The Monetary Value of Music Photography

I’m sure you’ve seen those “What People Think I Do” memes before—a series of pictures depicting what your friends and family think you do, and then a picture of what you actually do. The “What I actually do” image is usually much different, and probably way less exciting. Well, when I talk to my friends, they often get the impression that I must be doing pretty well for myself, shooting as many shows as I do. “It must be so great that you’re getting paid to photograph all these shows,” they say. Let’s file “get paid” under “What my friends think I do.” I’ve spoken about the other values of music photography before, but this time, I want to specifically talk dollars and cents.

Have I ever been paid to shoot a show? Yes, a few times. In fact, I can count them all on one hand. Before you start drawing conclusions on why that is, allow me to give you a bit of information. A lot of my music work is self-assigned. For instance, I shoot at Irving Plaza—often. I typically choose what shows I want to cover, and most of the time, I get approved to do so. The venue gets pictures for their social media, and i get to cover a show that I’m interested in shooting. When I first started doing this, it was also that I was getting valuable portfolio material. What’s the monetary payout there? Zero. It is a volunteer gig, I get the experience of shooting a concert and if it’s an act I really like, the benefit of a free show. There’s also the often impossible-to-quantify “exposure”. There isn’t anything else. 

“What about the times you did get paid?”

Sure, let’s talk about one of those times. Let’s talk about the first time, in fact.

Made In America, 2014. I was still pretty new to shooting anywhere with a photo pass, and I was trying really hard to get access to a festival. I figured it would be a great opportunity to shoot a variety of artists over the course of a few days, and if someone assigned me to the festival, surely I’d be paid. When Stereogum actually accepted my pitch and allowed me to cover the festival performances, I was ecstatic. I also knew that I was about to tackle something I had never done before. Festivals are a lot more work than individual shows—multiple acts on multiple stages, long hours, different shooting conditions. I wanted to do the right thing on my first time covering a festival, so I rented a second camera body and a long lens to go with it. Without that lens, that shot of The National wouldn’t have been possible. The festival is in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I live in Brooklyn, New York, so I needed a way to get to Philly, and a place to stay. It takes place on Labor Day weekend, so the friends I had nearby were all out of town for the weekend. That meant I’d have to figure out lodging—on short notice, on a holiday weekend. I managed to secure a place on Airbnb about a mile from the festival grounds, and transportation was cheap via bus. 

I haven’t even stepped foot onto the festival grounds and I’m already a couple hundred dollars in the red between the equipment rental, transportation, and lodging. 

The festival was two days. I was working with a writer, so what I shot really depended on what he wanted to write about. It was my first festival and I didn’t want to risk missing anything, so I didn’t really shoot any acts I wasn’t supposed to. On the first day, my shooting didn’t start until about 4PM, but I wasn’t done until the headliner’s set at 10:30PM. After that, I went back to where I was staying to work on photos. I’d do the same on the second day, except that I started shooting at 1:15PM and ended around the same time. I then had to cull, edit, and send out the photos. It was a really exciting experience, but what about the pay, right?

I made $200.00 for the weekend. I spent about 15 hours on the festival grounds, 6 hours in total transportation to go from my house to Philly and back, and 4-6 hours for the editing process. If we just count the time spent at the festival and the time editing, that’s $10/hour. Would you travel 3 hours each way for $10/hour? What if that travel expense also had to come out of your own pocket? What if two days of room & board also had to come out of your own pocket? What my friends think I do: get paid. What I actually do: break even if I’m lucky. I wasn’t lucky for this festival.

This shots of Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne are from the Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival in 2015. I was working with Stereogum again, and the rate was the same: $200.00. The conditions were different, however. I had a second camera by this time, but I still had to rent a lens that I needed. The festival was in Wantagh, New York and not Philly, so my transportation time was a bit shorter, but not much cheaper. My friend lived about 15 minutes from the festival location, so I had a place to sleep and get work done. I was not working with a writer, so I covered a lot more acts, spending about 17 hours total at the festival, and my travel time was 2 hours each way, so the amount of time was about the same as last year. Since I didn’t have to rent a camera body and pay for lodging, I didn’t end up spending more than I made, but I’d like to think that my skill as a photographer is worth more than $10/hour. 

I think that a lot of people don’t talk about what they make photographing music, because they don’t make anything. I have read posts on facebook groups, and tweets, and blog posts from photographers who talk about getting paid for their work, but they don’t talk numbers. You might think that’s humility, but I think it’s shame. I never see anyone talk numbers, and I never even see anyone talk profit, if you’d like to keep specific amounts out of the discussion. I see plenty of photographers who don’t like to talk about how they make money, but want you to pay them to possibly show you something that might mention how they made money—maybe. I’m not world renowned, and I’m fairly new to this music photography thing, so I guess I don’t see myself as having anything to lose by telling you I don’t make money shooting concerts. I have wonderful experiences, I’ve made a few friends, and I’ve even gotten a bit of exposure online and in print, but not money. I have shot for a few more outlets since then, but it’s all for the same pay: $0, minus expenses. 

There are people who say, quite openly, that music photography is not lucrative. Then there are people who claim it is, but have little to show for it. I’m sure there is another category of people who have something to show for it, but would probably agree that it’s not the most profitable thing. I am firmly in the first camp until it is otherwise proven to me—but that’s okay. I love music photography, and I think it’s pretty apparent that I’m not doing it for the money. I just wanted to address the subject of pay, because it never seems to be discussed in an open manner. Perhaps if it were, things could get better. 

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