Anthony D’Angio (also known as ‘Flex the Frog’) makes shooting live concerts & events an art form. Ant’s images are stunning and in his short career he has already made a big impact on the music photography industry. He has just finished shooting this year’s Country 2 Country Music Festival in London. Naturally, we caught up with him to find out how it went.
So Ant, you have just finished shooting this years’ Country to Country music festival. For those who don’t know, can you give us a quick run down of what C2C and what it means for the Country Music Industry? Hey, thanks again for having me. It’s a great platform to be able to share my insight and trust me after the past three days, I’m still wired with adrenalin so your timing is just right. C2C is a weekend event that started in 2013, so we’ve just had the third one in the country. It is, unquestionably, the biggest event in the UK for country music fans. We’ve been starved of the genre for so many years where people have had to get their fix through either online media, or dig into their pockets and make the trip across the pond. But in 2013, that all changed. And it’s not just a small-time shindig either. We’re talking the biggest names in country music which – when you think about it – is the biggest genre of music in the USA, so when you say names like Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean, you’re talking the big draws. And it kicked off with the biggest bang possible two years ago when Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood headlined the inaugural festival. There’s a different feel to this compared to something like say, CMA Fest, because you have to remember, fans of the genre over here go through 363 days build up to this, so come early March, you can feel the buzz in the community climaxing. Sure there are the growing number of artists coming over throughout the year, but this – this is the weekend that the O2 Arena is transformed into Nashville. It’s not just the big name headliners either. The whole arena is filled with popup stages of local and international talent, an entire Town Square is set up with merchandise from all over the world, music is blaring like spot fires all around the perimeter of the arena, there are Q&As, songwriter sessions, movie screenings and exhibitions. And this year we saw it expand into Europe – taking on Scandinavia with dates in Oslo and Stockholm as well as Dublin, Glasgow and London. So in just two years, it’s become the biggest country music festival in Europe. And organised by the people that know how to make something like this appeal – a joint collaboration between AEG Europe, SJM Concerts and the CMA (Country Music Association). For me, something like this is a musical dream – getting together such a massive array of artists under one dome takes you to a magical world of honest, emotional and relevant music. That’s from a fan of the genre. From a photographer’s standpoint, it just makes shooting ten times more exhilarating because I’m soaking up the atmosphere which in turn breeds more output creativity. It’s a great weekend for everyone – families with little ones, couples, singles, traditional and contemporary fans – just a great all round event that caters for pretty much everyone who has a passion for music.
Who were you shooting for? I was appointed as the C2C Official shooter, so I was shooting for AEG Europe, the O2 and SJM Concerts. The guys that put the event on. Because I have a relationship with the CMA as well, I was hired by them to provide content to Nashville over the weekend as well, so there was a little crossover, but some events were CMA specific which needed coverage as well. And with such a promotional drive of the genre by Bob Harris and the guys at BBC Radio 2, they will required any kind of content like this throughout the year as well. I mention this because this is a very integral point in how country music has suddenly become all the rave over here – a collective group of people and organisations have come together for the cause. There’s input from various angles from people with years of understanding of the music, its artists an its fans – and it becomes kind of like one big family all supporting the same cause. And from a mere photographer’s perspective, it seems to me that has a hell of a lot to do with it’s growth and success. So yeah, shooting for C2C Official means providing content to all the parties that are involved in putting this monster event together. For me, that works a treat because it allows me to contribute my efforts in the visual medium to help promote country music. And that makes me happy!
How did you get the gig? I think over the past couple of years, it seems that I’ve been dubbed “that frog guy who shoots country music artists”, so it’s probably understandable that I’ve gotten to know and build relationships with various people who are associated with event planning, publicity and media. I put my name forward to AEG late last year and waited. Then suddenly it looked like I may not have been available due to another assignment that clashed, but at the last minute, that didn’t eventuate, so I was available again and then it was full steam ahead.
How was this year different from previous years? Ha, that’s a loaded question! Gosh, loads. I mean you’re covering a weekend event. Previously, I’d be on assignment, so it would be first 3 songs, 8 acts over 2 days. Boom. Job done. But when you’re covering the entire festival, which includes all the aspects I mentioned earlier, then you’re weekend is pretty full from dawn to sundown and beyond. A lot more running around, schedule chasing, editing on the fly with a full schedule – damn, I’ve never edited so quickly as I did last weekend – not much eating, drinking or sleeping – nothing new to me as you know. But in general, a lot more fast paced as the content has to be current, so it needs to be pushed out to various social channels pretty much immediately. Then add the time difference between here and Nashville for their content – there were different deadlines throughout the day to meet. I think I learned this year the true meaning of being a “crazy frog” as I seemed to have been dubbed.
What was your schedule like? Not going to lie, there was a lot of pressure. There were times I doubted myself – in terms of deliverables in the time required – and that’s rare because I take anything on with the belief that I’m going to get it done come hell or moonshine, but yeah, it got pretty tight at times. You’ve got press conferences to cover which just don’t get delayed, and the O2 is massive, let alone the backstage area which is like something out of The Shining with all its corridors – so you have a lot of distance to cover – download images, edit, upload and then slip back in and start all over again before you start all over again. I remember on the Sunday night speaking with my contact at the O2 when we were winding down a bit. I was asked how I found it, and as honestly as possible I said yeah, it was tough. But I thrive on tough. Makes me look back and feel proud of the work ethic and dedication without compromising the quality of the output.
Did you hire anyone to shoot some gigs you were simply unable to commit to? Glad you asked that, because I’ll state this right now. I could not have got the work done without partnering up with someone. When I saw the schedule a few weeks ago, I noticed there a significant crossover in requirements which made it logistically impossible to cover as one person. So I figured I needed to get someone in to help. Kinda new territory for me because I’m so used to just running off and doing my own thing, but I had to keep it in the forefront of my mind that I was managing expectations with a second shooter as well. I had my first experience of collaborating with another photographer a couple of weeks back in Knoxville, TN, and that was simply awesome because what I took away from it was that if you have the right person working with you – qualities such as talent, dedication and creative individuality – then not only does it help lighten your load, but it actually gives you a real sense of fulfilment when you can walk away and think, we did that really well together – you know, the high fives and that kind of camaraderie.
Was that an easy process to pick the right person – did you have to feel like they were shooting in ‘Flex-Style’ because you were the one hired? Most definitely. If I’m hired to do a job, then the output needs to reflect my capabilities. And yeah, I’m hearing that term – ‘Flex-style’ – a lot these days, which is pretty cool because as an artist you want nothing more than to create your own identity meaning your work is instantly recognisable. I had a think about who would complement my style and there’s this young dynamo kid from Essex, Kelsen Rowe, whose work I’ve seen and admired over the past several months. Not only that, but he’s been constantly following me, asking advice on equipment, techniques in shooting and post – and I’ve seen the quality of his stuff grow so fast that I thought damn, this boy has an eye. A bit of a baptism of fire for him I must say – the kid is turning 17 this year – and it’s scary how good he is. I state it again, he was the biggest help to me over the weekend – he went on and did what he needed to do without any questioning of anything but most importantly with enthusiasm and professionalism. He most definitely made an impression with me but also with the various people from the CMA and AEG. Made me kinda proud too. Well done to Kelsen.
How did you manage the schedule around your typical workflow? Any lessons learnt? It was definitely a learning curve – and a quick one at that. Saturday was the day of learning and fumbling around a lot. Sunday became pretty smooth sailing, albeit still very much full on. If this were to be an ongoing yearly assignment, then like anything else, you know what to expect the next time ‘round. The week leading up, I went through the C2C schedule, married it up with the CMA schedule and tried to work out the logistics on who, what and where. When the day arrived, Kelsen and I were given a dressing room from which to edit and chill out (yeah right!)… so it was a case of just waving at each other, turning our phones off silent and taking on The O2 individually and then reconvening where possible. We pretty much crossed paths a few times, but didn’t see each other too much other than occasionally in the room when we had to deliver files. There was a lot of “winging it”, but I think that’s to be expected. Schedules for such a big event in principle are needed, but you know that things sometimes run over, artists get there later which pushes things back, or things get changed around. But you definitely still need to have a framework from which to base your day around.
What kind of access did you have? I have to admit, I was a little surprised when the brief came through that there was fairly limited access to shooting the artists in the main arena. This was all new territory for me, so my presumption when I got the nod as official shooter was that I would gain additional access than shooting on assignment – you know, for the exclusive shots. But I learned that it wasn’t the case. And this year, half the main acts were soundboard shoots, which as any photographer can tell you, is kinda frustrating in terms of delivering a solid variety of creative content. I’ve shot successfully from the soundboard before on several occasions (CMA Awards being the main one), but there’s no denying that it restricts you creatively because you have minimal scope on a 500mm – at that focal length, there’s not a lot of room for movement. We both had O2 Working Passes, which meant we had full access to the whole of the O2, but when it came to the main acts, the directive from management was the same for all photographers. As it turned out in the end, I did end up gaining all access to some of the acts on the bill.
How did you manage that extra access of being able to go on-stage and have free-reign? This pretty much was something I took upon myself to investigate. I had met the manager of one of the main acts back in Nashville last year and had communication with him since, so I simply asked the question, and then was told that I could have full access to the whole show from any vantage point including the stage. I got in touch with a couple of other managers with the same request and got affirmatives for the same access. Florida-Georgia Line’s management were hoping I could do even more for them including following the boys backstage for candid shots, but due to the already choked up schedule, this didn’t happen. I will say this – the artists and the tour crew were all so helpful and accommodating which was pretty humbling considering I wasn’t officially part of their camp – and that again made my job that much easier.
Are there any specific shots that you are particularly proud of? I think it’s fair to say that the shots I got with the acts that gave me full access were some of my best work. I can readily acknowledge that. I’ve noticed a pattern in all this – The Shires, John & Jacob, Lindsay Ell and more recently Kacey Musgraves. – all gave me full access to shoot from anywhere and for however long I wanted to. I remember frantically going through the Florida-Georgia Line shots from Saturday night in between sets and thinking “What the hell? Did I really shoot that?” A rare moment for me as I’m so critical, but for the first time I think in this whole whirlwind two years, I sat back and thought damn, I’m happy with the overall quality of the whole shoot. And then I thought why? I didn’t do anything differently – still shot manual, still adjusted the settings to accommodate for best metering, still used the same glass – technically nothing was different. I think it dawned on me – there’s been a pattern here with the most recent shoots, specifically Lindsay Ell and Kacey Musgraves. I think having the full access with no song limit or constraints subconsciously sedates you, and you don’t feel the pressure to fire loads of frames, you don’t have the pressure of jostling for position – so it calms you down and you find yourself walking and breathing normally. Damn, I even sat behind the stage and had a bottle of water (yes water, not Jack!) during one of the songs. Unheard of. So in terms of the shots that I’m most proud of – as a whole set, it’s got to be Florida-Georgia Line. I took the wide theme on this one because the guys are so electric on stage that I wanted to capture the entire atmosphere and make Brian and Tyler look like gods. The shot of Tyler throwing his tank top into the crowd is probably my favourite shot of the year so far – it almost looks like an advert for a Spartan Warrior bearing down and being idolised by his army of followers. I love that a moment like that can be captured which literally puts the artist in the stratosphere. Another shot I really love is more subtle, but it has to be the Jason Aldean moment with the dramatic sparks and smoke where he’s holding that wild west cowboy pose, aiming his finger-cum-pistol to the ground and whistling as if he was on the set of a Sergio Leonie western. The muted colours work perfectly in that shot and it’s definitely going to be one of my favourites going forward.
Any ‘special moments’ you didn’t manage to get that you’re gutted for not getting? It’s funny – there IS one moment I missed. But I’m not tragically disappointed I missed it but it’s one I caught at CMA Fest last year. It was during the Florida-Georgia Line finale, just before the shirts got ripped off where Brian and Tyler fill their cups and smash them together, sending a downpour of beer/water(?) into the crowd. I didn’t know they would be doing it again, and when I caught it last year, it creates a really cool effect when the water is frozen, but alas, I was shooting from the wings when they launched into it so I had no time to get back to the front to catch the full effect. I’ll get over it.
What did you have in the kit bag this time around? 2 bodies standard – the 1DX and the 5D Mark III. I did consider hiring a third body this time ‘round as there is a growing number of lenses I now like to shoot with, but decided against it when I realised I had more access for three of the artists which meant less time frantically changing lenses. For the full access shoots, I shot wide with the 16-35mm 2.8L II – I really enjoy getting the full effect of the whole stage. Occasionally switching between the 70-200 and the 24-70. There were some limited fisheye shots as well, but the O2 stage is quite high and the artists are set back generally, so you lose them in the fisheye effect most of the time. For the two soundboard shoots, I hired the 500mm f/4L II – quite possibly the best lens of any brand in the market. It never lets me down and the sharpness you get at f/4 from that distance is quite simply phenomenal. Speedlite, Macbook, memory cards, batteries, external drive, tripod and three changes of my ”Get Flex’d” t-shirts and deodorant – vital inclusions.
Are you hoping to get the gig again next year and how would you do it differently? I’m always wanting to be a part of the country music boom in any way possible – as I can offer photographic services, then to me it’s a no brainer. I’d love to be involved. It’s a win-win situation for me because it pays my bills, but also I get paid doing something I absolutely love for which I consider myself extremely fortunate. So in short, of course, if they’ll have me, I’d love to do it again. The only caveat to that, as everyone is well aware, is that my aim lies in tour and artist photography. I’ve never made that a secret. And I will continue to drive my goal in that direction, so if something happens to fall my way which conflicts with the timings of C2C, then I would have to reassess, but otherwise, I’d be well up for the challenge again. Not sure I’d do too much differently. As I mentioned, everything’s a learning curve. This year has given me vast insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of the festival, so I’ll take that away and use it to my advantage when scheduling in the festival again next time. Feedback – specifically work ethic – from AEG has been great, so I probably wouldn’t change much around. Maybe a cheeky request of a bottle of Jack Single Barrel in the dressing room. 😉
Cheers Flex… Until next time.
Check out more of Ant’s work:
- Website: www.frography.com
- Facebook: facebook.com/kissthefrography
- Twitter: @xthefrog
- Flickr: flickr.com/photos/frography/sets/
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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