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  • Annette Dawm

Capturing the Moment with Corey Kelly

Corey Kelly is a photographer who describes himself as an artist that captures “other artists doing their thing”. As the owner of Tour Bus Productions, Corey has covered some of the biggest festivals and events in Canada, including Boots and Hearts, Cavendish Beach Music Festival and The Canadian Country Music Association Awards (CCMAs).

Prior to starting Tour Bus Productions, Corey was always a supporter of live music (and merch). He went from seeing Tim Hicks for fun to collaborating with him on several projects:

“Tim Hicks is great! Tim and I talk about this all the time. I was a fan at a Tim Hicks show when he performed at a mall in downtown Toronto. It was in the basement of First Canadian Place, I think… and they’d do these lunch time concerts. So he performed that day and I was working in the area at the time (back in my ‘selling office furniture days’). So I popped in, filmed it on my tablet and was a big fan! I got my picture taken and had the chance to talk with him a bit and that was really cool! Then fast forward eight years and I was sitting at a wedding beside Tim…. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve both come!”

He added, “It’s great to have that camaraderie with artists! Sometimes you get hired as a one-off and you don’t really get to meet the artists, but it’s nice when you do get the chance to really work with an artist a lot, like Tim Hicks or High Valley or Tebey. For myself, those are guys that I work with on the regular…. Recently, I was asked to do photos for Tim Hicks’ studio that he’s putting together…. He wants prints to be enlarged for the office. It’s nice that the artist appreciates the work that you’ve done and they want it.”

“When I first started Tour Bus, I was originally a partner at Sound Check Entertainment seven or eight years ago now. I was doing it for fun! I was interviewing people and getting in front of the camera and talking with artists—talking up the Canadian country music scene... that was kind of lacking at the time. Then after I saw that there was a real opportunity to maybe make it a real job, I thought maybe I could take this to the next level. The opportunity to bring Tour Bus Productions out of Tour Bus Entertainment came after a couple years of having a blog. We were just talking about and reviewing concerts. It was a lot of fun. Then the photos from the team of people I was working with got better and better and better. Then artists were like, ‘Hey! Can we use your photos to do this? Can we use your videos to do that?’ It kind of snowballed from there. I’m very fortunate to do what I do.”

Before artists were requesting his work, Corey had to apply for media passes in order to cover various events. Additionally, he often gave his photographs away for free as part of “the grind” that comes with the industry:

“Honestly, the start is the hardest part. It’s getting started and feeling confident about what you’re doing…. I probably gave away more photos than I’ve ever been paid for, just because that was how I got started. Now that I’ve gone full-tilt and that’s what I do for a living, I don’t frown upon those people who are trying to get their foot in the door somewhere by offering up free photos. I do tell them that there’s going to be a time that you’re going to have to charge a small fee. It feels better if someone pays you $25 for a package of 10 photos versus just giving it to them. Yeah, someone might say, ‘Oh, it’s only $25’, but it shows that there’s value in what you did versus someone using your photos on their socials and you’re not making anything.”

“….I remember applying for the first time to Boots and Hearts and getting approved and going, ‘Yeah!!! I got into Boots and Hearts!’ I was so excited and then it snowballed from there. I got to shoot at Boots and Hearts and then I got to shoot a Dierks Bentley show.... I remember shooting a Brantley Gilbert show at Budweiser Gardens in my early days. It was kind of cool to get those bigger names rather than just shooting smaller club shows. There was really an evolution from being able to apply for the smaller shows and then to get into the bigger shows eventually. It’s a grind. For those that love doing it, it won’t matter if it’s a big show or a small show—but we all feel like we have an extra badge on our shoulder if it’s a big show! I try to be everywhere. I try to be at all of the big events as well as some of the smaller events because I actually enjoy doing the smaller events as well.”

After a few years of not being able to attend concerts due to COVID-19, Corey said the excitement still hits him when he gets to work at large festivals. Especially when there is always a chance that his application might not be accepted:

“I remember sitting on the stage at Cavendish earlier this year. I’m a huge Cadillac Three fan and I would’ve shot them for free! Thankfully, they paid me, but they opened for Luke Combs. There were 30 000 people in front and it was just a really cool vibe to be a part of. It's crazy to think eight years ago, I was in the pit of a dark club in Waterloo, ON and there were 50 people there!

“People think, ‘Oh, you’re just a photographer’ or whatever. They don’t really realize that this is my career. They don’t know how big of a deal it is to get some of those shows or experiences…. There were times when I didn’t get approved for a show and I was going, ‘What do you mean? I’ve done everything!’ I covered Boots and Hearts and all of these other really good events and still got declined…. Sometimes you think, ‘Well, I’ve shot this and this!’ and it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it just doesn’t pan out…. It was heartbreaking. I felt it some days, but then I started to realize it wasn’t personal. It was business. It wasn’t needed at the time so they just declined everybody. I see more and more of that due to COVID.”

During the pandemic, Corey had to pivot towards taking family portraits and creating corporate videos. He described it as a “difficult” time, but he still made the most of it: “People loved the photos and that was awesome. They really enjoyed seeing their faces without masks, which was nice. I did everything from a safe distance. We did them from the porch and stuff like that. It was great but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t a live music environment where you have so many things happening with elements and lights. It was pretty simple. It was like, ‘Okay everybody! Stop, look and smile!’ I enjoyed it.”

In November 2021, things went somewhat back to normal as Corey was able to cover The CCMAs in London, ON. He recalled that “Every year changes with new challenges and new cities. London just loves country music! I think that that’s one of the cool places to go because you can really feel the vibe with all of the fans interacting throughout the course of the weekend. Lindsay Ell hosting was a really cool experience. She looked beautiful! Absolutely stunning, I think! Dallas Smith won so many awards! Dallas is just an incredible artist! He deserves those things and he got to shine in that light.” (Dallas recently used one of Corey’s images for his “Some Things Never Change Tour” merchandise.)

This Sunday, September 11, The CCMAs will be live from Calgary and Corey said he can’t wait to get there to see all of his friends. It was just announced that for the fifth year in a row, Tour Bus Productions will be the official photo/video team for Country Music Week and the awards ceremony.

Corey mentioned that there are "a lot of people with cameras today", but he prefers to see them as his teachers rather than his competition. He compared photography to hockey, because for him, it is a team sport:

“I remember speaking with Sean Sisk when I first started in photography. He’s another great photographer from the Ottawa area. He was very inspirational! He was helping me learn the craft and helping me learn that your counterparts aren’t your competition. They are people you can learn from and I’ve learned so much! You know, composition, colouring, all of those types of things that fall into place. For me, all of that advice has come from people like James Bennett and Bill Woodcock. A lot of people that are on my team have taught me so much. I remember out in Cavendish one year, Renée Boucher Doiron sat me down and said, ‘How do you edit your photos? Because if you edit like this, I think it might help you.’ She taught me a different way to edit and I was like, ‘Wow! That’s cool!’ So when I learn those little things from other people, I think that really helps craft who I’ve become as a photographer....”

With all of the professional opportunities that have presented themselves over the last eight years, Corey admitted that it is now more challenging to watch a concert as “just a fan” because photography has been part of his livelihood for so long.

“My wife and I saw Eric Church on this last tour in Toronto, just as fans. We didn’t bring a camera. We just went and enjoyed the show. As a photographer, you’re still looking for the best place to stand and where to watch the show with cool lighting effects…. You enjoy the music but you’re so focused on the task at hand that you kind of forget that the music’s there. You’re so focused and dialed into your craft… but when you’re just watching a show, you take in your surroundings more, not just the artist.”

Corey Kelly will always love the country music community, but as his career continues to evolve, he has also been inspired by artists in other genres. Some of his favourite sets included Our Lady Peace and Arkells. He praised both bands for their showmanship.

“One of the biggest things over the last few years that I’ve had the opportunity to do was shoot Ian Thornley of Big Wreck for a spot in Guitar World Magazine! As a kid growing up, I read Guitar World monthly. It was pretty cool to say my photo of an artist that I truly admire went into Guitar World! Ian Thornley is an absolute wizard on guitar! Sometimes I look at those highlights and I realize that I am very fortunate to do this for a living. I sometimes take it for granted, the opportunities that I’ve been given. There are other people that say, ‘I wish I could do that!’ I’ve grown into it so much and I love it!”

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