How to Be a Rock Star: Concert Photographer Mike Brooks’ List of Do’s and Don’t’s

Mike Brooks is a longtime Observer concert photographer who has shot seemingly every type of artist at every type of local venue. Here he breaks down 10 ways for artists to get better photos.

Every year I photograph a couple of hundred bands playing live shows, and every time I click the shutter, I’m trying to make you look like a rock star. Some of you aren’t helping. The next time one of you tells me, “It’s all about the music,” I’m going to punch you square in the nose. OK, not really punch you in the nose, but when I stop talking and just stare at you, know that in my mind I am punching you square in the nose. Now I’ll be the first to admit that when you are playing live music, the music is pretty darn important. But if you think it ends there, maybe you should get off the stage and go get a gig as a studio guy. Or stop selling tickets to shows and just sell CDs. Or stop wondering why even your own friends don’t come to your shows anymore.

With that in mind, let’s lay out some do’s and don’t’s, starting with the gal or guy out front, the No. 1 cop, the Ziggy Stardust wannabe who talks about “their” band. Do you like your gig? Do you like being a frontman? All eyes are on you; you can grab my attention or send me to the bar. Which is it going to be?

Don’t: Have the mic in front of your face for the entire set. I can’t get a picture, and you’re just hiding. (Rappers, I’m talking to you.) Don’t: “Purse” your lips. It’s not a good look.

Do: Use the mic stand as a prop. It’s like a monkey bar. You’re the monkey. James Brown, Charles Bradley, Robert Plant, the list goes on.

click to enlarge Charles Bradley scaring the shit out of yours truly - MIKE BROOKS
Charles Bradley scaring the shit out of yours truly
Mike Brooks
Don’t: Be yourself.

Do: Be an exaggerated version of yourself. You can be young or old, sexy or all torn up, the life of the party or shy and self-conscious. But be honest about who you are. Explore it and project it. Bare your soul and we’ll love you. Fake it and we’ll expose you.
click to enlarge Billie Eilish being … Billie Eilish. It works for her. Be yourself, but a much better version of yourself. - MIKE BROOKS
Billie Eilish being … Billie Eilish. It works for her. Be yourself, but a much better version of yourself.
Mike Brooks

Don’t: Be an attention-grabbing dick (or grabbing your dick for attention). You may be the “frontman/woman” but you’ll look pretty stupid when the band mutinies. Engage with them. Praise them and dance to their groove. They are the saints who put up with your ego. Show them some love.

Do: Engage with your audience. Once you have your attention-grabbing-dick syndrome under control, it’s time to engage with those of us who bought tickets. Not with me, but all those other folks. In any relationship, someone has to be the first to say “I love you.” Every time you get onstage, that needs to be you. Seventy-year-old Springsteen crowd surfs. When Nick Cave preaches and puts his hand on your head, you will be converted.

It doesn’t matter if it's 20 people or 20,000 people. In the end, the love you take is equal to the love (da, da, da da) you make.
Grace VanderWaal gets it. And gives it right back. - MIKE BROOKS
Grace VanderWaal gets it. And gives it right back.
Mike Brooks
Do: Take control of your crew. You have talent (we hope). Your band has talent. The only talent your entourage has is sucking you dry. They will distract you, drink all your beer and piss the venue off. Manager? Fine. Roadie? Fine. Take-the-fall guy for unexpected drug busts? Maybe. All your friends from middle school, though, need to buy a ticket. (And when they do, thank them.)

Don’t: Have your entire posse onstage. People are paying to see you. Except for all these sycophants onstage behind you. Wonder why you work and work and work and never have any cash? Look behind you. If they ain’t playing, they should be paying.

Do: Have an honest discussion with your mates about the band’s look. You don’t have to all dress in matching outfits like the next big boy band, but it doesn’t hurt to have some sort of cohesive appearance. Musicians are artists, artists are part of the avant-garde, and the avant-garde are trendsetters, not followers. The Beatles changed the hairstyles of an entire generation. The Sex Pistols defined a movement in fashion and art. Kurt Cobain made thrift shop sweaters cool.

Do: Re-read the last item. Let's put it this way: If you spend hours agonizing over your appearance but the rest of the band looks like they just got dragged away from an all-night video game session, then you're in different bands.

That’s probably enough to think about for now. I’ve got some additional unwanted advice for all the drummers and guitar players out there, but it will have to wait for another installment. And please, don’t even get me started on keyboarders! Bass players? Arggg, you’re the worst!