Radio Edit | 8.28.23

w/ tour photographer Anna Lee

Fresh off touring the world with Coldplay, photographer Anna Lee sits down with Radio Edit to talk about how she approaches capturing one of the largest music performances on the planet and where she wants to go next.

You just got home from touring with Coldplay- a dream gig for just about everyone. How did that opportunity come about and what has been your biggest takeaway from the experience?

It certainly is a dream gig, from the artist to the community of people that make up Coldplay's touring team.

Most crucially, to answer your question, I was referred to Coldplay's team by industry friend and colleague, Eric at STVDIUM. He himself is an extremely talented creator, who was very kind to think of me and put my name forward at the exact moment when it was relevant. For me, relationships with and/or referrals from the amazing humans that make up my career circle are responsible 95% of the times I arrive at any given gig or opportunity.

To go a little deeper...

How I came to be on Coldplay's team (or any team) is, I believe, is the culmination of several factors, decisions, and manifestations that I can trace back through my career. It's a rabbit hole that I quite enjoy exploring, and it always ends in me feeling overwhelmed with gratitude and warm fuzzies.

My tour photography journey included making an intentional choice to adhere to a specific photography style that is most authentic to me. A choice to weather through and transcend content trends as they surfaced, however fun and employable they were at the time. This is important because it lead to collecting a consistent portfolio and resume, that when the time came, was exactly what Coldplay was looking for.

This concept lays the foundation for my biggest take away from this experience and opportunity: Staying authentic to the way that you most love creating, is the only sustainable way to stay on path long term. I believe that the best opportunity for you... for you personally, not anyone else... will inevitably cross through the strong orbit you've cultivated, and you will find each other.

In short, the best opportunities are where ability and hard work intersect with opportunity, at just the right time.

Coldplay is playing in some of the biggest stadiums in the world right now. How does capturing 50k people compare to a more intimate gig in say, a theater? Do you focus on capturing the size and feeling of the overall gig, or are you focusing on the little moments happening on stage with the band?

The shows are massive. I'm still overwhelmed by it at the top of every set. When you surpass the threshold of being able to see fans' faces at the back, the whole audience and venue morph into this monolithic entity that is bigger than the artist on stage. It's awesome and humbling, and I know the band feels that too.

As a photographer, I'm focusing on both the artist and the environment. Coldplay is really inventive with their show arrangement and production in a way that creates so many unique moments every night. I love adding all of it to the archive. They're also extremely cognizant of bridging the gap from the stage to the very back row, from light-up wristbands, to satellite stages, to pyro. Somehow they fill the whole space. One thing that I recognized early on in photographing live music, is that the context is as important as the band on stage. It's the same show every night, but the context changes. Different city, different venue design, different super fans on the front row, different handmade signs, etc. That's where the magic is. Fortunately, with the way this band employs production, all of it is worth shooting over and over.

The difference between club and theatre venues versus a stadium is interesting to reflect on. I think some people assume that having a stadium gig is the holy grail of tour photography. And it is amazing. However I will tell anyone who asks that, if you are in the "work your way up" tour trajectory funnel, there is a sweet spot in that club level touring. There's a facet of intimacy that only exists in that world. The sweaty room full of people singing and dancing. I'm so thankful I've gotten to experience and photograph the full spectrum of venues in my career.

I would imagine the artists only post a small fraction of the photos you take during a tour or concert. How does that process work? In your experience, what constitutes a "postable / usable" photo and what do you do with the ones they don't use?

It's always interesting to see which images are selected for sharing, and where they end up across the print and internet landscape. The common denominators of "usability" are showing the fun, connection, and uniqueness of a show, because it acts as an archive for both the artist and the fans.

The released percentage varies hugely from client to client. Some use a fraction of what I deliver, and some drain the well dry. As the photographer, I very much appreciate when as much work as possible sees the light of day. Visual content is a creative investment, and it drives my creative energy to know that those investments will be widely ingested.

The good thing about years of repetition in this industry is the gift of being able to pare down, because not everything that I could deliver will serve the client. At the end of the day, I'm trying to provide a set of images that range from epic to intimate, clean to artsy, and flatter my subjects across the board, in order to ensure the highest possible ratio of usefulness.

I really like how Coldplay navigates this, because all usable images are released. During tour, the team selects one or more images for feature on social platforms next day, and the rest is released on the Coldplay app. This gives the fans access to a ton of moments and memories.

When you're a few weeks into a tour and you've captured the same show 10, 20, 30 times... what drives your strategy at the next show? Are you constantly trying to get different shots or just new shots of similar moments?

Great question. It is the greatest invisible creative challenge of being an artist's dedicated tour photographer. Personally, I'm employing both methods asked in your question. There are certain epic moments that deserved to be captured in an ideal way every time. Outside of that, my goal every night is to be in a different place at different times. Sometimes with a plan, and sometimes with eyes open to an unexpected perspective that might present itself to me.

While the repetition is a challenge, it's also a rare gift. Since there's plenty of opportunity to capture "safe" shots of the iconic moments, there's a lot less pressure to duplicate it every time. This leads to the creative margin needed to explore. Different angles, focal lengths, and gear, make up just some of the tools I can mix and match for a nearly infinite variety of images. And Coldplay's exciting production certainly helps.

It's tough, but it has forced me to grow as a creative. I have some images in my collection that could never be duplicated, because they're the result of such exploration and pushing.

When you're on tour, how do you manage your time between the photography, the editing, and the traveling?

Barely. Barely is the answer. I'm always trying to improve time management on tour. The demands of the job and the need to care for your own well-being ride the line of impossibility. I think there's something about the chaos of it that appeals to touring people in a way... ha! Personally, experience in a variety of gigs is what has allowed me chisel out the work-flow and self-flow that I use today. Fortunately, on a stadium-level tour, crew positions are very compartmentalized, in contrast to the necessary "all hands on deck" approach of smaller tours and crews. This helps me to perform at my best rather than perform at volume. This has a trickle down effect with my schedule as well.

Thankfully, scheduling and managing travel is the job of other capable people. I just show up and go where they tell me. One day at a time! With shooting and editing, I've found the best approach is "asap". I choose to edit everything same day/night. Though it means insanely late nights, it allows me sleep well, and to have the next morning for myself and my personal agenda. Efficiently using pockets of time throughout the day for other admin tasks is also critical, along with squeezing in a walk and some time outside away from the venue.

For every touring individual you ask about their use of time, you'll get a unique answer. As I get older in this industry, I prioritize precious alone time and healthy amounts of sleep. It doesn't leave room for much else - there's a tradeoff. It is forever the dilemma of having a job that puts me in some amazing places while also keeping me chronically approaching the edge of my physical capacity. I had to find my own balance and priorities.

I came across the ALMFANCAM and thought that was a really clever way to involve an artist's fans and do something special for them. Where did that idea come from and what was it like to watch that grow and take off?

Thank you! The era of #ALMfancam feels like a lifetime ago, but it is one of my proudest creations in my career. #ALMfancam was an interactive fan project where I would accept one disposable camera per show (the first person to arrive with one), fill it up with exclusive photos throughout the day, and hand it back to the fan after the show for them to develop.

On some of my first tours, I witnessed creative fans bringing these cameras and determinedly seeking ways to get them into the hands of the band or crew. I saw myself in those kids, because it combined the fandom of music and photography. After witnessing a few instances of these attempts, I thought, "I could facilitate this". I had no idea how much it would impact the culture of my future tours. It was a lot of work for me to juggle this project with my duties, but it was rewarding in so many unexpected ways. Not the least of which was getting to know and talk to my artists' most dedicated fans.

The nature of #ALMfancam lends itself specifically to a certain mid-level size of tour and show. So it's been a few years since the project's last run. I hope to come up with new ways to capture that interaction with tour photography, because fan culture will always have a special place in my heart.

What would your dream project be?

I'm currently day dreaming about what my next goals are. For so long, my main goal was to be a photographer at the highest possible level of touring and to have my work reach millions of people on a huge scale. The fact that it's now reality is wild. I'm so grateful.

I still have a list of artists I'd love to shoot, and I think I'll always be chipping away at that as my world continues to get larger. And between tours, I'm always taking on music press and promo type creative direction work.

Outside of gigs, one project I've always wanted to make time for is music photography education and coaching - specifically an in-person workshop. Connecting and helping in that way would be so fun for me. I'm very passionate about educating, and providing resources I wish I had when I started. Especially for women in this career who feel daunted by the environment, and uncertain on where to start. Nothing is more rewarding. I plan to start small in the near future, offering coaching sessions, which will hopefully grow into events and a community.

Personal bandwidth is the most valuable asset when you spend up to 10 months a year on the road. As of this year, I'm thankful to have access to more margin in my life. It will be exciting to make some fun moves on my goals in the near future.

A sound investment

Inspired to create a system for fans to invest in the success of their favorite songs, Ryan Tedder is helping to launch a new music investing platform called JKBX (pronounced ‘jukebox’). When the platform launches on September 12th, fans and investors will be able to receive stakes in the royalty streams of more than 100 songs written by Tedder, Diplo/Major Lazer, and American Authors- performed by both themselves and others like Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran.

Founded by Dundee Partners’ Sam Hendel and John Chapman, the platform will offer varying revenue streams (publishing, records, etc.) on a song-by-song basis. Notably, the full catalog of songs available on the platform are at least 18 months old.

While other versions of this concept have come before, JKBX’s combination of star power, label approval, and SEC regulation give it a leg up over the competition.

Influencing the charts

“We need to tackle Amazon, iTunes and [French music service] Qobuz expeditiously. One copy per version with new card/payment method/new email, new IP address. You will need to have multiple new emails, prepaid debit cards like the Cash App card… eGift cards you can buy at different Wifi locations, cafes, gyms], friends’ and neighbors’ homes.”

While music sales chart used to only really to the industry itself, the above purchase instruction for a recent single highlights a growing trend where super fans are taking it upon themselves to maximize their favorite artists’ chart performance. In some cases, select fanbases are creating their own versions of political action committees (PACs) where they raise a bunch of money online to buy extra copies of albums and then disburse that money to fans to make those purchases. Using the internet and social media to coordinate these efforts, DSPs have had to constantly regulate their platforms and cap streams per user in response to these tactics.

“Fans have become very savvy about how the industry is creating these metrics. They will take the time to try to figure out what they need to do to protect their artists from losing some of the visibility that they think their artists deserve”- Michelle Cho, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who studies fandom and Korean culture.

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