Making Music Photography Lucrative

Making Music Photography Lucrative

Jan 5, 2010

By Conor Risch (

As the music industry evolved over the last several years, the business of photographing musicians and bands for record labels changed with it. Despite declining album sales industry-wide, reps who get their shooters work with music labels say they have just as many jobs now as they did a few years ago. They also say there are still big-budget commercial music jobs to be had. What’s changed, they say, is that the fee structures now vary greatly, and that labels, like every other photo client, want more for less.

What can make working for a record label worthwhile for photographers, especially jobs with smaller budgets, depends on a number of intangibles, such as the potential for licensing, future assignments in the music industry or the chance to build a portfolio that appeals to advertisers.

Negotiating Usage is Key

Reps whose photographers regularly work for record labels say that negotiating fees for usages like publicity, packaging, album covers, t-shirts and other merchandise, and celebrity endorsed advertising is key to running a successful business.

Jen Jenkins, a Los Angeles-based rep who founded Giant Artists in 2006 after managing bands in the music industry for several years, says a larger number of labels are asking “for usage in perpetuity and for all usage, meaning whatever [the photography] fits now and whatever it fits in the future. They’re anticipating format changes now, which they weren’t before.”

Jenkins says that if a label wants to pay more she will grant all usage, but her normal practice is to grant usage for publicity only, and then to negotiate additional fees for things like packaging and album covers. She also says she tries to limit usage terms, and leaves “merchandise for sale” out of her deals if possible. “That’s a good negotiating point—if the band comes back down the line and wants to use three images on t-shirts, then we would charge.”

Well-negotiated usage fees can help make up for shortfalls in day rates, says Caryn Weiss of Weiss Artists, Inc., a Los Angeles-based rep who has worked with music industry clients for more than 17 years. “I’ve had jobs where the day rate isn’t that great but [the client comes] back and does a full buyout for merchandise for sale, and we do end up making some good money on it.”

Weiss also tries to withhold celebrity endorsed advertising rights so that her photographers are compensated if an advertising agency decides they want to use shots for an ad campaign based on a musician’s endorsement.

For example, when Kate Turning shot the package for Britney Spears’ album "Circus," Weiss was able to sell additional usage for the photos to a major advertiser who was featuring Spears in a campaign.

Most labels also try to get a full copyright buyout, in perpetuity, but Jenkins notes that if photographers give up their copyrights, they also give up the rights to sell prints or publish a book of their images in the future.

Making sure photographers are properly compensated for usage is increasingly challenging, though. “I do feel all the reps need to start holding together on this because it’s getting harder and harder to hold back rights,” says Weiss.

How Lower-Budget Jobs Can Pay Off

When budgets are low, photographers and reps have to weigh other factors in deciding whether or not to take jobs.

If an art director at a major label like Sony music is a regular client, Weiss says, she has to consider the “loyalty factor.” “They’ll say, ‘Caryn, I need a really big favor, I want so and so to shoot this band, they’re a new band and I don’t have a budget.’ But then the next month they’ll come back and say ‘Hey we’ve got this great budget and really great creative.”

Working with smaller labels who rarely have large budgets, or working directly with unsigned acts, can also be worth a photographer’s time. “Some of the smaller bands are the most popular,” Weiss says. If a photographer is up for a big-budget job with a major band and that act sees the smaller band with cachet in their portfolio, it can help the photographer get the big-budget job.

Smaller jobs also give photographers an opportunity to work with acts they are passionate about. “If the photographer is into the band or we see the potential for the band to take off, whatever it is, then I say do it,” Jenkins says. “You’ve got to have those fun jobs to balance out the [big commercial jobs].”

If a photographer has a great experience with a band, no matter the budget, it can also lead to further opportunities as the band grows and becomes more successful. “A lot of times we’ll have a great day with the band and then that relationship will continue on for years,” says Jenkins.

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