“Generally, I tend to not have a flash with me. It’s very seldom you are allowed to use a flash when shooting bands performing. I tend to take all of my pictures using whatever natural light is available to me.”
Today, I am very delighted to be sharing with you all, an interview with concert photographer and co-owner of Lithium Magazine, Mike Bax. He is one of the most experienced people I know in the “music media” industry in the London and Toronto areas. After you read this article, I hope that you gain some insight from the perspective of not just the photographer, but the total package of having a solid social network and friends and collegues that you can rely on.
Sean Chin (SC): So Mike, tell us little bit about yourself and what influenced you get into the concert photography scene in general?
Mike Bax (MB): I’m actually a graphic designer / creative director. I’ve been working in the advertising field for almost twenty years now. I’m a hardcore music fan, and have been an avid concertgoer since I was about fifteen years old. I was at a Mastodon show in 2006; it was the record release show for Blood Mountain. I’d driven in by myself. After buying the album the day it came out and liking it so much, I returned to the Sunrise where I’d bought it and secured a ticket for the show that very same night. I can remember watching the photographers getting queued into the photo pit to take their pictures and thinking, “There has to be a way I can do that!”
SC: Where did you grow up and where are you based now?
MB: I grew up in a small town up north called Deep River. There are just over 4000 people living there. It was a tough town to be a music fan in, as access to concerts and decent music was VERY limited. I am now based out of London, Ontario, although I spend so much time driving up and down the 401 to see shows for Lithium, I kind of feel like I live on the highway.
SC: Did you ever take formal photography classes? If so, did it help you in anyway? If not, do you ever wish you took some courses?
MB: I took a basic photography course when I was in my first year of graphic design. I didn’t like the technicality of it. All of the manual settings to understand were challenging, and the whole aspect of over and under-developing film was very tedious. Photography now is a completely different thing from twenty years ago. I think that almost anyone now can take a photo. With digital imagery, the industry standard, if you take a bad shot now, you just delete it. Back in the day, if you blew a roll of film, you were out a significant amount of time and money before you’d find out you duffed a shot.
SC: Who and when was your first “official” gig with a fancy photo pass? My first real accredited gig was to photograph Sloan at the Kool Haus in 2005.
MB: My first ‘official’ shoot was actually back in the early 1990’s. I shot an MC 900 Foot Jesus show at the Rivoli for a long defunct Guelph magazine called Adrenaline. I utterly screwed up the shoot, and didn’t get a single usable shot at the show. The magazine went under around the same time, and I never really had to admit to the editor that I’d buggered up the shoot. But my first serious shoot, after seeing that Mastodon show, was a Mew concert at the Mod Club in 2006.
SC: How many gigs do you currently shoot in a month?
MB: This really varies from month to month. Sometimes it can be over twenty, and others it can be four or five.
SC: Who and when was your most memorable gig to photograph?
MB: There have been many. So many shows have different moments, and when you capture something as special as a photograph, it’s a pretty magical feeling. There’s a bit of a story needed for me to accurately answer this: When I started trying to do concert photography, I first tried to solicit established publications and get assignments, I found that nobody was really interested in trying me out. The London newspaper tended to cover only large shows, and they had staff photographers to assign these shows to. And the local entertainment newspaper (called SCENE) turned me down cold. I still have the email I got back from them. It sits at the very bottom of my email folder in my Outlook program. It’s twelve words long, and is unsigned. It’s dated October 2nd, 2006. It says: “Sorry Mike…Scene does not do show reviews. Thanks for your interest.” I remember reading it and thinking to myself, “Well, who DOES show reviews then?” I decided to start a music website as a vehicle to pursue concert photography. And when I started doing this publication (called Fazer) in earnest, I had one pie-in-the-sky band I thought was completely out of my reach, and that was Nine Inch Nails, likely my favourite band if I was pressed on the subject. Getting into the photo pit to shoot the NIN Lights In the Sky tour was a totally surreal moment for me. I got to shoot photos of my musical hero from the photo pit right in front of the stage.
Mastodon. This is Brent Hinds from Mastodon at Heavy TO, Downsview Park, Toronto on July 24th. There is something about this image that just works for me. It one of my favourites from the festival.
SC: Who is your dream gig to shoot and why?
MB: I think I’ve already shot my dream gigs. I am not actually photographing as many concerts this year as previous years. It’s not that I’ve photographed everybody I care to photograph, but with an active staff of contributors all interested in doing photography / interviews and reviews, I find I am stepping back on shows to let other people do them. I’ve shot photos of some of my heroes already – Reznor, Metallica, Green Day, U2 and the mighty Mastodon (a band I will never tire of photographing). I haven’t shot David Bowie. Sadly, I’m not sure if he will ever tour again. I may have missed the boat there.
SC: With three words, how would you describe you style of photos?
MB: Just. Got. Lucky.
SC: I remember the first time ever meeting you at NXNE at the Mod Club shooting Ravonettes and Band of Skulls (It’s okay if you don’t remember me. Ha-ha). But back then you were shooting for a well-regarded magazine called Fazer (now unfortunately defunct). However, about a year ago you started your new project Lithium. Tell me what did it feel like to have to see something you started and put so much effort into close down and then find the courage to start from scratch again?
MB: I totally remember talking to you at that show, Sean. We were two of three people there to shoot it. Fazer was something I had hoped to step back from, and just contribute to at the end of 2008. That site needed to get some money into it, and once investors got involved and expectations were set in place, the site really started to flounder. There were a few people involved that were poisoning the well, and it became a site I no longer wanted to contribute to, and I OWNED a portion of it. It got to the place where I felt it would be easier to just start over and purge the negativity that was permeating the site. So I started Lithium.
At first, it was frustrating. I felt like I was essentially re-doing everything that I’d worked really hard to establish. But honestly, it wound up being much easier than I thought it would be. I approached my business partner, Laurie, about starting from scratch – talked it through and just set the site up and got it rolling. The majority of people who were contributing to Fazer wound up coming over to Lithium, and the people we didn’t want, we were able to distance ourselves from.
We quickly found out that it wasn’t Fazer that all of our contacts at the labels and publicity houses were relying on; it was Laurie and myself, personally. We were able to build Lithium up very quickly. Honestly, it was an opportunity to look at what we didn’t like about the old site, and start over again. I think we learned a lot on our first go, and it made launching Lithium that much easier.
SC: Adding on to the above question, are there any people you’d like to thank for sticking by you for support?
MB: Absolutely! Laurie Lonsdale, my business partner. Our long time contributors like Myles LaCavera, Walid Lodin, Alex Young, and Vickie Young. And the local labels, promoters and publicists who didn’t bat an eye as we re-launched and started again from scratch.
Metal Masters 2. This was a clinic I photographed last week in New York that featured Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo; Slayer’s Kerry King; Anthrax’s Frank Bello, Scott Ian and Charlie Benante; Megadeth’s David Ellefson, and drum legend Mike Portnoy from Dream Theatre. They all jammed two Pantera songs together at the end of the clinic. It was utterly amazing to see all of these guys on stage together – and to hear them doing Pantera material was just insane. If you look at Frank Bello and Scott Ian’s faces in this picture – they were as excited as the audience. I’m glad I was able to be there and photograph such an amazing meeting of metal heroes.
SC: What do you enjoy and dislike about being a Publisher or Co-Owner as you like to call yourself?
MB: I think a lot of people look at my photographs and think that I’m a lucky guy being able to walk up to the front of a packed house and take photographs of bands. They are only fifty percent right in this regard. It requires a significant amount of work to run a venture like Lithium. I certainly couldn’t do it on my own. Getting the access to shows is not easy. As I found out when I wanted to start out cold, nobody knows who you are and wants to take a chance on you. So, you make a lot of phone calls that go un-responded to, and send out a lot of emails that get ignored. Typically, you won’t find out that you are approved to photograph a band playing until the day of the show. And even if you find out in time to grab your gear and get down to the venue, you will often get to the venue with your gear over your shoulder to find out someone hasn’t gotten your name onto the approved photographers list, and then have to do a bunch of talking at the venue to try and get everything sorted. It hardly ever goes off without a hitch.
What do I love about it? I love shooting bands. Getting up close and photographing a band from a photo pit is pretty exciting. You are in front of people who have often paid hundreds of dollars for their seats. You really have nobody around you except security, unless you are at a metal show and have to watch your back as crowd surfers fly over the rail like crazy and into your back.
I love getting access to interview and photograph bands backstage. This is something I NEVER thought about when I started, that I might get backstage with a microphone and a approval to shoot a portrait of a musician. That never even crossed my mind. The first time I was asked to interview a band (it was Billy Talent, by phone) I can remember my sphincter tightening at the first mention of it… actually on the phone with a band member… What would I say? What if the band saw through one of my questions and berated me (this has NEVER happened, by the way). What if I choke up? What if the band member chokes up? How would I record this interview? It was totally foreign to me.
I enjoy seeing young people get access to bands, that they can get journalism experience talking with real musicians. To get a chance to photograph or interview a band they care about, is not something that I ever thought I’d be involved with or be able to offer to other like-minded individuals.
Dislikes? The music industry has been in a weird tailspin now for over five years. Trying to fit into an industry that is changing so quickly takes some pretty thick skin. It can often feel like pushing a boulder up a hill. If this were ten years earlier, I wouldn’t even be answering these questions, because I wouldn’t ever have access to photograph musicians. I believe that the music industry right now, with its slumping sales and floundering publications, has actually allowed me to flourish. Labels take online publications and blogs a lot more seriously now than they did even three years ago.
SC: What skills or characteristics does it take a photographer or writer to become a part of the Lithium team?
MB: I operate on two principals, and they were taught to me at a VERY young age. Say please, and say thank you. These two very simple things have gotten me further in everything I have pursued, but certainly with photographing musicians. You definitely need to have some patience as well. I’ve worked in advertising for years. I’ve seen some pretty wild deadlines and messed up strategies in my time as a creative. And NONE of them hold a candle to what the music business is like. Everything is last minute when it comes to scheduling. There is often little or no money to do what needs to be done properly, and there are often some very overworked and underpaid people working the labels, PR firms, and venues. If you show up early and don’t rock the boat at these venues around the publicists and band-types, you tend to become somewhat ‘inner circle’.
If you get backstage and go completely mental around a band that you love, you will do two things – freak the band out, and freak their handlers out. This isn’t to say I’m not excited when I’m interviewing or photographing bands that I love… but it’s important that they feel comfortable around me, and that the expectations of the labels, promoters, bands and tour managers are all met. If you go in and do your job, get the shots, get the candids, and get the stories you are assigned, it’s a pretty easy street to walk down.
Rammstein. This is from the Air Canada Show on May 8th this year. Rammstein blast off a lot of fireworks and pyro while they play. I like the energy in this photo.
SC: What gear do you currently wield? And why do you prefer that brand?
MB: I use Nikon. I shoot with Nikon D3 and I typically bring in a fixed 2.8 24-70mm lens and a fixed 2.8 70-200mm lens for shows. You won’t ever need much more than this at concerts. I learned how to shoot photos on my Dad’s old Nikon in School, and I’ve just stuck with that brand for some reason. Most people shoot concerts with Canon gear. I’d say it’s 75% Canon and 25% Nikon when I look at my contemporaries in Toronto.
SC: If you are in a situation when you only had time to take one lens to shoot a concert, which lens would that be and why?
MB: I’d bring my fixed 2.8 70-200mm. It’s not going to give you a wide angle in smaller venues, where you can get three or four band-members in the shot, but you will guaranteed get clean usable shots. It will definitely get the job done.
SC: Are you a Mac or PC?
MB: I’m a Macintosh user. It’s all I’ve ever used. I actually don’t know how to work on a PC. I would struggle with plugging a flash drive into a PC and copying files from it to the hard drive.
SC: What digital editing tools do you use to touch up your concert photos?
MB: I actually just use Photoshop. I have purchased a copy of Lightroom and have it sitting on my desk in front of me, but I haven’t loaded it yet and I’ve owned it for a half a year now. I find the settings in Photoshop are easy to use, and I can adjust photos easily using the interface that comes up when bringing a RAW file into the program.
SC: What blogs or sites do you visit the most?
MB: I’m a bit of a ludite when it comes to sifting information online. I subscribe to Rolling Stone, Q, Revolver, and Entertainment Weekly. I buy SPIN, Decibel and Metal Hammer from time to time as well, and I will likley subscribe to Decibel as the articles they are publishing are consistently amazing. Online, I’m on Facebook a fair bit, mostly because everyone who contributes to the site is on it. I read MetalSucks from time to time. I Google a lot of stuff, AND invariably wind up on Wikipedia – a site that has been the subject of many a laugh interviewing bands, as the information on the site is often quite inaccurate.
SC: What is something that you’re still learning or would like to learn?
MB: I would actually like to learn more aspects of traditional photography. I have gotten really good at getting clean shots in really crappy lighting conditions at live concerts, but I’d likely turn down a paying photography assignment for fear of bungling the job. I’d love to follow a cool band around for a week on the road and just shoot pictures – candids of them traveling, backstage stuff, more private stuff. It may never happen, but I would do it if the opportunity came around.
SC: In your opinion, what is something that is overrated?
MB: Reality TV; shows like Jersey Shore make my blood boil. It’s stupid TV for stupid people. There’s no plot, no budget, and no talent on these shows, and the fact that Jersey Shore gets three times the viewership of shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men is beyond criminal.
SC: You must have a lot of photographer friends as well. Who would you like to give a shout out too?
MB: Tonnes of folks that I see in the photo pits, some of them contribute to Lithium and some of them don’t. Pete Nema’s a great guy; he’s a total music fan AND he’s been at this way longer than I have. Carrie Musgrave is awesome. It doesn’t matter what show I’m at, whenever I see her in a photo pit, she will always capture something that I’ve missed or shoot something better than I did. And she can do it with camera equipment that is five times less expensive than what I own. She’s a real photographer. I feel like I’m playing around when I compare my shots to hers. Sara Collaton takes a good rock photo as well – always a sharp focus and clean colour composition.
Slayer. This is Dave Lombardo, drummer for Slayer backstage at Heavy TO. We had just done a twenty minute interview, and he posed for this candid shot for me. It’s simple, and uses light from a lamp that was behind me. I like it. It’s very Dave.
SC: If you could have breakfast with any musician/band in all of history, who would it be and why?
MB: That’s a tough one. I’d probably go with a UK act – The Stereophonics. They are an amazing UK band; not as popular here as they are abroad. Kelly Jones, their singer, is a really interesting and talented songwriter. I’m a huge fan.
SC: What is one way you market yourself?
MB: I kind of ‘un-market’ myself. I’m pretty quiet. I often go into these shows, shoot my shots, and then just blend into the crowd. I have found that I have gotten farther with labels and promoters by NEVER expecting anything. I think it’s a slippery slope if you start to feel inflated or entitled doing this kind of thing. Playing things cool and calm is definitely the way to go when trying to shoot photos of bands; at least for me, this is true.
SC: I don’t know about you, but as an Indie music lover, I supported and believed in a band called the Arcade Fire from the very beginning. They recently achieved the “impossible” by winning a Grammy for “Best Album of the Year” for “The Suburbs”. Even if you are not a huge fan, what do you think their big win represents for independent acts and the Canadian music scene?
MB: I was never a big Arcade Fire fan, Sean. I still don’t get them, honestly. I like songs here and there, but I can’t seem to get behind them. But they have totally delivered the goods as a Canadian band with international status, and I recognize their importance. I like Metric. I think their last album was beautifully written and then effectively marketed. I have been a similar fan of Muse, having been into them since first hearing Showbiz in 1999. I’ve always believed in them, and now believe they are poised to be the biggest band on the planet. They are definitely one of the finest live bands.
SC: Your thoughts on release forms these days, what you feel they represent and the relations they create between musicians and journalists?
MB: I think release forms are pretty much dead. In this day and age, with every patron in the venue pointing a digital recording device of some sort at a performing band, having a release waiver to sign for a touring band is something I am seeing less and less of. The dumbest one I’ve ever seen is the Foo Fighters waiver. Basically it says the band owns your ass if you publish their likeness anywhere in the galaxy.
If I love a band and there is a waiver, I will reluctantly sign it. I will then shoot the HELL out of the show, but I will only publish one photo of the band for public consumption. If they want it, they can have it. The rest… I’ll keep just for me.
SC: What ambition do you have, but have not fully achieved it yet?
MB: As far as photography / journalism goes? I’d like to be a more adept interviewer. I do audio interviews, and you can transcribe out the awkward pauses and errors. They are pretty safe. I would like to get to the point where I’m interviewing bands and can do it in one take, maybe on camera, and not feel nervous about it.
Personally, I’d like to train back up for a marathon. I ran a 30k last year in Hamilton and did quite well at it. But I injured my leg last fall, and I am now training myself back up. I can just run a 10k again now.
SC: Thank you so much for your time Mike!