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What we gain through live music photography

Montana Levy is shown in a leopard-print dress. Her hand is wrapped around a microphone. She is in mid-performance, eyes closed, head tilted down, smiling. Photo by Steven Spoerl.
Montana Levy is shown in a leopard-print dress. Her hand is wrapped around a microphone. She is in mid-performance, eyes closed, head tilted down, smiling. Photo by Steven Spoerl.

Navigating loss, image, and ongoing controversies about who owns the live experience.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

All videos and photos by Steven Spoerl, unless otherwise noted.

At the very end of 2021, most people were celebrating the death of a harsh year, daring themselves to find flickers of optimism that 2022 might be different. I was locked in a bathroom, shaking and trying to control my breathing, mourning the death of a friend. A night earlier I had received a message from someone dear to me letting me know that our friend Montana Levy—a prominent staple of the Brooklyn music scene—had passed away, suddenly and abruptly, at the age of 29. I couldn’t bring myself to feel optimism. I couldn’t bring myself to feel much of anything other than abject helplessness in the face of a strikingly profound absence.

Those days surrounding the news breaking mostly seem like a blur. I’ve retained precious few concrete details. At best, there are hazy recollections of numbly fumbling through emotional turmoil: dreading tuning into the broadcast of the funeral and only being able to make it through some of it before turning it off, the finality of the loss fully settling, lying motionless on a floor mattress, and not being able to eat. Being moved to tears by Saintseneca’s Zac Little thanks to a heartfelt solo rendition of “Only The Young Die Good” on Instagram Live, likely unconnected but resonant nonetheless. Listening to the music Montana had recorded as a member of the band Sharpless on loop, blearily navigating the discomfort of hearing her fucking belt the hook that runs throughout their last record: “It’s too late / It’s too late / It’s too late for me.” Taking fabric markers to my guitar strap to mark it with a small tribute to a friend I knew I’d never see again so that she’d feel closer anytime I played music.

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My most vivid memory from that initial wave of grief is of pulling out a hard drive and staring blankly at the photos and videos I’d taken of Montana on the night we met, and all the photos and videos of subsequent nights we’d spent in the same room. I found myself committing those memories to fuller detail in an effort to honor and preserve a beautiful, painfully abbreviated legacy. Feeling, for the first time, a degree of thankfulness to have been able to know Montana at all, and then right back to the overwhelming helplessness that sometimes accompanies an unchangeable outcome.

Throughout 2022, there have been a lot of intensely divided opinions about the nature and value of concert photography. A lot of that conversation has divorced its utility from photography’s main function: preservation. Montana was not the first friend I’ve lost whose music I admired. Returning to the images and videos I have of Charley & The Cynics bandleader Charlotte Nooe—who passed away in 2012 at the age of 22—remains difficult. To have those documents of her performing is a small comfort when confronting another painful loss. Each is a means to continue to pay tribute to the work she left behind, a tangible reminder of the impact her creativity left on the world.

Part of preservation’s function is inextricably linked to the brutal fact that we have to perpetually contend with the specter of death. There is virtually no guarantee that our friends, family, and pets will be around for as long as we might like, but there is a guarantee that our time together will be limited. Actively celebrating that overlap is essential. In our limited capacity for recollection, photography and videography can serve as a vital supplement when the intention and execution are anchored in good faith and understanding between parties. 

Back in 2018, Jack White turned some heads and ignited discussion by banning cell phones from his shows. White is a notoriously eccentric devotee of all things analog, so the decision wasn’t a particularly surprising one. It called into question the nature of consumption and the artist-audience relationship, and by proxy, ownership. That question has lingered uneasily and still hasn’t approached a comfortable resolution. The “no cell phones” policy has also been adopted in bad faith by comedians looking to dodge criticism and accountability for “jokes” whose roots run deeply into the beds of bigotry and denigration, muddying any potential consensus further. The proliferation of phone bans and Yondr pouches isn’t just about preserving the experience, but about control over message and image.

For a brief moment in early 2022, indie-pop artist Mitski seemed to have latched onto a middle ground by pleading for moderation when it came to recording and cell phone use. Her request was simple—I’d sum it up as, “Please, if you’re going to film, film a few songs and let those around you enjoy the show. Don’t film the entire thing, don’t use flash, and be more present with me in the moment as I try to convey intimacy.” It was not a particularly new request—over the years, I have seen her make it in different ways to audiences of 20 people and to audiences of thousands—but it still managed to intensely divide Mitski’s fervent fanbase. The infighting between fans became so severe that Mitski ultimately deleted the request and resumed her previous break from social media.

Canadian noise-punk trio METZ have spent years openly calling for fans to take as many photos and videos as they like, explicitly for the sake of preservation. Various members of the band have pulled me up from the crowd to shoot them from the stage here in Madison, in Illinois, and in Toronto. At multiple points, they made use of cell phone flash to create an organic strobe effect, heightening their dizzyingly chaotic stage presence. Each time, the band acknowledged the request for crowd photography and videography was because they wouldn’t be here forever and hoped that the photos and videos would help make it seem like they could stick around a little longer. To date, they are the only band I’ve seen make a direct connection between documentation and its relationship to our impermanence.

METZ is shown mid-performance at Smiling Buddha in 2014 during NXNE. Steven Spoerl is pictured onstage to the left, crouched down and smiling, pointing his camera up at guitarist/vocalist Alex Edkins as he raises his guitar above his head and screams. Photo courtesy of Aux.tv.
METZ is shown mid-performance at Smiling Buddha in 2014 during NXNE. Steven Spoerl is pictured onstage to the left, crouched down and smiling, pointing his camera up at guitarist/vocalist Alex Edkins as he raises his guitar above his head and screams. Photo courtesy of Aux.tv.

There is no easy answer for artists who feel like they lose authorship over their work if it’s filmed, short of a Jack White-esque total ban. That stance isn’t a particularly cogent one, but I can’t fault an author for their protectiveness. I can point out that by releasing material to the public in the first place, musicians already open the floodgates to interpretations of—and relationships to—that music, in contexts largely outside of their control. As technology advances, it will be increasingly harder to dictate how it’s used, but making public requests for reasonable boundaries will work, more often than not. Whether an artist feels strongly enough to take that gamble is up to their discretion and will likely change with scale and circumstance. Bands playing to “a great crowd” of 40 people could have a completely different view than ones playing to “a weak crowd” of 400 (and different concerns, especially with regards to unreleased material).

Ownership is a distinction that gets even pricklier when the filmer/photographer is trying to turn a profit from the image(s). This was the case this past week when journalist Erin Osmon—whose Twitter account is now locked—invoiced Stereogum for using a phone video she took from indie-rock band Karate’s reunion tour. A needlessly ugly debate ensued after Osmon posted a screenshot of Stereogum owner Scott Lapatine’s condescending reply email. This ignited a contentious reckoning about the parameters of permissions: Why was this video posted when the band apparently asked the audience not to film the show? Was Stereogum in the clear to use a video that was already publicly accessible? What is the worth of a phone video? How do you determine differentiating factors between journalist and attendee? Since the band is the source of the draw, should they get a share of any compensation? Once the line of questioning starts rolling out, it becomes difficult to stop. And when the questioning is seemingly endless, there are fewer possible answers.

A piece about last June’s three-day, no-phones allowed Over Yondr fest—hosted by and named after the phone-pouch company—cited Yondr’s assertion that many artists believe filming takes people out of the moment, as if the presence of a phone or camera immediately renders the roles of observer and participant mutually exclusive. It’s an assertion that I’ve turned over in my mind for years, as a person who has frequently felt more connected to a moment when filming or taking photos. A lens doesn’t always have to be a point of separation. It can just as easily be a bridge. 

Admittedly, I have frequently worked in a professional capacity as a photographer and videographer, so the boundary points and expectations aren’t exactly the same. But they’re near enough to provoke some squeamishness at the implication of “accepted truth” and the supposed purity of device-free experiences. I have also felt, as a person who has been fortunate enough to play music to responsive crowds, emboldened by people filming. Playing to a few cameras can be an act of shared community, enhancing the intimacy of present connection. Even if it’s only for a moment, there’s a chance that moment continues to bear weight and meaning in the moments that come after.

No matter how hard people want to convince themselves otherwise, there simply isn’t a static agreement on live photography or videography, and there likely won’t be a singular solution. While I am fully aware of the pitfalls that come with allowing cameras and the potential for live shooting to be a nuisance, at this point I can’t overlook the reason why most people shoot in the first place. Very rarely is a camera out so that a person can brag, posture, or intentionally interrupt. It’s to remember. To celebrate. To preserve. Once you can’t find the subject out of frame, nothing else seems so important.

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