Why your press photo bores me to tears!
No offense to anyone guilty of the following crimes (I’m guilty myself), but if I had a dollar for every press photo I’ve seen of a band loitering down by the railroad tracks, I’d be a very rich man indeed. Sure, if you’re a folksy bluegrass band called The Freight Hoppers then that particular setting might be a good idea. But if you’re a chamber pop group or some space-age, post-rock act then it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine that railroad tracks have much to do with your musical or personal aesthetic.
Why, then, do we continue to see so many cliché railroad track press photo (or photos of bands in front of brick walls, or cruising in an old Chevy, etc.)? It certainly isn’t on account of laziness. After all, it took some planning and initiative to get the shoot scheduled, line up a photographer and location, assemble the group, and pick the wardrobe. No, it’s not laziness. It is a lack of creative self-analysis. That’s right, my friends. Sit yourself down on the couch. The good doctor is in.
First, you’ve got to dig down deep and figure out exactly what your music is all about. But here’s the catch, you’re not going to be able to convey the breadth, genius, and diversity of your entire musical catalog with one image. You’re going to have to pick one or two of the most important, crucial things about your music that you would like to convey visually, whether thematically, aesthetically, emotionally, or otherwise. “But people should listen to the music. I don’t want to reduce our sound to a single concept,” I hear some of you say. If that is your attitude then get used to the fact that no one will ever get around to listening to your music. There is simply too much music being made nowadays to wade through the muddied waters. You’ve got to hit people with an impression first, something simple, clear, and impactful that makes them want to investigate further.
Having trouble figuring out the appropriate visual elements to compliment your sound? Ask your fans, friends, or bandmates for suggestions (twitter contests, anyone?). Have a brainstorming session. Don’t be afraid to throw out any old idea and be open to other people’s suggestions even if it seems silly at first. Mull them over. This is your big chance to convey to the world your image of idealized musical self…. (Maybe you’re wearing a costume? Make-up? Go naked? Driving a tractor? On stilts? Looking mysterious? Generous? Sad? Happy?) When you finally choose which approach suits you best, be willing to go outside of your comfort zone, so long as it still feels like YOU (though a slightly more dramatized version of YOU, at that).
If you’ve gotten this far, then the hard part is over. You’ve got a great idea. Everything else is mere logistics and execution. And there are no right or wrong methods. Don’t buy into the normal music biz dogma. It is that kinda thinking that produced so many cliché band photos in the first place. Some press photos may benefit from an informal atmosphere. Sometimes a more formal and poised approach is the best way to go. Weigh the pros and cons of paying a professional photographer, too. They’ll probably have better gear and more experience directing a photo shoot. But will your band be comfortable acting natural in front of a stranger? Sometimes working with a friend (for free or cheap) can yield the same results if you’re all willing to put in a little extra time for trial and error. And here is a strange thought: sometimes “quality” shouldn’t be the goal at all. A blown-out Polaroid or a tattered sepia-toned snapshot might better convey your vibe than a hi-gloss, fancy-pants Photoshop masterpiece.
As you can see, there is no single way to produce a great press photo. As long as you’ve left an impression and piqued the curiosity of a potential fan then you’ve succeeded. Hopefully this essay leaves you more inspired than confused. But don’t fret. You can keep trying different ideas until you see that one magic photo that just hits you in the right way, the one where you say, “Oh yeah! That is how I want the world to see me!” Just do me a favor and stay away from the railroad tracks. It isn’t safe down there anyways