Complaining Is Fine, Actually

Like a lot of creative industries and niches, music photography can be challenging for a number of reasons that are unrelated to technical skill and talent. These challenges can be a lot to bear at times, especially when it feels like the only advice available to you is to “stop complaining” and “keep doing the work.” If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and unheard, I welcome you to keep reading.  

Bishop Briggs performing at Webster Hall in 2019

Bishop Briggs at Webster Hall, 2019

There seems to be this idea that time spent complaining is time that could be better put into the work necessary for success. My issue with this sentiment is that it is entirely possible to work towards a goal and be critical of the obstacles in your way. Someone who communicates their frustrations can still be working to succeed in spite of them. It is not wholly one action or another, and suggesting otherwise seems misguided. I know that in our age of social media saturation, there is pressure to always “be on” and only present a carefully curated version of ourselves, but that can’t be healthy. It is normal to have moments when you feel encumbered and overwhelmed, and it is okay for you to express that if you feel the need to do so. Don’t believe for a second that success only comes to those who suffer in silence. 

Complaints can be—and often are—catalysts for change. If you use a piece of software and encounter a bug, you can make a complaint; you’d submit a bug report in hopes that it will be patched. When you order something and it arrives damaged in the mail, you can make a complaint and start the return process. On a larger scale, when numerous people complain about the same things, you end up with petitions, protests, strikes, and other demonstrations of collective unrest that demand attention and call for action. Sometimes, a complaint is an alert to the people around you that there is a problem you’d like to see addressed, or that you’re seeking others who share your concerns. Other times, you just need to let off some steam and have a moment of rest. It is okay to say “I’m so tired.”

Zola Jesus performing at Webster Hall in 2014

Zola Jesus at Webster Hall, 2014

As it relates to music photography, there are plenty of things to complain about. There’s the decline and absence of paid publications, predatory practices among hiring parties, cutthroat behavior among peers, issues with diversity and inclusivity, the frail nature of professional connections, scarcity of paid opportunities, performative representation—the list goes on. Not everyone is in the same position to do something about these problems, but we can all speak on them and express how we feel. Sometimes, those collective voices reach people who are inspired to address the problems at hand. I’m sure that somewhere underneath the amazing work being done by groups like Diversify Photo, Black Women Photographers, and Amplify Her Voice are the frustrations of people who have felt underrepresented and overlooked. Rate spreadsheets have appeared to address the concerns of new photographers who don’t know what to charge, and established ones seeking to preserve the integrity of the profession. We need these things; sometimes moves don’t start getting made until there’s a realization that others share the same grievances we do—so air your grievances. 

Making a complaint doesn’t always have to be steeped in negativity. It is easy to wander into negative territory, and even toeing the line in that regard can run the risk of losing your audience, which I suppose raises the question: who is your audience? If you are unhappy with how something is going and you are looking for solutions, it makes sense to tailor your language in such a way that allows people to feel welcome in providing additional input. If you are saying that you are tired or frustrated, not for the sake of a solution but to give yourself a bit of relief—you don’t need the input, and you certainly don’t need to be told not to express yourself that way. When I say that complaining is fine, however, I don’t mean that it is fine everywhere. There are spaces that exist for positive reinforcement, for uplifting commentary, and for the sharing of ideas and advice. It is perfectly fine for these spaces to not allow aimless, unprompted complaining. A complaint in a space like that would work better when framed as a series of questions rather than a statement of dissatisfaction alone. It is totally okay to have spaces for constructive positivity, but you are under no obligation to be that way on your personal platforms. Sometimes a yell is what you need, and sometimes a yell is the only way to be heard.

Arlo Parks performing at Brooklyn Steel in 2022

Arlo Parks at Brooklyn Steel, 2022

Speaking anecdotally, I have been presented with opportunities shortly after speaking up about my own frustrations. There are so many things going on everywhere, and it’s so easy to have your needs go unaddressed just because they aren’t the needs someone heard most recently. Communicating your problems to others raises awareness and can help you get solutions and opportunities that you wouldn’t have received otherwise. In my case, I believe that speaking openly about what I was going through helped bring it to the attention of people who were in a position to be helpful. 

I felt the need to write this after seeing an uptick in people dismissing valid complaints about things like changes in social media engagement, burnout, and various barriers to success. I think it can be very easy to see these dismissive takes and feel ashamed or called out. My hope is that reading this will provide a gentler perspective and encourage you to continue pointing out the things that you think need changing and asking for the help you want and need.

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