Music industry bows to point-and-shoot cameras

As cheap, powerful automatic cameras and camera phones proliferate, the music industry--and its sports counterpart--have had to realize they can't control fans' ability to take pictures.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
This photo of U2 lead singer Bono, shot during U2's Rose Bowl show on October 25, by amateur photographer Bruce Heavin, was taken with a Canon PowerShot G11, and is representative of the high-quality pictures that ticket-holders can easily take these days at concerts and other events with point-and-shoot cameras. Note the people in the picture snapping their own images of Bono. Flickr user Bruce Heavin

At last month's huge U2 show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., how could you tell the difference between the professional photographers and your average amateurs?

Answer: the professionals were the ones whisked away after Bono and friends finished their third song, and the amateurs were still there, happily shooting to their heart's content.

Nearly every person at any show these days is going to have some form of camera with them, be it a point-and-shoot, an iPhone or some other camera phone, and it seems that there is almost no way to imagine keeping all those devices out.

That new reality is forcing an increasing number of bands to come to grips with the fact that they can't really control the images from their shows, and that, for the most part, they're better off letting fans cram Facebook and Flickr with such pictures anyway.

"It's an acknowledgment of the way technology is changing, and how much digital cameras have become a part of our lives," Rob Sheridan, the creative director for Nine Inch Nails, told CNET News. "Now that everyone has video and still cameras in their phones, and pocket digital cameras take HD video and great quality pictures, not only is it impossible to keep cameras out of shows, but it's fighting an increasingly uphill battle against what is now a cultural norm: people freely documenting their lives and the things they do to share it with friends and family."

In fact, the only people who may emerge frustrated from this new paradigm are the professionals. For those shooting with credentials, the phrase is "three songs and you're gone," said Bob Carey, the president of the National Press Photographers Association, meaning that pros are generally allowed to shoot from a designated "pit" near the stage during a band's first three songs, and then they have to leave.

Last month, I was one of those sporting a photo pass at the 96,000-fan U2 Rose Bowl show. And even as I was clicking away during those first three songs, I was acutely aware that there were hundreds of people even closer to the stage than I was, toting cameras capable of taking some pretty great pictures. Indeed, a quick Flickr search confirmed just that.

Little dynamos
Many of those fans--and thousands more throughout the Rose Bowl that night--were shooting with nothing more than a camera phone. And no one worries about the dissemination of images taken with devices like that. But some people were shooting with cameras like Canon's new PowerShot G11, a little 12.5-ounce, 10-megapixel dynamo much more than capable of producing professional images.

Shot with a press credential from the photo pit and with a digital SLR, this CNET photo is not all that distinguishable from the photo (seen above) by amateur Bruce Heavin, which he took with a Canon PowerShot G11, a point-and-shoot camera. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

So, while the professionals are being ushered out after those three songs, how is it that the fans are able to keep shooting?

The answer is camera policies in effect at concerts, which are almost always defined by the bands themselves. And conversations with people throughout the music industry make it clear that while there are no standard policies, and that the rules run the gamut from "anything goes" to "no pictures, please," artists today are increasingly tolerant, even encouraging, of fans taking all the pictures they want.

Look, for example, at the Nine Inch Nails Web site, which spells out the band's open camera policy, "inviting fans to capture the events with anything from a cell phone to a hi-def video camera." The reason is clear: "The results have been overwhelming, filling our own galleries with thousands of images and videos from every show, and inspiring a number of ambitious fan-sourced video projects within the NIN community. Some of those projects are starting to surface now, and we couldn't be happier with the way the fans have organized themselves and created some truly impressive work."

Further, Sheridan told CNET News, even the proliferation of pictures of the band's shows taken by fans hasn't hurt its commercial interests.

"Despite the fact that our fans take thousands and thousands of their own photos at each NIN show with whatever camera they'd like, we still sell prints of live photos taken by me through a Web site called frcphotos.com," said Sheridan. "This is presumably the type of thing that other acts would be trying to 'protect' by limiting photography at shows, but we've found that fans are still eager to purchase reasonably-priced professional prints, often taken at angles or distances that only someone working for the band would have access to."

Some artists are clearly concerned about fans' rights to take pictures, and go so far as to issue reminders when there are restrictions. For example, the indie rock due, Tegan and Sara, have sent tweets saying things like, "Hollywood Bowl restricts cameras that are deemed professional. This usually means cameras with a removable lens. So keep that in mind!!!"

And, of course, other rock stars are not at all behind the notion of fans taking pictures. Among those are said to be Prince, Kanye West, Bjork, and others. At shows by those artists, security is known to assiduously stop people from taking pictures of any kind, even with camera phones, though one wonders just how effective such policies can be.

Less anti-camera attitudes
But clearly, anti-camera attitudes are becoming less and less prevalent these days.

"It's something that artists have come to realize they have no control over," said Abe Baruck, a manager who works with big-name acts like Journey, Clint Black, and Peter Wolf. It's "more a realization that this is just the way people enjoy entertainment. They want to capture something for their own nostalgia (and it) just doesn't go anywhere other than for their own use."

That thinking is likely what is behind the restrictions on specific kinds of camera equipment at some shows, like U2's, and on professionals.

Even though millions of amateur photographers now own digital SLRs, there is still a mindset in the entertainment industry that anyone toting one at a concert is a professional and therefore should be limited in where and how they shoot.

That's why some bands, like U2, make a point of allowing fans to take pictures, so long as they stick to lower-end equipment. "Since 2001, U2 has openly allowed fans to bring cameras to their shows," reads the FAQ on the site U2tours.com. "Your camera, however, must be a point-and-shoot camera; DSLRs are not allowed."

"It's just a very simple calling card saying, 'I'm a professional media person,'" Philip Blaine, a producer with Coachella promoter Goldenvoice, said of photographers with digital SLRs, "'and I know how to utilize this media in a professional manner.'"

And while it's generally bands that are setting camera policies, some venues have also asserted control over what fans can and can't bring.

One example is the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles. As evidenced by the tweet from Tegan and Sara, that venue imposes restrictions around certain kinds of equipment. A Hollywood Bowl spokeswoman said that that venue won't let ticket-holders bring in professional-grade equipment.

Professional sports seem to largely work the same way. According to NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy, football fans are allowed to bring in any kind of still camera--though lenses are restricted to less than six inches long, for security reasons--they want. That policy is standard across the entire NFL, McCarthy added, and prohibits fans from bringing in any kind of camcorder.

The same basic policy applies to other sports, too. According to Nick Ohayre, a spokesperson for the NBA's Golden State Warriors, fans are free to carry and use cameras at basketball games, so long as they don't use flash and don't bring large, professional equipment.

But over time, as the technology improves, it may become more common and force sports leagues and entertainers to pay more attention to what's happening with imagery taken by the thousands of small devices fans bring with them to events, especially as the quality of pictures from those devices is often good enough for professional publication and licensing.

Some even think that band representatives need to do a better job of keeping up with what's possible in technology.

"I don't think they're aware of some of (what's possible) with new devices," said Carey of the National Press Photographers Association. "I don't think they've figured out the nuances of what point-and-shoots can do with photos and video."

But the increasing permissive attitude toward letting fans shoot whatever photos they please may simply come down to the realities of what it would take to do a serious search of every one of the thousands of people who go through an event's gates.

In the old days, said New York freelancer Lia Bulaong, if she wanted to sneak a camera into a show, she would hide its battery in her bra and then convince security she had brought her powerless camera into the show in order not to risk it being stolen from her car.

But in the last two or three years, she said, such subterfuge is pointless.

"No-camera policies just became extra ridiculous because pretty much everyone has a camera in their phone," Bulaong said. "Venues can't turn away camera phones and will never the capacity to check them in like they do coats and bags."

Plus, she pointed out, more and more, the bands want to incorporate the fans' phones into their shows.

"The one thing you will see at every concert now, regardless of the artist, is the moment when everyone has their camera phone out and the venue is awash in tiny lit up screens."