Welcome to episode 10 of the Filter photography podcast! I so appreciate all the support this podcast has gotten. A few weeks ago on Instagram, I asked how we should celebrate the 10th episode. I got a heap of suggestions. But the one I got most requested for me to tell the story of how I got started in music photography. I normally tell this when I do guest lecturer spots at QUT and stuff like that but I had to think deeper because the purpose of this story is a little different than inspiring kids to think big with photography.
So sorry about the delay in this episode. I spent a lot of time thinking back to my experience so I can be as helpful as possible when I tell my story. But what better way to celebrate the 10th episode than speak about my most commonly asked question.
I want to stress that this is my story. This is not a music photography blueprint that can be applied to anyone and get the success that looks exactly the same as mine. It doesn’t all add up to a guaranteed result. I shouldn’t need to say that, but unfortunately, I do. People can get disappointed when they do everything exactly the same because it doesn’t get them the exact same result. Hopefully, this gives some insight into what I had to go through, or how I got to where I am. So here it is, from start to finish.
I started photography in around 2014. I had really bad social anxiety and wanted to force myself to connect with more people. People I otherwise wouldn’t have spoken to. I knew I could do it, but I had gotten myself into the headspace that I had nothing to offer anyone. And I didn’t know anyone. I had nowhere to start and no one to help me.
So I bought a Nikon D90 and took photos of anything in my backyard to understand the settings. I took photos of flowers, things on the street, cars. And all were pretty bad to be honest.
But I knew that every shot I took was practice and even if I didn’t see it at the time, my photos were hopefully getting better. I shot everything that wasn’t music actually.
Getting started with music photography
After a while, I wanted to try my hand at music photography. I started to feel like my passion for photographing the same content over and over again was decreasing. I felt I was getting better technically, but I was photographing the same content over and over again and my satisfaction wasn’t increasing at the same rate.
One thing I didn’t have the ability to get quick access to, was music. That makes sense why people feel music photography is hard to break into. And please don’t use this as a blueprint because you need to be on your own journey, but if you use my experience as a building block, you might find it a little easier to start. Then find your own way to scale your presence as a music photographer. I looked at the less busy venues in Brisbane knowing that smaller bands would be playing there since the bigger bands would be at the more popular venues. Smart money was to avoid competition because competent competition would crush me while I was at my most vulnerable and unconfident. So I went looking for bands that didn’t have photographers already asking them to shoot their show. Avoiding the competition was the easiest way to build a portfolio without any setbacks caused by thinking too big or getting ahead of myself with competing with more experienced photographers.
I found a few bands listed on gig posters that I had never heard of. Quickly checking the internet, it seemed like no one had heard of them either. I knew this was my biggest chance to offer a mutually beneficial opportunity for both me as an inexperienced music photographer and for the band. The opportunity had to be mutually beneficial because I needed the band to arrange a photo pass, and the band needed photos to promote their future shows.
At random I picked a band called Poncho Pilot. By the time the show had finished, I had around 400 photos that were all blurry, dark and were pretty uninspiring. I had completely underestimated the difficulty of music photography.
The darkness and subject movement left my head spinning with nothing to provide the band after the show. My wife reminded me that the reason I was shooting a smaller band is to minimise the risk. If I had been given an opportunity to shoot an international band without experience, the situation would have been much uglier because I would be letting someone else down that had put their total faith in me to deliver photos that were on par with more experienced music photographers.
Building a music photography portfolio
I repeated that on a regular basis, photographing smaller bands that were going under the radar of other band photographers so I could build a portfolio and a network of people in the industry. I would keep contacting small bands who weren’t receiving online blog coverage. I knew that these bands would work hardest to get me a photo pass because they were also getting something out of it.
Once my initial year of music photography was complete, I had a portfolio I could stand behind, even if it was much weaker than I would have liked. My portfolio told people that I had a camera and had done this a few times before. That’s all it needed to do at that time.
Music photography contributing
I ended up getting sick of spending so much time organising my own music photography opportunities and contacted a few small online blogs. I asked them to consider me as a music photography contributor. The mutual benefit had shifted from me needing a photo pass for anything, to me needing access to some bigger shows so my work was more familiar to those looking at my portfolio.
After contacting three different websites, I waited for what seemed like months. Then the AU Review contacted me and said they would love to have me on board. I felt that this was the final square for the music photography journey I was on. I felt I had reached the peak and it would never get better from this day forward.
Obviously, it did get even better, but I think it’s always important to celebrate the small wins that feel like big wins at the time. Publications are important for emerging music photographers because they are a dressed-up internship.
Once you graduate from the internship, they’ll let you into the staff room so you can eat some nicer food, but you’re still receiving the internship salary (that’s $0 per week for those who haven’t been there before).
Taking a step back from the analogy – you shoot the smaller bands for publications before you can pick and choose who you want to shoot. Complaints fly thick and fast towards publications for ‘taking advantage’ of emerging photographers. I’ve contributed to many, and so I can speak from experience that it’s not always the case. Sometimes, but not always.
Publications often make less money than the cost of hosting the website, meaning no one is getting paid for the work they are putting into it – not just the photographer. If you’re not doing it for the love of it, you’re never going to make it.
More publications, more opportunity?
I contributed to the AU Review for a little over a year before I became frustrated. I had worked tirelessly, photographing small bands that disappeared weeks after their first show. It just kept happening. I kept seeing my work build towards something that didn’t serve any greater purpose. I emailed the editor and asked why I wasn’t getting allocated bigger bands. “Your work is fine, but we have many contributors that have been photographing for us for much longer than you have. They get first pick at bands to cover.” I could understand that they had been working super hard for longer.
I contacted other publications in the hopes that having more places to contribute would create more opportunities to be assigned bands I wanted to photograph. I was approved to join ToneDeaf as a music photography contributor, and soon after, AMH Network (RIP). So I was shooting for three publications at the time. All unpaid, too.
Even still, I was missing out on getting photo passes to cover some of the shows. Every publication had photographers who had been there for longer. So contributing to three publications didn’t help me get more opportunities, really.
Then Title Fight announced a tour that would change the way I shot music, but I had no photo pass. I was desperate to photograph Title Fight. On the smallest chance, I contacted a venue called Crowbar directly to see if cameras were allowed inside the venue for paying ticket holders. I got a reply pretty quickly, saying that it was fine as long as I stayed out of the side of the stage area.
I bought my $25 ticket and photographed the show without the support of publications. It was liberating. It was sweaty. It was iconic to me.
The sense of freedom I had to operate as an independent photographer is difficult to describe. I had made no guarantees for a body of work that would follow the show. It was a deal between me and my $25.
Knowing Crowbar was open to ticket holders bringing in their own cameras was where my career really took off. I could take more risks because I knew there was no client who was relying on my photos. The word ‘risk’ sounds too negative, but these ‘risks’ were what defined my style and allowed me to think outside the box with minimal consequences.
I kept thinking differently. Before photographers widely returned to Polaroid film, I shot The Bronx on a small Polaroid 210 camera I bought while in Japan. The Bronx are a sweaty punk band from New York – perfect for Crowbar’s venue setting. As soon as Matt Caughthran stepped off the stage and tore through the audience during Knifeman, I knew the time was right for me to take another risk.
I barged into the moshpit with my camera above my head. I was worried about how fragile the camera was in the moshpit but I held it above my head and kept hitting the shutter. I kept reefing out the Polaroid film after each shot and stuffed it in my pocket. I could feel the motor vibrate inside the camera, churning the Polaroid out so I knew when to grab it. I spent $40 that night firing shot after shot and leaving with pockets full of developed Polaroid film. The Polaroid photos were crushed and battered, but VICE Magazine saw an opportunity themselves for Noisey and asked me if they could run the photos.
For a solid week after the article ran, my email blew up with all sorts of requests. I could have worked for weeks off the opportunities that rolled in, but the only work I wanted to do was to decide how to leverage my current exposure.
I continued to take risks for how I shot. I later tore my back open wriggling along the ground to get underneath Luke Henery of Violent Soho and rode on Damian Abraham’s shoulders during Fucked Up’s Soundwave set.
That kind of stuff is not what ultimately defined me, but it’s how I defined myself and kept myself motivated. It was these kind of decisions that delivered different work. And I kept doing it.
Late at night I received a message from the owner of Crowbar. “Hey mate.” is all it wrote. I was nervous. Immediately I thought I had done something wrong because I hadn’t gotten a photo pass for some time and had been buying tickets to shows with the sole purpose of photographing them. The whole concept of photo passes had started to feel foreign to me. I stayed positive even though my social anxiety was telling me that I had done something wrong. The reply was something like, “You take a mean photo! Come into the bar this week and let’s grab a bloody beer! You’ll find me up the back of the room with the old dudes.” I was really relieved but curious. I had no idea what Trad (the owner) wanted to talk about.
Blindly meeting someone felt so odd to someone with the levels of anxiety I have, but I did it anyway because good things don’t just fall in your lap. You have to go out and get them. Trad greeted me like an old friend and told me of plans for the bar and his vision of making it home for artists of more than just music, but creative arts too. I remember not really being sure of what he was asking of me, whether he wanted me to provide photos for the walls of a bar extension or something completely different. He said “Just be wallpaper! Come in, shoot what you want, send us some photos if you want to use on Facebook…” It was wild hearing him rattle off a list of opportunities that I would be ecstatic to just hear one of.
Shooting band after band as they came through Crowbar as the exclusive house photographer increased my rolodex five-times over. It was swelling with new friends and people I’ve met that wanted a copy of the photos I took because I was the one there every time, without fail. Consistency was the really important part of this stage. I owe Crowbar big time for offering me that kind of exclusivity. It meant so much to me and connected me with so many people.
The music industry is a small world. It seems like everyone has worked with everyone at least once, but they keep in touch because relationships within the industry are not centred within the city in which you live. The music industry’s lifeblood moves between cities and can go in any direction. It’s like a travelling circus that you’ve been asked to participate in. You meet an endless stream of different people with different purposes and stories to tell. Sitting in the middle of that stream and touching everything that flows past allows you to become familiar with so much.
I did music photography at Crowbar three to four times a week. It was, and still is, my second home. Every artist that passed through Crowbar on their tours had a house photographer ready to take photos because Crowbar treated me like they treat the bands.
I wanted to treat the bands the way Crowbar treated me, and the bands had content they could use for social media immediately the day before. That’s where Crowbar Couch formed.
Knowing that an artist needs a photo for their social media and seeing the pride they have for playing at Crowbar made me realise that there’s an opportunity available that benefits everyone. The couch in Crowbar’s greenroom was the perfect centrepiece for uniform, guaranteed-to-be-used social media content. That’s my marketing side coming out I guess. Soon, my username was plastered from one side of social media to another, and people who followed those bands were subscribing to me on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. As my Instagram following increased, I optimised my content and kept it uniform. The benefit of having a background in digital marketing meant I already knew the power of social media. Planning digital content was in my DNA – I just had to maintain consistency over time.
Consistency is just one part of the recipe for great social media. I knew if I wanted to have my name appear in front of as many followers as possible, I needed to photograph as many bands as possible. The marketing would grow legs and carry my username naturally, even when I was out shooting. That way I could focus on shooting and having fun doing it without trying to split myself too far from the marketing efforts.
I met Luke Henery for the first time at a Clowns show at Crowbar. I can’t remember the specifics of how we knew of each other, but I we got talking about how he was doing some work on Crowbar’s stage. It’s all a bit vague because of what happened next.
I was already a few beers down, so I wasn’t in a hurry to get home. We drank a few more beers and Luke went home, but I hadn’t had a chance to speak properly with Clowns about their upcoming Riot Fest appearance. Stevie and Jake were playing DJ for the night, so I left my camera beside Jake to look after.
After a few more beers, I started to collect my gear and put it in my bag ready to leave. My camera wasn’t in there, so just assumed the camera, lens, flash and battery grip would be behind the bar. Looking back at the security footage the next day, the legends at Crowbar had found the moment a thief had snuck up behind Jake and swiped the camera under his hoodie and calmly walked out.
Trad called me and confidently told me that my camera would make its way back to me. I wanted to believe him, but I felt so deflated about it and could only imagine my music photography journey being over.
“We’ll throw a fundraiser if we have to. You will photograph again. I’m confident we’ll get it back. I’ll put a Facebook post up tonight.” What a hero.
I’m not sure if Trad knows how much his support meant and continues to mean to me. It was my mistake, ultimately for leaving my camera there. But Trad’s blind confidence in the universe just working out was what I needed.
Over the next 48 hours, the Facebook post went viral. Over 550,000 people had seen the post. Members of bands all over the world shared it amongst their networks, including members of really big bands such as No Fx.
My phone buzzed endlessly for the next 10 days. Messages from hundreds of people I didn’t know sharing their frustrations, sending photos of people who looked like the thief, even offering me to borrow their camera gear until I got a replacement.
10 days after the camera was stolen, I got a call from a detective who told me he was about to go and collect my camera from the thief. He told me that the only reason they were able to find the thief was because of the information that unrelated people offered because of the Facebook post that went viral.
Sunrise, a morning show in Australia for those international podcast subscribers, called me wanting to do a story on the power of social media, but I had everything I needed – my camera, faith in the universe and an endless amount of appreciation and gratitude for the Crowbar family and everyone else who helped spread the word.
Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend photographers lose their camera to have their name go viral, but what my lost camera taught me is that what you give to others, you’ll get back 100 times over. It was proof that you get out what you put in.
I knew Luke a few months before I got an email from the head of Violent Soho’s record label. “Luke told me you might be free to photograph the behind the scenes of their Like Soda clip?” I couldn’t respond quicker to accept. I text Luke immediately after to thank him for the recommendation. “Gotta look after the homies,” he replied with.
That one job provided me with so much – it led to the future Violent Soho work, including Laneway Festival, where I met Dune Rats, who introduced me to Skegss. I met The Smith Street Band who introduced me to Ceres. And so on and so on.
I never sought out a friendship to book a job. In my experience, that is the biggest mistake I’ve seen up and coming photographers make. If you built a natural foundation of solid work consistently over a long period of time, you’re going to naturally meet talented people. Your paths will cross.
The best work is based on trust, and that can’t be fabricated or forced. Meet people, share experiences through common interests and forget about the work. Then create work side by side and collaborate.
I told you this episode will be longer than normal, but what better to talk about on the 10th episode than the question I get asked more than anything – how did I get started with music photography. In summary, every opportunity I’ve been given is from hard work, consistency and naturally built friendships. But you need to take the opportunity to benefit from it, and that’s where your choices come in.
So that’s my long 10th episode. It took a while to think through all of the things that I feel brought me to the point I’m at today. So sorry for the delay on this episode. Next episode I’ll probably jump back to some listener questions.
If you have any questions about the story I just told, hit me up! Maybe we can answer them next episode.
You can hear older episodes of Filter at https://filter.mattwalterphoto.com/photography-podcast and submit your question there. Or hit me up on social media somewhere – my username is generally @mattwalterphoto
Hope everyone has a great fortnight and takes some awesome pics!
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