Band photos – don’t do it!

Chris JonesChris Jones has found himself stuck in a whirlwind this week, and has offered this re-run of one of his first columns for our enjoyment.

Quite some time ago (I think it was just after the breakup of Flatt & Scruggs and the Beatles) I made a list of the important things that any new bluegrass band needs to accomplish to get off to a good start. For review, here is the list:

  1. Find at least 4 musicians who can both play bluegrass adequately and spend up to 3 hours with each other in the same room (the length of the average rehearsal) without breaking into a fight.
  2. Name your band (see previous 3 columns here).
  3. Fire the mandolin player because he’s a nutbar and may have a criminal record.
  4. Seek out endorsement deals.
  5. Discuss and select band clothes.
  6. Purchase a band vehicle or destroy a band member’s existing vehicle in less than a year.
  7. Work up at least 24 songs.
  8. Build a web site.
  9. Record your first album.
  10. Write your first promotional material using the words “dynamic” and “hard-driving” as much as possible.
  11. Book a gig.
  12. Play that gig.
  13. Take a band photo.

After much procrastination, I’ve decided it’s time to deal with the last item on the list: the band photo. Procrastinating, it turns out, is precisely what I recommend when it comes time to taking the photo too. You see, there’s a reason that it’s number 13 on the list. The band photo is very unlucky.

There is evidence that taking a band photo actually leads to personnel changes in bands, or complete breakups. This unfortunate result is even more likely if the band photo coincides with recording a CD and /or purchasing a band vehicle.

You can have committed long term band members, a new record deal, and everything can look bright and rosy, and then you say, innocently enough: “All we need now is a band photo. I’ve hired someone to do it. Let’s meet on Tuesday afternoon. Wear something way better than what you’re wearing right now.” One week after you’ve written a check to the photographer for exactly $100 more than you budgeted for, two of the band members announce that they’re leaving the band to go work for Shoji Tabuchi in Branson, MO.

There are a few ways to avoid the band photograph, and they may seem extreme, but given the scenario I’ve just described, they’re well worth it:

One, is to do what I suggested in a previous column: Simply photoshop the head of the new band member over the head of the old one, or, if necessary, substitute the entire upper body. As previously mentioned, this becomes difficult if the new band member is of a different gender, or there’s a weight difference between the new and old members of more than 100 pounds. This will require some creativity, or you can just hire people based on their physical similarity to the previous band member.

This brings me to another option for avoiding a band photo: convince the public that your new member is actually the same as the person in the old photo. It’s not necessary to insist that the new person take on the name of the old one (although it wouldn’t hurt, if he or she is willing); you’ll have to insist, though, that the new musician dress as much like the previous one as possible and have the same hairstyle and facial hair, if applicable. The wearing of dark sunglasses at all times would be helpful. Weight differences can be handled by encouraging the new band member to gain or lose as much weight as needed to approximate the girth of the person he or she is replacing. Height differences are more difficult to manage, therefore I discourage the hiring of any new person who is more than 3 inches taller or shorter than the previous person. Otherwise the new member will just have to sit down as much as possible, including on stage.

If you must go ahead with the band photo, it might be good to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with each member of the band, just to see if they plan to stick around, at least for a while (more than 5 days).

When it comes to the photo itself, I have a few pointers to offer:

Choose a photographer who has photographed a band before, no matter how excited your bass player may be about his new digital camera he got for Christmas (“My sister takes really nice pictures of furniture. She can use my new camera and it won’t cost us anything!”).

Also, with all due respect to professional portrait photographers, they generally take a very poor band photo. The instruments are always baffling to them; they can’t figure how to get them all into the frame, and right away they try to talk you out of having them in the picture at all. You can always tell the band photos that were taken by a portrait photographer: Everyone looks very uncomfortable, which the forced smiles can’t disguise. The guitar player is holding the instrument very awkwardly, with the neck pointing upward. The banjo player is gripping his by the resonator, holding it up to his chin, with the neck pointing straight down. The bass player is holding the bass at an awkward angle, standing behind all the other musicians, barely visible. Only the mandolin player is permitted to stand in any kind of non-contorted position.

What you need, ideally, is someone who photographs musicians and bands for a living. The problem, of course, is that there’s a pretty wide price range among these professionals, roughly between $0 (the photographer owes you a big favor) and $15,000 and maybe naming rights of your first 3 children. Obviously, you’d like to get closer to the first number than the second. For many up-and-coming bluegrass bands that weren’t even aware there was such a thing as a five-figure number, it’s best to look for an up-and-coming photographer, somebody who’s good but hasn’t yet established a reputation (and may still be living above the bus station). Once you’re up to the level of getting little pastries with mysterious seafood inside them catered backstage, you can patronize the big name photographers.

If you live in an area where there aren’t a lot of artist publicity photographers, the next best thing would be a commercial photographer of some other kind. There was a bluegrass band that used a well-known commercial food photographer for their promo pictures, with good results. To a cynic who said the band members looked a little like hamburgers, the photographer’s comeback was: that’s an improvement over what they really look like.

Next week: a program to gain 100 pounds by the start of festival season in order to look more like the guitar player you just replaced.