Shooting An Album For A Major Record Label

A question from one of my readers:

I am a photographer in Southern California and was approached buy a major record label out of New York asking for a quote to shoot their artists album. They are wanting multiple looks. Is there a good place where I can find a competitive rate so I don’t destroy the industry single handily with a low-ball rate? ha…

I emailed the question to an agent and here’s the response:

As we all know the record industry has been hard hit in more than one way in the last few years. Several of my artists shoot for record labels and although the work can be very creative the rates have not increased in a long time and they have actually gone down in a lot of cases.

When negotiating with the labels the first thing to ask is about usage. Most labels require you to sign a contract for all rights with a distinction of whether it is to include merchandising-for-sale rights or not. Merchandising-for-sale means posters, tee-shirts, calendars – any kind of merchandising that is sold (often at live shows) as opposed to being given away. Most labels will allow a photographer to retain the right to use the work in their portfolios, website and for promotion. The labels need to secure all rights for many reasons but mostly to protect themselves from pirated product.

The next element in determining the creative fees (after usage is determined) is the popularity of the band or recording artist. Larger acts will have a bigger overall budget which makes sense. If a label calls you to shoot a major act then they are going to be expecting a larger fee usually. The other factor is the level of the photographer. A younger or newer photographer will not be able to command the rates that more established photographers can.

I would say an average music fee (not including expenses) these days is anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 depending on the rights needed and the artist’s stature and the photographers stature. The budget for expenses can vary wildly depending on many factors.

A junior band at a smaller label with newer photographer you might see the creative fee as low as a $1,000.

One trend I am experiencing is labels coming to us with an “all in” budget to include all of the expenses and fees. We get a call from a client and they say we have $30,000 “all in” to shoot this band, does your photographer want the job? This is usually with the understanding that if you bring the expenses in for less, without sacrificing the quality of the production, your fees can go up. This can be good in some cases, but in others you get the difficult challenge of managing the talents expectations for the shoot with not a lot of support from the label or help from management.

Here’s an example: The band wants to shoot at the Taj Mahal and you have to tell them that the label only has the budget to shoot at the local Motel 6. Or, the artist wants major fashion labels in the wardrobe pull, but the stylist can only have $2,000 “all in” with the overall budget being so low. Or, the artist wants a specific hair or makeup artist whose rate is very high. I will often agree to an “all in” budget if the hair, makeup and stylist is not included in our budget. Then we will try as best we can from the initial creative conversations with the recording artist to reference the budget in a sensitive way.

Also bear in mind that if you need to travel to do a job – which means airfares and hotels etc. as well as more days on your calendar the budgets do not often increase proportionally to cover that. So a budget of $25,000 “all in” is not so bad if you are shooting in your own home town with one recording artist. But that budget to shoot a band with five members in a smaller city in the middle of the country becomes not only more difficult in terms of production but is also immediately less profitable.

So when you get one of those offers you have to consider all the factors and perhaps the offer is to shoot a band that you love and you just say yes to be able to work with them and shoot it!

The other thing that is starting to happen more often is we are shooting these jobs for the artist or band management and not the label. In those cases it most often includes the option of merchandising-for-sale. The management then controls what goes to the label and to the merchandising companies – secure that they have all rights. They will often commission the art direction and design of the package or tour book and deliver a finished package to the record label or vendor.

The need for more control on the part of management and artist (from a marketing standpoint) is due to the changes in contracts between the labels and the recording artists. Also, a lot of major labels do not even have art departments anymore or if they do they are very small, and they often farm the design out to independent art directors and design firms as opposed to having a full time staff in their art department.

For a newer photographer the music industry is a great way to gain experience because you are required to shoot many set-ups on most sessions to cover not only the artwork for the CD packaging but also the needs of the publicity departments at the label. An average session consists of at least six and sometimes up to ten set ups in one day. So depending on the fee you are making it can be hard work for little pay but often a great experience as well as a creative challenge.

There Are 32 Comments On This Article.

  1. scott Rex Ely

    Doesn’t it seem that getting the job just to get the experience is the Achilles’ heel of our industry? Why is the first thing we concede is the profit? I have no problem with individuals making decisions about whether to accept a job based on their own CODB Vs Perceived Profit. However, calculating the idea of experience to be seen as a major component or enduring strategy for doing business, keeps this type of business opportunity at the “experience” level and doesn’t ever get to proper compensation level our industry should provide.

    • @scott Rex Ely, I agree with what you are saying here. Their are always new photographers getting into the industry. And this is where they get sucked into the whole “the is a great experience, and will look good in your portfolio so you should shoot it for next to nothing”

    • @scott Rex Ely,
      I think the point of the article is not that photographers should work for free just to get experience, but sometimes you can work for a smaller fee if the experience is great. No one should lose money working but if there’s a job you really want to do you might be ready to lower your fees if that’s what it takes, especially if you’re starting out.
      I think the key factor is that the value of experience is something the photographer has to decide for him/herself, not something the client uses as a selling point.

      • scott Rex Ely

        @Sam, I think the idea of using “great experience” as a component of the business opportunity we are talking about here, a major label, is unfortunately outdated. I would argue that the sheer volume of photographers that are at this stage of their careers creates a never ending supply of “great experience” pricing to the client’s side of the table. Sure it’s a good vehicle for polishing one’s credentials, the industry kind, not access kind of credentials, but the affect it has on the photo industry as a whole is detrimental.
        It creates an apprenticeship/journeyman structure that the Client controls, not the actual person providing the service.
        I’d suggest testing, prep on the side, and then when asked to step up to the plate, deliver the goods and be fairly compensated for the work.

  2. So, to me it sounds like you basically have to give up the copyright to your work. “Most labels require you to sign a contract for all rights with a distinction of whether it is to include merchandising- for-sale rights or not. Or, can you still copyright your work, which means you are known as the creator of the work, however, you give the label all rights to use it where they see fit?

    • @Brian R, It depends on the contract. You can create something (and you are the “Creator”) and still sign over copyright. You can also, not retain copyright, but in a contract retain certain rights, such as the right of self promotion that some have mentioned here.

      Or you could keep copyright and give a client rights to use the image forever and ever for any purpose, but no “Third Party Sales.” Which means you get to make more money off of the images from other clients.

      But as I read this, it seems the Record Industry wants to own the copyright; “The labels need to secure all rights for many reasons but mostly to protect themselves from pirated product.” I’d love to see a detailed explanation of this.

    • @Brian R, It’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to shoot a record cover without giving up copyright. Most labels are going to definitely want the option to re-release the record. Also, album covers are used for advertising, reviews, etc and the labels aren’t going to want any restrictions on that.

      Just be sure to price accordingly.

  3. 15k creative fee for music?! delusions, man. unless you’re shooting gaga or bieber that is not happening

  4. I’ve been shooting covers for a “heritage act” – i.e. famous but not selling much new material – artist for several yrs now and they are in the position of moving to a new label each time they put out a record – but they have a consistent fan base, and make money touring, on older albums, iTunes, etc. – in other words, a going concern, but not U2. I’ve been doing a total buyout deal with them for the last three records, where the fee comes in around $7500-8000 and they own it forever with the exception that I can use it for promo materials, gallery shows, books on my work, etc. They usually want something really simple and expense come in around $4000.

    I had another client with a similar deal, except they wanted a bunch of retouching, so the fee was pretty much the same, except retouching bill was added.

    Finally, I did another cover for a hugely popular band who had a very complex concept requiring loads of production – they had $40K, there was travel involved, tons of post, three day shoot, etc., wound up netting around $21K from that, which was AMAZING for this era in the music biz.

    As for the debate on “experience” – is that early on I did a lot of “experience” stuff. When I first started getting music biz work, tho, it was a much better payday/visibility, so it was worth doing semi-freebies to build a viable portfolio. I think now I would still do stuff like that if it was someone whose picture really would enhance my portfolio, to keep it fresh/up to date, or if they had a terrific concept I could really get behind. I heard somewhere the maxim don’t do it if it doesn’t make you money or make you happy, which sounds like good advice.

  5. I should make it clear, in the last post – when I said expenses at $4000, that’s on top of the fee, so the heritage artist type is spending about 12K on photography total.

  6. I did a shoot for a fairly big band last year. They get play on the biggest radio station in the country and the label is one of the majors.

    Now, the shoot was to coincide with their video. So I shot them behind the scenes and on the set of the video itself.

    The images were used on their website but nothing else.

    I got £250.

    that’s the most i’ve ever made from a band shoot. too many people will work for nothing, and that’s killing us all. when kids leave college and do loads of freebies, the fee goes down for everyone. I know there are big names out there making decent money. but even they are finding it hard to work with the budgets they are given.

    It really upsets me, because I love what I do and I get a great response from it. But I have bills to pay. And unless you are an already established name you get paid buttons.

    • @pete c, be sure to have paperwork that makes it explicit that you own the copyright and they only get web use (software like Blinkbid makes it easy to specify licensing).

  7. reading that the music industry has taken a big hit and is on hard times or whatever makes me laugh…the music industry like the newspaper and editorial industry and many other industries are only “hurting” because the people at the top are not filling their wallets like they used to…their expectations and their fat houses and fat checks are not in reality anymore…so sorry, for the fat cats at the top but take a fucking pay cut and realize your not all that, distribute the wealth, and get the fuck over it.

    sorry. its just a bit pathetic. the times for excess for the rich need to be reality checked.

    and so on to photography – I like the advice that you should do it if it “makes you money” or “makes you happy”…that’s good advice, but don’t do it for free (or for very little) and give your copyright away, that’s just complete ignorant…negotiate for something that has VALUE…I mean if they want all rights, charge them for it, if they can’t afford all rights then keep the copyright IN WHOLE and then make some $ on the back end…if you don’t get the gig, fuck it, you will get the next one because you have now just had the experience of vocalizing your worth – its a big deal…no need to be cocky or way over priced but surely keep it real and confident

    • @CH, Absolutely true as far as vocalizing your worth – I recall one mtng with a label publicist who asked if I had ever heard of so-and-so, another photographer, whose work I knew and admired. I said yes, and the publicist said “Where do they get off wanting to charge a $5000 fee for a publicity session?” This was in the late 90s I guess. I don’t know if the photog was awarded the job, or ever worked for that label, but today said shooter is in demand at the top of the field.
      The question of retaining copyright I always think of this way – is it going to be super valuable in ten years? Like, will anyone care about the band/artist? I made some really good backend money off some artists I shot early on, who were famous enough to warrant box sets, books about them, etc. etc., and would get fees every time they were looking to put out stuff like that.
      On the other hand, if you are shooting an artist who you are doubtful is going to be in it for the long haul – you can argue for an extra couple thou for a buyout to bump up your fee one time, and call it a day. If they do somehow go on to become mega stars with twenty year careers, you can kick yourself then.
      As for the music industry hurting – it is, and not just at the exec level – the whole delivery system of music has changed, so it’s great for the consumer but lousy for the recording artist. I, who once dropped lots of dough on albums, have not set foot in a record store in years. If I like some song I hear, I can listen to it on youtube till I get sick of it, or just buy that one song off iTunes, so they don’t get an album worth of money out of me. It’s extremely difficult to make money, except via the grueling routine of touring, unless you luck out and hit it big with one song that gets licensed, good ex. the guy who did the song they play in the opening of “True Blood”. Otherwise, much like photography, illustration, writing, film-making, very hard to earn a consistent middle class living at it. The marketable, big bucks art skills these days are all in digital stuff – CGI, web design, 3D graphics, etc.

      • @John Eder, I hear what your saying and I agree with you on many fronts but:

        “The Financial Times reported ‘Warner Music paid its top five executives more than $21m in salary and bonuses following last year’s $2.6bn acquisition of the US music group by a private equity consortium.’ The article points out that Edgar Bronfman Jr, the Chairman who led last year’s buy-out, received a $1M salary and $5.25M bonus. Lyor Cohen, head of the US recorded music business, received $1M and $5.24M in salary and bonus, respectively. Paul Rene Albertini, head of Warner’s international operations, was paid $1.25M in salary and a $3.15M bonus. Departing Warner/Chappell CEO, Les Bider, received a $2.44M total payment.

        These payouts include further guaranteed bonuses or change of control payments. According to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, last year’s total executive remuneration was more than three times higher than Warner Music’s $7M operating income for the 10 months to September 30th. The management payments reflect Warner’s success in cutting costs following last year’s sale of the Music Group by Time Warner. The company expects to deliver $250M of annualized savings by May this year, achieved mainly through 1,600 job losses.

        What is so truly disturbing here is that it speaks volumes about the value system of an owner of a company that would pay its top-five Record Executives more than three times the amount of operating income for a ten-month period while dismissing 1,600 employees. ”

        via http://www.bitchinentertainment.com/html_articles/ezra_payouts.html

        now I have no idea the legitimacy of the above linked site but I do have an idea that many many industries that look to be hurting are hurting truly as a whole but not necessarily because of disruptive technologies but more because of greed, I truly believe.

        I have not been in a record store in years either…but that shouldn’t mean that no one makes money…I mean, what I see is the people just under the top all the way down to the bottom are hurting because the top 10% figure out a way to manipulate the rest while they keep the salaries more or less the same. Nobody need or deserves 4+ million/year (ie Warner execs) no matter who you are or what you do.

        I just got done shooting a week of the PGA, the payout to the pro golfers was 8.5mil (1.4 mil to the winner)…they have 37 tournaments with approx the same payout at each tournament and they used allot of volunteers for the labor at the week long event…I mean really? that’s 314.5 mil for the year and many many many people are still making a ton of cash…really? so the money is there, its just who is holding it that dictates how much their industry is “hurting”.

        • @CH, Getting into the whole issue of CEO compensation would make me burst a blood vessel let alone addressing the psycho salaries of star athletes. The record industry has always been a big racket according to the many artists I have worked with/for. The speed of modern life has also hurt that biz – today’s classic acts like U2 or Springsteen would not be likely to have a chance today as their careers had to build over a long period before they really made tons of dough – today’s biz is centered on big hits right out of the box – if Gaga, for ex., had not hit with her first album, she would have gone away straight off. Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful response.

          • @John Eder, It’s true I hear you. Incedentally I actually spend more money now on music than ever have, by way of impulse buying, while listening to pandora and clicking on “buy” album when I like something

  8. Musicians were told that they had to get used to the new paradigm when downloading came around. Labels just don’t have as much money, from majors to indies. It was bound to trickle down to the creative industries that supported the music biz.

  9. I encounter the same thing as a DSLR filmmaker for the music industry…more often than not they haven’t allocated any budget for music film but welcome the content. As a result, I have switched the model on them, so that if they don’t have any budget, then I retain all the rights, including for merchandising. I find that the best case scenario is that they end up magically ‘finding’ the budget in order to retain the control.

    However, one thing I would add that I don’t think has been mentioned here is the brand of the photographer him or herself. By that I mean the Annie Leibowitz or Rankin factor. Rather than being a faceless jobbing photographer, I think a way round this exploitation by those with bigger budgets is to be so damn good that they will pay a premium to employ you. At the end of the day, as photographers and filmmakers we have the armoury and the expertise to create the content to build a brand round, so perhaps spend a little more time on you, and you will then have to spend a little less time (and money) on them…

    This is just an idea, andis more of a response to the current context than anything else, but please let me know what you think…

  10. Adding to this to this pot because I think this answer addresses the original question.

    I shot several new artists for major labels last year. Some for full album packaging and promo, some just for promo. Ranging from 2500 – 10000 for my rate for one day. Everything else is on top of this number budget-wise.

    Again these day rates are for new artists on major labels. Any medium-famous to really famous should be a good bit more I would think, depending on the usage and everything else that’s been discussed.

    I have been asked to shoot and will still shoot packaging or promo for artists on smaller labels or no labels for low rates so long as my expenses are covered if they are a cool artist. It ain’t all always about money. It is all about balancing what you love with making a living, riiiight? And music and photography are age-old partners in fun.

  11. I would suggest Fotoquote as a starting point. You will probably be asked to give up your copyright. A moral decision indeed. If you are willing then apply a multiplier. In the end it comes down to putting your fee on one side of the scale and their budget on the other side. It is always a tough decision. With regards to copyright, I have worked with Microsoft in the past as a New York event photographer. With them, it is a deal with the devil. But they paid what I asked.

  12. a couple of points which i don’t think have been mentioned are “territories” and “royalties”.. or did i miss that?
    one album cover deal i have with a large specialist / experimental label, (for the sale of a commissioned shot of the live event being recorded), provided a lump sum for the initial 4000 copies, for “multiple” territories (or countries), and promotional use for 3 years online, and a % of all future pressings.
    this was some 7 or 8 years ago, the album has done very well and i have picked up the extra cash in the past year for the extra pressings.. the label were covered in case the album failed, and i was covered if it did well…

    “all in” prices are great, although business wise it may mean someone taking the risk.. i have worked on albums which failed to turn profit.. and i failed to receive more work through my charging system.. i have friends for whom the same is true – in one instance they did receive 10 000 GBP for an album and 12″ cover, yet when the label looks at the cost and then their own graphic design team, they decided to take the work in-house.

    best case scenario is that both photographer and client have a similar figure and technique for pricing in mind.. having never been represented by an agent, i’ve always found a phonecall, or better still meeting in person, can reveal all.. then a follow up email as confirmation.

    good luck.

  13. Beware of the “Publicity Shoot”. Make sure you read the fine print. I recently did a publicity shoot as a favor and it turned into packaging and i’ve been at this game for awhile. The creative said that they would make it up to me. Yeah right! They just move on to another photographer and get another favor. Know your worth and pay attention.

    • @jim wright, Yes, the “publicity shoot” is among the most ambiguous and undefined of usage in celebrity/entertainment/music photography of which, the latter, is commonly the first stop for legions of inexperienced photography hopefuls. “Publicity” whether assignment shoots or stock licensing, usually involves granting broad usage rights which should include very specific and clearly defined restrictive usage language i.e., time limit term usage, prohibiting usage in listed publications or specific online media platforms etc. – and a hefty licensing fee on top. This becomes a much smoother process if you’re negotiating with seasoned, experienced and reputable clients or art buyers which is not always the case with regard to this field of the industry. It can be a headache however, successful nevertheless.

  14. MarcWPhoto

    Probably the sleaziest rights trick I ever saw tried had to do with an album cover image.

    I was doing a product shoot for a friend of mine and his son-in-law had arranged for a model – the product was for some pretty stark industrial jewelry and the SIL knew a really outrageous-looking Goth model who was perfect for it. After we were done, the SIL asked me if I’d shoot one of “his” bands – he was an aspiring promoter. I said, “Sure, what’s the rate?”

    He offered me a hundred bucks.

    I figured, heck, he’s my buddy’s SIL, it might be fun, I doubt the band has two nickels to rub together, and said, “Sure. I’ll give you unlimited promotional usage. If you want to use the pics for album covers or merch, I’ll give you a cheap license.”

    “Oh, no,” he replied, “I figured you’d just give me the film.” (He meant I’d give him the chip when we were done and he’d take the images.)

    “You only do that for an all-rights sort of deal,” I said. “I can’t give you all rights to anything for a hundred bucks. I can’t sell you all rights to one PICTURE for a hundred bucks.”

    “Well, if the band makes it, you could always sell the images later! Lots of rock photographers do that and make a killing. So that’s okay, right?”

    “*pause* How am I going to do that, with no release and no files?”

    The conversation decayed rapidly after that. Still waiting to see the band make it big.

  15. Remember, these people are artists too, which usually means they are broke also…. not the target customer you should have as a photographer.

  16. Good points for sure. I wouldn’t mind working for a few hundred bucks plus expenses if I kept my rights to the photos. I did that for Willie Nelson and everyone was happy. My roommate’s band was a new signee to Interscope and they paid a relatively decent and experieinced photographer over $10k. If I were shooting a no-name band on a tiny indy label, I wouldn’t expect so much. But, when I see that you sold out 5 nights, two shows each night I’m not falling for “hard time in the record industry”.