Dove Wedding Photography

The Music Biz vs Photographers: Part I.

In keeping with our commitment to serve up timely topics, we’re launching a series of posts focusing on music licensing for professional photographers. Share your experience and voice your opinion by commenting below!

Over the last few months there has been buzz about photographers and filmmakers getting fined or sued for using unlicensed music on  their websites, slideshows and videos.

There are plenty of forum posts and magazine articles where photographers share their opinions on the matter, but I thought it would be interesting to hear directly from someone inside the music industry. Living in Nashville, it is fairly easy to connect with music business leaders and artists. So, let me introduce you to my friend John Thompson, Director of one of EMI’s publishing departments.

John has been an influential figure in the music industry for over 20 years. He has worked in both the business and artistic sides of the industry and is passionate about helping artists grow and thrive. I recently spoke with John about his views on music licensing. For this post we will concentrate on what value music has to our websites, slideshows and products.

Peter: Why are photographers and videographers expected to go through the work and spend the money on licensing music for their slideshows, websites and videos?

John: If someone did good work and it’s adding value to what you do, then it’s fair to compensate them. If you’re a photographer and you’re taking cool pictures, I could say, “I just want to use the picture for my one little thing, why should I have to pay you for it? You already took the picture. You clearly are a professional and these pictures look really nice so you must be making money and don’t need my little $15-$20 to pay you for that picture.”

It just unravels at some point. You can justify it if it suits your purposes, but I think the rationale that “these people are rich already” or “they are getting exposure from me” doesn’t really hold water.

Peter: Does an artist – and those involved with the artist – not see potentially viral videos and slideshows as free promotion?

John: Very few people are ever going to buy a song because they heard it in a video montage or something. The video creator is probably using the song because certain people (his/her clients) are already fans of that song.

There are a bunch of different levels where we ask, “what kind of value did that song bring to that product?” Is it a tiny value or is it a large value that drives the emotion of the product? So, there is discretion that can be used when setting the price in a fair way and it’s all negotiable. Our job as a publisher is to look out for the songwriters.

As far as considering viral video promotion, in terms of the value equation, it would have to be a pretty compelling argument for someone to say, “I should be allowed to use this song for free because I’m doing the song writer the same favor that they are doing for me.” With some independent, one-off thing, it is difficult to justify how many people will buy the album because of that slideshow or video. Plus, if they can play the video over and over again to hear the song, they don’t need to go buy the song!

If the song wasn’t worth something, you wouldn’t want to use it! If you want to use the song, it must be worth something.

Peter: My questions to you, The Photo Life readers: 

What value does music have for your presentations? Tell us about the emotional value as well as the financial value. 

Do you agree or disagree with anything John said in this interview? Why?

Written by Peter Carlson

Peter Carlson’s outgoing, laid back, quirky personality is the main reason both brides and photographers love   working with him. Through photography, he and his wife Whitney focus on the unique personalities of every couple as well as the joy and happy emotions that are felt on each wedding day. Photographers find their classes fun, inspirational, and easy to implement. Peter & Whitney run their own studio, Dove Wedding Photography, as well as The Collection and The Nashville Photography Class.


  • David says:

    Travis, BMI has a great license program and it normally only costs $300 a year or so for photographers.

  • MaryMargaret says:

    I started photography by photographing by music festaviles at the age of 14, and my husband manages rock bands. In my 17 years of photographing, i have seen major changes in both industries. Ive also seen a major swing in the amount of amertures getting involved in both industies do to digital technology, which oversaturates the market, and tends to make people stingy.

    My husband and i often have the conversation that while all of the above statements about paying for music are true, there seems to be a double standard as far as musicians using artwork goes. Musicians will be the first to complain and slap a fine on you for using their music, but I’m guessing they have someone’s photography on their website that they have not paid for. In fact, it has become standard in the music industry in order to gain access to the artist or the pit of the stage to be made to sign a waiver that says they aren’t willing to pay you, and they will want any usage rights to your photographs. I see their side, but don’t understand how they can view their music as worthy art, but the photographs they use to sell their image and their art is not worthy of payment. My favorite is when they spin it as, “it will be a great opportunity for you”- sometimes yes, sometimes no, but I wish there would be some sort of alliance and culture change that would value photography as much as their songs. Am I the only one who sees that we both need each other to be successful? I hate making slide shows now, and recently took them off my menu, because all of the licensed music providers are horribly cheesy, and the fear of getting slapped by an artist who is most likely using images that are unpaid for, is too annoying.

  • leica user says:

    i decided to take all music off my site a few years ago and then spent a few days emailing indie artists and asking for explicit permission from them to use music on my site and slideshows. they were very accommodating, as i usually am when another small business wants to use one of my shots on their site. i ask for a relevant hyperlink in return and everyone is happy.

    music licensing from big publishing houses is not a realistic option for photographers. nobody is going to pay $300 for a one time use of a single song in a single slideshow. $20? sure. $50? maybe. $300? heck no.

    i’d love to know how much of that $300 goes to the publisher vs the artist.

  • James P Goff says:

    Agreed there needs to be a venue designed. An App maybe? Seems like a simple concept except for the stadium full of corporate lawyers involved. I am more than willing to pay for a song because it does bring value to my site. Tried and found it too expensive with the tangled web of corporate law – if pressed it would be easier and more organic to just find an up and coming artist – it’s not like there aren’t any. I have had many people ask about the music on my site or say they love the song which does add some value to the song also.. Naturally seeing and hearing together is more powerful than either artform on it’s own – providing it’s done well. People will not go to my website daily to hear a song they like – but they will look to see who it is and buy it themselves.
    I would love for their to be a process where an artist could approve a song for a website if they like the visual artists work – making a collaborative of sorts.

  • Mary Margaret: I totally hear you. It seems like every young photographer who moves to Nashville wants to be a band photographer. Then they realize it’s really hard to make money doing that. A few years ago one of my photographers was asked to photograph a very popular band who had hit radio singles. When she gave the label her rates they were surprised she wanted to be paid. The label could have totally afforded these rates, they just knew that there were plenty other quality photographers out there that were willing to do the shoot for free. So, are the labels to blame or are the photographers who give out free sessions the ones to blame?

  • MaryMargaret says:

    Peter-thanks so much for responding….I think both are to blame! I mean, sort of. Really i blame both for not valuing the photographers own craft and skills over the musicians. Why can they call themselves artists, and charge money, and not see what they are asking of someone else who is doing the same thing?? I don’t blame them for using the free photographer, and really, don’t blame the photographer for shooting for free if they are trying to build a portfolio…but I do think you usually get what you paid for, and by asking for money you are showing you are legit.

    There have been many times my husband uses another photographer because they are willing to shoot for free and he knows I’m not. I also am completely fine with passing that opportunity on to another photographer-there is a season for everything, and I’m past wanting to shoot in a pit for free if It doesn’t bring me joy-especially with the amount of people in the pit that are “professionals” now. If you are being paid, then they automatically trust you to do what you need to do to get your shots, and usually you have more access than the first 3 songs. That said, I think there are some that are fantastic opportunities to shoot for free-but I look at that more for me as personal projects, and hold onto usage rights, until they say they are interested in the photograph. I will say, anytime I shoot for rates with musicians vs just giving them images, I am taken much more seriously, and delt with professionally.

  • I”ve always bought my music selections for my website, slideshows, etc from Triple Scoop. It’s not always easy to find something I like, but I’ve found enough.

  • […] my previous post, I introduced you to one of EMI’s Publishing Directors, John Thompson. What I love about John is […]

  • […] Part 1 covered the value of music within photographic and video work. […]

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