11 December 2017

Bad Boys (of Rock & Roll)

The big news in the world of rock – and especially rock photography – is what happened over the weekend at the KROQ “Almost Acoustic” show. Saturday night, Queens of the Stone Age lead singer Josh Homme was seen, and caught on video, walking past a photographer in the pit before turning around and kicking the front of her camera, driving it back into her face. I feel certain there was a reason for it, but there was absolutely no excuse. Whatever that reason was is something Mr. Homme, his bandmates, and his fans are going to have to reflect on long and hard before they can figure out where they want to go from here.

Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age - St. Louis, MO
The photographer isn’t one I’m familiar with, but I’m starting to learn more about her. Her name is Chelsea Lauren, and her work is pretty damn amazing. She was there working, covering the show, and she continued to do so. Some people have already pointed to that and said “she must not have been hurt that bad if she kept working!” That’s a load of crap, and I hope anyone saying that knows it. She went to the ER after the show, and there are likely to be charges filed through the police department. We’ll be hearing more about this story in the days to come, I have no doubt.

But there’s a broader story here, a wider topic I’ve seen discussed. “It’s a rock show! Sometimes things get rowdy at rock shows! That’s the chance you take, right?” This is the refrain I’ve seen on a number of pages and comment-sections. The answer is no, this is NOT the chance you take, and – contrary to popular belief – it never has been. Yes, there have always been performers with attitudes, and sometimes they even act belligerently towards the crowds, the very people paying to see them. For some fans, it’s expected. They know this is how “their guy” or “this band” acts on stage. But calling names from behind the microphone is still a far cry from actual physical assault/battery. You hear all the stories of rock star antics from trashing dressing rooms and hotel rooms to walking off stage in the middle of shows. But it’s exceedingly rare that you hear of a performer getting truly physical with anyone, and even less so that it’s a deliberate act.

In this case, it wasn’t even an audience member. It was a photographer who was there, working, trying to cover the show and give some press to the band, generally in a flattering light. The photo pit isn’t home to paparazzi. This is the realm of people that want “the shot!”, that one amazing photo that the artist will want for posters and t-shirts and album covers and magazine articles. This isn’t tabloids looking for “gotcha” moments or things to make the artists looks like idiots. As a photographer, if you post too many photos like that, you’ll suddenly find yourself on the outside looking in.

The myth of the “bad boys of rock & roll” has always been more hype than reality. Yeah, things used to be more chaos incarnate, but even then, it wasn’t as bad as legend has it, and they still knew you didn’t cross certain lines, or it would cost you your career. And now, in this insta-view, auto-post, live-streamed society, it’s even more crucial that even the “bad boys” are more reigned in than ever. A stage persona stays on the stage. If a performer truly doesn’t like photographers, they simply don’t let them in to the show. They don’t invite them in and then abuse them.

This story will be very interesting to follow. I do hope for Ms. Lauren’s health, and I know she’s picked up at least one new fan from it. Unfortunately, the opposite is likely to be the case for Mr. Homme and the rest of Queens of the Stone Age. From the other side of the lens, I can say this won’t affect me at all. This was a freak situation. Whatever the reason behind it – again, reason, not excuse! – it’s not a common occurrence, and it doesn’t worry me in the least.

If any musicians happen to read this, just keep in mind that the men and women behind those lenses down there in front of you want to be there, and they want to make you look as good as you want to look for them. Let’s make it all work, and do it together, whaddya say?

17 October 2017

Engage the Fear Machine

The textbook definition of a phobia is "an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something.”

To me, the key word there has always been irrational. For someone living in the Midwest, I’ve found fear of sharks to be a bit silly, but I know several people for whom it’s a real thing. For me, the two biggest ones are spiders and heights. There’s nothing to be said to change my mind in either case. I know people keep spiders as pets, and I assume they’re very happy together. And there are people that make great (fantastic, even!) livings walking high steel or not-so-high roofs putting on shingles and whatnot. But both of those ideas are beyond the realm of conceivable to me.

When I talk about irrational, for me that means that seeing a spider, even a little one, makes my pulse race and my blood pressure spike. There’s no reason for it. I could step on it and end the ‘threat’ in about two seconds. But knowing that logically doesn’t help at all when all those subconscious, animal-based fight-or-flight mechanisms start firing off. The same thing with heights: I get very wobbly standing on something as small as a step-stool. There’s a very low likelihood of injury falling from a height measure in inches, no feet, but the fear still fires up.

But slap a camera in my hand, point me toward a shot, and tell me “do what you need to and make it happen” and things change. Today at lunch, I was killing time and grabbing some random shots of some fall blooms on some flowers when I caught some movement. I took the camera down and noticed there was a small little spider on one of the petals, obviously protecting his home. No matter how small, my typical reaction would have been to step back and move on, letting him rule that roost. But I had my trusty Canon, and all I could think was “Oh! You’re gonna pose for me??” and I started shooting again.

I’ve been known to climb five flights of stairs (exercise isn’t a phobia, but it’s something I avoid when possible!) to get to a rooftop, lean out over the edge, and get a shot of a party in the street below. Rather than worrying about who below will end up wearing whatever I’d eaten in the previous 48-hours, I mostly just worry about not dropping my camera….and making sure my lens cap is off.

I’ve read photojournalists talking about this sort of thing. Seeing the horrors of war through a lens lessens the impact, not because they’re callous and unfeeling, but because it has to. You can’t do that kind of kind of job and not separate yourself from it to a degree. I’m not comparing me taking photos of flowers with spiders on them to the ravages of war, but I think it’s the same concept. The lens, the camera, becomes not just a tool but a filter. It’s not a conscious choice, not for me, anyway (and far be it from me to speak for anyone else!). It’s more that when I lock in on something I want a shot of, I stop worrying about other things. I stop thinking about the spider, or the fall, or the derby jammer that’s falling and the skate coming at my head, or the pyro blast going off a few feet away on stage. I’ve got my camera, I want the shot.

Everything else will just have to wait.

04 October 2017

Times They Are A Changin'

“Where else could you parlay that talent?”
That was a question someone asked me while looking at my concert photos the other day, after I told them I didn’t do it for a living because no one really wants to pay for that kind of work. I was flattered by the compliment, of course, but the answer holds true. I like to consider myself a photographer, and can even call myself a professional since I have gotten paid on occasion.
The market, however, is saturated with people like me, though. I saw someone local post on Facebook a few weeks back asking for recommendations on local photographers that can do indoor and outdoor portrait photos. I don’t really do portraits because, frankly, I’m terrible at them. (I’ve done them a few times and I’m lucky I didn’t get hunted with pitchforks.) In response, I saw at least a dozen names thrown out there, and I only knew one or two of them. In a town of 40,000 people, that’s a LOT of photography!

DSLR cameras are getting cheaper all the time, with the lower-end cameras getting the performance that cost four or five figures just ten years ago. Cellphone camera technology has gotten to the point that fans shooting photos from the first dozen rows at concerts are getting shots that some pros can’t get, especially when access is limited to shooting further back by the artists.

And artists themselves, they’re finding less and less reason to need photographers. Magazines and newspapers are dying, even online. When it comes to music media, even the venerable Rolling Stone magazine has announced that they’ve put themselves on the market recently. Social media is the new communications method, and at any given shot, a performer can expect hundreds or even thousands of images to pop up instantly after – often during! – the shows. Even radio stations just send their own people and grab cellphone shots to share! (This isn’t a knock, by the way. I know that’s an industry trying to figure things out, too, where they have people wearing more hats than ever before, covering on-air and behind-the-scenes responsibilities!)
So where does that leave me? I’m over 40 now, and I’m just starting to dip my foot into something that I would love to do for a living, but it’s a field that’s becoming extinct. My name isn’t Ross Halfin or Todd Owyoung or Annie Liebovitz. I’m not really getting calls asking me to go to shows (I have gotten a handful of those from a publicist for smaller, up-and-coming acts). When I go shoot shows, they’re for myself, and for fun. This might be shooting myself in the foot if the wrong people read it, but I work freelance through the local paper because you have to be credentialed through a reputable source to get in the door. But the deal is I use their name, they run photos and reviews on occasion, but that’s the exchange. It’s not for-hire work. I think it’s a fair trade, because it’s gotten me into shows I wouldn’t get any other way.

But I’m still subject to photo releases from the band, which means they tell me where I can shoot, for how long, and what I can (and can’t) do with the photos afterward. I’ve seen some photographers talking about how they simply refuse to sign those. I guess I could try that, and then I would imagine I would be told to have a nice drive home.  As I said, the bands and artists don’t need me at this stage in the game, so they get to set the rules.

Back to the original question: Where can I parlay what I love doing (and what some people apparently see as me doing well) into a money-making gig? The answer to that is…I have no idea. A band might call me tomorrow and offer to take me out as a tour photographer. That would be cool. The odds of that are about the same as them picking a kid from the crowd to join them as a guitar player or singer. Which, I might add, has happened, but not very often. I might get offered a deal as a venue photographer somewhere, but since most places have a few shows a year, maybe as many as a few dozen for a really busy venue, that’s still not likely to pay the bills. And that would certainly require moving, also.

None of this is meant to be a complaint. I’m really loving what I’m doing right now. Would I like to be making money at it? Hell, yes, I would! I just think I’ve come along at a time when the whole business is shifting away from that whole model. And that kills me. But as long as I keep getting “approved” in my e-mails, I’ll keep going. I’m seeing performers I love, shows I never thought I’d see, and I’m getting to shoot some (hopefully) great photos of them.
And if a few folks are enjoying what they’re seeing, then that’s just a cherry on top for me.

11 September 2017

The Battle Rages On

I’ve posted in the past that I won’t be doing a lot of local charitable photo work in the foreseeable future. This really breaks my heart, because there are a lot of great causes out there that definitely deserve the help and the promotion. There are a lot of reasons I’ve had to pull back from these events. Some are selfish – putting more time into doing the concert photography, for example. Some are practical – there are only so many weekends in a year. Some of it has come from the fact that there are a few people out there that just don’t understand the work that goes into photo work, even free work. I don’t make a living at this, so when I’m getting messages at my day job (where I work for silly things like paying bills and eating) to check the status of the non-paying work I did the day before….

But I digress. This isn’t about that. This isn’t a “woe is me.” This is about a charity event I was happy to attend over the weekend. My friend Dawn asked me if I would be willing to get some shots of the party and fashion show that was a fundraiser for the Adams County Suicide Prevention Coalition. I’m not a fashion photographer – if I put on a t-shirt that’s not inside out, it’s a good day. But when Dawn calls for help on these projects, I’ll help anyway I can.

For those who don’t know, Dawn lost her son to suicide in his senior year of high school. I didn’t know Dylan well, maybe a passing word once or twice. But it was at a time my own son was about to start high school. We’ve had our own issue with him, dealing with bullies and personal things that he’s gone through. I won’t say that I can fathom even a fraction of what Dawn or her family or Dylan’s friends have gone through, but I can see the possibilities, and so I’m glad to lend a hand and try and stop it from happening even one more time.

Take a look over at the photo album of the fashion show portion of Saturday night’s event. The models were lovely and handsome, the styles were fabulous with amazing hair and make-up as always. There will be more photos to come of the party, and I do hope everyone enjoys them and had a great time Saturday night. I know, according to Dawn, it was a very successful night from a fundraising side.

If you’re reading this, and you would like to show your support, reach out to the Adams County Suicide Prevention Coalition Facebook page and ask how you can help or donate. If you look through the photos, you’ll see these shirts that say “stigma” with the slash through them:

If you want your own, if you want to help erase the stigma around talking about both suicide and mental health issues in general, contact Ally’s Boutique Quincy. But most importantly, if you have anyone that you’re worried about, or that has expressed thoughts of suicide, just be there for them.

Just listen.

11 August 2017

How You Gonna See Me Now

Last year some time, I had the very clever idea of tricking out my camera bag with a custom strap. If I wanted to be a rock & roll photog, I should find a way to look the part, make myself stand out from the crowd! So I took a trip to my favorite home for all music-related purchases, Second String Music (5th & Maine, Quincy, IL! Tell 'em Mike sent you....and watch them say "Mike who?") and grabbed a really cool Levy's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" guitar strap. Cool black and red graphics on the front, lyrics to the song on the back (in case the singer of a cover band loses his place, I guess?). This is a stock photo, but it's the same strap I bought:

I threw on a couple of these carabineer-style rings to hook it to the bag and I was ready to go!

Jump to two weeks ago. I was rushing to get to a show that St. Louis traffic had made me late for. I had to park more than a half mile a way and I was hoofing it in a hurry to get there before I missed the window to shoot from the floor. At the worst possible moment, the end of the strap gave way, nearly dumping my camera gear into the street around 6th & Lucas in downtown St. Louis.

I want to be clear here. This is not a knock on Levy's. They're strap, to a guy that knows nothing about guitars and their accessories, seems really well-made and durable. This is also not even remotely trying to say that Second String sold me a bad product. I feel like anyone that knows Rodney and Sheryl would know that anyway, but this is the internet, so clarity is beneficial. No, the broken strap is completely my fault for using it to carry a weight that is probably double or more what the manufacturer intended it to carry. When you get outside of the intended purpose for a product, all bets are off. This time, I lost that bet. But that's on my head.

Rather than as any criticism, I'm making you read this novella so I could set the stage to praise Boyer's Boot and Shoe here in Quincy. I didn't want to give up the idea of using this cool strap for my camera gear, especially with plenty of more concerts lined up that I'm hoping to shoot (including Alice Cooper, coincidentally!). I took the strap out to Boyer's and showed them what happened and explained what I was looking for: Something durable that can carry the load, and something a little better than the rings to hook it to the bag.

In less than a week, this is what the "shoe elves*" at Boyer's turned out for me:

Gorgeous black leather, maintaining the adjustability of the strap, and slick, flat-black hardware that fits like it was created just for the task. I'm ready to get out and give this new rig a shot, but I can't imagine having any sort of hiccups with it. For those interested in such things, I'll get the first real shot to test it out on Monday, 8/14/17, for the Green Day concert at the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre. Keep an eye on the Bad Wolf Facebook page for photos and to the Herald-Whig for a full review!

Thanks to Boyer's, as well as Second String Music and Levy's for the great product. It makes me feel a little cooler, even if I'm really not...

*Boyer's commercial by Table Sixteen Productions

29 July 2017

It's So Easy

A couple of days ago, I got the e-mail I was hoping for since I sent out the request: I was approved to shoot the Guns N' Roses return to St. Louis.
Axl Rose (l) and Slash

To set the stage, I'm a music fan. But I'm an old-dude music fan. I'm at the point where the music I listen to and concerts I'd like to see are the same acts that I listened to as a kid. Metallica, Poison, Bon Jovi, Guns N' Roses, Def Leppard, Megadeth - the kings of 80s/90s rock and heavy metal scene. This year, I've gotten approval to shoot every one of those acts (and many others) except Guns. Finally, when they hit the Gateway City, I was allowed to roll in with my camera and capture the moment.

From Quincy to St. Louis is, generally, about two hours. A little more some days, a little less others, but right around there. The doors for the show opened at 5:30, with the opening act taking the stage at 6:30. I needed to be there by 6:00 to be ready and escorted down to the floor. I hit the road at 3:30, so that gave me a little padding in case of traffic problems, right?

Ever driven I-70 in St. Louis, about 4:30 or 5:00 on a rainy weekday afternoon?

About the time I got to the airport, I hit "the traffic." I don't remember it causing me such a long delay before, but by the time I got off of the interstate, it had taken me a little more than three hours to get there. Obviously, that meant I missed the chance to shoot the Deftones opening set.

Now, have you ever decided to go to a big concert where tens of thousands of people are going? How'd you do with parking?

When I finally got into St. Louis, the nightmare continued. Parking lots were full, street construction was making everything a snarl when people were trying to turn and couldn't get back into the flow. It was a bit after 7:00 when I finally got parked...more than half a mile from the venue.

Richard Fortus
A half-mile doesn't seem like much until you have to hoof it with a moderately heavy gear-bag, and you're in a rush because you were supposed to check in at 7:00 for the show. But I was on the ground, and in contact with the marketing guy running things. I was behind, but the show was, too. So we were all good...

...until my bag-strap broke. I customized my camera bag to use a guitar strap because why be like everyone else? The problem is the strap was designed to hold a guitar that runs 7-10 pounds, not a camera bag weighing more double that weight, if not more. And they're definitely not designed for carrying that weight while power-walking through a metropolitan area.

It's enough to make a grown man cry! But who's got time for that kinda nonsense?

(l to r) Duff McKagan, Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer
I walked in the door at 7:12 and got pointed to the media holding area. Talked to the media rep and got my photo pass - in this case, a wrist band. I got it put on and was told it was time to head to the floor.

Walking through the crowd, carrying my bag (since the strap broke), is where I started assembling my gear: putting lenses on bodies, attaching everything to the two-camera harness I use. All the while, I was dodging concert-goers and trying to follow the other photographers to get to the floor.

Duff McKagan
By the time I hit the photographer area, I was a sweat-soaked, winded mess. But I was there, my equipment was ready to go, and I was about to shoot one of the bands I had been listening to for three-quarters of my life.

Shooting concert photography is always an adventure. Most of the time it's a great adventure.

Sometimes, it becomes a story to be told.

Axl Rose

06 July 2017

The Show Must Go On

Music fans are some of the most passionate people in the world. They pretty well define the word “fan” in its original meaning – short for “fanatic.” Find a fan who’s passionate about an act or artists, and then say something bad about that act or artist, watch what happens*.

*if you do this and get hit, don’t come crying to me! It was simply a statement to make a point!

It doesn’t matter what kind of music, either. Hard rock and heavy metal fans have a stereotype/cliché reputation of being mean or fighters, but I guarantee you can find the same thing at a country show, or a hip-hop show…maybe not so much a show with a lighter tone like R&B (I know the crowd at the John Legend show in St. Louis didn’t cause any concern for me!).

I’ve been dropping in on a lot of concerts lately, and I like to read reviews of the shows and comments from fans afterward. I’ve noticed a really surprising trend in some of the fans of these shows: anger. A lot of the ‘hardcore’ fans seem to be very angry over the shows, namely the set-lists. One example: In February, Bon Jovi had a stop on their “This House Is Not For Sale” world tour in St. Louis. They played a total of twenty-four songs, with six of those coming from the new album. That makes sense, right? They’re promoting the new album, they want to play that material. That’s only ¼ of the show. One of the comments posted on Facebook was from a fan that said he left the show halfway through because the band wasn’t playing songs he knew. Obviously, he left too early, because that last nine of twenty-four songs were all songs that have been played to death!

The other side of the coin can be found, too. When Metallica brought their “WorldWired” tour to St. Louis, they played five songs from the new album out of a total of eighteen. Five more came off of their self-titled, 16x-platinum “Black Album.” Of course, there were folks complaining that they play all the same songs, tour after tour. They were looking for deep cuts, tracks that are buried in the lists of songs from the first and second album from more than three decades ago.

This is a long-winded way of getting to my point. How big of a fan are you? Why do you only want to hear “the hits” from a band? But on the flipside of that, what do you expect to hear at a concert catering to ten, fifteen, twenty thousand people?

Eddie Trunk talked about this a month or two back on his SiriusXM show. Bands don’t tour for the hard-core fans. They can’t. There simply aren’t enough of them, and there’s not enough time in a concert-set. When a band goes on tour for a new album, they’re going to play a good number of those songs. That’s truly the point of a tour, promoting a new product. Then they’re going to play the songs that everyone knows because the crowd wants to feel connected. Of course a fan wants to hear Metallica play “Motorbreath” or “No Remorse.” But out of nearly 39,000 people in the stadium in St. Louis, how many would have known those songs? Hard-core fans of Garth Brooks would love to hear “Alabama Clay” and “What She’s Doing Now” from the man in the hat, but what do you remove from his set-list to fit them in?

I’m slightly guilty of this myself. In my review of the Iron Maiden show in Chicago last year, I commented on the fact that “Run to the Hills” wasn’t in the set. This song has been a long-standing staple. But my comment was more one of surprise at the absence, not anger over the omission. Iron Maiden is playing six new tracks and eight hits scattered throughout their career. Maiden is known to have some long, epic songs, so they fill up more of the set-time with fewer songs. But that’s what you should expect from their show.

The point of all this comes down to this question: What kind of a fan are you? Are you the casual fan that only knows the hits and eschews anything new? Are you the hard-nosed ‘no one knows these guys like I do!’ fan that wants to hear obscure tracks that seem more like something you made up? Either of these is fine. This is not a critique of you, but you might want to consider that concerts aren’t really for you. Listen to your albums and enjoy the songs you like. But these two groups are, generally speaking, the fringe groups on either end of the spectrum.

Because live shows, for most bands, are for the fans in the middle. The fans that love to sing along with the classics, and get excited to be “let in early” to the new stuff that hasn’t even hit the store shelves (or streaming feeds) yet. The live shows are for the fans that are fans, no matter what the band is playing.

That’s my take on it, anyway.

12 June 2017

Runnin' Down A Dream

On April 4th of 2016, I received an e-mail that was just about the greatest thing I ever expected from the time I picked up a camera and started to use it a bit more seriously. That was the day I got the message that I was approved for a press/photo pass to my first major tour/show. The official review and photos can be found here, and a few of my own thoughts on it are here.

Aside from the exhilaration, the excitement, and (if I may be so bold) the amazing shots that I got at the show, what I took away was a deep desire to get in there and do it again. I needed to be back in that pit, I had to find a way to get back to that high-energy moment, working alongside others in what legendary NASCAR driver and announcer Darrell Waltrip calls “coopetition” – working with each other while trying to be the best.

From that point, it looked like that was going to be a bit of a false start. I sent a few other requests for shows without hearing anything back for the most part. Because of a connection to a local band, I was able to get access to shoot at the Rick Springfield concert in Ottumwa, and a local event with the phenomenal front-man of TNT, Tony Harnell, both in August. I was still working to fill out a portfolio with local and regional acts while sending requests for larger shows before I gained access to shoot a show on Stryper’s “To Hell with The Devil” 30th anniversary tour in November of 2016.

When 2017 started, I started watching for big tour announcements. Another one of those bands I’ve been a fan of most of my life, Bon Jovi, announced a show coming to St. Louis. I figured it was a long-shot, but I sent off my request. One of the biggest acts in the world, on a hugely anticipated tour supporting a new album that was hot on the charts? What are the odds, right?

I don’t know what the odds would be, but I beat them. I got a message from the venue – the Scottrade Center in St. Louis – with approval for the show. I can’t say too much will beat that first show from April 2016 (not much, but give me a minute), but I would say this may have been the most important approval I received. It’s always been said in business it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Making the contact and, apparently, impressing the folks at the venue (or at least convincing them I’m not a gibbering idiot) has led me on a road I don’t want to end.

After that Bon Jovi show in February, I was energized and started to scour the St. Louis concert calendar. Some shows I wanted because the acts are well known, some because I’m just a fan-boy (and they’re well known), and all of them I considered a pipe dream. But what started in Chicago in April last year has led to a recent new height.

Remember I said not much would ever top that first show? Well, standing in the pit, feet away from the biggest of the Big 4, grabbing shots of Metallica in the rain at Busch Stadium is something I’ll never forget, even without the photos. And the ticket. And the photo pass.

The truth is, it’s all a rolling snowball. Shooting local shows got me in to Iron Maiden and Rick Springfield, which got me in to Stryper and then Bon Jovi, which got me more shoots in St. Louis leading up to one of the biggest shows in the city, and opening even more doors going forward.

From April 6th, 2016 through June 4th, 2017, these are the national acts (with openers)* I’ve been privileged to work:

Iron Maiden, with The Raven Age opening
Rick Springfield
Tony Harnell with Virus (from Dope)
Bon Jovi
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (Joe Walsh opened, but I missed his set due to traffic)
The Chainsmokers, with Kiiara opening
Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd)
Metallica, with Volbeat and The Local H opening

I have a lot of requests out for shows in the next few months. I’m hoping to add to this list with some other huge names in the music business before the end of the year.

But this isn’t too bad of a start.

**Update (before I even posted it!)**

I jotted down my thoughts this morning in the long-winded bloviation above. At lunch time, before I could even get this posted, I got an e-mail that floored me.

I’ve been invited – not had a request approved, but asked directly – to shoot a show for an upcoming show in St. Louis. I’ve apparently made a big enough splash with a PR guy that he’s got my name floating around in his head. And not in a bad way!

*all photos from these shows except Iron Maiden/The Raven Age are available at badwolfmedia.net/facebook