December 29, 2010
This has happened to me on more than one occasion:
During that calm before the storm of waiting for a headlining act to take the stage, a fan pressed up against the barrier beckons me over to ask me the big question –
“How can I land a photo pass to shoot concerts like you’re doing?”
My answer is the same every time:
“You know how to get to Carnegie Hall, dontchya? Practice!”
Now, while that’s not exactly the answer they’re looking for, it’s about as helpful of an answer I can give. The fact is, I started out several years ago taking a million photos, promoting myself as best I could, scouring the web for contact emails, trying to convince people that my photography made for great press exposure. Now, fast-forward several years to the present, and I’m still doing just that. The only thing that’s changed since then, is the quality of my portfolio of bands and concerts and festivals I’ve shot, and my Rolodex of editors, publicists, managers, and other helpful contacts.
So, the best I can do is put together a few practical steps to help aspiring photographers on the path of practice for getting right up front and center with their cameras:
1) BUILD A PORTFOLIO
Seems like a no-brainer, but bear in mind no one is gonna hand you a photo pass just because you asked for one. Photo passes have value — arguably more than ticket prices — and they’re limited. The people in charge of doling out press passes need to see that you’re capable of delivering something valuable in return. Namely, press-worthy photos. They’re not going to credential anyone that can’t make their band look like the rockstars they try so hard to be.
Also, it’s important to keep building upon and updating your portfolio. Not only do you want to showcase your best work, you want to keep your catalog of bands up-to-date and relevant. Bands easily fall into obscurity, and the nature of the music industry is showcasing staying power. Same goes for your portfolio.
If you’re just starting out, you need to find easy-ins for shooting bands to build your portfolio, where photo policies are relatively lax. Basement shows, outdoor street festivals, house parties, etc are all great places to start. Hell, everyone has a friend that’s in a band, right?
That brings me to my next bullet point:
2) NETWORK, DUMMY!
Meet people. Shake hands. Congratulate on a great show. Hand out business cards (you have those, right??) Find out people you need to contact, and how. Not just band members, but managers, publicists, and especially editors. This step requires a lot of leg work, because sometimes this information is purposely difficult to find. You’re not the only one vying for the opportunity to shoot these bands, believe me. If you’re unsure, Google is a great place to start. Some good old-fashioned research will help you locate the right person to contact, or at least someone that can forward your inquiries.
One of the easiest ways that I find the appropriate contact information is to search my email archives. Over the past several years I’ve built up a database of contact info for managers and PR reps, some of whom sign their emails with a list of the bands they represent. Or, you can bookmark big-name publicist websites, and search there.
3) SHOOT FOR A PUBLICATION/OUTLET
This step is the most difficult, but also the most tantamount. If the people doling out press passes can’t see that you’ll bring them great press, then why would they dole out a pass? The credibility of your outlet is directly proportional to the likelihood that you’ll be credentialed (duh.) Sometimes, editors set everything up for you. Often, they like it when you do the legwork yourself. But you still need their backing. Magazines and newspapers bring the most credibility, but these days there can be a lot to be said about online music blogs. The flip-side to that is they’re a dime a dozen, and sometimes just about as worthwhile to shoot for.
Speaking of which: You don’t have to get paid to shoot concerts, but why undercut an already competitive market? At the very least, don’t hand out photos as freebies. Have a little faith and dignity in being a photographer. It’s hard work following the steps listed here — never mind actually getting great shots — you should be well-compensated for your efforts.
4) BE PROFESSIONAL.
Being courteous, succinct, and respectful goes a long way. If anyone has the slightest suspicion that you’re only interested in getting front-row access to your all-time favorite bands for free, then you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. If on the other hand you can show you have a passion for your art, and you have a great portfolio to prove it, you’ll find yourself getting much more respect and landing more gigs.
Being able to leave an impression that you’re reliable, dependable, and most of all easy to work with, you’ll guarantee yourself the ability to be assigned to shoot more concerts and events. And that will easily bring you full circle to step one: Building Your Portfolio.
Justin Gill is a professional music/concert photographer based in Los Angeles, having shot scores of reputable bands and musicians, as well as outdoor concerts and festivals. You can see his concert portfolio here