CLICK THE ARROW ABOVE TO LISTEN TO THE AUDIO INTERVIEW
By Chyrisse Tabone, Rock At Night Tampa
All photos–Copyright–Kevin Nixon Photography
Rock At Night (RAN) likes to provide in-depth interviews with musicians but sometimes it is interesting to look at those working behind the scene in the industry. Many of us at Rock At Night are professional photographers who have seen the industry evolve and change through the years—especially after the onset of digital photography.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with a professional photographer in London, Kevin Nixon, who gave a candid and authentic interview about music photography. His perspective is from the London scene; however, in America there are similarities. You can read excerpts (not quite verbatim) of the interview or kick back and listen to the audio podcast in its entirety at your desk. Either way, enjoy an in-depth look at the music photography industry—warts and all!
OR DOWNLOAD AND LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW ON iTUNES HERE
From Passion to Profession
I used to be an architect in a previous life
RAN: You are a concert photographer! Who do you usually shoot for?
KEVIN: My main magazines are for a company called Future Publishing. The main ones are Classic Rock magazine, Metal Hammer magazine, and Prog Rock magazine…and various other magazines, however, these three are the main magazines I am working for at the moment.
RAN: How long have you been working in concert photography?
KEVIN: I’ve been a professional photographer for 28 years now. Concert photography—not the whole time, but possibly 15 years, something like that.
RAN: Was photography a hobby that worked into a profession? How did this all evolve?
KEVIN: I used to be an architect in a previous life- many, many, years ago. I went to live in New York in 1987 and came back to the UK in 1991. I couldn’t get back into architecture because it all had gone digital and card. So I thought, naively, that I would get into photography, so I bought a professional camera. I did the self-taught route. I didn’t study and I didn’t assist anyone. I just made it up and that was 27 years ago. So, I got something right (a lot of things wrong)…but I got something right! So, here I am!
RAN: So, when you started photography, you used film, correct?
KEVIN: Oh, gosh, yes! 35 mm for portraits, but mainly it was medium format.
RAN: Did you do concert photography with film?
KEVIN: Very little. It was just at the cross-over point when I started (when I crossed over to digital).
Working for Music Magazines
It was pure chance I got to shoot for the music magazines
RAN: How did you get into concert photography?
KEVIN: I was working as a studio photographer and I’ve always done editorial work. The magazines I was working for got bought out by another company that actually owned these music titles. And just by being a full-time employee at the publishing company, it was by pure chance that I got to shoot for the music magazines. I was there when the opportunity came up and I embraced it and I rose.
RAN: Back in those days how did people get into venues? Did one need a photo pass?
KEVIN: The magazines would contact the promoters. They would say “we want to get a photographer in there to do a review piece or do a portrait of the band “so I lucky it was the magazine that had lots and lots of contacts that would contact the band or the band’s management. They would say “we have a photographer named Kevin who is going to shoot portraits of the band”—so I was really fortunate! I subsequently made contacts for other purposes, so I could shoot them for myself. So working with magazines makes it so much easier, because they would make the contact and get you permission to get into the gig.
The Evolution of the Field of Photography
Everybody is a photographer now
RAN: Through the years there’s been changes in photography. What are some of the changes you have seen in the field of concert photography—from a professional standpoint?
KEVIN: I think the main change is “everybody is a photographer now”. We’ve all got big cameras in the pit and even Smartphones with appropriate lighting will grab a decent shot. Now everybody wants to make a “go at it” and that’s great, the more competition, the better, because everybody has a decent camera now. It has made it easier, but the downside of that is that everybody wants to do it now. There’s a lot more people chasing a lot less work than what there was 10 or 15 years ago.
The Decline of Paid Work
The new currency is Facebook Likes
RAN: So that basically has lowered the pay, hasn’t it?
KEVIN: Most of my responses are based on the London scene (so I’m going to make that point). For example, for the magazines I work for, the rate has not changed in 10 years. Now the downside of this is that everybody is prepared to work for free. Now, I’m not a miserable curmudgeon photographer. Now, if you want to shoot a band, and have a “day job” and can do that in the evening, then go for it. I’d like to think that position is a full-time job and my capacity to earn money at music photography is considerably lessened with advent of everybody shooting who are willing to give their pictures for free.
Like I said, I believe that everybody should have a go at it and have the same status in the pit, however, I would like to emphasis that—but that is how I pay my bills. I have to say that about 85 percent of the photographers in London have day jobs and they in the evening and produce fabulous results, but it’s a hobby. It’s a glorified hobby, Again, which is fine. But at the new currency that has developed in recent years is not Euros or dollars or pounds—it’s “Likes”. That’s why people want now and that’s the new currency. Now, I don’t need any more “Likes”—I need money, I need currency or money to pay my bills. I hear it all the time, that people will give established bands photos from their Instagram accounts or their Facebook account. Well, guess what? It’s got 300 likes. So you gave it away. So, what have they achieved by that? They’d achieved absolutely nothing except they can tell their friends that they got 300 likes. SO, the next effect is that by doing that it is utterly devaluing what the rest of us are doing. I understand why they are doing it, but it devalues what we do to make a living.
A Midlands photographer posted on Facebook his monthly statement from one of the agencies (I don’t know which one). He sold pictures for online use for one penny. He gets half of that (that’s half a pence). I don’t think you even have a coin like that over there. Time and time again, I hear from the photographers who are going to the Getty, Rex, and various agencies—and they don’t cover their transport. But…they enjoy shooting. They have their day jobs so they are getting their 50,000 a year to pay their bills but the rest of us, are trying to make a livelihood doing that, it just becomes more and more difficult doing that. It’s a source of frustration, shall we say?
The Decline of Print Magazines
What people are interested in now is immediacy
KEVIN: What people are interested in now is immediacy because magazines are on the decline. There’s less and less each year goes by—magazines are closing down. It’s all about Facebook. It’s all about social media. It’s all about immediacy. So, the net effect is about the dilution of quality. What we don’t see are the pages in the magazine where we can look at quality. It’s now displayed on your phone or your computer, so it can be a little bit blurry. It can be a little bit soft. We don’t really care. It’s online instantly. Whereas, I am more traditional. I will take mine and select them, I will retouch them, and send them to the magazine because they print it for quality. The magazines that I work for still hold that in high esteem. But generally speaking, there’s been a terrible dilution of quality, because if you are not getting paid for it, why would you care about the quality? If you are getting “Likes” for it and it is getting you into the pit to shoot your favorite band, why not?
RAN: What’s funny is over here if you go to a bookstore, you might see Rolling Stone or Alterative Press, but we don’t really have hard-copy, paper magazines here anymore. Most of the magazines here come from the UK. So, it’s even more competitive over here. And, a lot of our newspapers have gone under. Most are going online….
KEVIN: They are online here too but we have a very, very famous music magazine here New Musical Express (NME). They were established for many, many decades and later became a free hand-out at the Tube station.
So, we have magazines. They are getting thinner. They are commissioning less work and using more press shots.
Living the Dream
RAN: I notice on the internet there’s a lot of websites that are trying to sell the dream—essentially, you are living the dream, right, by photographing rock stars. In reality, it can’t really be a career, can it? I mean, how many people can tour with the Rolling Stones?
KEVIN: I think about that, again, related to London, there are a handful of us that make their living from music photography. There’s a lot of professional photographers, including myself now…I have to branch out. Still, music represents most of my income and clients but it’s getting less. It’s a downward spiral…I will do anything from architecture to portraits to PR events—and I’ll do weddings. I think that’s what most of the photographers are doing. And the pros (the music pros) are doing more and more Red Carpet stuff now. And the stuff that does make money…it’s the photo of a [famous] person getting out of a taxi…Trash tabloids. That’s what they are looking for.
So Do People Really Tour With a Band?
It tends to be ‘who you know’
RAN: Have you ever toured with a band? That seems to be the “dream” that is being sold to concert photographers?
KEVIN: On a small scale….and I was paid a reasonable day rate…There’s a group on Facebook called “Concert Photographers of the World” and I just read about doing exactly that, about touring with bands. And essentially the point he was making was they “do it for free.” Evening touring bands—some bands but not all bands—nepotism rules. It tends to be “who you know”. If you are friends with a drummer or somebody in the band, then you’ll get on the tour. There’s a couple of people in Ireland who have been quite successful with that I think a band taking a photographer on tour with a band for three months, that’s kind of on the way out now. Maybe the super high-end bands will, but the regular bands now, they rely on the good will and charity of their fans. That tends to be the phase now.
The Cost of Camera Equipment in the ‘Day of Free’
Upward to £20,000
RAN: To stay competitive now, you have to have good camera equipment. That’s pretty expensive!
KEVIN: Yes, it is. I don’t want to get all nerdy and techie but yeah. I just replaced my camera and it was, in dollars, about 7,500 in dollars. That was just for the camera body. You have to have three or four few prime lenses or prime zoom lenses. In my camera bag that I take to a festival, there has to be upward 20,000 pounds, which is like 27,000 dollars just in my camera bag. Then you have all these studio lights, a computer…So you have to acquire a lot of expensive things.
RAN: So, what’s wrong with this picture. To be a concert photographer you have to have thousands of dollars of equipment, you don’t get paid, they don’t pay for travel, and it’s basically a hobby! It’s turning into a hobby!
KEVIN: It’s very, very wrong! And it is a hobby. Most of the people I know in London have a good paying day jobs, so this is their little hobby. They can go out and afford to take a loss. They can buy their expensive cameras but it’s a hobby so they can get those little “Likes” they desire so much. So, they can put it on Facebook, they can put it on Instagram.
So, it’s turning into a narcissistic thing where “I have 50,000 Likes”, which makes me better than the next person. People are working for social media Likes which is pretty pathetic
With websites, it’s a given…OK…you do a good job and it’s fantastic and you spread the word, which is lovely but there simply isn’t any money in websites. I know there’s lots and lots of websites over here and they do take advantage of people’s good will. They have expenses and websites will not pay. So now a precedent has been established, it’s going to be impossible for any of us to go back…
So Who is Making the Money?
I think bands make their money on merchandise and touring
RAN: SO, who is making the money? Is it the label? Is it the band? The manager?
KEVIN: I think touring is the way to go now. Even when you go in you are given a CD…CDs are so cheap to produce. I think bands make their money on merchandise and touring. A band can sell a t-shirt for $40, $45, or $50 that probably cost them $3 or $5 to make in a sweat shop in China. So that’s where the money is. So touring…there’s money to be made in that.
All bands need photography—some bands more than others. Some things got lost along the way with photography having an intrinsic monetary value. Why would you pay me X-100 pounds to shoot a gig when there’s 50 people behind me with good cameras and a good eye…why would they pay me when they can get 50 people for free?
Like I said before….with good lighting…it’s not rocket science what we do. If you have an eye and you know how the camera works—you get the shots. [In the pit] there are about 10, 15, 30 people and we’re all getting the same shots. And in any one gig you might shoot three songs, 50 songs, or you might shoot 500 songs . So in any gig you might come out with several thousand pictures of the band. There’s so many in circulation so how can I say my picture is worth, let’s say, $300, when there’s a 1000 more, that people are going to give away.
RAN: What is even worse is that even mediocre pictures can be made to look better in Lightroom.
With basic knowledge of Lightroom, yeah, you can do that. We get our chance, sometimes two songs, sometimes one [in the dark] and then you have the first two rows in the auditorium, all with iPhones, all with good quality point and shoot cameras, and then the light come up. My job is to make a rock star look like a rock star. It’s not to embarrass them. It’s not to make them look [like] crap. It’s to make them look stunning. Powerful. Energetic. Dynamic. That’s what the magazine wants. They don’t want a picture of Ozzy Osbourne falling over. They want a picture of Ozzy Osbourne [looking good] and that’s what I give them.
My job is to make a rock star look like a rock star
A lot of the rules come from management. This three-song rule—there’s all sorts of stories about where it started. I don’t know. All I know is it’s always been in play since I started doing this. And occasionally, Alice Cooper, God bless his heart, he’ll give us four songs…sometimes the show. And a couple of other artists do work with us. Some artists give us one song from the mixing board area. There’s artists that only give 30 seconds of one song—and then you get thrown out. So we’re the people that make them look good. They don’t understand that.
CONTRACTS, Contracts, contracts….
We all understand the ‘rights grab’
RAN: Plus, we sign contracts too!
RAN: And sometimes we don’t even own our own artistic work.
KEVIN: Same here, same here. We all understand the “rights grab” where essentially, they own our photographs forever and they can do what they choose with them! And, people sign it!
There was a case where Megadeath. They have the most ridiculous contract in place. It was laughable. and I said, “No, let’s not sign this.” And everybody to my face agreed not to sign it. The minute my back was turned, off they were doing it. Sadly to say they shot Megadeath.
I think a lot of pros would say “no, screw that.” It’s basically the “hobbyists”—and I don’t mean to say that in a patronizing way [but they will sign it]. They aren’t professionals. Why would they care whether I can pay my bills? And I understand that. I completely get that. Like you said, if they are there to do their bucket list, they are going to do it.
Equipment Info for All the Geeks in the House
Nikon has the edge over Canon in low light
RAN: What equipment do you favor? Are you a Nikon person or a Canon person?
KEVIN: Do you want me to be a technical geek for 40 seconds?
RAN: Yeah! We talked about the dark side! Let’s talk technical…
I use Nikon. For two reasons—I have always used Nikon (since I was 13 years old) and I still think Nikon has the edge over Canon in low light. That’s it.
Maybe the next variation of the Canon cameras will take over Nikon in low light. I think currently with the D4 and D5, that’s the champion of low lights—and most of the things I do have very little lighting.
Shooting wise, I tend to use three lenses–prime zooms, 12-24mm, 24-70mm, and 70-200 mm. For special effects, a fisheye
Who Are the Nice People in the Industry?
His people stopped the shoot after like 20 seconds
RAN: I have another question that I don’t know if you can answer? Who were the nicest people and who were the dicks?
KEVIN: It’s a rubbish answer because everybody I have met has been lovely.
I think if you are going to a shoot, you treat them with respect. You treat them courteously. Most musicians have been shot 1000 times. They want to get in and out. I tend to work very quickly. The sooner you can get it they will love you more! The sooner you say, “Alright, that’s it” they are very happy.
I had a shoot with Gene Simmons and I was probably half an hour with him in the studio. I got my background set up and lights. In walked Gene with his handlers. When it came time for me to shoot, his people stopped the shoot after like 20 seconds. I got about 12 frames in which five were usable. So I got it. That was a tricky one.
I shot Rob Zombie and his people had a stopwatch. This was in a studio. I had 120 seconds. So, there wasn’t time for small talk.
That’s the nature of these people—it’s quick in and out.
People are generally very nice. I never met people who were in ass. I mean, some of the Young Guns….I shot a portrait of them and they were very drunk. Hey! Rock and roll!
A lot of the bands with Prog Rock are grateful just to get coverage. I hate name-dropping, but we’re talking about the subject, but perhaps the nicest chap I have worked with—I did a portrait—was Billy Idol. This was a couple of years ago. He had been doing PR all day…all day….and it was my turn at 4 o’clock. I met him on Kings Road in London…and traffic was busy. And I said, “Billy, you must be so incredibly [upset]” and he said, “The only time I’ll be upset is when they stop asking me to do this.” He was courteous. He was polite. He was top drawer.
RAN: In closing, do you have any thoughts about the future of photography?
KEVIN: I think two to three years’ time there will be a gradual merging of the video and the stills—two disciplines, if you like. I think the quality of cameras is going to be increased to such an extent that you’ll be able to take snippets of video, and you’ll be able to stop it at any point, and get an image. You can do that now [with good enough resolution for web use] but [in the future] you can probably get a still that you can print.
Rock At Night’s theme song is “Get On Down If You Feel Up To It” by Texan blues musician Billy “Bass” Alford
I grew up in a household full of rock music, studied journalism in college, and then became a scientist.Although my science career has served me well, music has always played a major role in my life. I grew up reading "Creem" magazine; I play several musical instruments as a "hobby";and it seems a camera has always been in my hand. Now, I am combining what I love the most--music and photography--serving as editor of Rock At Night. My motto: life is short...no regrets. Chyrisse