Roll with it: focus on the high notes

Roll with it: focus on the high notes

Tom Oxley discusses the challenges of being a self-employed photographer in the music industry

When Tom Oxley tried to sneak out of a party whilst touring with one of Britain’s most iconic rock bands, he was told to “get back in there and get f****** drinking”.

Hanging out with Oasis’ Liam Gallagher as he toured around Asia, going to parties and being part of that boozy rock’n’roll culture, may seem like fun, but for Tom it was part of his job. He was hired to photograph everything on tour.

The 37-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent has worked a lot with Gallagher over the years and says “it is very much as you would imagine”.

“Everyone thinks they have lived a little bit, but when you hang around with Liam, he’ll tell a story and they’re outrageous and you’ll think you haven’t lived at all.”

Gallagher is not the only famous musician he has photographed or toured with. In fact, Tom has built his career around photographing professional artists and has worked with Adele, Amy Winehouse, Florence and the Machines, Rihanna, Pete Doherty, ASAP Mob and many more.

But now, after 15 years of photographing and touring with chart topping artists, Tom is embarking on a personal project – digital portraits.

“Digital portraits,” he explains, “is where I film whoever I am shooting, how I see fit to photograph, for two to three minutes. This is then projected on to 20 feet high canvases. There are lots projections in one room and they all interact with each other.”

Tom did his very first digital portraits exhibition five years ago at the Londonewcastle project space and was later asked to recreate the show in the main room at the Royal Albert Hall.

The Stoke City fan is the only photographer in the world to have ever had an exhibition in the main room at the world-renowned venue and describes at as a “surreal experience”.

“This first exhibition was all music and included Liam Gallagher, Johnny Marr, Pussycat Dolls Wretch 32 among many others. We will hopefully be taking this one to Manchester, but I am also looking to do another one on nudes and one with photographers.

“The great thing about doing digital portraits,” Tom adds, “is you can essentially fit the entire exhibition on your phone. You still need to spend a lot of money on the actual digital file, but once it has been done that’s it. You can then edit, add or take out portraits.

“It’s the personal work that is interesting me at the moment – it means you can define your own boundaries. Yes, I have had to call in favours everywhere when it comes to getting people to shoot – it tends to be a case of you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

Being part of the music industry culture and hanging around with bands was always something Tom enjoyed, but he admits he was never quite “musical” enough to become a musician, which is why he turned to photography.

He says: “My dad had an old film camera and I first started playing around with that and really enjoyed it. I still have that very same camera – I’ve kept it safe.

“Before I went to art college in Stoke, I would do shoots at this nightclub, it was called Golden back then, and they used to bring in some of the biggest DJs each week. It was people like Roger Sanchez and Tiesto and it went on from that.”

Since finishing college and moving to London nearly 17 years ago, Tom has been self-employed – even when he was just starting out as an assistant. This is normal for this industry, he tells me.

“Photography is quite a lone wolf game. When you are doing shoots, you have a lot of backing, but in between, you are on your own. So you have to learn to deal with that as well as learning to do the business side of things from hiring the right kit to producing the shoots.”

A typical day for Tom on a one-day shoot begins at about 4.30am and includes a grilled chicken pasta for breakfast.

“It’s similar to footballers,” he adds, “because you may not get the chance to eat for the rest of the day. I’m so mentally prepared for it too, I don’t drink days before a shoot and on the day, I go into auto-pilot mode.

“The first shot, in every shoot always seems to take forever… people arrive, they faff, have coffee, eat a croissant and then you have got to make sure the lighting is right. And then you have another six or seven hours of shooting straight.

“By the time you get home and unpack everything, you’re exhausted. And when you wake up the next day it feels like you have been in a boxing ring; your body is aching. It’s because you contort your body into whatever shape you can in order to get that shot, going up and down ladders or lifting cases.”

For Tom, it is not only about being disciplined when you have a shoot, but also when it comes to organising all your files and paperwork.

He says: “You almost have to be OCD about it. If you think about the number of digital files that are created from just one shoot, it is unbelievable. And then you have your low-res files, retouch notes and your final psds, tiffs and web ready jpegs.

“That is why you need to be organised and with your paperwork… I do it on the day, even if it is just receipts. I also make sure I clean the kit and charge the batteries straight away.

“It sounds really boring and sometimes you think I didn’t get into photography for this, but you’ll reap the benefits from it. You won’t have to worry about this stuff when you get a shoot come in at the last minute. You can just go.”

Being organised is something Tom would say to his 20-year-old self – especially as he spent 18 months working on his digital archive and organising his file, which he proudly says is now “immaculate”.

So, what other advice would he offer someone starting out as a photographer?

“Managing your cash flow when you first start out can be a challenge, as often, clients don’t pay you until three or four months after. And it is not unheard of to go up to six or nine months without being paid for a job. 

“It is outrageous, but that is the business and people get away with it. It’s really vicious.”

Late payment is not just an issue in the music industry, but is something that is a huge concern for self-employed people across all sectors. And when you are starting out, there is often also an anxiety around maintaining a good relationship with clients.

The best way to deal with this, Tom suggests, is simply by politely telling clients they are late. He says: “If it’s a repeat client, then please let them know they’re late, if it is a new client and you want to work again, then perhaps be very polite about it in any future emails.

“It is actually illegal to not be paid after a set amount of time, but it is almost impossible to enforce this. And the other thing is, hold your nerve with your fees, because people are fighting their way down to the bottom at the moment.

“People are undercutting each other so badly and the impact of you cutting your fee is you’ve knocked it down for everyone else. Clients then think the job can be done for that amount when it can’t.

“If they don’t want to pay, look somewhere else. There is always going to be people who are willing to pay what you are worth. It’s hard when you are just starting out, because you need the money for rent and food, but hold your nerve.”

Tom finishes by adding: “Do not give your copyright away. It’s like buying a pair of Levi jeans, you don’t then get shares in the company.

“I always say I will give you a premium product, work my heart out for you and even sign a contract saying what can and can’t go out, but the copyright will always remain mine.”