My name is Amy Willard and I am a music photographer based out of New York City. I am very excited to share my story on how I got to photograph some of the top artists in music, get published, and go on tour.
Probably the biggest myth about working in the music industry is that you have to know someone in order to get in. When I was 18 years old, I moved to Washington DC to study architecture and could count the number of concerts I had attended on one hand. I hardly knew anyone, I certainly didn’t know anyone who worked in the music industry, and yet somehow I would end up spending the next 10 years photographing some of the most recognized names in music.
My career didn’t begin with befriending a local band and hopping into the back of a tour van. I guess if anything, my journey was similar to that of the kid in Almost Famous. Instead of a tape recorder, I had a camera and my synopsis would be something more like:
Small town girl, deterred from going to concerts in her youth, suddenly falls in love with live music after seeing a Fall Out Boy show at the 9:30 Club. This inspires her to be part of that world and to one day photograph bands for Rolling Stone. She reaches out to a photographer on MySpace, buys a point and shoot camera, makes a portfolio, gets her first credentialed assignment and goes on to photograph bands for years in hopes to finally get published.
Fade to black. Roll credits.
The day everything changed was when I discovered some photos online from an All-American Rejects show that I went to. The photographer, Stacy McCarthy, signed her name to the edge of the photo. I looked her up on the internet and eventually found her MySpace page. Curious about how she got to take those photos, and pretty much deciding right there that I wanted to be like her, I sent her a message.
She was kind enough to respond and encouraged me to start shooting from the crowd in order to make a portfolio. When I had enough shots, she would offer to let me shoot for her site. I picked up a FujiFilm FinePix, a pocket camera designed for low light, and tried my luck at a few shows.
I think the first lesson I ever learned from photographing live concerts was to accept defeat. Having always been the type of person who needed to succeed at everything, this was the hardest lesson and it usually came in the form of very blurry or underexposed photos.
My first few shows shot from the crowd were terrible. At the end of the night, I would have nothing to make a portfolio and I continually felt defeated. I didn’t give up, however, I kept shooting and eventually learned the second lesson in music photography: patience.
It’s important to note that when you’re photographing a concert, everything that happens is out of your control. Unlike a photoshoot, you can’t direct your subjects and you can’t position the lights to your liking. You have to work with pre-existing conditions and wait for the shot. I began paying closer attention to the elements of the show: the music’s rhythm and the lights. I learned to anticipate the next bright moment on stage and strategically time when I clicked the shutter.
My own tips came in handy when I was close to the stage for The Fray, a piano-rock band. Everything about that night was ideal: a lead singer seated at a piano was less likely to be moving about and there was way better lighting.
I stood in the crowd, anchoring my arms to my body to stabilize my camera as I snapped away. I took over 300 shots, most unusable, but enough decent ones to make my first portfolio and finally get an approval for a photo pass. This would lead to another hard lesson in music photography: overcome the unexpected.
My first credentialed show was Matt Nathanson at the 9:30 Club on October 20, 2006 that I shot with a used Nikon D70 and Nikkor 50mm f/1.8. The shorter focal length shouldn’t have been an issue since a photo pass allows you access to area between the barricade and the stage, better known as a photo pit. Unfortunately for this show, there was no barricade setup close to the stage and what was even more unexpected was that 50 frames into the headliner’s set, my camera shutter locked up. Suddenly my first crack at being a pro was over.
I had to swallow the immense feeling of pride I had just hours prior when I picked up my photopass, and figure out how to apologize to both my editor and the band’s publicist.
Although my first show did not go as planned, I pressed on. I wanted to shoot more and more shows, but my editor couldn’t keep up with my requests, so a year and half later I launched my own music blog called Barricade Buzz. At first, many artist managers and publicists declined my requests. Thankfully one approval turned into many, and suddenly I was covering shows all around D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
As I began to cover more and more artists on a regular basis, publicists and venues began approaching me to cover their shows. With my work in music photography beginning to get noticed, I developed three goals: cover festivals, get published in a physical magazine, and go on tour.
I did a lot of cold-emailing to bands, festivals, print magazines and the like. No one responded. It became clear that I needed to get my foot in the door some other way. I decided to apply for an internship with Outerloop Management, a small artist management company just outside of D.C.. While the bands they managed weren’t exactly my style, my internship created many new opportunities and helped me achieve two of my goals simultaneously.
One of the artists I worked with through my internship was a metalcore band called We Came As Romans. They were asked to play The Bamboozle Festival in New Jersey in 2010. The whole company drove up from DC to support them. I was given a laminate for the festival and allowed to photograph the band’s whole set. I also had the opportunity to shoot both from the stage and the pit. At one point, lead singer Kyle Pavone hopped off the stage and began climbing the barricade. I followed him with my camera. I hopped up on the barricade and snapped away, trying to get a decent angle for the shot. This was an experience I had dreamed of having for so long.
Months after the festival, I got an email from Alternative Press magazine. They had checked out my site and were interested in the photos of We Came As Romans, specifically my photo of Kyle in the crowd. That shot would eventually be selected to run in their August 2010 issue. I was going to be published in print!
After my first run in the magazine, work started to pick up. I was hired to photograph a few of the major music festivals like Shamrock Fest and Virgin Mobile FreeFest. With two out of three of my goals achieved in just a few short years, all I had left to do was get on tour.
In 2011, the Vans Warped Tour, one of the largest touring music festivals in the world, held an open application to be the Monster Energy Pit Reporter. While the title is a bit goofy, the job itself was everything I wanted: spend an entire summer on tour shooting videos and taking photos of bands. I filmed a video of myself rambling about all of my experience and how I wanted to be on tour. It was a real disappointment to not get selected that year, but looking back, my application video was painfully boring.
Refusing to let that year’s defeat get the best of me, I had my second chance in 2012 and came up with an idea to finally get noticed. I channeled my inner Natalie Portman (http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/natalie-raps/n12021) and put together a satirical rap video about Warped Tour. A few months later, I was packing my gear and headed to Salt Lake City to be the 2012 Vans Warped Tour as the Monster Energy Pit Reporter.
I spent 8 weeks traveling the country with over 100 bands, many of which were favorites from my youth like Yellowcard and Taking Back Sunday. It was hard work, but by far the best experience of my life. I met so many people in music and became friends with other up and coming music photographers like Adam Elmakias, Josiah Van Dien, Ashley Osborne, and Matt Vogel. I even got to meet Todd Owyoung, a music photographer whose work I had been admiring for many years.
I’ll be honest, I wish I could have stayed on tour forever. I had never felt like there was some place where I really belonged more than on the road, but unfortunately, life had other plans and priorities.
Touring through the summer, spending 12 hours in the heat daily for weeks on end took its toll on my health and I was hospitalized upon my return home. Something most people don’t know about me is that I have an auto-immune disease called lupus. While I took every precaution to stay healthy on the road, the heat and exhaustion inevitably won and I found myself facing severe health complications months later. Although being hospitalized was a setback, I refused to let it be the end of my dream of touring and working with bands.
After accepting that being on tour was too hard on my body and knowing a connection with the music world was far too important to me, I took a job in New York City at a record label called Fueled By Ramen. As part of the label, I am able to continue to work with some of my favorite bands and maintain the medical care I need.
While I am no longer hopping on tour buses across the country with my camera, I am grateful to be in a city where I still have the opportunity to photograph bands like Paramore, Panic! At The Disco, twenty one pilots through Fueled By Ramen. I hope maybe one day I can get back on the road– even if only temporarily– and that I’ll land a shot in the pages of Rolling Stone. Until then, I’ll keep shooting!