What has happened to great rock concert photography? Is it part of a bygone era, or has the music industry forgone photographers due to control issues? A mix of both, says Mark Paytress in Creative Review’s article "Three Songs and Yer Out! The Dying Art of Gig Photography" (reprinted from a recent issue of M magazine). The "three songs" refers to an industry-wide guideline that photographers are allowed access to the artists only for the first three songs of a performance. The practice started as a courtesy to performers to keep distracting flash bulbs to a minimum. But then it worked its way around the scene and became the rule at most venues. Artists and their management blame the venues for enforcing the rule, while the venues insist they're just doing what they're told by the management.
Blame game aside, it's difficult to capture great images when you know you're racing against the clock. Paytress points out that some of the greatest photos of rock 'n' roll came from the latter part of the set. For example, Pennie Smith snapped Paul Simonon of the Clash smashing his bass at a show in an image that would later be used as the cover for their classic album London Calling.
The three-song rule is a symptom rather than the illness. For the past decade or so, musicians have increasingly gone from being entertainers to being corporations. Case in point: Both Madonna and Jay-Z left their longtime labels to sign with concert promoter Live Nation. The PR departments of these corporations try to control images of their clients all costs, shunning the raw candid shot for staged, vetted images. Add the limited opportunities to the ever-shrinking medium of music imagery (the evolution from LP to CD and CD to digital thumbnail image), and you can see why Paytress and many photogs call concert photography a dying art.
All that's really left for rock photography are studio shoots, where the photographer and the artists can explore their creativity, albeit without the delicious spontaneity of a live show. But with the music industry continuing on a downward spiral, who knows how far budgets for those shoots will stretch.
Although the outlook is bleak, there are still great photos out there. You can find some of them at: Rock Archive (rockarchive.com), Redferns Music Picture Library (redferns.com), Rex Features (rexfeatures.com), Photographic Youth Music Culture Archive (pymca-library.com), and Steve Gullick (gullickphoto.com).