Concert Contracts, Pop Divas, and Double Standards

Photographer Jason Sheldon has written an open letter to Taylor Swift, accusing her of hypocrisy in her recent stance against Apple’s new streaming service. Basically, Taylor is one of the many big-name artists who demand full and perpetual usage rights to all editorial photos taken at her concerts, yet she made a huge fuss about Apple trying to use her music as part of a free promotion of its new streaming service.

Now firstly, if you’re a photographer yourself then your eyes will have bulged out of your head when you read this part of Jason’s letter:

As a freelance photographer, I am asked to photograph concerts by publications. I get paid IF and when the photos are used, not for turning up to a show and shooting it.

That’s insane. I don’t know how the hell Jason has ended up in that situation but you should NEVER work on that basis. If you do something on spec then fine, that’s your call, but if someone asks you to shoot a concert then they should be paying you. What if you do a 300-mile round trip and the artist doesn’t turn up? Doing that for free is insane.

But back to the subject. I’ve only encountered one of these rights-grab concert contracts, last year when I was photographing Sir Tom Jones at the Belladrum festival. About a dozen of us had been waiting hours for Sir Tom to appear, when suddenly we were presented with rights-grab contracts to sign. I was a staff photographer at the local paper so I didn’t have the authority to sign the contract. but some freelancers did sign it, only to be told a few minutes later that Sir Tom had decided not to allow any photography after all.

There was no reason why we couldn’t shoot from the crowd like any other punter, so that’s what most of us did. I went and found a position at the front of the light tower (the big scaffolding structure in the middle of the crowd) and the guy at the lighting desk even let me stand up on his platform so I could shoot over the crowd.

Belladrum Tom Jones

I grabbed a few pics and was then suddenly confronted by a stressed and rather angry man demanding that I stop taking photos. Now I had no idea who this guy was and at first he wouldn’t tell me, he just kept on insisting that I wasn’t allowed to take photos and it didn’t matter whether I’d signed the contract or not. Eventually he told me that he was Tom Jones’ manager and he was going to get me thrown out of the venue, at which point he marched off.

I’d already got the pic I needed anyway so I headed back to the press area and spoke to the guy who was in charge of the festival. The whole press area was buzzing with talk of what a farce the evening had become. Apparently Sir Tom and his people had been a bit of a nightmare all evening, even going so far as to have other artists removed from the backstage area so Sir Tom could have the whole area to himself. Other artists that had finished their sets and wanted to go home weren’t even allowed to collect their belongings from the backstage dressing rooms.

As for Sir Tom’s manager wanting me thrown out of the venue, the whole thing seemed to be a bit of a storm in a tea cup, until a few months later when the festival organisers contacted the newspaper to complain about me violating a contract that I hadn’t even signed. Going forward they’d decided to ban me from the festival as punishment. Apparently in the world of concerts and rights-grab contracts and control-obsessed pop divas, you must behave with absolute reverence or some people will go out of their way to damage your career.

Taylor Swift was right to stand up to Apple, but the point is that she’s in a strong enough position to do that, while at the same time she chooses to abuse and take advantage of those “beneath” her. Most photographers, whether freelance or staff, aren’t in a position to stand up for themselves against these abusive contracts, and it’s hypocritical for pop stars to walk all over the little guys and then expect to be treated fairly themselves.

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