Last updated on March 18th, 2022
You’ve heard it said a million times – “You can’t judge a book by its cover!” Well, what about a band? Throughout my time writing, recording, performing, and releasing music in the company of other professionals who take themselves seriously, I’ve learned something sacred: you CAN in fact judge a band by its album cover. One of the pillars of success in music involves branding, and branding involves presentation. If that sounds superficial, it’s because it is superficial; and in this case, superficial is super important. While the music you make will always be paramount to your endeavors, do not make the mistake of making yourself look like a fool with poor album art and unsavory pictures of yourself.
The modern world, for better or worse, is morbidly obsessed with image. Social media outlets like Instagram and TikTok are first and foremost designed to be visually stimulating to users, and since everyone uses these apps, the reigning power of image has only become further reinforced through them. It’s not all bad though. Social media apps like Instagram and Muze are essentially free advertising/networking, so the pros largely outweigh the cons. Nonetheless, your first impression upon someone swiping through profiles on our app is fleeting, and if you don’t make yourself look appealing, odds are nobody is going to believe that you sound appealing.
Whether you’re going it alone or have been recruited by a band, you’re going to want to look your best. There’s always the matter of your wardrobe, but we can (and will) unpack that another time. For now, let’s talk photography.
Why It’s Important
Truth be told, I probably don’t have to say much in order to convince you that good photography is important. Everybody wants to look cool, especially artists. Nonetheless, it’s easy to underestimate the role that looking cool in effigy plays in the music game these days. With Instagram, the more likes you get, the more followers you’re bound to harvest. Ergo, more people listen to your music. The algorithm is ever-changing and becomes more frustrating to stay on top of by the day, but one thing remains constant: higher quality photos draw higher amounts of likes. This is something you should strive for.
But social media is only one facet. Think about the most iconic album covers of all time: “Sticky Fingers” (The Rolling Stones), “Abbey Road” (The Beatles), “Nevermind” (Nirvana), “London Calling” (The Clash). There are plenty, but the common denominator is comprised of two things: quality photography and quality content. Especially as an up and coming artist amidst a horde of other up and coming artists, anything and everything you can do to distinguish yourself should be a priority.
If you have some stellar photos associated with your name, you’re going to stick in people’s minds, which means there’s a higher likelihood that they’ll circle back around and keep an extra watchful eye on your content as you continue to release music.
Hire A Good Photographer
It’s true that modern technology has placed a supremely effective camera in the pocket of most everyone with the advent and progress of the smart phone. You can actually capture some pretty wicked material with your phone and a little editing after the fact. However, you shouldn’t default to this, because no matter how many nifty tools technology casually places at our fingertips, nothing compares to a professional camera and someone who knows how to wield it properly.
Find someone with an authentic, high quality camera who is used to shooting in different settings, can adjust lighting/props accordingly, and can edit the final product gracefully. I promise, it’s worth your time and money. Speaking of which, hiring a photographer can get pricy, and you’re only guaranteed a finite amount of stills from the shoot, so definitely do your research. Most have portfolios, social media accounts, etc., where you can view their work, which makes shopping around for one easy. You can (and should) also ask friends who they’ve worked with and prefer as well. If you’re lucky, using a reference could get you a sweet discount.
Pick Effective Subject Matter
I’m speaking from personal experience here, so bear with me when I say that despite the extremity of this anecdote, I swear by what came of it. About five years back, I hired a photographer here in Nashville (Kylie Rebecca) for a shoot I’d been wanting to do for years. We met at the Nashville Historical Cemetery and started capturing some pretty wild shots of me in front of a bunch of eroded, gothic looking headstones that were centuries old.
The magnum opus of the day came near the end when I smeared my face with (real) blood and stood before a large mirror that I’d propped up against a tomb. The final product was admittedly spellbinding; mainly because I’d chosen a tremendous photographer with exceptional talent, but the subject matter was notable, and people who saw those photos never forgot them. One of the stills from that day (the one that became my album cover) was a close-up shot of my mouth drenched in blood with a jagged piece of glass holding my lips open.
Yeah, it’s disgusting, but it was also a bold and poetic venture that proved effective. I’m not suggesting that you do anything even close to that, but definitely think outside the box. Again, this is branding, and you want your brand to stand out. Think about the music that you’re presenting to the world and ask yourself, “What best symbolizes this?” If you feel stunted and are having a hard time conceiving ideas, talk to friends and other content creators who could help generate some themes. We immerse ourselves in a universe of artistry and people who love to create, so there really is no shortage of fresh ideas if you look in the right places.
So you’ve found the perfect photographer. Fantastic. No matter what, you’re going to get something that looks good out of the exchange, but wouldn’t you want to make it a point to avoid clichés at all cost? You see consistencies in all genres – the country boy sits on a tractor with his dog and guitar, the rapper holds up a fistful of Benjamins, the rocker lounges on a hotel bed in sunglasses with two half-naked women engaging in a pillow fight above him. You name it, we’ve seen it. Again, it doesn’t mean that you have to go to any sort of extreme to stand out, but this rule speaks for itself.
Explore a little bit. Check out different settings at different times of the day or night, toy around with props, etc. Oftentimes, you don’t even need to go above and beyond to produce something cool using rudimentary resources. Traditional never goes out of style, so don’t be afraid to just capture some headshots to start. You can always use those at some point somewhere along the line. Nonetheless, there are certain things to avoid that have clearly been overdone throughout the years, and they’re as easy to recognize as they are easy to replicate.
Be Careful In Different Settings
Most of this article is about practicing caution – whether it’s choosing the right photographer or being careful not to be a cliché. But here, I actually mean be careful with your whereabouts and personal safety. There are plenty of awesome settings to choose from, but if you’re stepping into an abandoned warehouse in the middle of the night with thousands of dollars worth of valuable equipment on your back, bear in mind that things could get problematic if you aren’t mindful. You don’t want to end up getting robbed or worse.
If you’ve selected an atmosphere that could be questionable in regards to safety, make sure you’re traveling with an ample amount of people and you’re holding some form of personal protection. There are also certain spots that should simply be avoided entirely. Really, it’s not worth risking your life over, so if you have to, move on and find somewhere else to take pictures.