Striving for Greatness
Are you a Beatle, a Monkee, or something else?
The Monkees were Hollywood’s answer to the Beatles. They were conceived, formed, packaged and sold by television and music industry producers.
It was a make believe band. Micky Dolenz, the “band’s” drummer described them as, “a TV show about an imaginary band… that wanted to be the Beatles but was never successful”.
Originally, the actors/musicians who made up The Monkees weren’t even allowed to play their own instruments. Eventually, they fought to be included in and contribute to the musical side of the operation (as well as the TV show side).
I heard one of their songs in the gym yesterday. It reminded me that Peter Tork, the bass player, died last year. Which is sad, but also kind of inspiring. Tork was the guy who fought to give The Monkee’s more control over their music.
Ironically, this made-up band ended up being both pretty good and very successful. They weren’t the Beatles of course. but who is… besides the Beach Boys, duh (we can fight over this later). You can still hear their music today. Which means The Monkees accomplished something that most artists never will. Their work has outlived them.
I did an interview for a sports blog this week.
Almost immediately the conversation turned to the state of the editorial photo industry today.
I said the state of the industry wasn’t very good.
On one side, I said the industry wasn’t very good because publishers have decided that good enough is good enough. They don’t think their readers will even notice or recognize sub-par work, so why pay for it?
On the other side, I said photographers don’t control their own work, don’t have a chance to profit from their work and make less for a day’s work than the guy washing their car.
Meaning, depending on which side the coin lands, you’ve either got publishers who don’t care they are publishing subpar work, or you’ve got photographers who aren’t motivated, willing or talented enough to produce better work.
I used the example of a four-year old sports blog, they pay good money to hire reporters away from failing newspapers, but have no policy in place to even deal with photographs. As a default, they use a work-for-hire agreement (WFH) to secure photos for their site.
This site was just valued at $500 million dollars. That’s roughly $300 million more than Time Magazine recently sold for. Photographers are working for them, then signing over the rights to their work for less than it would cost to rent their camera gear.
Money is a big motivator. It’s good to be able to pay your bills and feed your family. In a merit based world, accomplishing those two things is a great motivation for getting better at what you do. That’s why the person washing cars makes more money than the person shooting sports. If you pay money to have your car washed and it’s still dirty, you don’t go back to that place.
Of course, I got some feedback.
Some people, people who don’t need to make any money with photography, are happy that the meritocracy is dead. They’re happy because they are (self-described) mediocre photographers.
It reminds me about the WFH photographer who recently made a very nice frame of Kobe Bryant and was concerned that others were now stealing it (and by others I mean huge corporations that normally pay big money to properly license images).
Nice guy, but dumb. You don’t own jack. You signed your ownership rights away. You should be glad you aren’t getting sued yourself for sharing that picture on your IG feed.
Or how about the person who was very vocal about photographer’s rights until they saw an opportunity to get published in Sports Illustrated and jumped across the splayed out bodies of his colleagues to sigh the WFH.
I mean, WTF?
By the way, Sports Illustrated just got sold for $110 million, meaning one could have bought both Time and Sports Illustrated for less than the valuation of a subscription based, four-years old sports blog.
Abandoning merit hasn’t worked out very well for these two former great publications. We’ll see what happens with this blog. It’s a different creature. It might take a few years, but I can’t imagine that their subscribers will be happy seeing the same WFH images on their site that one can see for free on any number of other sports blogs. We’ll see.
So photographers, here’s the bottomline when it comes to your work.
Do you strive to be a Beatle, say like Neil Leifer, Co Rentmeester, or Walter Iooss, and make work that is great and will outlive you?
Are you a Monkee, say like me, someone who knows how hard it is to reach the Beatle level, normally misses the mark, but occasionally makes something good that might just be remembered?
Or are you a fucking Banana Split. A person running around in a smelly costume (I’ve spent enough time in photo workrooms to know), jumping through hoops for your corporate taskmasters, and so easily replaced that no one, besides the poor schmuck who has to wear that costume after you, will ever know you’re gone?
You might not be able to be great, a Beatle or a Beach Boy, that’s a rare gift. But being a Monkee rather than a Banana Split, that’s a choice, and it’s entirely up to you.
Speaking of people striving to be their best. Here’s an interview I did with Frank Fournier a few days ago. It won’t get that Banana Split song out of your head, but it will help.