though, many of those colleagues did not want to go public, because you complain too loud and the public thinks you’re ungrateful for the perks of covering concerts, or perhaps you’ll find yourself falling further out of favor with the venues, publicists, managers, and artists who hold the ultimate say so on if you’ll be allowed to cover live events. So this war had to be waged in private, and uphill.

This all changed when a well-known professional Shutterstock photographer named Chelsea Lauren was purposely and violently kicked in the face by the frontman of Queens of the Stone Age, Josh Homme, at the KROQ Almost Acoustic Christmas show Saturday, December 9th as Lauren worked in the photographer’s pit of the concert at the The Forum in Los Angeles. The incident was caught on video (see below), and Chelsea Lauren was transported to the hospital with face and head injuries, spending the rest of the evening in the ER. New reports say that Josh Homme also kicked a security guard in the photographer’s pit that night. Homme has since apologized, but not before Queens of the Stone Age were barred from performing on Ellen on Thursday (12-14) due to the incident, and Homme was fired from a BBC children’s show Bedtime Stories. Chelsea Lauren says she is pressing charges.

Though isolated, the incident has gone to symbolize the flippancy, and in this case, sometimes violent rebuke that concert journalists and photographers are being dealt with in 2017. In a year when much has been made about the treatment of the media in the political forum—being denied access and impugned unfairly, especially from President Trump—many of the same artists who protest against the restriction of press and free speech are themselves demanding the press and photographers be restricted or barred from access from the public spaces they perform in, or vetted by their own publicists and managers before content can be posted by what are supposed to be impartial and independent members of the media.

This came into even clearer focus when on the next day of the Almost Acoustic Christmas event in Los Angeles, Brandon Flowers, the frontman of The Killers, invited the house photographer Rob Loud to join him on stage, telling him in front of the crowd, “I’m not going to kick you in the face, it’s ok. I just want to tell you to tell all your friends that you’re welcome here, and at Killers concerts you’re safe and respected.”

Brandon Flowers then hugged the photographer and said, “They make us look good — we need to take care of these people.”

But this all came across as very disingenuous from the only band who performed on the night who also demanded that nearly all photographers except the ones touring and working with the band be escorted out of the pit, and told not to shoot the set—a restriction The Killers have had in place for years covering all public appearances.

“It didn’t feel supportive coming from someone who prevents us from doing our job as press,” professional photographer Amy Harris told Billboard after the incident. “It is extremely frustrating for media professional photographers to travel to and shoot shows and festivals for their respective outlets, and not be able to cover the headlining acts. The artists don’t seem to care about press.”

Longtime LA Photographer Paul Hebert told Billboard, “If you dissect Brandon’s comments, they are comical. He was the only artist that weekend that doesn’t allow himself to be photographed.” Hebert also added that it is very difficult for photographers to sell their photography work when they’re not allowed to shoot the headliner, and said that in LA, other bands and artists are notorious for mistreating photographers, including Ivan Moody from Five Finger Death Punch who regularly pours water on the journalists in the photo pit, while others purposely spit on photographers as they work the concert.

Billboard also concludes, “With the explosion of social media, professional photographers and wires services have been crowded out of the photo pit by social media influencers, Twitter celebrities and Instagrammers who are credentialed to shot concerts with their phones alongside pro photographers with expensive lenses and bulky equipment. Veteran photographers also face increased pressure from acts to give up their copyrights on photos, often through complicated legal waivers that hand ownership of the images to the artists, and require artist approval before images are used.”

This issue should also not be conflated with the desire of some performers, including Jason Isbell, to not allow audience members to take pictures or video with their phones. In these cases it’s about wanting the audience to focus more on the moments, and not to obstruct the view of the people behind them. In these instances, the importance of professional concert photographers becomes even more pronounced, so there is an archive of professional photos to capture the event. Also, professional photographers are purposely put out of the way of the view shed of the audience in pits, while being mindful as part of the profession to not bother performers during their work. The charge of a concert photographers and videographers is to capture timeless moments, but be completely incognito when doing so as to not disturb the subject being captured.

Saving Country Music has long valued the importance of live reviews and concert photography, often showcasing the work of photographers, even if the articles get minimal interest from the public, or support from the artists, bands, venues, or events the photos feature. On numerous occasions in the past, I featured the work of Swedish photographer Charlie Ekstrom from Almost Out of Gas, and recently started working with a central Texas photographer named Brad Coolidge, whose work has now been featured numerous times on the site. Though concert photography can feel like a form of old media to some, there is something magical about capturing a moment in time that words can’t convey, and even video fails at finding the proper frame for.

But in 2017, along with my own issues at gaining access to events, Mr. Coolidge has also found himself amid numerous incidents where he had obtained prior permission to shoot events from the photo pit, only to be turned away when he arrived to work the event, even while other preferred photographers appeared to have carte blanche access to the front of the stage. Then, access to certain events began to be denied under the guise that no photographers would be allowed to work certain events, even though photos would surface the next day from “preferred” outlets.

“I worked tirelessly on shooting, editing, and getting the final shots to him to post the next day,” says Brad Coolidge, who is a retired active duty veteran.I sacrificed many weekends that should have been filled by family to work on photos, always building my portfolio and climbing the ladder to something bigger and better always looking around the corner for my next shoot. The beginning of 2017 started out pretty fast and furious, shooting as many artists in the first 3 months of the year as I did in all of 2016. But, then I started noticing a trend as the year went on.

Along with the rejections to even be able to work certain events, the bane of the concert photographer’s existence is the “three song rule” that many publicists and venues have in place simply as an unquestioned rule for any live event, only allowing photographers three songs to get their shots before they are ushered out of the area in front of or around the stage, or in the case of my experience at the Jason Isbell concert, completely out of the building.

“It seems as though the first three songs are always horribly lit and the artists haven’t really loosened up yet,” says Coolidge.Many of my best shots are from shows where I was allowed to shoot the entire set and come at the end of the show, as the energy on stage and in the crowd is at it’s peak. Unfortunately, you just can’t get those shots at shows that have the three song rule.”

Though the idea behind the three song rule is that the artists will look “fresh,” and their hair will be combed and their clothing primped, that often doesn’t capture the artist in their most compelling moments. It’s not hard to understand why being able to shoot an entire show would result in much better pictures than just the first three songs. Often artists invite gusts up on stage making for important moments to capture, and that often happens later in sets. The point of a concert photographer is to flatter the subject, and the venue, and by proxy, the photographer by capturing the best moments. The three song rule hurts the quality of concert photography across the board, while restricting professional photographers from working shows entirely only allows the images on record from a given event to be the grainy amateur shots from cellphones in the crowd.

I want those on the management/publicist side to take a peek over the fence and see that there are those of us who are just as passionate about what we do, as they are, and we only want to help make whatever band or artist we’re shooting to look the best we can. It looks bad on us if we don’t,” says Brad Coolidge. Even the contracts that some photographers are told to sign in order to photograph a concert indicate a certain level of disdain and distrust of the photographer. While I do believe wholeheartedly that it is within the right of a manager or publicist to protect their artists (and they wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t), I don’t feel like the hostile wording and attempted copyright coup of the images is necessary to do that. Civility can and should win the day. We just need to find that agreeable middle ground.”

It is unfortunate that it has taken a professional, well-respected photographer getting kicked in the face and sent to the hospital to open a discussion about the widening trend of the treatment and restriction of photographers and media from live music shows. This issue also came up when the CMA Awards in November asked that the media to not ask political questions of artists. Yet it’s also important to note that these restrictions on photographers and journalists is not distinctly a mainstream problem. If anything, the restrictions being placed on media is even more demonstrative in the independent music space for certain headliner acts. All media and photographers were barred from covering Sturgill Simpson’s last tour, for example.

In an environment where music journalism is already under assault from media consolidation, layoffs, pay cuts, loss of benefits, and many in the profession are being asked to work either for cheap or free, the least the industry can do is be understanding how access and respect is key to allow media professionals to do their jobs, and to do them well, with the ultimate goal for both sides being the exposure of music, and the capturing of important and compelling moments for the future.