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Take a Picture, It’ll Rock Harder: A Snapshot of Music Photographer Daniel Coston

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Daniel Coston
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Charlotte music photographer Daniel Coston.

Thousands? Millions? It’s difficult to pin down how many pictures Daniel Coston has taken in his twenty year career as one of Charlotte’s go-to music photographers. His camera lens has some stories to tell: from being invited to snap pictures of greats (James Brown, Johnny Cash, The Monkees) to highlighting local legends-in-the-making (Hope Nicholls, Superchunk, The Spongetones, Carolina Chocolate Drops), and even seeing his work featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone, and The Avett Brothers’ HBO documentary. And that’s just a tiny part of Daniel Coston’s musical picture.

"The camera galvanized me to say, “Document this. This moment is all too fleeting. Get this down.'"
– Daniel Coston, music photographer

Interview Highlights:

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Daniel Coston
Daniel Coston holding (perhaps his first) camera at four years of age (Christmas 1976).

On being inspired to get into music photography:

A lot of it came first from film-making. I saw Star Wars when I was five years old, and I said, “Okay! I want to make things like that.” And that’s what I did throughout high school and college. And I started doing video work in Charlotte, and along the way, I was a sports writer in Matthews, North Carolina, for about five years (1995-2000), and they didn’t have a photographer. I started taking those pictures.

And about that same time, I started working with Tangents magazine, a very free-form zine that was around here (1995-1998). They had a photographer, but that person wasn’t interested in covering what I was starting to get into, which was music. I got into The Velvet Underground, Guided by Voices, and all of these bands, many of whom I worked with later on. And then I got into the Charlotte music scene, and I was like, “Wow! There is a lot of things going on.” So I started taking the pictures, and I thought, “This will be fun! I’ve done everything else. Why not this!” And the first five bands I worked with all hired me, from local to national acts.

The great thing about music is that the well is endless if you allow it to be endless. It’s just an endless dive, and I’ve never really stopped. The various genres and discoveries of current music and past music…it’s a lot of fun for me.

On his start as a music photographer:

I would send pictures to the bands via mail, even bands like Andrew Bird. I photographed Andrew’s second album. He played at The Neighborhood Theater, and I photographed one roll in black-and-white and one roll in color. I sent it to his record label, and they bought them for his second album! And that happened amazingly a number of times with other acts like Drive-By Truckers. I look back and go, “How did I do that?” Now, you can’t even get an email response from most bands because there’s so many hands involved.

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Daniel Coston
Daniel Coston photographer Johnny Cash at one of his final performances.

On being invited to photograph the last public appearances of Johnny Cash:

I knew about Johnny Cash when reading a comic book when I was nine years old. And suddenly, I’m there photographing for the Carter family. And then the Cash family reached out to me later on [to do it again]… The first show was a tribute show to June Carter Cash (on what would have been June’s birthday) on June 21, 2003. And John came back two weeks later and played his last performance on July 5, 2003.John Carter Cash (John and June’s son) has been very complimentary. He has told me and other people that a lot of his favorite pictures of his dad from the last year of his life were mine. And you can’t put a price on that. That’s worth everything.

On his personal achievement:

To a certain degree, it’s survival. That I’ve been able to do this now for as long as I’ve had. And I didn’t quit. And I somehow found a way to make this work and make a living. And that I’ve thrived in Charlotte, North Carolina.

When I started doing this, people were like, “You have to go to Nashville, New York or Chicago.” And I was like, “But if I do that, I’m giving up everything I’ve known, and I’ll be photographing the same thing that everyone else is photographing in New York, L.A., Chicago and such.” So I was like, “What if I made my stand in the place that I believe in and kept that perspective?” And I think you largely see that perspective in my work.

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Daniel Coston
The Avett Brothers performing at Charlotte's Bojangles Coliseum (December 2018).

On working with The Avett Brothers for nearly two decades:

We first did professional photos in 2002. And then I went on to photograph three albums for them and an EP. It’s funny: in the last few years, they’ve come back and said, “Oh, do you have this [photo]? Do you still have that [photo]?” It’s been interesting these past few months to scan and look at all of these photos I’ve taken of them over the years. And you do see the growth. I have pictures of them recording at their dad’s garage, and they’re literally laying up against my car trying to work out a song before going in to record it. And now, they sell out three nights at Red Rocks.

It’s hard to describe, when anybody you’ve known on the way up becomes that big. It is unreal, but that’s okay! Whenever I see them or photograph them, it means it’s another part of the story. I’m really glad I’ve been able to continue that conversation.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Johnny Cash – “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”
The Monkees – “Daydream Believer”
David Childers – “Run Skeleton Run”
The Avett Brothers – “Ten Thousand Words”
The Sammies – “Trainwreck”

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Joni Deutsch is happy to call Charlotte home as WFAE's manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, where she's led the first Charlotte Podcast Festival (named one of the “best podcast conferences” by Buzzsprout) and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. In addition to being an NPR Music contributor, Joni is also the creator and host of WFAE’s Charlotte music podcast Amplifier, named “Best Podcast” by Charlotte Magazine and honored for excellence in arts and music podcasting by the local Edward R. Murrow Awards and The Webby Awards (called “The Internet’s Highest Honor” by The New York Times).