In the Pit

One of the hoariest clichés in a profession with all too many — namely, this one — is that "any press is good press." That means artists should be willing to trade the odd less-than-favorable review, and occasionally even worse, for journalists placing their names in front of the kind of mass audience that, until fairly recently, media outlets such as newspapers more or less had cornered. But like all clichés, there's a lot of truth in that statement.

Or there was.

Not so very long ago, in fact just last week, Noise was working on a story for the Houston Press's Rocks Off music blog that proved to be beyond the reach of the Internet. Try to wrap your heads around this: We actually had to go to the library to look up, on microfiche (which is as fascinating as it is exasperating), a couple of articles from the Houston Post that are barely a quarter of a century old, but do not exist online.


music photographers

When the Houston Chronicle bought out and subsequently shut down the Post in 1995, nobody on either side bothered to enter the contents of the paper founded by the same guy whose name adorns a concert hall, public plaza and the donor wall of any significant public Houston institution — a paper that had already been covering Houston every single day for more than a century at that point — into any kind of database other than a spool of film a library employee has to bring down from upstairs. Hell, the Chronicle's own online archives don't go beyond 1985.

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We were looking for reviews of Bruce Springsteen's tours behind The River and Born in the U.S.A. from Novembers 1980 and 1984, respectively. Both were written by the late Bob Claypool, a writer who on his best day could out-phrase Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs and Hunter S. Thompson combined — and do it on the kind of deadline those guys never, ever had to deal with at Creem or Rolling Stone.

But we digress. Back in those days, the photos that ran with music reviews were the first — and often only — visual accounts of what happened at the show to reach the fans, whether they themselves had attended or not. Things were a lot different back then.

Now, think about the last concert you went to. If you're reading the music section at all, we're going to assume it hasn't been all that long. (We certainly hope not.) How many hundreds or even thousands of flashes did you see all night long, people taking pictures and video on BlackBerries, iPhones, point-and-shoots and any number of other digital devices? How many people had posted those pictures on Facebook, Flickr or YouTube the next day? Or on Twitter before the performers even reached the encore?

Theoretically, artists and their management companies continue to own the rights to any images taken of them in concert. Professional photographers acknowledge this by signing a photo release agreement before any show they shoot, a contract wherein they agree that the images will only be used in the publication that assigned the review, and will not be sold to any third parties.

But the reality is that the widespread availability of camera phones and digital cameras has made this a moot point. Some artists are obviously not thrilled about the situation, and are taking whatever steps they can to combat it. Noise estimates about 10 to 20 percent of the theater and arena concerts we go to now have "No Camera" signs posted out front. (Pretty much anything goes on the club level, same as it ever was.)

At Neko Case's November 22 Warehouse Live show, signs warning "No Cell Phone Photography" were posted around the venue. We spent the rest of the evening wondering how exactly security was going to police that little rule as much as we did luxuriating in Case's otherworldly vocals. (The crowd, to its credit, largely complied.) Less than a week later, anyone toting an iPod — whether or not it had the capacity to record video — to Puscifer's Jones Hall appearance was told to return the device to their car.

Additionally, the Houston Press was turned down flat for photo credentials for AC/DC's November 8 Toyota Center date, as well as the Marley brothers' recent House of Blues concert. We only secured them for Dwight Yoakam's Arena Theatre show after Noise pleaded our case to Yoakam's tour manager moments before Yoakam went onstage. At both of the above shows we attended (we skipped the Marleys — might as well take the night off), there were cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras all over the place.

"The reality is that while people still like professional photos for certain things, many people think they can get nearly the same quality from their point-and-shoot camera," says Houston musician, Web developer and photographer Jeff Balke, who occasionally covers concerts for Rocks Off. "And, maybe more importantly, people are getting used to the style and quality of the point-and-shoot image."

Call us old-fashioned, but as a professional news organization, obviously the Houston Press prefers to run pictures taken by professional photographers with professional-grade gear alongside our concert reviews. We'll run point-and-shoot pictures if we have to, but at least four times out of five, our photo requests are approved with very little fuss. And we certainly sympathize with photographers like Gary Miller, who covers Central Texas concerts for the Austin Chronicle and is also the house photographer for several of San Antonio's larger venues, including the SBC Center.

"When I show up to a show to do my job, and the band PR has given a photo pass to someone who is carrying a $150 point-and-shoot, that really pisses me off," he says. "If you show up with shit gear, you should be turned away. I've seen people in the pit using iPhones, too!"

It may occasionally make our job more difficult, but we're all for fans taking pictures at shows. Noise would never dream of assigning one of our photographers to shoot a concert with an iPhone, but we understand how those kinds of shots can capture the connection between performers and their fans that more professional-quality images just can't.

"Bands are now getting MySpace-style photos and using them as promo shots — sometimes they are taken by pros, but often not," says Balke. "Artists realize that personalizing images and having images that are loved by fans because they were taken by fans generally have a bigger impact than those taken by professionals."

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