We have these digital bedrooms online and we decorate them how we see fit – Courtney Lee Yip
MM: What’s the story behind your career? How did you get your start in music photography?
CLY: My first job out of university was working for Inside Entertainment. I was the intern and most if it was actually writing gossip columns and then going to these red carpet events. I think the first red carpet I did was Canada’s Walk of Fame. I remember standing there as Michael J Fox is walking by and thinking “Ok! I think I’m supposed to be taking a picture!”
It kind of escalated from that into music. They asked me what my interest was, and I’m like “to be honest, I hate red carpet. I would love to be doing live shows”.
Diego Silva was the first guy to ever give me accreditation, for Arkells. The pictures when I look back are pretty terrible but it just spiraled from there. I started meeting a lot of bands at these shows and it just blossomed into instead of doing live shots, doing their behind-the-scenes promo shots.
MM: When did you decide to start your own company?
CLY: I’ve always wanted to work for myself. I’ve never been one to sit and take direction well. I was surrounded by so many people that inspired me, whether they were musicians or artists, and I felt like the only way to collaborate and do something with them was to first establish myself and then branch out from there.
MM: What type of things do you try to capture during a shoot? Do you have a formula?
[pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]The first thing I always keep in mind is how to make them comfortable.[/pullquote] CLY: The number one thing I’m always thinking about is how to make it really comfortable.
If a band comes to me and I have a great idea, and they have a great idea, and we have a great setting, and all of a sudden they’re awkward, that could ruin anything. No matter how much planning or formula you have.
So the first thing I always keep in mind is how to make them comfortable. It might be a location. It might be taking them somewhere busier or somewhere quiet depending on their personality. So it’s all about them really. I have to meet them first.
MM: Does that usually involve just going to get a beer?
CLY: Ya, a beer is usually better. Coffee is ok too. Usually I’ve known a lot of my clients first. It’s a lot of word-of-mouth, which is a good way for your company to grow. If I have just met them on the fly or if they’re a recommendation from somebody, then I definitely want to meet them first. Size them up. Kind of get a feel of who’s going to be a little bit shy, and who’s going to be the more dominant one. Just kind of visualize them and then I can go.
MM: Has the role of photography changed when it comes to a band developing their career?
CLY: Totally. I was always on the fence about this with social media and the digital age, but it’s so big now. I always think of this line: everybody’s watching, but nobody’s watching. Because everybody’s watching. So when you have Twitter and Facebook an then Vimeo and Youtube you can feel overwhelmed.
And most bands kind of want to be like “Fuck it. I don’t care. I’m me. This is my music.” I feel the same way. That’s my personal attitude. But it comes professionally and you see what’s happening out there… you should take it to your advantage.
Think about when you were in a dorm room. You would express yourself through the posters on your wall. You’d spend $20-$40 on a poster of Incubus, and it would define you. People would come into your room and be like “Oh! You like Incubus!” It’s a way of relating.
So now we have these digital bedrooms online and we decorate them how we see fit. So what’s wrong with wanting to have an aesthetically nice looking music video? and a nice band photo that you’ve “shared”?
It makes you want to like the band a little more. It invites people in more. It sounds shallow but it’s really second nature I think to our generation.
MM: That’s a great analogy: The “digital bedroom”.
CLY: It is. You’re inviting people in constantly, so why shouldn’t bands jump in on that? I think about Azealia Banks and the way that she shot that music video . That was such a different aesthetic. Whoever is her manager and hired that videographer was a genius.
She could have shot that video in a very different way and I don’t think she maybe would have been on Pitchfork, or would have been extended out to this indie, hipster, whatever you want to call it aesthetic. So images and video have a very powerful way of changing your band.
MM: Do you feel pressure because of that? Knowing that these photos that you take might be the first impression that someone’s going to get of this band’s career?
CLY: No, I would say the opposite. I mean it probably lights the fire under my ass a little hotter, but that’s the best part of my job.
It’s up to me and its up to the band and its up to management to make sure that photo represents them the way that they want to be represented.
People are going to hate what they hate, and like what they like. As long as the band, the management, and the photographer are happy with the end result then you should feel proud to have that as your first impression.
MM: What should a band look for in a photographer?
CLY: There’s so much. They should be really picky for sure, especially if you’re spending money. You don’t want someone that only does weddings and doesn’t have any music experience, but they’re cheaper.
[pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]There has to be a mutual respect. Equality of egos. No artist that is using the other.[/pullquote] Someone who respects your music and respects how things work. You don’t want a photographer to take your photos and then put them all online right away and you didn’t even have that discussion.
There has to be a mutual respect. Equality of egos. No artist that is using the other. An equal relationship of give and take. Someone that you’re comfortable with is so important.
It’s an awkward situation to be in front of the camera -usually with a stranger- so if you can kind of groove with them and feel comfortable with them, I think that’s super important.
MM: What are some of the most common mistakes that bands make with their photos?
CLY: I think usually when a band comes into this kind of decision where they’re going to have a photo shoot people get excited. It’s an exciting thing to do. It’s everyone’s dream to be a rock star and have photos done.
Sometimes you can get so excited that you have so many ideas and you don’t focus enough. If you don’t focus in on an idea, then it’s going to be vague, you’re going to be shooting for hours, and everyone’s just going to get frustrated.
That being said you don’t want to narrow it down too much where you can’t have creative freedom. So somewhere in between is usually good. You want to be open, but you really want to be specific.
It’s the same way as if you hire a graphic designer. You can’t just be like “do whatever you want” cause you might not be happy with what they do. So have a good clear idea.
Having other examples is really important. Not for the photographer to copy but for them to be inspired by. I spend every morning looking at band photos. I love it. Music videos, band photos… Bands should be doing that too.
MM: Do you have any pieces of advice or tips for artists looking for professional photography?
[pullquote style=”right” quote=”dark”]Keep the doors open. The more open you are between the artist and the photographer, the better the result will be.[/pullquote]
CLY: Honestly I think a lot of bands are maybe nervous about getting a professional to do them, which is totally understandable. It can get expensive. But talk to a photographer.
If there’s someone who you’ve seen their work and you love it, and maybe they’ve shot more high profile clients, and they kind of intimidate you, email them anyways. Be like “listen, I can’t really afford you but I would love to pick your brain. Can we go for coffee one day”? I still do that to band photographers I admire.
And its important to just kind of be open. Keep the doors open. The more open you are between the artist and the photographer, the better the result will be. And who knows what relationship you’ll establish down the line.
MM: Do you have a favorite shoot?
CLY: One of my first shoots, I shot Sandman Viper Command. I’ll admit I was pretty nervous, so I think we started with beers on Ronnie’s patio, and it was Pedestrian Sunday.
This was the perfect example of picking a good location for your band. If you know Sandman (Viper Command), Pedestrian Sunday, crazy beautiful summer day, it was perfect.
We had iguanas on them. They were trying on masks, and rampaging all the shops. It was pretty memorable that day.
MM: If you could pick a dream client who would it be and why?
CLY: Lately I’ve been really wanting to experiment more with avant-garde concepts in shooting. Someone like Thom Yorke or someone really kind of crazy like Bjork. She’d be down for me to throw soap on her face and mix in some food coloring, and then press a mirror on both sides of her… something really wacky. Ya, Bjork would be pretty cool actually.