Whether you're an established music photographer or just starting to photograph concerts, you know one thing: Access is everything. Getting into shows with your camera, getting access to the photo pit, and having the approval to photograph bands are all huge hurdles for most live music photographers of all levels.
The photo pass is a printed credential that identifies you to security and venue staff as being approved to photograph a band for most all medium to large concerts. It might take the form of a wristband, a fabric sticker, or a laminated card. Regardless of the form, the photo pass is among the holy grail (short of the AAA, or Access All Areas pass) for so many concert photographers, because it's the key to getting up close and into the photo pit for your favorite bands.
In this definitive guide, I'm going to explain what a photo pass is, why you need it, who grants permission, what the considerations are for those approved for photo passes, how to get a photo pass, and how to find the contact information for the gatekeepers of photo passes for concert photography.
The premise of the photo pass relies on the age-old barter system. You, the photographer and by extension your publication, are providing a valuable service to the artist (press coverage), and in exchange, the publicist is allowing you valuable access to their client. That's it. That's the deal.
It goes without saying that you must be shooting for a legitimate publication and are requesting credentials on the level. You will not go far unless everything is on the level, and if you lie to secure credentials, you will be blacklisted in short order.
Also, it's worth noting that while you can request access for anything you like, you are not entitled to access of any kind. It's within the right and in fact it is the job of the gatekeepers to ensure that only qualified photographers and publications are given access to their artists, and that the images produced produce the highest return on investment.
Now with that out of the way, let's get on with it.
What is a Photo Pass?
A photo pass is generally a fabric sticker that is produced by a tour that identifies people who have been approved with photo access. There may be other sticker passes for the tour that identity guest passes, VIP, artist meet and greet, and so forth. For smaller tours, there may be one generic pass for all uses and the specific use is written on it when it's handed out (ie, writing ‘PHOTO' for a photo pass, ‘VIP' for VIP, etc.
Every concert on a tour, venue security will be provided with a sheet that shows the appearance of each pass and what that pass can do. A security meeting should inform venue staff of what photo restrictions are for the headlining artist, which are generally enforced for all bands on the bill.
Why Do You Need a Photo Pass?
Most concert venues of this size may have a restriction on fans bringing professional photography equipment in — this rule is generally stated when you purchase a ticket and it's often printed on the backs of tickets from big vendors like Ticketmaster or Live Nation.
Artist management or an artist's publicist may want to limit photography to a small number of approved editorial publications because it helps them ensure only qualified or preferred outlets have media access. Thus, a photo pass is a simply a way of identifying approved photographers to venue staff and security.
It's important to understand that, at a certain point, media coverage to an artist can be viewed as a liability, especially to those entrusted with protecting and artist and their interests. Highly vetting which publications have access to their artists is simply a way of ensuring that they are presented in a way that benefits their clients.
How Do I Get A Photo Pass to a Concert?
So, how do you get a photo pass for a concert? There are just a few scenarios in which you need a photo pass (excluding music festivals, which are a different kind of beast).
You're shooting for an editorial publication
You're a wire agency shooter
You're shooting for the artist directly, but without higher access (such as AAA)
You're shooting for the venue, promoter, a brand, etc
We'll focus mainly first use, as that's the most common situation by far. In order to get a photo pass, you have to make a request and be approved by a gatekeeper, generally an artist's publicist or a promoter.
There are a lot of factors in requesting a photo pass and how requests are judged. First, there's the reason for the request. If you're a photographer who is just starting out and you're building your portfolio, from a band's interest, there is very little reason to grant access. Publicists will want to understand that the photos are being used for a purpose that will do work for them — generally provide positive coverage of their artist that promotes the tour, the current album, etc.
If you're posting images of the concert to Instagram with no publication, no written review, then in the eyes of a publicist or other gatekeeper, there's almost no reason at all to grant access for a photo pass. You have your best chance at getting a photo pass by showing that you're providing value to them.
Big Publications are Better
The most reliable way to get a photo pass is to shoot for the publications already covering the kind of concerts you want to cover in your city or area. Those are the publications that have the relationships with publicists already and are providing the value that bands want and are approving for credentials.
Established publications with a wide reach in their audience and readership are going to have to have the best access for your larger tours playing arenas, amphitheaters and stadiums, on down to all other small venues.
Smaller Publications Can Still Work
However, shooting for smaller publications can still grant you a lot of opportunities as well. From blogs to online music magazines, smaller publications may lose out for the biggest shows, but they should still provide good access for the midsized venues like clubs and theaters in your city.
Connecting with a Publication to Shoot Concert Photography
So you know that you need to be shooting for a publication in order to get a photo pass in most all instances. How do you connect with a publication and become a contributing photographer?
Make a Portfolio
First, you'll need a portfolio — it's the easiest way to showcase your work to a photo editor and illustrate the value you can bring to a team. Instagram may be fine, but it's not necessarily an ideal experience for the viewer if they want to see higher resolution work, and your Instagram feed may not be a true showcase of your very best work in the highly curated format you would want if you need to make a strong impression. For that, a dedicated portfolio website is ideal. Maybe a PDF. What you don't want to do is send a ZIP of loose images. No one's got time for that.
Regardless of the format, you want your portfolio
you'll need to do the research. A few things to consider:
Who is covering the concerts in your area you want to access to?
Do they have regular contributors already?
Can you provide value to them outside of their normal coverage?
How to Request a Photo Pass
Requesting a photo pass is very straight forward, but it requires setting expectations. When you request a photo pass, the recipient — most often an artist's publicist — just wants to know one thing: the publication you're shooting for. The reason for this is that they want to know the expected return on the access they might grant. Again, they want to know that they images produced are doing work for them.
Publicists are also short on time. Imagine being the gatekeeper for perhaps 50-100 tour dates and approving or denying tens of photographers for each show. You can imagine that the number of requests for any given artist for a year would number in the hundreds if not thousands. Given this fact that a publicist may be dealing with a large number of press requests for a concert — not to mention all the other aspects of their job, like press releases, coordinating interviews, editorial coverage, etc — they just want the facts in a request for a photo pass.
Email subject line:
[Artist] Photo Pass Request [Date][City][Venue]
I'm a contributing photographer for [Publication]. We'd love to cover [Artist's] show at [Venue] in [City, State] on [Date]. My assigning editor is CC'd. Here's a link to an example of past coverage we've done: [link].
Is it possible to set a ticket and photo credentials for this show?
Thanks, Todd Owyoung, Music Photographer
In the US, it's most common for photography credentials to be handled by a publicity agency. In other countries, a promoter may be the point of contact.
Regardless, this template assumes a few things:
This is a genuine assignment (it needs to be stated)
You are working for an editorial publication
You as a contributor are requesting credentials instead of your editor
I suggest this template simply because when I was shooting for newspapers, zines and other publications, I often preferred to make these requests whenever possible. Smaller publications may also allow or even expect that photographers make their own requests. If you're shooting for a wire agency, you may also be making your own requests for access.
In most instances, photo passes should be requested by an editor and not the photographer, so keep this in mind.
Needless to say, it should be stressed that requests like this should NEVR be faked. Publicists know the major publications for each market and they know the music/photo editors for the publications that they work with regularly. If you request photo passes under false pretenses, you'll be blacklisted. It's as simple as that. The music industry is built on trust, so please consider all of this.
Now, with that out of the way, let's get to the tips of the trade on finding the contact information for photo passes.
When to Request a Photo Pass
Generally, publicists prefer requests for coverage close to the date of a concert. If you make a request at the start of a tour announcement, you'll likely be told to follow up closer to the show.
What this means is generally two weeks before the show, though some PR prefer a week before or even the week of a show.
The reason for this is publicists often have limited space on the guest list and allotments for photo passes. They don't want to commit to locking down a list because they want to ensure the best coverage for their clients, and that means larger publications.
However, if you're a small publication, you might just luck out. If there's space on the list and the publicist hasn't filled their slots, you may get a last minute approval the day of.
When Will You Hear Back on Approvals
Going off the above, you may not get confirmation of a photo pass until the week of the show, or even the day of the show. Again, publicists want to ensure the best and biggest coverage for their clients. They will want to accommodate late requests from larger publications if needed, and keeping the list open until just before the show allows for this.
If you're a photographer for a smaller publication, you may not get confirmations until just hours before the show.
Generally, you should hear back on confirmation 2-10 days before the show in many instances.
My Go To Sources for Photo Pass Contacts
Here are some of the very first sources I go to if I need to source a contact for a photo pass:
Google Search for PR Contact and/or Press Releases
We'll go into this more in depth below, as well as other options that may lead you to the right information you seek.
The Usual Suspects
Artist's Facebook Page
A true go-to in recent years has been Facebook. Just about every single band or artist of every level has a Facebook page, and in the About section, they will list all sorts of useful info. Back in the day, this might have been a Myspace page — but now I'm dating myself.
Let's take Weezer for example. Right on their Facebook About page, they have their press contact listed, so that's basically as easy as pie.
Here's a natural one, but this can be hit or miss, but it's too dead simple not to try this very early on if you're searching. Generally, many artists's will include general info, just like the above About page from Facebook.
The label an artist is on is pretty common knowledge or easily discoverable if needed. Some record labels run their on in-house PR team that serves the needs of their artists, and so it's a matter of finding out who the correct contact is for your artist of choice. We'll get into this a little later as far as actual methods of outreach…
Gatekeepers for Photo Passes
For most larger bands/artists, publicists are hired to manage all of the PR aspects of their client's needs. This includes dealing with interviews, reviews, and photo passes for concerts. Finding the publicist's contact info is an ideal to secure a photo pass, and even if you don't contact them directly, you'll have to go through them in some capacity, even if they are behind the scenes approving publications if you go another route.
Some promoters like Live Nation may require or encourage you to go through them — it will depend on the venue or the regional market and how they do things. If you're a regular contributor to a publication, this setup of a single source can make things SUPER easy. When I was shooting a metric ton of concerts in St. Louis, I would actually send my Live Nation rep a list of a couple dozen shows that I anticipated covering for my publications, and passes would be sorted for the season — it was beautiful.
For smaller bands with a manager, the manager may handle tasks including PR, so going through them is a viable route. If you manage to find the contact for an artist's manager but NOT their PR, you could try reaching out, but I would hesitate to ask this since it's a bit of a waste of time for the manager to handle these inquiries.
Other Sources for Contact Info
Official press items like tour press releases and PR newsletters are the ideal sources with which to find the right contact for a tour, as the press releases are coordinated by the publicist. If you can find the press release, you'll find the right contact.
Simply searching for queries such as “[artist name] + press release” or [artist name] + tour press release” should turn up results. Refine by including the latest album release, the year, and so forth.
Newsletters and Mailing Lists
Once you build a relationship with publicists, you'll most likely be put on an email mailing list for that agency's clients. This will ensure you're notified of the latest tours and press opportunities from that agency. Established editors and publications should be on the mailing lists for all major PR agencies or labels for the genres that are covered.
Crowd Sourcing Artist Contact Info
If you have friends in the concert photography scene who you trust (and you should!), you can always ask them for contacts.
Alternatively, if you see that someone has covered a show for the tour you want to photograph, you can always try reaching out to them via email, DM, etc. However, this should probably be a last resort and only done if you have truly exhausted every single other outlet. Even if you get a response, the exchange may not result in getting the contact info you want, so this kind of “cold call” may be unwelcome by some photographers.
A lot of photographers may view the proper contacts as well earned information, so you have to be considerate of this point of view.
There are various Facebook groups dedicated to concert photography and music photography, some of which allow for the sharing of PR contacts or requests for them. However, not all allow these kinds of posts, so do your research.
Who NOT to Ask for a Photo Pass
Band Members (probably)
It depends on the size of the band, but contacting artists or band members directly about photographing their set can be a tricky proposition. If it's a larger act, you're likely skirting around not only the official gatekeepers, but there's a larger chance of miscommunication to happen, so you have to be very careful with this route.
For smaller bands who have no publicist or manager, contacting artists may be reasonable, but if that's the case they are most likely playing small enough venues that you don't need a photo pass in the first place.
One other reason not to ask band members is that you automatically set yourself up to be in a position of bartering your time and photos for access. This is rarely a position you want to put yourself in with few exceptions.
There are circumstances with smaller, up and coming artists where this can be a mutually beneficial situation. But outside of very small artists, this kind of relationship is highly imbalanced and ultimately devalues the work of all music photographers if you're giving away images for free.
Google and Searching for Photo Pass Info
If you're searching for PR contacts, you're going to want to get good at Boolean operators and searching to include, exclude, and parse phrases. Here's a good breakdown on Boolean operators that you can use in Google:
There are a million ways to use Boolean operators to search, but the above are ones that I've personally used with success.
If you're getting a lot of false positives on dead ends or unrelated content, Boolean operators are a fantastic way to up your Google game and fine information that would otherwise be too obscure to show up or wade through otherwise.
Cold Calling for a Photo Pass
Sometimes you have to pick up the phone to get results when trying to set up photography credentials for live music. You may only get so far as the PR agency but no specific contact or find yourself in other situations were you may need to make a call to get results. Years ago, I was in a situation where I was trying to set up credentials for N.E.R.D. and this was a show that seemed to have almost no promising leads. I ended up tracking down a general contact and had to call the office to find out the correct contact. It's a last resort, but a phone call might be necessary to go the last mile.
Photo passes for Music Festivals
Photo passes for music festivals work in much the same way as photo passes for regular concerts. There may be the potential for higher selectivity of publications at music festivals as these larger events might draw press from larger region than a single concert, so you may be vying for a limited number of passes with not only regional press, but national publications.
On the bright side, music festivals almost always have their press contacts very clearly listed on the event websites, usually under information, contact or press headers.
There is often a formal application for festivals where they collect common information about the requesting publications — website, readership, social media following, etc.
If anything, applying for a photo pass for a festival is the most streamlined and easy kind of pass to get because of the fact that the contact information is clearly stated and that there are often streamlined applications. That said, larger festivals can afford to be much more picky about who they credential, so very small publications may not have a lot of luck scoring passes for this kind of event.
In music photography, like so many things in life, relationships are the goal and the one thing that will enrich your life. The real goal in music photography with regards to access is truly to is develop relationships with publicists, your publication, venue promoters, and so forth that you don't have to work so hard for the access you need.
Once you develop your skills and forge the relationships you need as a music photographer, the goal is that you'll outgrow the need for this guide.
There you have it. I've been photographing live music since 2006 and while the industry and music photography in general has changed dramatically since then, I know that the issue of access is as persistent as ever. One of most difficult aspects of getting into music photography is simply getting your camera into shows. To this end, I hope that if you're a music photographer trying to get access, this guide will help you find the contacts you need to get the access you want for that ever elusive photo pass.
Eventually, your goal should be to develop deeper relationships with artists, managers, labels and the people who are truly making decisions so that you can leave the need to Google for contact info far, far behind.