How to Become a Rock & Roll Photographer: Getting Your Foot In the Door
Rock photography has become a sideline interest of mine over the past few years. According to certain statistics, I’m an old pro, having shot perhaps 100 concerts to date. According to other statistics, I’m a fumbling beginner from whom one should probably take no advice, having shot all of those aforementioned photos at just four music festivals. I’m unsure which label applies (not that I care), so take all of the following for whatever that’s worth to you.
Regardless of what level of experience I can claim, I’m often asked: “How does someone become a rock & roll photographer?” I assume that most ask me this because they would like to do it, and/or because they would like to attend festivals for free. Well, look no further; I’ll lay out a roadmap below!
Note: This “roadmap” is really just step one of many. My thought here is that, in order to eventually get paid to do this, one probably needs a portfolio of similar work. And, to build a decent portfolio, one needs access and experience. Yet, it’s tough to gain either without actually being hired … kind of a Catch-22. The information here can help anyone get a portfolio of rock photography. What you do with that, and how you turn that into paying work, is another matter. For now… let’s solve step one!
I’m sure many paths can lead to this, but for anyone wanting to get into concert photography, it’s clear to me now that it’s considerably easier than 99% of people think. For me, it was an accident. I’m a web developer by day and one of my clients is a huge punk-rock video channel on Youtube. (I didn’t build their site, by the way; I just help them w/ some tech things.) Anyway, they’d mentioned to me years ago that one perk from all of their contacts is the ability to gain access to shows. So, in the spring of 2015, I asked them about a central-Washington festival called Sasquatch. A couple of my favorite bands were playing, and I really wanted to attend (but didn’t have an extra $500+ lying about, which is what it would cost after admission, gas, camping, etc.).
Long story short; they arranged things for me. What I actually didn’t realize at first was that the access was *media* access, a press pass. Fortunately for me, I knew ahead of time what this meant — and knew it from two angles. Way back in college, a photography internship at a newspaper accustomed me to working on the press side. Later, in my corporate days, I’d coordinated large exhibitions on the event-side of things (overseeing a PR department as part of a marketing manager role), so I knew what it was like working with press from a corporate perspective as well. So, I guess I had my assignment, as it were, when it came to attending this festival — go there, enjoy myself, and get some pics!
The bonus aspect of all of this was that media get to (and indeed *need* to) bring cameras, which (as most concertgoers today well know) are strictly forbidden for everyone else. Granted, phones today are thankfully super-powerful — and, indeed, I’ve taken some of my own favorite concert photos using my phone — but there’s no substitute for being able to enter a venue with a full-sized DSLR. That perk alone is worth having to take photos. But, to be honest, I’d rather be taking photos, anyway. I’ve always loved photography, so why not? Besides, it’s not like they send you on press assignments with three friends or something; you’re there basically alone (although you definitely meet a ton of people). And, by the way, taking photos doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the music, either. (It’s not like you have to photograph every song.)
Anyway, from there, I wound up repeating the process again in 2016 and 2017 (and hope to as much as possible in the future)! Sometime over that span of time, my name got on a list of PR contacts, and that presumably was further shared. So, I get a lot of announcements and invites emailed to me. This is how I wound up attending Pickathon, a smaller but enormously popular festival in Portland, in 2016. In other words, when you start doing this stuff, somehow your name gets around and people start reaching out to you instead of the other way around. I hadn’t realized that this is how it works, but it’s a welcome treat, for sure.
Ergo, if you take the above scenario and reverse-engineer things a bit, you can easily see the recipe for repeating much of my experience at virtually any concert venue. That would be as follows:
Getting Your First Press Pass
To gain access as press, you need a press pass. And, for that, you need to become affiliated with a legitimate media outlet. Don’t be scared by this. This is actually the key point of the entire article here. All venues allow press inside, but it has to fall within one of their allowable categories of what they will support. While that list of categories is unique to each venue, it’s fairly common sense that there are some major ones. Those include:
- Media outlets from whom exposure is hugely monetarily beneficial for the venue. For example, Rolling Stone Magazine. Obviously, any press from a big name media outlet translates into attendees and is therefore enormously valuable. Of course, you can ignore this one, as the big names have their own retained pros on the payroll, and it’s unlikely you’ll be able to hook into anything to do with these outlets, unless maybe you come up with some really crazy idea that only you can pursue on behalf of the outlet. But, I imagine it would be an extraordinarily difficult pathway. I’d ignore this.
- Media outlets from whom exposure might offer some kind of cachet-value for the venue. I suspect this is where I wrangled in. This level is probably a kind of catch-all for brands or channels or outlets that the venue probably understands is good to maintain relations with. Even if any direct monetary benefit would be tough to quantify, they kind of want you there for many complex reasons. For example, maybe it’s a punk rock show, and you’re trying to get in via a skater magazine press pass. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed, but if you wordsmith the ask correctly, I’d put money on your being able to get in this way. Also, it’s not like you’re “getting away” with something; they truly *do* benefit from your being there, if only (as I said) in more complicated / indirect ways than the Rolling Stone example.
- Media outlets from whom exposure is otherwise beneficial for the venue. I don’t know, but I suspect, that most venues today are at least open to giving the small guys a chance. So, for example, even if you aren’t successful at forging an “in” with any mid-sized or specialty media, it could well be that some small media outlets might be amenable. I’ll give you an example: Another of my clients is an African American newspaper. I know for a fact that they’re not dispatching reporters to area festivals. I know this because the owner called me once after seeing some pics I’d posted and said “Jim, any time you want to cover something for us, we can also get you a press pass.”
What you need to do, therefore, is find some media outlets who aren’t covering the festival(s) you want to attend, and approach them about covering them on their behalf. Really, that’s the magic formula right there. The deal is: You will shoot photos, and they can publish them. (Or, if you’re a writer, you’ll write the story. But, seeing as this is a photography article, let’s stay with photography here.) Of course, if you are covering the event for a specialty audience, you may be asked or expected to cover certain acts. If you’re there for a hip-hop magazine, and you’re faced with deciding between catching a Big Grams show or a Decemberists set both slated for the same time — well, you’d better shoot the correct show!
Just to make sure I’ve thoroughly spelled this out: When you approach the media outlets (and, I’d say try a few for starters — no harm in approaching many), say something like this:
Dear [owner / CEO / etc.],
My name is [your name]. I noticed that last year your organization didn’t seem to be in attendance at [festival name]. I’m currently starting out as a photographer, and would love to attend that festival on your behalf. With a small bit of help from you, I believe I could attend for free as a press representative, and your [paper/site/magazine/etc.] would benefit by gaining exclusive photos to publish (which your readers would surely like to see)! Is this something you could help me out with? If so, I’d be happy to chat with you and could email you the PR contact info (and could also provide you with a pre-written note that you could submit to them in requesting a media pass).
Thanks for your consideration!
Well, something like that, anyway. Keep in mind that, although it seems like a no-brainer, it isn’t. That’s because, while there’s no money involved, and you’re asking for very little time from them, you’re still attaching yourself to their name. And, as they don’t know you, that’s a risk that you’ll have to overcome. After all, they don’t know if you’ll do something stupid like attend the festival, get drunk and thrown out, and/or otherwise embarrass them (or worse, depending on what happens). People are enormously weird, and unknown people are potentially everyone’s nightmare. So, again, keep in mind that you should approach this in the most professional manner possible. Anything you could add to the above note to help build a relationship and/or provide some assurance that you’re a normal, sane professional would do wonders.
I think, to be honest, many smaller venues may not be savvy enough to realize the risk I just stated. So, I’d suggest walking a fine line between acknowledging that fact and not doing so. For example, don’t say something like, “Hey, I know you don’t know me, but I’ll act professionally while there.” Instead, I’d simply say “be professional” — and of course live up to that. I don’t think offering references, even, would be a bad idea. And/or maybe a portfolio. Anything to show that you’re not just some idiot looking to go to a festival for free (even if maybe you *are* just any idiot looking to go for free, for all I know… I don’t know who reads this stuff).
If they agree, and then want the PR contact, you’ll again want to be very professional in responding. This would include any names, emails, web forms they need to fill out, and any language. Most press requests these days are done via web forms. Usually, they want to know stats on the media — readership, reach, etc. So, go get all of the info so that your media partner doesn’t have to worry too much about doing this favor for you. Often, there is also a free-form field where they want you to explain why they should give you press access. So, you’ll want to write this up in a way that provides some benefit to the festival — e.g., via readership, reach, etc. In other words, do all of the work for your media outlet ahead of time. If they need to send a note in, then YOU write it and give it to them to send. The easier you can make it for your contact, the greater the chance that they’ll follow through and get you the credentials you’re after.
The above, I think, is probably the best path. It only gets you in the door (no money aside from free access), and hopefully gets you a portfolio after one or two festival attendances like this. From there, you’re on your own and would have to solicit paid work from larger venues. But, with your portfolio, suddenly that’s possible.
Media access does generally come with other perks, by the way, aside from being able to stroll in with a DLSR. Those would include, in my experience, things like almost always skipping admittance lines (huge time saver), often a very relaxed security check (aside from that *one person* who’s always there and is a TSA-wanna-be), sometimes free food / drinks, often backstage access and/or access to weird areas that you know damn-well you’re probably not supposed to be in, quite often the ability to chat-up / hang with band members (well, except for super-celebrity types), sometimes Internet access or a place to charge your devices, and usually pit-area access for your photography (which is the area between the front row and the stage on larger venues).
Some favorite pics, so far:
Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com. Photo atop piece is original (the band is Thunderpussy). Please 💛 this article if you liked it, as it helps get it seen more.