Hard Lessons Learned as a Tour Photographer

“Tour life is taxing. The last thing you want to do is worry about how your rent will be paid when you haven’t gotten a deposit in two or three weeks.”
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In any industry, but especially in entertainment, there’s an unspoken rule that wanting something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for it. When I first got the call to join Atlanta rapper Deante Hitchcock on the road in the fall of 2019, I was coming off of a successful summer. I had been shooting LVRN events for 6LACK and Summer Walker; I spent a week capturing Usher’s 20th anniversary for Usher’s New Look; I shot Childish Major’s Humility City Cookout and even landed my first opportunity shooting behind the scenes for a pilot series on BET. It was safe to say my hard work was paying off. Anyway, I got the Deante call, and it was one I had been anticipating for years. I was ready. Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

No matter how ready you feel, tour life is precisely as unpredictable as you would expect. At any given moment, you could encounter a broken hard drive, an impromptu studio session derailing your plans or a search and seizure at the border of Mexico—all of which happened to me on my first run with Deante. Talk about an experience.

Some context: music photographers spend most of our time scouting shows, emailing management for press passes, arriving at concerts and festivals early, leaving late, and sneaking backstage to get money shots. We camp outside dressing rooms and stumble over each other in the pit, all with the hopes of capturing a moment well enough to get our favorite artist’s attention. We don’t do this for the money—most of us won’t earn a cent—we do this for the love. Because of this love, when an artist finally notices you, it is easy to be more enamored with the opportunity than the idea of doing good business.

When it comes to hiring traveling content creators, artist teams look for individuals who can give them a bang for their buck. They want a photographer who can shoot video, be a graphic designer, driver, production assistant, you name it. Unless you are shooting for an artist with a Beyoncé budget, chances are you will have to do more than photography. 

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With this in mind, there are several questions you should ask yourself when determining your road rate: Are they an opening act or a headliner? Signed or independent? How much road experience do you have? How long is the tour? Being realistic about your capabilities and their budget is essential. In my case, the artist was a signed opening act, I had zero road experience, and the tour was six weeks. Suffice to say; I viewed my offer an opportunity to gain experience.

Based on this analysis, I made a conscious decision to charge what I like to call a “learning curve rate,” to relieve myself of the anxiety of overcharging and under-delivering. The problem with this approach revealed itself when I started receiving email inquiries for work opportunities back home in Atlanta. Specifics aren’t necessary, but I missed out on thousands of dollars in those six weeks, which makes a “learning curve rate” seem ridiculous, right?

I’ll put it into perspective. In addition to missing out on sufficient income and the cultivation of new business relationships, I had to purchase equipment to ensure I had a fighting chance with videography. In the first two weeks of the tour, I spent nearly $3,500 before receiving a single payment (this is excluding unexpected expenses like broken hard drives and lens repair). I bought a $100 microphone, a $300 DSLR stabilizer, and a brand new MacBook Pro because the one I owned was old and inadequate for work that requires a quick turnaround. By the time tour ended, I spent more than I earned. Understand, too, even when you agree to a rate, there is a possibility you will not get paid on time, or in some cases, in full.

Though money on the road isn’t reliable, and I hadn’t delivered a contract— always deliver a contract!—I was fortunate. Photography is my primary source of income, but it isn’t my only source. I am also a digital marketer for multiple businesses. I develop brand strategies, direct, curate, and manage content via social media to ensure my client’s digital presence is impactful, all of which I can accomplish on my laptop. 

I had always sought remote work because traveling for photography—which, for me, has been somewhat lucrative—was becoming more frequent, and I wanted to be able to earn money wherever I was in the world. Gigs are inconsistent, but remote work allows me to offset said inconsistency with financial stability. While everyone else on the road had to make due, I still had money coming in because I continued to manage all of my clients’ accounts while we were touring.

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If road life is something you truly want as a content creator, I would highly suggest seeking remote work or other forms of automated income to protect yourself from any inconsistencies in compensation. Working from a place of desperation is not fun. Having my extra income enabled me to purchase the video equipment and laptop I needed to do my job on the road effectively. It also helped me to continue providing for myself when money, which was supposed to come in, didn’t. Tour life is taxing. The last thing you want to do is worry about how your rent will be paid when you haven’t gotten a deposit in two or three weeks.

Everyone’s journey is different. Look at your goals, be proactive about your finances, and always do good business—especially with people who you believe have your best interest at heart. Music photographers are arguably the least respected and compensated creatives in this industry, and no one is going to save you when you’ve fucked up. Do research, plan for your success, and remember to protect your wallet.

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