Pushing for a more inclusive music industry with Courtney Coles

If photographer Courtney Coles were a character from Cameron Crowe’s seminal film “Almost Famous,” she’d be both William and Penny. “Except I’m not sleeping with the band,” she makes sure to note.

“I want to give back to bands by giving them what they gave me.”

Similar to William, Courtney grew up in a strict (albeit Baptist) home and fell in love with rock music. Like Penny, she wanted to contribute to the scene in some way.

“I couldn’t play any instrument worth a damn, but my way of feeling like I was part of this party was to photograph it.”

Courtney got her start in music photography when she was 14, ditching summer school to capture a Taking Back Sunday acoustic set at Tower Records with her disposable camera. She’s been catching concerts ever since, except now, she’s focused on what happens backstage and in the recording studio.

The Goo Goo Dolls in the recording studio. Photo by Courtney Coles.

“It became this thing of, how do I still have fun because being in the barricade feels like a wild ride in a cramped space for 15 to 20 minutes? And when I shoot, I think, ‘What photos would you want to hand out to your friends? What angles are not being covered?’” she said. “Your photos can start looking exactly the same as your cohorts because you’re all in the same spot.”

After realizing that she was falling out of love with live photography, Courtney worked on documenting from behind the scenes. She’s captured intimate portraits of bands like Hoobastank, Goo Goo Dolls, The Regrettes, and Angel Haze.

Backstage with the Regrettes. Photo by Courtney Coles.

But what sets Courtney apart from the typical music photographer is her rally for a more inclusive music photography industry. After being invited to exhibit her work in a show for women of color, she was inspired to create her own photo show after her friend Erica Lauren approached her.

“I felt like at the time, I was being too loud about being black in the scene and that there’s not enough of us out there,” she said. “And it’s not like there’s a shortage of black music fans or photographers, it’s just that they’re not getting the same amount of exposure as their white peers.”

“Girls to the Front” opened in L.A. last year and featured four photographers: Courtney, Erica, Carly Hoskins, and Danielle Parsons. Its success led to shows in New York City and Toronto, and “Girls” was dropped from the title to invite not only women, but non-binary photographers as well.

Photographers from the “To the Front” exhibit in New York City. Photo by “someone’s mother (i forgot who!)”

These days, Courtney is preparing for the next show in June, which will be hosted in Nashville, TN and will feature not just photographers, but illustrators and designers. She hopes that visitors and people who hear about the shows will understand that there shouldn’t be an “us versus them divide” within the music industry.

“We’re not just fans of the music, sitting in the background,” Courtney said. “We’re heavily active in our individual communities and we want to celebrate that.”

Peep Courtney’s 12 formative songs below.

“Mr. Brightside” by The Killers

I can’t tell you what it was about “Mr. Brightside” or The Killers, but I can tell you that the song made such an impact that my AIM screen name and email address was “xsicklullabiesx” and “sicklullabies4,” respectively. The song reminds me of the summer of 2004 and how beautiful it was. It also reminds me of being happy in general, even though the song itself is about infidelity. I don’t think I’ll ever love a human as much as I love this song.

“Where Have You Been” by Manchester Orchestra

This song is my go-to when I feel as though my world is spinning out of control and I have lost touch with everything. I see the song as a prayer and when I wasn’t going to church, I’d put this song on and meditate to it. I still do.

“Last Hope” by Paramore

“I don’t even know myself at all. I thought I would be happy by now. The more I try to push it I realize I gotta let go of control.” With my work, I’ve always thought I’d be further than I am and instead of letting things unfold naturally, I’d get sad and try to find a way to make it all happen quickly. This song reminds me that even with the little things, that spark is enough and I will get where I need to go when I’m meant to.

“My Way Back Home” by Dawes

I’ve been known to take day trips or extended trips because I am not a person who likes to stay in one place for too long. While I’m gone, though, I have to remind myself I left for a reason and to be sure to return when I’ve found what I was looking for.

“23” by Jimmy Eat World

A reminder that there will come a time when I need to look beyond myself and love whoever is right in front of me. I enjoy making little movies in my head, filled with the Right Moments paired with the Right Songs, and while I’ve used this song as a little security blanket whenever a situationship doesn’t transition into a relationship, it also grounds me in that I, too, have probably hurt someone. And to not live in regret because that gets you absolutely nowhere.

“Untitled Finale” by Atreyu

The ultimate “don’t ever talk to me again” song. Since I first heard it in 2006, I’ve listened to it to help me get over a handful of friendships. Breaking up with friends is equally as heartbreaking as breaking up with a partner.

“Overprotected” by Britney Spears

I had a lot of misplaced frustration with how overprotected I felt as a child. This song was my first taste of “Let me be Me!!” before I knew how to say those words without fear.

“Take Me Away” by Fefe Dobson

When I first saw the video for this song, I was 14 and awkward and filled with joy. Right on my TV was a black girl singing a pop-rock song and for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel alone when listening to rock music.

“Three Rounds and A Sound” by Blind Pilot

This song reminds me of my friendship with my dear friend Sam, and how we’d spend hours dissecting our favorite songs and what the meanings behind them were. I think we settled on this song being about a relationship and how they were in it to win it. The song broke my heart upon the first listen and to this day, I have to limit how much I listen to it. It feels like home, but the home I knew in 2009.

“The End” by Kings of Leon

I played Kings of Leon’s Come Around Sundown on repeat the winter I moved out of my apartment I shared with a roommate. Though the entire album was part of the soundtrack of that time, the ending of the song is what stuck with me as I browsed apartment listings online. “I ain’t got a home, I’ll forever roam.” I found my dream apartment that winter and while I made a home out of it, this song reminds me of the time where I felt as though I’d forever float around.

“U + Ur Hand” by P!nk

A friendly reminder to people that I’m not anywhere for their entertainment. I’m sweet, but I’m generally not in the mood for nonsense.

“Million Years Ago” by Adele

I cried the first time I heard this song. There was a small period after I graduated high school where I used to hang out at a friend’s house. While this song came out 7 years after our group disbanded, the line “I miss the air, I miss my friends. I miss my mother, I miss it when life was a party to be thrown, but that was a million years ago” immediately made me think of those friendships. The air felt much lighter back then, but we can only live in “remember whens” for so long.

Listen to Courtney Coles’ curated 12 Songs playlist below.

Written and edited by Tiffany Wong. Artwork by Olivia Reaney.

12 Songs Project

People in the music industry share the 12 songs that…

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