Concerts are coming back, finally. Birmingham venues are on a booking tear. Huntsville’s trying new outdoor venues, while one local festival returned last weekend.
While the return of live music signifies a return to normalcy for fans who have spent the last year pining for that experience, socially distant or not, it also means money in the pockets of those who depended on concerts for their livelihood, including photographers, who lost that source of income the moment the power that be pulled the plug.
When COVID shut down live music, that meant that money — either primary or supplemental income — completely vanished, putting shooters in a pickle.
David Smith, 39, is a freelance photographer based the Moody and Odenville area near Birmingham.
Artists he’s photographed include Rob Zombie, Ringo Starr, Garth Brooks, Alabama Shakes, Jason Isbell, St. Paul & the Broken Bones. Pretty much anyone who’s come through Birmingham since 2013, he said. “There really have been so many that it turns into a blur at times,” he told AL.com. He primarily shoots at Saturn in Birmingham, plus Iron City, WorkPlay, the BJCC Arena and Concert Hall, and Oak Mountain Amphitheatre.
His photography business is divided in half. DSmithImages provides wedding and portrait photography, while DSmithScenes focuses on concert shots, usually as a contributor for Getty Images’ entertainment division.
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During a normal year, Smith keeps a running list of upcoming shows on a spreadsheet and notifies Getty Images each month which artists are playing when and where. Within 10-14 days of a show, he reaches out to artist publicists to request to shoot that show for Getty, usually gets approved and then shoots the show, after which he edits and sends the images to Getty that night.
This could mean one show per week, or during busy seasons like October (which he and others call “Rocktober,” when bands typically want to finish a tour before the holiday season), it could mean a show each night of the week. Once his photos hit the Getty archives, he earns a royalty fee if and when a media outlet licenses it for use in the publication.
While weddings and portraits pay the bills, concerts keep it fun, and he can certainly make good money and gain helpful exposure off of them, too. He also owns the rights to the photos he takes, unless Getty hires him as a stringer, for which he’d get a flat rate for shooting and show and sending the images to them.
Smith, who has developed a super-distinctive film-like aesthetic, said the music itself draws him to the work, falling in love with new bands he’d never heard before and finding a place to flex his creative muscle and improve his craft.
“I love being exposed to different types of music and bands I wouldn’t have known existed,” he said. Exposure to that was always a great thing, being able to do creative things after the fact. Getting closer to the music, closer than what the rest of the audience gets to do, having that level of access. I’ve always enjoyed documentary photography, being the observer, not necessarily just a fan in the crowd. Taking in an event, capturing it, being a part of it from that perspective.”
Smith tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-December last year, which he called a mild case with symptoms like fever, cough and sore throat.
He remembers the moment music shut down for the foreseeable future. March 13 marked his anniversary. He had plans to shoot experimental Philadelphia-based band Man Man at Saturn. Smith said it was already dicey as to whether the show would even happen. He arrived at the venue to find a sign on the door that said it was canceled.
“This was when everything was going haywire, one thing after another shutting down,” he said. And that was it. No more indoor live music. He shot his last show March 7, a Taylor Hollingsworth gig at Mom’s Basement. He did one pandemic show, when Alan Jackson performed outdoors in Cullman. Otherwise, nothing.
Smith knew that supplemental money was gone, but he was more concerned for his friends in the live music and service industries, not just in Birmingham but all over the country. He hoped they had something to fall back on. Just days into the pandemic, concert professionals told AL.com the impact on the industry was already “seismic.”
“There is nothing anyone can do,” said Huntsville’s Keith Hill last March. He works as a tour lighting crew chief, LED second electrician, long lens camera op for bands like Train, Goo Goo Dolls, Evanescence and 311. “We are all independent contractors without benefits, unemployment, etc. We all know the risks but this is worst case scenario for a lot of pros. We will just have to wait it out.”
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But Smith had weddings and portraits to hold him over, though not in April during the full-on shutdown of just about everything. Once things opened up in May, he booked enough weddings to help offset the lack of concert gigs. Business was surprisingly good. Without live music and between weddings, there weren’t many opportunities.
“It was weird,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. I started walking around the neighborhood taking photos. That got tiresome after a while. I didn’t want to be the type who was going out during a pandemic and taking photographs. I wanted to be respectful.”
He spent most of April 2020 rebuilding his website to keep occupied. He knew weddings would come back sooner than concerts, which he remained convinced wouldn’t return anytime soon. His entire routine changed. His work made him a night owl. He stayed out and got home late. Now he falls asleep around 8:30 or 9 p.m., unheard of for him.
“I miss seeing everyone at a show,” he said. “I miss seeing the crowds assemble, the energy of a show.”
There’s certainly light at the end of the tunnel with Birmingham venues booking scores of shows, even through 2022, including bigger events like Furnace Fest. He’s thrilled to see live music make a comeback, but he worries we could be rushing back into it too quickly where things could go haywire again. With all the venues booking gigs, it could be a mad scramble to fill dates, though he’s sure they’ve spent much of the pandemic working through the logistics. Regardless, he’s ready.
“I don’t anticipate a full schedule until sometime in 2022,” Smith said. The fall may be wide open if we’re on a better path — if vaccinations are up, number of cases are down — if so, fantastic.”
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Kinsey Blake Haynes, 25, is from a small town in Marengo County called Gallion, Ala. Her full-time gig is working for an attorney in nearby Demopolis.
She’s photographed Pearl Jam, KISS, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Linkin Park. She mostly shoots gigs at Zydeco, Iron City, Avondale Brewing Company and Soul Kitchen Music Hall.
Haynes doesn’t always make money doing it. She has a uniquely bright spirit, reflecting a sincere love for the craft, eager to fire away in the pit for that standard first-three-song window photographers get most shows. So she said losing concert photography has challenged her mental health. It’s something she depends on to stay “productive and sane.”
“I love it more than anything,” she said. She wrote her first blog post at 11 and knew she had to turn it into a way to make a living. He started writing about every concert she attended for her MySpace blog. She had “a crappy point-and-shoot” camera and tried to get the best photos she could each time.
“I love music,” she said. “Just being able to see music regardless of genre or where it is. Being able to capture that for other people to see is one of those things that I feel really fortunate to be able to do. Bands I see have these die-hard fan bases, and a lot of people can’t go, so it’s like bringing an experience to someone through your camera.”
She said outlets will send an assignment list with certain list of bands, and she’ll pick and choose which she wants to cover if they’re in her area. The outlets usually pay per article, without a contract. Paid or unpaid, she usually shoots about three or four shows a week. Since the pandemic began, she’s shot maybe three or four socially distanced shows all year. She said she’s lucky because it isn’t her full-time job, but more of a side gig.
Days before the pandemic shut down live music, Haynes flew to Denver to shoot a show for Alabama-based jam band CBDB. The show went on as planned, but at the airport, she heard rumblings of the first coronavirus case in the U.S. She flew home, and shortly before she was set to fly to see the same band in New York, they canceled the rest of their tour out of caution. A week later, she had tickets to see three Pearl Jam shows as a fan, but they also shut it down. It was a ripple effect from there.
“More than anything, instead of hitting me in my bank account, it hit my more in my heart and mental stability,” she said. “I had a few rough weeks as we were getting used to this new normal. I cried more than I already do, because I cry a lot. I started being really upset over different things. I couldn’t travel like I normally do. That keeps me happy. I couldn’t do what made me happy.”
She feels safer traveling with COVID protocols in place. She and her mom took a road trip to Maine and back, during which she took a few photos to keep the creative juices flowing. She’s also distracted herself binging old TV shows. But she wants music back.
“I’ve been to several socially distant shows, but I’m ready for the day when I don’t have to where I mask in a mosh pit full of people and can have fun and, not really let loose, but just do the thing,” she said.
“I miss band members smiling at me if they know me and look down at me and pose for me,” she said. “I miss being able to see a lot of my friends. I miss being around people. I know everyone jokes, that people are the worst. But I thrive when I’m around people. I don’t do well when left to myself.
“I’m hopeful with the vaccine that things will slowly start to get back to where we can get back to big crowds of people screaming at our favorite bands, freaking out and having fun,” she said. “I don’t really like socially distant shows, but I understand them.”
Her first show during the pandemic was a gig at a car show in North Carolina. Seeing live music, even with the distancing, gave her hope at the time. Her pals CBDB will perform a socially distanced show at Avondale Brewing Company tonight, where fans are required to wear masks. Haynes will be there, camera in hand, ready to rock after more than a year without something she loves dearly. And she’s itching for more.
“Can’t we just get back to normal?” she asked. “I’m just glad that there’s music.”
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