"First 3 Songs: My View From the Pit" Shooting Live Music in the Modern Era.
"Hey, I Wanna Shoot that Band!" Shooting live music, in what I refer to as the "modern era" (post '70s when the "music business" turned into the "music Industry" ), can be both: a blessing and a curse. First off, there are several impediments placed in front of the photographer that seem like they're intended to make you fail. Number one is, you must be credentialed. How you get credentialed is a whole other blog post but for the sake of staying on topic let's say you already have the "OK" to shoot the show. If this happens, then good luck because you just jumped over the first hurdle. But there's so much more still left to do. At this point, start writing down the names and contact info of everybody connected to the show you're shooting. You're going to need this!
"Can You Check Again? They Said My Name's On the List"
So now you've been told that a "Photo Pass" is going to be waiting for you "At the gate," you still have to physically obtain it on the day of the show. When you arrive at the venue you'll either find it waiting for you at the "Will Call" window or from a security guard working the "Load-In Gate" (found where the sound crew brings the equipment in). Make sure you have your photo ID and every contact name and phone number attached to the show handy because odds are your nameWILL NOT show up on the list. So now you'll have to call your client (who swore to you that there'd be "No problems") or their assistant (who ALSO swore to you that there'd be "no problems") and tell them there is indeed, a problem. They will in turn have you call the band's label rep and/or band and/or tour manager who will in turn have you call the house production manager / stage manager who will then give you the number of some random production assistant who will send a text to his guy,"Karl, with a K" who will take 20 minutes to respond to your texts, emails, and phone calls.
Karl will show up in a golf cart to haggle with the person in the "Will Call" booth, give you a "thumbs-up" and speed away. You'll be asked to show your ID and sometimes an email from the magazine/client; and after minutes of scrutiny, "BOOM!" they'll hand you your pass. Now your grinnin' ear to ear because you think there's nothing that's gonna stop you from shooting that band you love! Well sorry to spoil your moment of joy, but it's not happening quite yet. We still got some things to clear up first.
So You Gotta a Pass, but What Kind of Pass is it?" Look at your pass: Does it say "Photo Pass?" Or, "Photo and Working?" Or just "Working?" or "Support", or maybe even "Crew". Or maybe it says, "All Access", "Guest" or "After Show".
"Yay! I Just Got My Photo Pass . . . Now What?" Well let's look at your pass and see what you got. There's a whole slew of passes for every show. If it's a basic "Photo Pass" and you got to the venue early, well you'll have to wait until gates open because you aren't allowed in until the gates open for the public. Enjoy the three minutes of bliss you get while walking through the turnstiles with your bitchen' "PASS" because that will fade once you get in. Once inside, somebody from the venue will approach you and check your credentials all over again and then show you where you're supposed to wait. Waiting is a big part of being a photographer. Some venues, such as the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, makes you stand behind the stage where you can't see the bands; but most of the time it's off to the side of the stage. Eventually a representative from the venue will show up who will direct you to where you and all the other photographers are gathered and cued up for "The Pit" - The Pit is a six-to-eight foot wide stretch of land that runs directly between the front of the stage and the barricades holding back the crowds.
Then about 10 minutes before the band takes the stage, they open the gates and pandemonium breaks out. The photographers stampede to establish their positions. "Only shoot the band's FIRST THREE SONGS!" the venue rep reminds you, "You must remain in The PIT!" where you will be sharing the precious real estate with thirty to forty other photographers all bent on getting their money shot! Where you stand is up to you, but be aware that if you leave more than four inches in front of you and the stage, there will be another photographer taking that space (almost always four inches taller than you) when the show starts. Once the band takes the stage there are no more rules - ANARCHY RULES the PIT! - from the moment the band starts you should be already shooting.
As you stand there shooting away, squinting to focus, you can sense the other photographers scrambling around you; suddenly you notice that the singer, who was just in front of you, has now sauntered off to left side of the stage (50 feet away) out of frame to share the spotlight with his/her lead guitarist! And that most of the other photographers are now over there getting this great shot, so you now have run over to that side and squeeze your way in. Then just as suddenly as before, the singer runs back across the stage to share time with the bass player. Meanwhile as your shooting, your simultaneously dodging other photographers' heads and their zoom lenses, selfie-sticks, backpacks, photo cases. Often the Pit is littered with small step-ladders and tripods abandoned by the photographers who brought them and left behind as they try to get a shot of the drummer. There are no rules or order for the first three songs. It's kill or be killed! Chaos is the rule. Imagine standing in the middle of the freeway with your camera to your eye while a 7point earthquake is happening! I've learned to block all of the noise and stay focused on the job at hand. I've seen fistfights breakout in my peripheral vision as I move to get the next shot. People screaming at each other while paramedics rush by; all the while I'm shooting. It's really crazy.
I was once hired to shoot Gwen Stafani for the cover of Total Productions US Magazine. I knew I had at least three song to get the shot I needed. Fair enough. But when the band started playing, she hit the stage running and never stopped for the entire first song. I mean she was balls out jogging from side to side, running up the drum riser and then back down again around the bass player. Following her with my camera and trying to get something in focus was nearly impossible. At one point she actually started doing fucking cartwheels! Rockstars do not play fair. Robert Plant spent his first three songs hiding behind a tambourine that he held directly in front of his face. Fionna Apple sat at her piano slumped shouldered with her hair covering her entire face. Thom Yorke kept turning his back to the crowd and dancing incoherently, or hiding behind his bandmates. Norah Jones started her show in almost total darkness and sang in the dark for the first song until they slowly brought the lights up. Sure it was dramatic but it only left me with two songs to get my shot. Remember: You don't have time for panic. You have to remain calm and make sure you're giving all of your attention to capturing the best shot you can get. I shoot RAW with two 32 gig cards in my Nikon. I know I'll get that fucking shot! I barely take my camera from my face for the entire three songs. They will not win!
"Photo / Working / Crew" Passes
Now, if you happen to get a "Photo-Working and/or Crew" pass, this will get you into the venue before the doors open. I suggest you arrive in the morning, when the roadies are unloading the equipment. You'll be able to shoot the crew setting up the stage, as well as setting up the "Front of House" (that little tent directly in front of the stage about 50-feet in the audience area where the sound mixing and lighting boards are kept). This is a great pass as it gives you a chance to get to meet the crew and get to know the security people. And if you're lucky, they'll let you shoot the sound check. It's so beneficial to talk to everyone you can - let them get to know your face because later they might be the ones that lets you shoot from the F.O.H. or from the crowd (after the first 3 songs). Working/Crew passes also allow you limited stage access which opens a lot of new P.O.V.s
Congratulations if you snagged an "All-Access" pass! This is the Golden Ticket of photo passes! An All Access pass allows you to have full access to the Front-of-House view, the Pit, and even perhaps, the fabled backstage. These passes are becoming more and more rare as record labels, band managers, and PR Companies are trying more and more to gain total control over the much coveted "content". The real problem of being limited to shooting only the first 3 songs, is the photographer misses out photographing so many amazing moments from the rest of the show. Think of all the iconic shots we would have never seen if this policy was around back in the day! Hendrix didn't burn his guitar during the first three songs. Paul Simonon of The Clash didn't smash his P-bass during the first three songs. The Girls didn't rush the stage to kiss Springsteen during the first three songs. I mean I'll take what they give me, but no other artist in any other field is as restricted, controlled, and oppressed by people who don't understand our medium as concert photographers.
I don't know what one can do about it, but it's truly fucked up.
My first two years of Coachella i was lucky enough to have "All-Access" but by my seventh year they had restricted me along with everyone else into a massive two-tier Pit Pass. Imagine over 300-plus photographers stuffed into the tiny area in front of the stage; shoulder to shoulder; all stepping over each other trying desperately to get their position so they can get their shot and not giving one fuck if they get into your way. And when the band comes onstage shit gets real crazy, real fast! Photographers will eat their own!
It might sound that I'm cynical regarding shooting live music (and perhaps I am), but I also absolutely adore it. My first taste of shooting a live band came to me in 1976 when I photographed Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band from my 3rd row, center seat at the Veterans memorial Coliseum in Phoenix, AZ. I didn't need a photo pass. No one stopped me from shooting (from my seat). I came to the show as a fan and left with a career. After all the indignities I've suffered from gaining the various photo passes I've obtained throughout the years; and after all the hassles I endured securing the passes; after being stepped on and knocked around as I shot the bands. None of that compares to the pure joy I still get when later I'm editing and I come across that one precious shot of some rock and roll icon that is framed perfectly and is actually in focus; frozen at 250th of a second for eternity. That never gets old, and every time it happens I feel privileged and blessed to have gotten the opportunity to practice my craft and it makes me want to do it again.