Music Insight Series // Jessica Norton
Every now & then, we can't help but fan-girl over industry folks we meet... and this time, it's for Jessica Norton, the founder of "Camera By Her Side." From interviewing the Plain White T's to teaming up with outlets like MTV for music photography projects, we have more than a few reasons to think you'll be a fan of Jessica's, too! Keep reading for a glimpse of what it's like behind the camera lens as a music photographer.
How did you get into the music/entertainment industry?
My parents have always been big music fans so when I was growing up I was exposed to all different genres, listening to everything from Eric Clapton and The Wallflowers to The Ramones and Cher. No one in my family has any musical talent -- we’re all tone deaf and struggle to play any instruments -- but we have a huge appreciation and love for music and entertainment. I started going to concerts with my parents when I was really, really young and ended up developing an affinity for pop music. As I got older I was going to shows multiple times a week. I started volunteering as a street team member for various record labels and pop-rock bands in the Tri-State area when I was in middle school. I would get mailed free promotional materials (posters, stickers, demo tapes, and shirts) to distribute to friends, classmates, and fans at shows. In return I would get free tickets or opportunities to work with bands doing a little bit of photography or assisting on social media. This was my first real gig “working” in the music scene and I really enjoyed it but I wanted to do more on the creative side with photography, videos, and conducting interviews.
What led you to create Camera By Her Side?
Camera By Her Side was actually created out of frustration. When I was 15, a sophomore in high school, I wanted to actively pursue working in the music scene since I was pretty immersed in it already. I wanted to be able to go to shows and work and create things, not just pass out flyers and hang out. I was proficient in writing, editing, and photography, had an extensive knowledge and understanding of the pop music scene and teen entertainment, but no outlet to contribute content to. At my high school, you had to be a junior to enroll in the journalism class and write for the school newspaper, so I couldn’t even do that yet. I reached out to local newspapers, websites, and concert venues in the area and they all told me I was “way too young” to work and to touch base with them when I was heading to college, which at that point was THREE years away. I figured since no one would let me work for them I’d just start my own company.
How do you discover the bands that you interview/photograph? Do you scout them out or do they seek you out?
Most of the bands I interview and work with are bands that I scout out. I usually find out about them through other bands, seeing them at shows, through friends, watching what is going on in the scene, and of course, social media. There have been a few occasions where bands or record labels reach out to me and are like, “Hey! We’d love to collaborate with you!” and they’ll pitch me ideas for content or just invite me to a show to see them live/meet them.
What makes an indie artist stand out to you? What makes you want to interview a particular artist?
There are so many different factors that draw me into an indie artist - sound, aesthetics, live show, how they interact with fans, social media presence, etc. I’m personally really drawn to bands that have pop elements in their music but that doesn’t mean I won’t interview you if you’re screamo or even country. It’s awesome when you find an indie artist or band that is unlike anything on the music scene, that’s usually what makes me want to interview them and find out what they’re all about.
What is the weirdest thing that has happened to you while interviewing a band or musician?
I interviewed the Plain White T’s at The Bamboozle Festival in 2012 and for some reason I was super nervous for it. I always get nervous for interviews but I had been a huge fan of them and they were a fairly big name for me to interview so I was even more anxious than usual. My camera malfunctioned and didn’t record the first five minutes of the interview, which was a good chunk of my conversation with them. I played it off like it was fine but I was pretty upset. They had a really tight schedule so we couldn’t go back and do the questions again. Despite the mishap, the rest of the interview went ok but then my hair (which was super, super long, like down to my butt) got tangled in Tom Higgenson’s wrist watch. It was so bad that we thought we were going to have to CUT it out. All of the people in the press room, publicists, record executives, the festival team members, were laughing. It took a while but we finally got it untangled and he had strands of my long, blonde hair twisted into his watch. He was laughing but also, like, kind of grossed out. I was mortified and I felt like the whole interview was just a HUGE hot mess. I am pretty goofy and prone to embarrassing moments, so things like that happen pretty often.
What is your go-to question to ask bands or musicians in an interview?
As someone who is not musically gifted, I am very much inspired by musicians and those who dedicate their life to entertaining and live a touring lifestyle. A question I almost always ask bands or musicians that I speak to is how they made the decision to do this for a living and how their family and friends reacted/react to it. The answers are always different, ranging from “I dropped out of high school for this” to “I am getting my degree while on the road” or “My family doesn’t get it” to “My parents come to every show.” It is always interesting to hear how they started and how the people around them supported them.
Who would be your dream band or artist to interview?
I have SO many questions for Taylor Swift. It would be a dream to sit down and pick her brain. I have been following her career from the start and she’s done the whole thing, starting out on radio tours, using social media to connect with fans (I mean way before she used Tumblr to interact, her old VLOGS and use of MySpace was awesome), and, in my opinion, she flawlessly crossed over genres which is never an easy thing to do. Her music career is super interesting and her whole operation is very strategic.
Can you walk me through the process of shooting an indie show? What gear do you typically take with you? How do you position yourself in a concert to get the perfect shot?
Every show is different. Sometimes I am shooting a whole set, sometimes I only get the first three songs. Most of the time I am shooting from the photo pit (right in front of stage, where security stands) but some shows I am allowed to shoot from wherever I want to in the venue and I try to make use of sound boards, balconies, and side stage areas. I shoot with a Canon 80D and a Tamron 16-300mm lens.
Any advice for indie bands who are doing their own concert photography?
This is probably common knowledge but posting on social media is SO important for new, indie bands. It baffles me when I go to a bands Instagram page and they haven’t updated it or posted any group photos/live shots in months. I also think bands should actively repost photos from photographers who catch them at live shows and give appropriate credit/tag, of course.
What does the average day/week in the life of Jessica Norton look like?
Every day and week is totally different, my schedule is very sporadic. I am in grad school right now getting my masters degree in Media Management while freelance writing for a few different publications and running Camera By Her Side. Some days I am in classes, some days I have a concert or an event, some days I’m writing articles or editing photos and videos.
You have worked with so many publications – Alternative Press, MTV, Teen Vogue. Do you have any tips for pitching indie artists for coverage in publications?
I think all writers/editors/creators are different and have mixed opinions on receiving pitches from indie artists. Some find it very annoying and spammy to get emails from bands that are like, “Please check out our music!” or “Will you premiere this new video on your site?” I honestly don’t mind it so much, especially if the emails are well-written and polite. I have a lot going on but I do my best to read all of my emails and will give bands a listen through, even if I can’t promise any published content, just to have them on my radar and know what they’re about. If you’re an indie band trying to get coverage on mainstream publications I think it’s important to genuinely connect with writers and creators. Support them, their work, and their creativity and they’ll support you back.
Any in-the-works projects that you are super excited about?
My most recent project has been a collaboration with a cat cafe in Asbury Park, NJ. called Catsbury Park. The music scene in Asbury Park is really strong and a lot of great bands come through town on tour. I thought it would be fun to bring some bands into the cat cafe to film videos, make gifs, and take photos because, I mean, who doesn’t want to see their favorite bands cuddling cute adoptable cats? We’ve done one session with Philadelphia pop-punk band Grayscale and are hoping to do more this year as well as collaborate with some more local businesses in Asbury Park. You might see some cupcake decorating sessions, pottery painting, or acoustic beach sets. We’ll see!