From Madrid to multiple-Nashville, from chasing a tour bus all over the United Kingdom to picking up the official photographer role at the UK’s biggest country music festival C2C. From working directly with artists and their management to expanding the scope of my business in working directly with the UK country music scene. From receiving the highest accolades from the people I admire and respect most to visualising my commercial portrait work in merchandise. 2015 was a year of growth… But it was not all smooth sailing.
Nothing good ever comes easily. Fact. Curveballs are thrown at you from all areas to test you and force you to grow. Without these obstacles, you become complacent and complacency is this industry can only lead to one thing – boredom, which in turn results in your standards being lowered, at which point, it’s time to move on to something else. This is not an option for me. I’m not built like that. I’d rather say screw you to the ‘curveballs’ than cower in the corner and hope they go away. Obstacles give me strength of mind and determination to outdo myself. And that is about as deep into my mind as you’ll get.. for the moment
So let’s start with my highlights of 2015. Picking up the role as the official photographer for C2C at The O2 was definitely the start of my year. It really was a tough gig – long days, quick turn around on editing, being in 13 different places at once (which helped with my trusty, mature and ever-so-talented co-shooter Kelsen Rowe) – but it was ultimately very fulfilling. I reached out to some of the management of the artists to gain additional access and was welcomed by them, so the freedom I had in getting some content for both C2C and management helped me be more creative and push my boundaries. Was a lot of fun and met some cool people along the ride. Definitely wound down on the final night at the after party when everyone who worked tirelessly that weekend was letting their hair down. Following this, I’d say joining UK duo The Shires and Alabama natives John & Jacob on the #Brave Tour around the UK was a real treat. We all grew close and became friends – as you do when you spend that much time with people. This little venture spanning a couple of weeks really allowed me to breathe in my job. Learning to slow down, shoot only relevant content, more behind-the-scenes stuff and firing through my on-the-fly editing, all helped me develop a variety of skills. It was a mad trip, made only madder by the fact that I’m just mad myself. Yeah, it was mad!
Whilst I was over in Nashville shooting CMA Fest, I got a nudge from someone who I hold the utmost respect for, Richard Wootton, who passed over my details to Eric Church’s management. Eric was to receive an award at the ACM Honors for artist who contributed most to international growth and they needed content. #honoured. So a few months passed and I got the email from Eric’s management. “We’ve just had Eric in the studio looking over your shots and here are the ones we’ve decided upon. He said they’re all killer shots.” I don’t get starstruck. But this was one of those ‘moments’. Musically, no-one inspires me more than The Chief, and this could well have been the highlight of my 2015.
From a personal perspective – there was a turning point for me. Those obstacles and curveballs I was talking about (which I’ll touch on later), were really becoming a little bit of an issue in my mind up until this turning point. 10th September 2015 is a date I will remember. What happened? I went to shoot a Will Hoge gig at Bush Hall in London. Now everyone knows I love Will as a songwriter, vocalist and he’s an amazing bloke. But the spotlight wasn’t on Will that night. The turning point for me, which only became evident a couple of weeks later, were three siblings from Hertselle, Alabama – Madison, Taylor and Logan Cain. Met them, clicked immediately, heard them perform, picked my jaw up off the ground, fell in love with them. One of my favourite Eric Church songs is Those I’ve Loved.. which talks about people you meet in your life on your journey that you connect with and who make an impact on your life. I think about people I’ve met in my life, and these three people are not just super-talented artists, they are real people with the biggest hearts. And they inspired me at a time when I doubted myself, which kind of kicked off a great final quarter of the year for me personally in reassessing where I was at and where I want to go. So Maddie & Tae (hehe, sorry had to).. and Logodash – THANK YOU! For everything.
Of course working directly with and becoming friends with other people I respect so much like Sarah & Justin from Striking Matches, Lindsay Ell, Jason Schmidt and now a growing number of UK country artists.. Which brings me to the turning point and what meeting The Cains did for me. I remember shooting their show up in Manchester and these guys are special. I knew it after hearing their music within 5 minutes. So of course, as everyone has seen on social media, I was promoting the hell out of them – through my passion for them as people and their music. Madison came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and said “Flex, can you be our tour manager?” I laughed and said ok, what is it you want me to lift? She was semi-serious and I still laughed. Her words, which I’ll never forget were “We are on an emotional rollercoaster. We miss our families and we’ve never been away this long. Your enthusiasm and positive encouragement to us and to everyone you talk to about us is what’s keeping us sane and focused.” That. Right there. Is one of those moments in your life you won’t forget easily. I’m no tour manager. I don’t want to be a tour manager. I don’t even know what a tour manager does. But to be told you’re making an impact on someone’s life like that, with no hidden agenda, is special. And I didn’t know it then, but over the course of the coming months, I came to realise there was more potential to my art than slamming out 1000 frames in the first 3 songs or getting 4,000 different angles on an artist you’ve shot 200 times. There was something more that I could do, and I was hellbent on figuring it out.
By late October, a few people had helped me in my thought process along the way. I had been adopted by (or adopted) a great and caring family in Essex – The Rowes who have a lot of know how and positive input into my life. My mind started ticking on the fact that when I press the shutter, I don’t stop there. My work is on display in the public domain, but being passionate about the music ‘genre’ (ouch! hate that word) that I’m shooting, means I have to talk about it. God knows everyone’s probably sick of all my social media posts, but that’s just what I do. And I do it because it means something to me. And I’ll continue to do it without apology. So I start thinking, if I’m promoting artists through my visual content just through organic passion, why not add some structure to this and combine all the skills that I’ve developed over the years into something that is fresh and can actually sustain a lot more than a “photograph” on a merch item or in a magazine or on a billboard. Promoting artists properly and effectively through a visual medium is such a broad venture and using social media marketing, website development, branding and photography, I figured this is something that could take the heat off a new artist, allowing them to concentrate on what they do best – write and perform music. And I say “new” artist, because what I’ve seen this year in the UK country music scene is a new wave of emerging artists that have the right professional outlook on their careers – not cutting corners but actually ‘thinking’ about their future and how best to place themselves. This is refreshing, and this is the future of UK country music which right now, is in its prime and needs this more than ever. Production quality is being given top priority – as it should be. Visual content and branding is being considered a big part of the process – as it should be. So I’ve pulled out all stops and gone head into Flex Entertainment – which essentially does what I’ve described. Uses me and my combined skills to create something more. I wrote a status on Facebook the other day which was a line from an Eric Church song (surprising, not!)… “I went left when the world turned right” – need I say more. I’m not in it to follow or take the safe route. I’ll do something different. I’ll think things that would seem radical. I may fail. I will fail. But I’ll also hit on something that is different and if that’s going to make even the slightest of changes in the industry for the better, then I’ve succeeded far beyond my failures. And in the process, I’ve kind of found a wider calling for my art – commercial portrait photography is something I’m thriving on right now. I still love shooting live – it’s such a buzz, but like anything in life, you need growth. I don’t have a degree in photography – I’m self taught. So I forced myself to learn about studio strobes and lighting, indoor and outdoor. And now I’m seeing some of my best work – because the creative inspiration is back. And in doing so with these new and upcoming artists, I’m also discovering new music – which is really, really good!
So back to those obstacles and curveballs. What were they really? Seems like I had a pretty good year. But I’m fastidious and an obsessive perfectionist. I put a lot of pressure on myself and with that comes growth, but also disappointments. Things were getting a bit stale for me and I saw it. I was not happy with the output from my 3rd consecutive CMA Fest. I got down on myself. Have I lost it? Am I going backwards? Have I over-saturated what I wanted to do with my photography? These were all questions that – along with personal issues which will remain personal – were nagging at me constantly. In the end, it was just a lens calibration issue that Canon sorted out for me haha! Well, that was part of it. But jokes aside, I just felt that I needed more. And those of you that know me personally know that I can’t stop and I want to grow for as long as I’m on this earth. I thought I’d lost the buzz, but what it really was, was the need to open my eyes more and see a bigger picture. And that happened – through the three angels I mentioned earlier. Creative types are extremists. I’m definitely that. The highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. But… through all of it, I can always see the potential to blow the fuck out of whatever it is I’m doing.
So there you have it. What’s in store for 2016? Well, I’m back to Nashville tomorrow, kicking off with a portrait shoot of Lindsay Ell. Pretty cool start to the year. Beyond that.. I’ve learned not to pigeon-hole myself into mapping my year out. I’m pretty ‘Flex’-ible. And will continue to be. So who knows, that Pakistani guy who approached me during the Thorne Hill shoot earlier this year and asked me “Do you shoot porn?” … he may be onto something.. (Just kidding! lol). Happy new year folks! Thanks for a great ride and support. And keep gettin’ Flex’d