Abandon all hope, and don’t rock the boat
And we’ll all make a few hundred grand
Everybody’s trying to be a friend of mine
Even a dog can shake hands
You’ll be making the scene
Till they pick your bones clean Warren Zevon
The music industry is a matrix that is counter to what is natural and right. Prince
I. In The Beginning: MPMF
I’d been shooting concerts for about twenty years on the day I decided to quit. The idea had been in my brain for some time. The basis for my contemplated resignation was simple; I simply wasn’t having fun anymore. And as the pros are want to say, that’s the time to go.
I didn’t want to abandon photography all together as that drug still coursed through my veins. I did know beyond of the proverbial shadow of a doubt, however, that I couldn’t shoot another rock band.
I made this decision in the very moment portrayed in the photograph above. That scene is what I saw when I turned the corner to photograph day one of the Bunbury Music Festival, in Cincinnati Ohio, on June 5, 2015.
Bunbury was started in Cincinnati in 2011 by Bill Donabedean; a local entrepreneur who had previously with mutual friend Sean Rhiney- started The MidPoint Music Festival.
The pair started MidPoint with twenty, or so, friends, myself included. The initial MidPoint festival was a success- so we did it again, and again. And for years on end we all worked hard and for free. We worked to support Bill and Sean’s vision and had the time of our lives, even when Cincinnati was so depressed as to look like Detroit South.
MidPoint was a labor of love; a party for 30,000 people.
The idea behind Midpoint was to host a music festival where unsigned bands from around the country and eventually from around the world could come and meet with fellow musicians, attend seminars and meet with music execs-and other musical experts and industry types in the hope of furthering their careers; if not to ultimately get signed to a label.
This was back in the day when getting signed by a label mattered. It was also years before the explosion of entrepreneurship and the ubiquitous outdoor musical festival.
The idea was that the festival would take place depending upon the year and number of bands selected for that years festival in 10 to 20 venues around Cincinnati’s historic Over The Rhine Neighborhood immediately north of downtown.
The festival started slowly. For a number of years the city was so depressed that there were not even enough open bars to host all of the bands attending the festival.
The festival, instead, was, one year, even forced to open bars for just that weekend with Donabedian and Rhiney obtaining temporary liquor licenses and hiring staff for those ad hoc joints. I recall walking into a bar that year to find painters disassembling scaffolding, just as the opening band was tuning up.
The festival initially was a small operation, but grew exponentially. Security had to be arranged and stage managers had to be recruited. Insurance had to be obtained. Venues had to be located to hold seminars, people speaking at the seminars had to be fed and put up. PR and photography had to be arranged and credentials had to be made. There was the need to interface with the city on any number of levels and someone had to deal with the police, who were less than fervent about the whole idea.
In time, though, the festival flourished, hotels filled, and music venues were packed. Musicians from near and far, as well as music fans, filled normally empty streets.
At its nadir, hundreds of bands from around the world came to Cincinnati to participate.
The festival itself was important to because so little was happening there in those days.
The sidewalks rolled up at dusk and there were very few entertainment venues. The city was a ghost town, no one lived there and you’d be hard pressed to find a couple hundred people socializing in the entire downtown area in those days.
When people came downtown for the rare event: a ball game, Oktoberfest, whatever; they came down, went to the event and drove straight back to the burbs. Midpoint, therefore, was important because it represented a core of people taking initiative and having faith in the possibility of what the city could be.
In 1992, there had been race riots and, for two memorable nights we lived under martial law as if we were in East Berlin after the war.
Those who originated and developed and worked that festival were, in no small part, responsible for the renaissance of this town. It should also be said that the city at that time did precious little to encourage these efforts.
I pitched in where I could working as a stage manager, musical judge (deciding, with many others, what bands would be admitted to the festival) and as a photographer.
For myself, MP was important because it gave me a chance to work closely with a very talented group of people. That core group taught me something I had never been able to figure out for myself -how to meld my abilities to the abilities of others in service of creating something large and worthwhile.
But for that MidPoint opportunity, I don’t know if I would have ever become a productive artist. I knew how to work hard in those days, but I didn’t know the process. They taught me that piece.
The real beauty of MP was that Bill and Sean were open-partially out of need-to letting people try their hand at damn near anything. They couldn’t afford to pay anyone as they made precious little from the event and any slim profits were plowed back into the festival the next year; so instead they offered opportunity and the chance to learn.
In time I, therefore, I became managing editor of photography-largely because I was there and I wanted to do it and no one else wanted it more.
This position was a natural extension of my interests. I had returned to Cincinnati several years before MidPoint launched. I made new friends- nearly all of whom were musicians. Having not a shred of musical talent myself, I began to photograph shows and take band photos as well as other promotional photos as a way of fitting into the scene, as a way of contributing, as a way of furthering my own long-term artistic interests.
Which is not to say that I had any talent when I began photographing the festival. The first night I was entirely bewildered because I could not- in the small dark bars- capture any sort of image. All my photographs were black.
I knew so little about photography that I didn’t understand the concept of ISO, I tried to shoot everything at night with my beginner’s camera (a Canon Rebel) preset to an ISO setting of 100. For those who don’t understand photography, this is essentially equivalent to racing in the Indy 500 using only first gear- and not even appreciating that you have other gears.
In the early years a handful of people also shot the festival and then, over the years, as MP grew, others came. Slowly a core of photographers coalesced and each September became special.
To a photographer, MidPoint came to mean three solid nights of music, the opportunity to shoot 100 bands in a weekend. Again, this was a huge deal because there really much else going on in those days.
And though getting a decent shot was extraordinarily difficult, given the venues’ low lighting, our amateur grade equipment, and relative lack of talent, in time we improved. We explored and expanded our interests.
One night I tore a bedsheet in half, taped it to a brick wall on an empty storefront on Main Street and did portraits of anyone who walked by. Those portraits became the basis for my first ever gallery show.
And while the photography was coming to mean the world to me, those early days were primarily about friendship and energy.
Inevitably things changed. A feeling of energy and possibility grew. On the best of nights, it was possible, in those small dark squalid clubs, to plug into the energy of the best bands. The sets were short and brutal- but some were so frenetic they survive in my brain until this day.
I recall, for instance, standing on the back of the stage in a packed club shooting GitoGito Hustle, a four piece, all female, punk band from Tokyo. The club shook as the women shook the building and methodically ripped the heart and soul out of everyone present-primarily pasty middle-aged white men who were dumbstruck by this rare (to our town) exotic vision. It was a brutal animated orgy of sound.
In time Donabedian and Rhiney sold Midpoint to CityBeat, a local alternative magazine. I shot subsequent MidPoint Festivals, though my interest waned. Attending the party was nowhere as much fun as throwing the party. There was little adrenalin in it.
II. Blastoff: Bunbury
When in 2011, however, Bill announced that he intended to start a new festival called Bunbury- a more traditional three-day outdoor festival. I again signed on.
Our town was still moribund and dying for entertainment and these were the early days of the outdoor festival phenomenon. Forecastle had been throwing a gig for several years and further south there was Bonnaroo which was just exploding into the national conscious. Beyond that there was much going on in the region and certainly nothing much going on locally.
I, and many others, were tired of driving 100 miles to Lexington, Louisville and Columbus to see shows. Something needed to happen.
The first Bunbury was small affair- a dress rehearsal, with primarily several small bands. I shot from backstage; the shoot was not really much different from shooting any local gig. It was single stage, with no big name headliner. All and all, a nice night, but it was only intended to be a dress rehearsal, something to be shown to sponsors.
When the festival took off for real, however in 2012, things became surreal.
Jane’s addiction headlined that Friday night in 2012. To watch the video from that set is to understand that those of us who had given our hearts and energies to Midpoint, suddenly found ourselves treading water in the deep end of the musical pool.
The crowds were huge- at least to those of us who had never thrown such a party- 20,000 people crammed onto a lawn alongside the Ohio River.
Gone were the small dark bars of Over The Rhine- Bunbury took place upon a mile long swatch of concert grounds upon which had been erected three large professional stages- like those normally seen in full size arenas- as well as three smaller stages.
Unlike MidPoint the bands that were to play Bunbury were not bands looking to learn the ropes, looking to learn the music industry. Bunbury aimed to compete with other large professional festivals. The talent would be professional, known to the crowds and would arrive in buses, not beaters on the verge of death.
The band who played Bunbury brought mountains of gear in semi trucks. Cafeterias were raised under circus tents to feed hundreds. To walk backstage, especially at the main stage was to walk through canyons of monitors, to skirt racks of expensive guitars and multiple assembled drum kits. There were industry people we’ve never met before, roadies and riggers, light and sound men and women from out of town- faces we’d never seen. Professionals for hire.
We were babes in the wood.
And when the shows began we photographers found ourselves, not photographing friends playing before a couple dozen paying guests, but rather; standing between arena size stages and screaming masses some ten feet behind us, five, then twenty thousand, people.
That ten feet of no man’s land- between the crowd and the stage is known as the pit. Walking into and working from the pit became- for many of us- a whole new world of wonder.
There weren’t but a handful of photographers in the pit for the early afternoon shows- but the headliner shows were crowded: close to fifty heavily equipped people crammed into the pit’s small space.
The difference between our prior experience was primarily one of scale, size and power.
The music poured from oversized PA’s. The bass thudding from the onstage monitors was a palpable beast, every note a virtual gut punch. Seeming miles of cable lay snaking about the length of the pit, in no apparent order, threatening to ensnare ankles and feet. Standing on the cables was, in and of itself, a painful distraction. We quickly learned that we needed not only professional cameras, but thick boots, competent ear plugs and many changes of clothing.
The pit was not only a loud and potentially dangerous place, but it was also- given the festival’s July date- a very very hot place.
The festival’s inexperience was also a problem early on. During the first year, the pit not only held working photographers, but inexplicably, a full size boom with a riding operator.
Thus getting a shot involved jockeying for position while setting one’s cameras for exposure and speed as well as watching one’s feet amongst the masses of other feet, and countless cables, as well as making sure that one did not inadvertently step in front of the video boom thus risking decapitation.
You also needed to look out for the other photographers so as to not block their shots.
All of this required a certain zen like stillness and patience because the stage was dark lit and we were forced to shoot, that first night, slow and wide open-that is at maximum aperture and low-speed to compensate for the near complete occasional lack of light.
Thus for many of us, shooting the first Bunbury shows was like beginning again, those shows were like doing delicate surgery for the first time in the midst of a bar room brawl on St Patrick’s day. It takes a certain personality and a very certain skill set to shoot well under these circumstances. Mostly, it takes a serious tolerance for dissonance and noise and madness.
I felt at home from the start.
If MidPoint’s best shows provided a jolt of visceral energy, being in the pit for the early Bunbury headliner shows was like being strapped to the outside of an Apollo rocket at blast off.
The very first headliner: Jane’s Addiction, hit the stage and then exploded into a thick white cloud of smoke back-lit by a flurry of blinding strobes.
A half-dozen smoke machines filled the stage with a deep fog. There were two long trapeze which were hung from the rigging. On those trapeze some 15 feet above the stage sat two women in white formal gowns with trains that trailed down to the stage.
Perry Farrell came out in dress pants and a dinner jacket with no shirt, but inexplicably, wearing fingerless gloves.
Guitarist Dave Navarro, also shirtless, was a human tattoo, drifting back into the confines of the stage fog, appearing only briefly from time to time.
Somewhere a bass player and drummer played. Somewhere, I write, for I could not see them- let alone shoot them- for love or money. The stage was also at eye level with the onstage monitors placed along the front of the stage. I quickly learned that the best photographers were tall. I was not.
I, we, learned many lessons that night- chief among them that position in the pit was everything. You needed to be touching the stage and not behind a wedge monitor. You needed to work fast and with complete concentration you had to learn to ignore the noise and the crowd and the band.
There were also video shooters in the pit who were hard wired- meaning they had to have helpers pull the wire for the video camera as the video guy made his way up and down the stage. Thus the wires at one’s feet were not just thick and painful under one’s feet, but angry and alive- as was the video guy who- after having his cable stepped on for the twelfth time- exploded in a fury of rage and began throwing haymakers at the nearest photographer.
Once in place, it was necessary to not only identify a subject, estimate distance and light- as described above- but to also allow for the smoke and rapid, blinding flash.
All of this coordination had to necessarily happen in a few moments, for it is the law of the land that photographers are only permitted to shoot the first three songs of the headliner’s set.
Thus, in the short time we had to shoot the act, the stage constantly fluctuated between high noon and a moonless midnight as the strobes continued to flash. It was impossible to adjust camera settings to these changes- the lighting changed far too rapidly. Instead, you chose to shoot in either the light or dark and time your shots. It was also necessary- given the limited time allowed for shooting- to make this choice instantly.
Shooting in the bright glare of the strobe, meant being able to shoot at higher speeds which meant clearer, sharper shots. However, it also meant that everything took on a bleached fishbelly white parlor. The light was also so bright that the odds of ending up with a completely overexposed exposure was pretty high.
Shooting in the dark meant shooting slow which meant that any movement of the camera would result in soft or blurry photos. Shooting slow meant shooting wide open which also meant that the depth of field- that part of the photograph which was in focus was extremely limited.
Even pushing professional gear to its limit meant that depth of field was so limited that if you were able to get focus on the tip of someone’s nose, the odds were pretty good that the rest of their face would be soft and the rest of the stage in front or behind that point of focus would be a blur.
What I’m trying to say is that it takes a very specific and strange skill set to be able to shoot concerts. Specifically, under novel, time limited and extremely distracting circumstances, one had to be sharp, and fast with a great sense of timing in order to grab any decent shots.
Fortunately, many of these obstacles were ameliorated given the comradery which generally reigned in the early days of the pit. Everyone understood that everyone needed, at the end of the day, to bring home presentable images. Thus the rule of the pit was live and let live; yield prime positions after you have your shots, and should someone need better access- as indicated by their laying an open hand on your shoulder- then you needed to finish your work and yield your spot.
We learned these rules from the pros in the pit. This sort of madness was new to us of the Midpoint crowd- but was old hat to those who made living chasing tours and music festivals. There were also local professional photographers who did other work in the day and came to shoot the festival out of love of music, photography or even curiosity. Nearly every one of these pros were kind and supportive of the green among us.
We learned quickly.
And yet, the first several nights were madness; the work occurred in a whirlwind of noise, the sound itself was beyond deafening. The bass threatened to trigger arrhythmia. The screaming guitars dissected every nerve.
To stand at the foot of the stage was to also gain great appreciation for the musicians. The sound before and upon the stage often bore little resemblance to the sound which ultimately reached the crowd.
Bands, I came to learn, were often playing blind- meaning that they only heard a disjointed portion of what they were playing. Often the sound was the kind of noise which emanates from a partially tuned radio.
The musicians were, therefore, required to play together as best they could without being able to hear what it was they were playing. It was a lot like a photographer shooting with his eyes closed.
During the Jane’s Addiction set, lights exploded in an irregular rhythm, not set to any beat or any discernible rhythm, just a crazy mix of blinding strobes and darkness and fog.
“How the fuck does one photograph this mess?” I wondered? How the fuck do you shoot this mess?” I screamed aloud?
Answers were not forthcoming.
As best you can appeared to be the answer.
I have a distinct recollection, from the end of the set that night, of holding my camera over my head, in desperation, and simply hitting the shutter button as if it were the trigger of a machine gun.
Luckily, by then, we had some knowledge of the intricacies of shooting concerts and because, by then, we owned real- if not professional gear- we did come away with some acceptable photos.
It rained the very next day, the first Saturday of Midpoint. The first of many storms- large and small- to plague the festival. The rain would become an inexplicable Bunbury tradition.
In our youths, it did not rain in Cincinnati in July. For some reason, it now rains in Cincinnati in July- sometimes it rains as if it were mid November.
During that first rainy Saturday, I was standing, with a handful of other photographers, in the pit- waiting for the show to begin. The rain came in from the west. I climbed under the stage and found myself sitting next to a photographer I had hired on behalf of the festival- and upon the recommendation of a friend.
We sat under the stage, waiting out the rain, watching the crowd before us become drenched. We chatted, exchanged bios and learned that we were both, strangely enough practicing Zen Buddhists with a serious interest in the 13th century teacher and sage Dogen. He told me about his teacher who has written the definitive translation of Dogen’s more important work. The early years were like that. Magic. Even the problems were not problems. I told him about my experiences with my new Zen temple in New Mexico.
Amazingly, I was being well paid for all this silliness. Which is not to say that the job was easy. My gig was managing editor. I was tasked with building a photography team- somewhere between 5 and 7 shooters.
Collectively we were to shoot all the shows and shoot the commercial photos which would be needed by the festival in the coming year for sales and publicity purposes.
I was very glad to have the gig, but knew that the gig was not given to me on the basis of my artistic talent. Rather, the job was payment for all the years of uncompensated work with MidPoint and because I had extensive managerial skills in other areas.
I also had quite a bit of experience as a negotiator and as a bar room brawler- these skills were necessary skills as the years went on.
This all worked because I was, at least, smart enough to hire great people out of the gate. We grew in talent each year. There were people who came and went, some went onto full-time concert photography gigs, traveling about the world, including the sickly talented Josh Timmerman.
Mostly, I hired people who were team players and refused to hire anyone exuding the least bit of self-importance.
In return my photographers received two passes, a small stipend (which was still better than most gigs) and superior access. Furthermore, as long as they got me the shots I needed, I told them they were free to come and go and shoot as they wish. They were free to use and sell their work on the back-end.
Because there was not a lot of money to pay photographers, freedom and access were the best alternatives I had to offer. Fortunately, freedom and access to a concert photographer is as good as cash.
In retrospect, I recall that the first three years of the festival, were long and hot, and often wet, and that the gear was heavy.
The job required walking repeatedly from end of the park-about a mile- to the other in the humid summer heat- all in all we walked somewhere about ten miles a day (according to one photographer’s pedometer).
One, at times, felt more like a highly skilled burro than an artist. We were, each day, by midnight, at festival’s end, little more than a puddle of molten plasma.
The first night of the Festival, and each night thereafter, during the last set we gathered outside our tent or trailer- we had a new home each year- and enjoyed the very best beers of the summer as the festival madness swarmed about us.
There’s very little in life as fine as having a cold beer, or four, in the midst of your own personal party for twenty thousand people.
During that brief time that our world stopped, the festival became an act of creation, an act of performance art. We did what we had to do to get through the day, and then came the last set of the night.
Drinking your cold beer, you only then had a chance to appreciate that you had been given a chance few would ever know: to take part in building something large and colorful and loud and real and important.
The festival was important then because we still had so little to enjoy in those days. The town was still dead; and our town was an unhappy place. Revival was just around the corner, but no one could see that, sense that then. Thus, collectively, we worked hard to restart the heart in the corpse which was our city.
We helped- with hundreds of other employees and volunteers- to turn countless miles of lifeless wire, steel and fencing into life, into a huge living hydra, a multi headed beast with hypnotic pulsating powers which caused 20,000 people to dance, sway, fist thrust and head bang to supercharged music under the pale stars and the moon.
I was grateful for the nice paycheck I received, (especially the first year when I was unemployed and my Bunbury check did not take me out west, as any spare money normally did, but put food on my family’s table).
As an artist, I made full use of the fact that I had full access to the grounds and could shoot anywhere, at anytime; but more than anything I was grateful to the chance to make the festival come alive. I was grateful to work alongside so many talented people, people who would work each year, not for the check, but out of love and loyalty to the collective vision.
More than anything though I always most grateful for that moment, late in the day, when the work was complete and I could drink with my mates and take in everything we had accomplished.
In some fifteen years we- MP and Bunbury stakeholders – had under Bill and Sean’s direction grown- from the early MidPoint days of shooting the smallest local bands in the smallest darkest bars in Cincinnati, to shooting and overseeing photography for a festival drawing national acts as well as 40-60,000 people a weekend.
And every year was something new.
What I love about photography is that it always takes me to places I’d never see, nor be permitted to see were I not holding a camera.
III. Chances Taken, Battles Fought and Won
Thus the following year, I photographed Bunbury from a helicopter while circling the festival grounds. The penultimate act, prior to take off, was the pilot taking the doors off the copter so that I had an unobstructed view of the world beneath me. The only thing between myself and the earth- some several thousand feet below- was a very thin seat-belt.
The last thing the pilot did was point at the small video game like joystick immediately between us. It was ridiculously small cockpit. Not much bigger than a subcompact car. The pilot was a large man; I was larger. Gear was crammed at my foot. “Don’t touch that or hit that or we die.”
I considered explaining to the pilot that I had a very serious fear of flying, that I had not flown in years, that I was gripped by an absolute certainty that we would both soon be dead, but I swallowed the thought. At some point one must cowboy up. I decided that while it was going to suck to die, I was not going to disgrace myself by dying like a coward.
We took off, across the river, on a small point immediately adjacent to the river. The pilot revved the motors which strained greatly. The copter blades whipped just inches above our small glass cabin. Slowly, we rose into a stiff wind as the pilot forced the copter out over the river.
Nothing seemed to happen for a long time. We were suspended 30 then 50 then 100 feet above the muddy brown river, seemingly held in check by the wind, and then we began to lift. In the back of the copter were two contest winners- a father and his grown daughter. They didn’t look much more reassured than I felt. Slowly we rose above the earth.
In time, we gained speed, flew over the baseball park, the concert fairgrounds, over the city and adjoining neighborhoods. We flew high enough- maybe 1500 feet or so that we had a perfect view of all below.
I had lived here for decades, on and off, and knew the city inside and out. And yet, the world was a very different creature from 1500 feet. It was a far more curious place, so curious that I forgot to worry, forgot to be afraid. At this altitude and speed, I had a new perspective on a world I thought I knew completely.
I shot with abandon. The only down side to the flight being that we could only fly in the afternoon when the concert grounds were relatively empty. This edict from the FAA who forbad an evening flight as the Reds were playing that evening next door. And yet, it didn’t matter.
More perks: in time I befriended the fine people who worked for the local NPR station. The did live remotes from the festival and often interviewed the artists. When they needed photos of the artists, my phone rang. “Hello Mike- EmmyLou Harris is going to be here in five minutes- can you be here to shoot her? We’re also expecting Old Crow Medicine Show and the Drive By Truckers after that…..”
Sometimes things were surreal. One day I shot the Cincinnati band, Walk The Moon. They were in the process of blowing up. They had just come off tour and had a hit on the chart. Come August they would headline the MTV awards. They seemed like any nerdy, Peter Pan, day glow, quartet of young Cincinnati kids.
I shot the band as they gave their interview. It was all unbelievably anti climatic. The band was sweet and modest. At the interview’s end however, as the band cleared the radio’s stations locus, all hell broke out. They were charged by girls with piercing screams. They teens cried out in recognition and broke down in tears. They begged for hugs and photographs.
Really? I remember thinking. I thought such adoration had died in the sixties with the Beatles, but clearly I was wrong.
As the festival grew, our art grew; we walked miles, we became fast friends; the kind of friendships one makes in the teens and twenties- hard and meaningful friendships. For myself- decades past my twenties- this was best of all. Art, beer and friendship. Nothing else really mattered.
In time I became close with several of the photographers. I’d known them before the festival, but after I came to know them as we shot other shows about the city, year round.
And so the festval grew and we became better friends and photographers.
As one of those photographers, Matt Steffen recently wrote about these times:
The mention of what personality thrives in such chaos is hard to explain to people who aren’t of that mindset.
Working through the sweltering heat, rain, mosquitoes, overcrowded pits, sitting on top of each other to edit, blistered feet, and chafed thighs. ..i’d do it tomorrow, without hesitation.
It was like summer camp. Time spent in a bubble, full of difficult work, friendly competition, exhausting pace, and a long, therapeutic walk back to the car.
Thank you for bringing me into that fold.
Like most things in life, the mind has a way to cling to the better memories. All things change, and sometimes good things end. I look forward to the next incarnation.
It turns out, however, that there are only so many tickets and beers that people can afford. We did well as we went forward and we continued to grow, but the seeming success brought unwanted attention to the pit as well.
As the festival’s success grew so did media interest. Each year the crowd in the pit grew and each year I knew fewer faces. The spirit of goodwill- so much a hallmark of prior Bunbury Festivals-became a little less obvious each year.
And yet, life remained good. We retained full access and shot the bands of our youth and the bands which we admired in this year as well.
In 2014 Buckle up Music Festival debuted. It was the country equivalent to Bunbury and we held it on the same park on the weekend after Bunbury. Thus, in 2014 we ran, for the first time, back to back weekend festivals.
The Saturday of Buckle Up weekend featured, among others, the following lineup: Emmylou Harris, Old Crowe Medicine Show, Allison Krauss and Union Station, The Drive By Truckers and Willie Nelson.
The great Marty Stuart- a great guitarist and one time right hand of Johnny Cash had played the night before. The first year of Buckle Up also included a performance by old school throwback and potential country savior Sturgill Simpson.
IV. Snake Eyes.
It seemed like a line up that couldn’t miss, but then the rains came. I knew we needed a solid Buckle Up gate to survive until the next year. For all his years of tireless work, Bill did not have unlimited funds to pour into the Festival- his wife and sons needed to eat as well.
These rains in July seemed impossible. Yet somehow a pattern had established itself. The year before, it had rained so much through June and July that the river flooded. The fucking river flooded in July and one of the main stages had to be moved, at last-minute from it’s now flooded position on the river to the main lawn, thus decreasing main stage capacity.
Unfortunately we did not get the gate we needed in 2014 at either Bunbury or Buckle Up and at the close of 2014 the Festivals sold.
I don’t know why the Gods seemed squarely against us. It was not lack of effort or vision which did us in. Those of us who had been with Bill for some 15 years, continued to work just as hard. Bill worked harder each year.
And yet, it seemed that we could not win for losing.
And yet the truth is that throwing any outdoor festival is a crap shoot. It may be long odds, but if it rains in the middle of the summer every year- and people stay home because of the rain- then eventually you’re going to have to fold. Especially during times of intense competition when smaller venues struggle to book popular bands who are paid significantly more to work large festivals.
Whatever the reason, after years of good luck and hard work the die came up snake eyes.
And so the festival was sold. The new owner, Promo West had their own AV department. They had photographers, I was told, on retainer. They would not be hiring anyone to shot the festival- they would simply assign their own people.
I lost my position- which was expected and understandable. When the rains came and the die came up 7, we all lost. No matter my faults, I wasn’t so greedy and/or ungrateful as to take the wins and complain about the losses.
The new owner was kind enough to provide me with a couple of passes and a photography credential. They weren’t obligated to extend this kindness, but they did- and they didn’t even ask for any work in return.
So I went to Bunbury 2015.
Early the first morning of Bunbury 2015, I walked up to the photographer’s tables- three long tables under a thin awning. PromoWest had provided no food, water, no supplies of any kind. I counted 25 photographers at the tables and noted I did not know a single one. I said hello and was greeted by silence.
I recalled Warren Zevon’s famous quip that even a dog could shake hands. I tried to start a conversation and was largely ignored.
In time my fellow mates drifted in. Those who had previously worked the festival were able to obtain media passes so they were also able to shoot the show.
The first act was due to hit the main stage and we were escorted to the stage, it having been explained to us that we were not to come and go to the stages during the festival on our own volition, but could only shoot at appointed times and that we were to be escorted to and from the stage for each set.
So went en mass, like cattle, We walked down the back drive of the park and past the tour buses which were, as always, lined end to end. We walked past the band trailers and VIP tent. Were walked to the side of the stage, past mountains of rigging and gear.
I was at the rear of the pack. I had no obligations to any outlet, I was free to shoot whatever I chose, whenever I chose. When I turned the corner to the front of the stage, I saw the scene depicted at the top of this essay.
I tried to envision an entire weekend of being crammed into the pit. I calculated the odds of getting a decent shot, the hassle of wading through this less than friendly, less professional, crowd. I thought about the heat, my complete lack of access and freedom- for all of Midpoint and Bunbury and Buckle Up I had unlimited freedom.
I said to myself: “fuck this.”
I just couldn’t do it anymore. The gig was officially no fun.
Times change and sometimes that change is imperceptible, but nevertheless real.
In the fifteen years between the start of Midpoint and the sale of Bunbury, rock and roll Inc. became as much a corporate beast as the gray suited, white shirted, horn rimmed corporations which the angry young rockers used to lampoon in their salad days.
After the collapse of the economy and the music industry, various people attempted to resuscitate the music industry in a number of ways. One of the ways was the outdoor music festival.
Why the music industry collapsed, is a discussion well beyond the scope of this piece- though, in a In a nutshell, the music industry is adamant that illegal downloading is the prime cause of its revenues dropping over the past decade.
Others say people are buying more music than ever, but that we’re buying individual songs and not expensive albums on CDs and revenue reflects this fact.
Some claim it’s because the music today lacks the quality of prior years and decades.
There are other arguments which are easily found on the web. Chose an argument- in the end, it’s academic. As with many other sectors of the world, the world of rock and roll has changed tremendously.
What is clear is that the music industry took a dive and lots of people explored lots of ways to bring the golden goose back to life. One of the winning solutions was outdoor music festivals. Thus the number of Festivals exploded. Northern California alone has 15 major music festivals this summer .
As with almost every American industry, this means that too may dogs are fighting over too few bones.
Festivals come and go in the span of a couple of years.
Said another way, due to the ever competitive market, one bad year is enough to kill a festival. Or make them vulnerable enough that they’re ripe for a buy out.
This new reality also means that bands are heavily dependent upon the summer festivals in order to make a living.
Thus bands travel from festival to festival, caged in a van or tour bus. When they get to the festival they’re shown to a trailer- a non descript trailer perhaps half the size of a mobile home. They eat their meals- and eat well, at least at Bunbury and Buckle Up- in large tents. They play their gig, try and sell some merch and then load back onto the bus and vans to repeat the cycle repeatedly.
It’s this process I think, which has taken the piss out of rock and roll. In the fifteen years I’ve been shooting bands have- with many notable exceptions- become less and less of artists, and more and more businessmen and women, Too many artists have become less friendly, more distant- though most remain well mannered and kind.
Too often-especially at festivals-I found myself shooting, more and more as the years passed, too many sets in which musicians were simply mailing in the effort. They were joyless. They may as well have been making widgets on an assembly line.
Quality of life can be defined in a number of ways. For one friend, it’s defined by the number of adrenaline rushes in a given week or month. For others, QOL can be measured by the number of memorable lifetime moments- those moments so spectacular you can never forget them; others equate QOL with the number of countries they traveled to and through across the globe.
Me, I guess I measure Quality of life by the number of days in which I get to spend doing exactly what I want in the places I want to be with the people I wish to spend time with. Under this system it’s not necessary to even leave the house to have great days. A great day can be as simple as being at home with my beloved and sons eating homemade Mexican food and watching a hockey game.
Many of the best days, however, take place far from home. The absolute best days also contain a sense of discovery as if one has stumbled into a new country. Spending weeks traveling by train with my sons; and hiking Glacier National Park together, or exploring Point Reyes National Seashore or the streets of San Francisco.
The best days and nights in the pit are like that. But those times are more and more infrequent these days. Shooting someone who does not like her or his job is not a good time.
There’s also the reality that more and more, for reasons both legitimate and flimsy, musicians- and more to the point- their management, have come to resent photographers.
Some of their resentment is understandable-the rise of the blog has led a lot of people to believe that all you need to be a journalist or photographer is a cheap camera, or even, god fucking forbid a cell phone, and a laptop. As a result a lot of pits are crowded with new faces and those faces all too often lack understanding, professionalism and courtesy.
V. Enough Is Enough
There has also clearly been a rise in those in business who believe that because bands are brands they must be handled and managed-like tampons or toilet paper. And like any consumer product, corporations insist that the Brand must be presented in a consistent manner and protected. Such a need to control often extends to those who wish to photograph performances. Thus most photographers are strictly controlled.
During Bunbury 2013 a headliner played- I can’t remember who- they were so shitty I’ve pushed them from my memory. The tour manager decided, at the very last minute, that only the house photographer (myself) and the photographer for Rolling Stone would be permitted to shoot their set, for two songs, while standing upon the ground before the sound board- some one hundred and fifty feet from the stage. The combination of lack of elevation and distance almost ensured failure from the start.
The remaining 50 or so photographers who had gone to great time trouble and expense to shoot this band- largely for the benefit of the band- were told that they could, in so many words, pound salt.
Such attitudes were becoming increasingly common everywhere by 2015.
I shot a show at a large venue (Riverbend) in which Ray Montaigne- a seeming common man- or maybe that’s just his brand- commanded that photographers could only shoot his set for the first three songs from the very right boundary of the pavilion, ten rows back.
This angle combined with the fact that Montaigne stood at the back of the stage, in the dark, ensured substandard photos. I did my best to shoot my show for my client, went home and deleted the photos after failing to find a single acceptable shot.
Still other bands attempt to control their brand by forcing photographers to sign demeaning and unconscionable contracts proving that photographers may not display the work of an artist without the bands or managements consent; or demand that the band must pre approve any shot to be published; or that the photographer must send all shots to the band and that the band may use all work for any purpose without any payment of share in royalties by the photographer and that the photographer be concurrently prohibited from ever using his or her work.
In other words, under many such contracts, the photographers is free to spend years and tens of thousands of dollars perfecting a craft and is then invited to work for free for other artists and record companies but prohibited from ever profiting from that work.
Ain’t laissez faire capitalism grand?
As it usually falls to the tour manager to enforce these corporate edicts, tour managers have become especially intolerant of photographers. I lost track of the number of managers who told me that I would not shoot their people as they came and went to the stage, nor could I shoot them from the back of the stage, nor could I shoot past the three songs allotted to the media as a whole.
I would then explain that I was the house photographer and as such had the right to shot from any location at any time and I would politely remind the manager that my boss- the festival- had just paid the artist bags of cash to perform and was entitled to and required photos of said paid performance for the purposes of marketing the festival the following year.
An argument would undoubtedly ensue. In the years I called Bill so he could hash it out with the managers. In time, I just saw the fight through myself. And there were some serious fights which verged on becoming physical.
Poor tour managers tend to rely upon threats of intimidation and implied threats of violence. Many tour managers seemed to believe that their most valuable attribute was being able to act like an asshole on a second’s notice.
I suppose this works for them most of the time because so many employ this technique time and again. It did not work with me however, because I happened to possess the same skill set.
I also, unlike most people, am not only comfortable with occasional confrontation, but enjoy it. It’s what I did in those days. I’ve been in many brawls in my life and do not regret one of them.
I came to learn that the bigger the band- often- but not always; the bigger the asshole tour manager. I also learned that engaging in a swift verbal confrontation and refusing to back down went a long way to ironing things out swiftly. Most tour managers, I think were not accustomed to photographers who fought back.
One such encounter- with the manager of a band which was very famous for ten minutes a couple of years ago, went something like this:
What are you doing here, you can’t be here
I’m the house photographers, (showing credentials) I’m the only person allowed to shoot the show here
I don’t give a damn who you are, I didn’t say you could be here
It’s not your call the festival specifically told me to shoot the show from here and since he signs my paychecks, and not you, I’m going to shoot from here.
You will not shoot from here I am the tour manager, if you take a single photo, I’ll pull that band off the stage
Sounds like breach of contact to me, but that’s up to you.
I begin walking up the steps to the edge of the stage
I’m calling security
why don’t you do that, they know I’m supposed to be here, plus the festival signs their checks as well
You can have three shots from this spot here.
No- I’m going there- I point to a spot at the top of the stage stairs and will shoot for two songs
You can shoot from the top step and have four shots
There, I say pointing out a spot six inches from the prior spot I had indicated and I want six shots.
Fine he said begrudgingly
I went forward took my shots and left.
In the end I debated telling him that I didn’t really need or want the shots. I easily could have gotten them from the pit and I could have infuriated him by telling him that I’d never even heard of the pseudo boy band he was managing.
Cause why be an asshole?
Security tended to work in the same way. For whatever reason, security tends to hate photographers. Again, there are some good reasons, but on the whole it’s more a question of envy. Photographers have a cool gig and they have a shitty gig and they’re jealous.
I don’t know why. Security is very important, I’ve seen them save lives- but many don’t take pride in their work so they resent others who do. I’ve never seen a photographer gratuitously give security a hard time- and if I had I would have jerked that photographer back in line instantly.
But for whatever reason, security, as a whole, seemed to think it their duty to do their important job and fuck with us.
For instance, security could never understand-no matter how many times it was explained to them- that the photographers in the pit were entitled to shoot the first three songs of the headliner.
Thus if a tour manager wasn’t trying to prematurely drag the photographers from the pit, security was.
It sounds petty, but the upshot is that security frequently tried to control photographers by throwing them out of the pit, incorrectly restricting access.
If this was all a question of ego, such concerns would not even be worthy of mention. The reality is, however, that security, like the tour managers, were fucking with the photographers right to make a living. Ultimately, as with tour managers, problems with security inevitably boiled down to some short sharp nasty arguments. Some very public. In time, however, a truce prevailed.
All these circumstances added up to the fact that, by Bunbury 2015, it simply wasn’t fun, for me, to shoot music. By the time I rounded the corner for the first set of Bunbury 2015 and saw the crowd in the pit-there was no point of staying on.
I could live with the heat and the fact that the layout of the park required walking 10 miles a day while covering heavy gear. I could accept the occasional lack of respect from managers, bands and security, I could even stand not being paid after 2014- even though I am a trained professional doing quality work, I might could even stand working with so many photographers who clearly had no interest in concepts such as mutual respect or professionalism.
But I could not see the point in dealing with all these problems for free. I stood at the foot of the stage and contemplated my options.
I did not want to stomp off like a spoiled child. I did not want to just take my ball and go home. If I gave up on music photography what would I do- it was a large part of what I did as an artist.
I couldn’t see how the festival would be anything but a cattle call and I simply didn’t need that. Once upon a time- in the golden days, music photographer was a dream job. These days, not so much.
But what next? I told myself that if I left, before leaving the pit for good, that I’d have to assign myself a new project, a new field of interest. It was not ok to quit and walk away- it was ok, in light of the circumstances, to go onto the next thing.
I’d always loved portraiture and it turned out there were 20,000 interesting faces at the park that day. Some of those faces were beautiful, some odd, some painted. The entire park was heaven for a portrait artist. And given the fact that I had no obligations, no shot list, I could spend the weekend working on my own terms.
The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.