Letter From a Focused Eye: The Long View

Letter from a focused eye: The Long View
The Rolling Stones on the Steel Wheels Tour in 1989

by Paul Natkin

I am 60 years old. I have been working as a photographer in the music business for some 37 years. I am frequently asked, “Who are you hearing now that will stand the test of time?” My answer: Not many!

It seems acts today are not built to last, nor is the industry around them ready to support them. There is a saying in the business that it takes artists their whole lives to write their first album. They then have a year to write their next one, while on the road promoting the first. So…what are the chances that their follow-up will be any good? Artists used to be signed and promoted based on talent and body of work, but now they are signed based on one good song.

Many artists from the ’60s and ’70s are still touring and producing new music. The Rolling Stones are rehearsing in New York. The Beach Boys—like the Stones, celebrating their 50th anniversary this year—are touring as we speak. Where will the bands of today be when they are celebrating their first album’s 50th anniversary? Or even the 20th?

About a decade ago, I took a detour from my photography career to be a road manager for legendary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artist Brian Wilson. During the two years that I worked for him, when I looked out at the audience each night, I noticed something interesting. Although many audience members were in their 50s and 60s, there was still a large number of people in their 20s that had come to see a 60-year-old celebrating his fifth decade in the music business. They weren’t there out of morbid curiosity. They were there because he wrote some of the greatest music of the 20th century, and they wanted to experience seeing him play it live.

I am very interested to see if any of the major arena bands of today will be around and working on their 20th anniversary. I predict that not many of them will be. Maybe the Black Keys? My Morning Jacket? My guess is that on the Black Keys’ 20th anniversary, the Rolling Stones will still be playing live. —Paul Natkin

Paul Natkin has photographed many of the most iconic performers in popular music. He is the official photographer for Farm Aid, and recently wrote Elmore’s music photography cover story (July/August 2011).

Got something to say?