Who is right?

I didn’t have the guts to take my camera off to a war zone, yet here I am in a battle with the Music Industry.  I am fighting for my right of ownership of my pictures and to receive a fair deal.

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Highlighted by Taylor Swift’s admirable open letter to Apple to receive a fair deal for musicians and Jason Sheldon’s excellent open letter in retort asking for the same fair deal for Photographers – it turns out Miss Swift has a contract photographers are forced to sign before shooting her live which gives Taylor Swift complete ownership of all pictures.  This kind of contract is getting more and more common.  The Foo Fighters have a full ownership of rights contract you have to sign if you want to shoot them.

‘I hereby grant, transfer, convey and assign to you all right, title and interest throughout the universe in perpetuity, including, without limitation, the copyright (and all renewals and extensions thereof), in and to the Photos’.”

Why?  The main reason is merchandise.  Nothing derails a cleverly planned marketing campaign more than unofficial merchandise springing up all over the place and I for one am on the bands side.  I agree that photographers given access to photograph a band shouldn’t then exploit them by selling images for unofficial merchandise like calendars and posters.  We should however have the right to sell a good image on to other publishers.


Unfortunately in the last few years – probably brought on by the increase in illegal downloads – the artist managers and legal teams have looked for a way to re-address who was getting the raw deal in the music industry, the photographer or the artist?  Their answer, to lean heavily on the photographer by issuing an aggressive ‘all rights’ exploitation contract usually issued just before the act is due on stage.  If you don’t sign, you don’t get into the pit.

It is like going to your butchers and asking for half a dozen sausages and the butcher sells them to you only on the condition that his wife and family join you for dinner!  

Well you could say, ‘but you get a front row seat to see some top artists for free!’  If I wanted to go see a ‘top artist’ I would buy a ticket and enjoy the show with a beer in my hand!


This is work.  I am not there to sing along to the lyrics or play air guitar (although some photographers do!).  We are there to capture the moment which full-fills our commitment to who ever commissioned us to be there. Yes it is fun, it is exciting and that’s why I got into it.  But it wasn’t that artist now on stage who helped me build my portfolio, or persuaded me to spend years photographing unknown bands in dive bars for free, or phoned countless picture editors begging for work, who trawled the streets with my portfolio knocking on doors.  I did that because I knew if I could make a living doing this, it would make me happy (and it has made me happy…so far!).  That artist didn’t buy my first camera or the one I use now that is £5000. I had to work in jobs that I didn’t want to be doing and spend everything I got on lenses, film, processing and equipment.  Not to mention travelling the breadth of the country photographing anything with a guitar to gain experience and learn the skill of shooting shows.  I earned my place in the pit and so has the majority of photographers who are privileged to be there.


When you are down the front in the pit your first thoughts aren’t about how I can exploit the artist.  You are getting ready to anticipate how you are going to get the best out of this show.  Your earplugs go in, you set your camera to a rough setting in preparation to the show and the unknown entity of what lights there may or may not be.  You weigh up where the best angle will be to avoid the frame being obstructed by mike stands or monitors.  What side is the lead guitarists and you mentally note where you will shoot from for the guitar solo.  Once the show starts that is when the chaos begins.  Where you thought the singer will be goes completely out the window when the singer struts on stage and kicks the mike stand over narrowly missing you. Beer rains overhead and bodies start to pile over the front of the pit as stage divers and crowd surfers fall over the barrier like leaves sucked down a storm drain.  The singer never stays still long enough to get a good composition and the light is so low you are desperately trying to find a shutter speed that is high enough to freeze him.  Just when you think you have a great shot you are pushed out of the way by security carrying an over zealous fan. Your thoughts of a full double page spread live review in next months magazine are fading fast.  There is a direct coloration between the quality of a shot and the coverage you will get in the mag and how much you earn.  You also need to shoot every member, sharp and well exposed and get a wide shot of the entire stage.  If you can do all of this in 3 songs with no flash, you will make a great music photographer.  We are then usually ejected from the venue.  The job is usually over and done with in little over 10 minutes.


So to go through all that and then hand over the rights is just exploitation.

By signing the ‘agreement’ you herby transfer all intellectual world-wide rights to the artist.  The ‘artist’ now owns your copyright and you have no ownership or right to use your images anywhere other than the single use stated in the agreement.  On average I would say most new photographers shooting an average size band in an average size venue receives about £60-100.  Bigger shows and more space in a magazine the photographer will earn anything from £100-£300.  it isn’t life changing money at first but if you shoot enough shows you can make a living, build up an archival image library that has the potential to be of value into the future.  This rights grab prevents any chance of a second sale. If the magazine that commissioned you wants to run a poster of that artist next month which could earn you £300-£500 you aren’t able to do so.  But, the artist now has the right to supply the magazine you worked for with the image you took for free.  You get nothing, but the indignity of feeling exploited.


Thankfully I work for several high profile bands and work directly with artist management who appreciate the need for good photography.  I occasionally give all rights to use my images but the difference is they pay me for it.  They appreciate that if I promise I will deliver a great set of pictures I will be true to my word because I am more than qualified to do the job well and have the right tools for the job.  But I am only in this position because I have been able to make a living as a photographer and establish myself over many years.  I can’t say the same for my contemporary’s who are just entering the music photography world.  How can they afford to upgrade equipment and make a living if there is no way of selling their pictures on?


The music industry needs to realise these photographers in the pit have already gone through a lot to earn their position there and deserve a little more respect.  By all means issue contracts preventing the sale of pictures for merchandise but don’t take away our ability to make a living.


All images are copyright JOHN McMURTRIE

[email protected]

None of the bands pictured in this post have ‘RIGHTS’ grab contracts.  I should also add the publisher I regularly work for refuses to deal with bands that issue unreasonable contracts.

News piece on Jason Sheldon’s letter.









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