Can You Make Money Shooting Concert Photography?

Can You Make Money Shooting Concert Photography?

Go to any live music event and if the crowd is big enough, there will be photographers snapping away for the first three songs. Concert photography is a blast, but does that blast produce bucks?

Circa 2010 I was living in Chicago, arguably the biggest culture hub of the Midwest. Deeply involved with the local music scene, I went out to shows just about every weekend. As an aspiring photography student, I naturally took my camera with me to many of these shows and quickly found live music was my favorite niche. Most of the shows were small local acts, so I didn't have to worry about press passes.a close-up live photo of Gene Ween from the band Ween, singing

Unfortunately I also wasn't worried about the monetary side of this as my liberal arts education was teaching me everything about critiquing 20th century paintings and not a single thing about the business end of photography.

Local bands soon caught on to my presence and would occasionally invite me to photograph them in exchange for drink tickets or occasionally a small cash payment. Small bands in any given city are typically struggling to make a buck themselves, so I didn't take offense to an offer for, say, $20 to photograph a set. I might have done it for free back then anyway.

a photo of Scott H Biram playing live

A couple years later I graduated with my liberal arts degree. It was time to make all that tuition money back, right? At the encouragement of friends and family, I sought out advice from more experienced music photographers. Surely some had made a decent living at it, and I could find one.

One day at a camera store, I spotted two large-scale metallic prints: a Tina Turner and a Mick Jagger. Impressed, I got the photographer’s name from a clerk. I looked him up and learned that he’d been a Rolling Stone magazine touring photographer in the 70s and 80s. Clearly he’d been a success, simply focusing on music photography. I sent this photographer an email explaining that I was hoping to also concentrate on live music photography as a career and asked if he had any advice. His words of wisdom?

“Don't Even Bother, Kid.”

That’s how his reply began. "It's not viable anymore,” he wrote, citing performers like Lady GaGa who demand their concert photographers sign copyright release forms.

He explained to me a truth that became obvious once I started paying attention: there are thousands of photographers out there who want to shoot music, and almost all of them are happy to do it for free. Jarod Polin confirmed this in a recent FroKnowsPhoto newsletter, responding to a question from a fan about the viability of concert photography. "Fro" also made the point that one should not sell images of artists to the public as it can land you in legal trouble, aside from that fact that few fans will purchase a digital image of a musician.

a close-up Black and White live photo of David Grisham playing mandolin

Does This Mean Nobody Can Make Money Shooting Live Music?

Absolutely not. There are the rare exceptions who manage to work with a successful touring band. There are also opportunities for photographers to create promotional material for bands (poster, album covers, etc.). Several of them are charging decent money, but they're not spread throughout the country it seems — being based in a city like Nashville or Los Angeles seems to provide your best bet.

a photo of the band Future Rock playing on stage, with smoke and rays of light

I never discourage aspiring photographers. That would go against my love for writing about photography, as well as giving photography lessons. In fact, I'd rather do the exact opposite — I want passionate photographers to succeed. So, I'm going to state that if you love photographing live music as much as I do, continue doing it and maybe try to figure out how to make money off it. Just keep in mind that it's a grind that in itself and that there are much more lucrative avenues of photography that can pay well.

The response I got from the retired music photographer was discouraging, though honest. After receiving this advice, I switched my focus to other areas of photography, though I still photograph concerts from time to time out of passion (and sometimes they pay). I’m a big proponent of passion projects for photographers, as they help avoid the joyless burnout that can be produced by shooting only one subject.

If any of you out there have had a similar experience or actually do take paid live music gigs or music promo photography, please chime in with your advice or stories. I’d like to hear from you.

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17 Comments

Johannes Lovund's picture

I've been working full time touring with an artist for some years now. At first money within music photography was tight, and I made more doing other stuff, but through grinding and proving my worth, money is no longer an issue. I get to travel the world and do what I love. Last year included 300+ travel days. Tiring, but absolutely worth it.

If you want to live comfortably from music photography, I do think you need to get steady work with an artist/band. Preferably on a retainer. If not, music photography can be a good side income, but perhaps shouldn't be the main source of income.

Instagram: @johanneslovund

Scott Mason's picture

That's great to hear, Johannes. Glad you're out there doing what you love, and making a living nonetheless!

You know what might be the worst thing about this?

At the beginning, everybody loves you cause you provide them free service (promoters did pay, the bands got photos for free). Then you’re pissed off cause the bands start using your photos as a proper marketing tool without your consent (posters, etc). Then the promoters themselves give your photos in low web quality for the press to retouch, crop and print however they please. In the end you find yourself working for fish & chips 6 hours a gig plus retouch, delivering next day photos. Oh and the promoters are always poor. Even if they contract foreign artists.

Sue them? Yeah and where do I get money for the lawyer from if I get paid fish and chips in the first place and would burn all of my bridges while doing so?

And when you think about a way forward, you’re starting to realise the best outcome is you being treated as a nuisance by the bands (and/or their management), while actually providing them with a service.

I realised it’s not worth it when I started reading through some contracts and releases people were posting in various groups.

Might just be me, but I’m not that big of a masochist to get pushed over by people who in the end can’t live without concert photographers’ service.

The other thing is that everybody wants to be one nowadays so there’s a lot of crap flying around. No wonder that they want to filter it out, but... there’s a huge lack of respect in this industry and I believe ones time is better spent elsewhere if you wanna get into photography.

Especially since concert photography pushes your gear to the max. You need to spend a lot on the gear cuz there are no retries, no flashes to help you. One can only get by with low end gear for so long in this genre... You end up dreaming about gear but you have no money to spend on it as you’d rather put some food onto your plate.

Yes I’m salty. But I’m over it. And it’s not like I wasn’t working hard enough or not being dedicated enough. I think I shot over 30 gigs my first year, 95% of them paid. I just felt that it’s a road to nowhere, a road that leads through being treated like shit for the most part. Had enough of this at some point.

Meh.

I hope I helped someone. Get into art industry. Theatres, dancing, etc. // Trust me it’s the same photography wise. If you’re there for the music and your idols, just buy yourself a ticket for the concert and support them. Back to the main thought. // Even if the artsy people don’t pay much, they all treat you with respect cuz they are pretty much in the same boat as you.

Rayann Elzein's picture

Yeah poor promoters who can sign foreign bands, poor bands who can pay tonnes of money to their light guy and have a dedicated drum tech, a dedicated guitar tech for each guitarist, etc, but then never ever any money for the photographer :D

I once had a request for a multi billion $ company that makes anything from guitars to motorcycles ask me for a picture of a guitarist they endorse, to include in their yearly catalogue. I sent a quote. I received as an answer: "but you got in for free with a press pass, why should we have to pay for that photo?" That day, I decided I'm never stepping a foot again in a concert venue as a photographer, and my life has never been better ever since! :D

Scott Mason's picture

It's hard not to feel scorned when you've had experiences like you two have had. I can understand and appreciate where you're coming from. Some people seem to just "get it" (photography rights) in certain industries, others not so much.

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Aside from people like Ross Halfin who's been around for decades, photographing top-tier musicians and bands, I'd say keep this as a hobby. I started off shooting bands ten years ago (and still doing it to this very day), but I never expect payment. Sure, maybe a drinks token here and there or a bit of merch, but we do it for the love of it. I've shot many A-list bands in my career and not much ever came off it - I don't expect it to. Times have changed since the 80's and 90's where music magazines used to be in full circulation but nowadays you're going to find it tough competing to some kid and his iPhone if you want your images published. Don't let it discourage you. Use this as a creative outlet rather than a profession.

Blacklight Media's picture

I've shot concert photos for a variety of reasons. One would be just so I was able to get a shot of artists I liked from my own point of view. Second, I liked the challenge of shooting them. Third, when you get a good photo of an artist and they really appreciate it, it is a great feeling to know your work touched them. Would I like to eventually tour with a band/artist and make money from it? Sure I would. But as Fred stated, with the abundance pf phones in venues and lack of print mags, I would assume it's a challenge to land such a job. Not to mention too many people willing to be paid in "exposure bucks" which muddies the waters.

Scott Mason's picture

'Exposure bucks" is that like Monopoly Money??
Thanks both of you, for your comments.

Anecdotal opinion coming at ya!: I thought, years ago, that FStoppers did an article about Todd Owyoung of (Ishootshows.com)... But it seems to have been removed or something. ANYHOW, for me, music photography opened a ton of doors. It always rolled into paying gigs for promotional work, press kits etc. At least for me it did. I got into HUNDREDS of national act shows for free. Interviewed a ton of great bands. As some of the local bands or opening acts I started photographing became national acts, I got to do a magazine cover or two. If life is measured by experiences and not money, then I am a very rich man. Such a good time and a killer soundtrack to keep the memory company.

Scott Mason's picture

Kyle, it's good to hear that this road took you down a path that you're satisfied with.

I’ve been shooting concerts since 1987 (really only consistently for the past decade). I shoot for artists occasionally, but mostly for one publication. I was cautioned very early on by a very well established concert photographer that you should NEVER shoot for free as it diminishes the value of photography for ALL photographers. That really resonated with me. I hold true to that with very few exceptions. All of us should do the same. Also, don’t shoot pics of singers with a mic in their face 😜.

If you love live music and can get a few bones thrown at you to cover an act or a festival, go for it. Otherwise pass unless this are a no-name act or friends. Just my opinion.

Rayann Elzein's picture

You're totally right. I went by that same principle (of never doing a shoot for free), unfortunately, there was always a fan somewhere with a decent (but not great and often not sharp) photo who was happy to give it for free in exchange of his name appearing in the credits. I quite concert photography about 3 years ago to focus on something else, and to be honest, my life has never been better! I am so much more relaxed now haha!

PS: agreed with the singers and a mic in their face haha :D

The most I've been offered is a free VIP ticket from a small artist, then again I've only been shooting music for a year. I wouldn't count out making good money through music photography, though. I've seen so many people who've become personal/tour photographers for pretty modern (and pretty successful) artists like Lil Yachty, Khalid, Bryson Tiller, 21 Savage, Kodie Shane, Post Malone, Travis Scott, etc, and I'm positive they're getting paid well while doing it. One guy I follow is even on Jay Z and Beyonce's current tour. Even if that doesn't work out for you, you can reach out to music festivals to shoot the acts for them or work for a publication (but not all pay). You can even hit up local venues to see if they have or would be interested in having a paid photographer to cover their shows. There's still ways you can succeed in music photography. Still, outside of these positions not many artists will want to pay for simple concert photos. They'll just DM you on social media with a "yo send me this, if they don't just repost the photo without asking first. If you want, it wouldn't hurt to start offering videography as a service alongside your photos, since those seem to be higher in demand these days. I still see people making it with only photography though.

Sorry this is so long😅

Rui Bandeira's picture

I do most of my living with concert photography.
Shure its getting harder because there are tons of guys that will do it for free and bands want to spend less, but like i alwais say, there is a market for old second hand cars and for top of the line Ferrari's, the trick is to figure out hot to get to the market that will give you money.
RIght know im the official photographer of 5 Music Festivals ( that is a lot for Portugal) and i also work directly with some of the biggest bands and artist agencys, this way if im not working with one band i will be working with another, so im always covered

Scott Mason's picture

That's fantastic, Rui! Glad to hear that it's not impossible. Hope you keep it up.

John Skinner's picture

If this was a dream part of your photographic journey, you were born about 25 years too late.

After the 90's, all of this 3 song crap came into play, venues and bands became more aware of what the 'image' could do for them, and Springsteen started all of this '3 songs your out stuff' which became the industry norm.

I do know a few guys out in Cali of all places (go figure) that still make a good dime off of concert images such as Jerome Brunet (twitter @JeromeBrunet) and he does a really good job on images and even book sales. But in large part -- this ship has sailed.

I differ from Jarod Polin’s position on selling concert photographs. Unless you signed a contract or are restricted by the venue, you can sell prints to fans and license photographs to editorial, news, and informational markets; you just can’t exploit concert photographs commercially, as that would infringe the bands’/musicians’ rights of publicity/privacy.

As with all of your freelance photography assignments, including band and concert, timely register those images with the US Copyright Office. Affixing a watermark logo and corresponding metadata reaffirms your copy/creative rights & IP ownership.