Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple is a message to everyone who relies on creative people to make money… including Taylor Swift.

The creative dilemma: people paying peanuts don't realise they're getting monkeys.

The creative dilemma: people paying peanuts don’t realise they’re getting monkeys.

A few days ago, Taylor Swift wrote an open letter to Apple deploring the notion that musicians should go unpaid for three months by Apple under their new music service. Apple capitulated.

A couple of days later, photographer Jason Sheldon penned an open response to Swift, essentially pointing out her hypocrisy.

Knowing how PR agencies work, it’s likely Ms Swift doesn’t even know professional photographers are being stiffed in her name. But it speaks volumes about a broader culture that doesn’t see the value in creative work. I’ve seen it at every publisher I’ve ever known, at every level of management.

Why pay a dollar per word for a 500-word story when someone in Mumbai will do it for $0.01 per word? Why spend money on a photographer when hundreds of people from Facebook or Twitter will gladly give it to you for free?

In a culture that seeks validation through Likes and Retweets, it’s no wonder sayings like “you get what you pay for” are dismissed as archaic.

A few people I know have reacted with disbelief to Jason Sheldon’s story – they find it difficult to believe it happens. Well, it does. This is my take on something similar that happened to me a couple of years ago.


2012. A globally renowned band was in town to perform (I am precluded from naming them under contract; but believe me, they’re easily as big as Taylor Swift). I’d had the tremendously good fortune of being given a photography pass at one of their performances; the result of a rigorous application process that assessed which media organisations I worked with and how much exposure they’re likely to get from me.

I was one of a dozen local photographers chosen, so I was lucky. I’m not a career photographer – it’s something I do on the side as a creative outlet, so this was extra-special.

Unlike a media pass, which usually puts you in a catered suite, a photography pass puts you right up against the stage, past the fencing and security personnel. That gives you an up-close, unobstructed view of all the action – they’re easily the best seats in the house for photographers, and it’s where the best photos are taken from.

But there’s a catch. Two, in fact.

The first was that I could only stay for the first four songs. That’s pretty standard as far as music photography goes and, all things considered, pretty reasonable. After all, we’re doing each other a favour and they often stack the best parts of the performance right up front anyway.

The second was a bit of a doozy – I had to sign an agreement before I was allowed near the stage. These agreements vary from artist to artist, but the one I was given to sign here really made my heart sink.

The contract stated that I would assign them the right to use my photos for any purpose whatsoever in perpetuity. It basically meant they’re allowed to use my photos for free forever.

It also said that I’m only allowed to sell my photos to the people they approve of in the three months immediately after the performance. After that, I’m not allowed to use or sell the photos at all.

Lastly, it said that I agreed that in addition to the exposure and experience I received from this performance, the sum of one English pound was sufficient consideration for all that they’ve proposed to do with my photos.

That is, they could use them, trade with them, sell them, manipulate them, print them, use them in their promotional materials; while at the same time, after three months’ time, I pretty much couldn’t use them at all.

As a freelance photographer, I don’t get paid for the time and effort I spend taking photos. I make my money by selling individual photos to media outlets that will publish them. I literally don’t see a dime until my work is published in a newspaper, magazine or online. So this agreement not only limited the window of opportunity I had to monetise the photos, it effectively robbed me of the opportunity to do so in future.

As someone who doesn’t rely on photography to keep a roof over his head, I felt absolutely gutted for every photographer who does. When you’re in competition with photo library giants like Getty Images, photos like this only go for a few hundred dollars a pop. In the end, only one of my photos was published by just one publication.

It’s no way to make a living. This is why so many photographers turn to client-based work – weddings, engagements, babies and corporate events. The theory is that the work is more reliable. But even then, people look for ways to save on costs.

People often ask me to take wedding photos or baby photos as a favour, and I have to tell them very firmly “no”. I completely appreciate that, sometimes, all you really need is a willing friend to take a few happy snaps. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to find such a friend who can deliver what we want – and that’s perfectly fine. I pass no judgement on that whatsoever.

But what I do involves a disciplined creative process. My photos aren’t composed at random. I study the schedules and the running sheets. I make sure everyone is looking at the camera, that the lighting looks right, and that I have the right equipment to create the look you’re after. I make sure the photos are perfectly catered for your needs, whether you’re printing a magazine cover, updating your company profile or just hanging something up in the spare room. There’s a lot more involved, obviously.

That kind of discipline is not free. As an old friend recently reminded me, good work ain’t cheap; cheap work ain’t good. I say no to those people because I know my work is worth something and, being a young parent, my time is precious. I didn’t say “no” to this particular band, however, because like any other small-time photographer, I didn’t want to be perceived as a problem and blacklisted; these agreements pop up at every major performance.

To be completely fair, this doesn’t happen at every performance. Indie groups and smaller outfits welcome us with open arms because they need the publicity. It’s the artists and bands that are so famous they don’t need the publicity who are usually guilty.

But if they don’t need the publicity, why do they invite professional photographers to their performances?

Because they need the publicity.

Weird, isn’t it?

Anyway, at the end of it all, I never got paid that English pound.

One thought on “Taylor Swift’s open letter to Apple is a message to everyone who relies on creative people to make money… including Taylor Swift.

  1. Sad state of affairs that there’s the potential for small-time artists (of any sort) to just stop. These days everything is undervalued though. Thank you for sharing this.

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