I’m beginning to agree with those who think that phones might actually destroy live music. In the past I didn’t really have a problem with people shooting wee video clips and checking themselves into venues, and keeping in touch with their mates during the show. After all, it’s a social experience, and everyone’s entitled to enjoy it however they like. You pays your money, you takes your choice, dontcha?
The thing is, so do the artists – and they may very well begin to choose not to bother performing. If you go a Jack White show on his current tour, you’ll be asked to put your phone in a lockable bag, which you keep, but can only unlock outside the auditorium. So you can keep in touch with people if you really want to, but only at the expense of leaving the room. White’s argument is difficult to fault: his shows are like comedy gigs, where he works without a setlist and relies on audience feedback to tell him what he should do next. If the crowd are responding half-heartedly, he no longer knows if he’s not moving the room properly, or if they’re just too busy on their phones. It’s got to the point where he finds it so difficult that, if it doesn’t change, he’s not going to gig any more.
It’s also a kick in the stones for experimental artists, whose audiences, you’d think, would be sensitive to the concept. They’re baring themselves raw on stage, trying things out that may or may not work, and they don’t want the results splattered across social networks in low resolution with poor audio. White – who said that previous attempts to just ask the crowd to leave handsets in their pockets didn’t work out – falls into that category too.
I like to suggest solutions to problems (which is why so many women don’t like me…*) I thought of introducing two concert ticket rates – one for those who’ll happily agree not to use their phones, say £50, and one for those who demand to keep the right and are placed in a separate part of the auditorium, and pay £80 for the privilege. I thought, maybe that would talk people out of using their phones. Then I thought, it’s more likely to look like profiteering, and it’s likely to stop people going at all.
Now, some artists might enjoy the knowledge that everyone in the room has signed up to a no-phone agreement; but the perception of profiteering (and I can’t help feeling it’s likely that the first, honest use of such a policy would lead to a less honest inflating of prices) would just damage the live gig scene even more than it’s already damaged . And it really, really already is, with not enough support being given to the grassroots venues, meaning there are fewer big acts getting into the bigger leagues, meaning a drop in quality, meaning less enjoyment, meaning fewer fans, etc etc…
Phones are part of that problem in the first place. If you pay £50 to attend a show, then spend most of it on your phone, you’re pretty soon going to start thinking that you could spend a night on the phone without it costing you £50. And if your level of engagement at a show has got to the level that you only experience it through a phone, you may well be right. But it adds to the perception that “gigs aren’t worth it.”
I know – if you have a great experience, you want to share it. But the problem with phones is you have to anticipate the great experience rather than live it, and it’s just not the same. When I was a pit photographer at festivals, the trick was to predict what the act on stage was about to do – if the shutter was open when the moment came, you’d missed it. I wasn’t there to enjoy the moment myself, I was there to capture it for others. As a result, going to a gig to work was never, ever as much fun as going for pleasure, when I could actually enjoy the moment instead of trying to predict and record it. That’s okay if you understand that pay-off, and it’s also okay because I didn’t pay to get in. But if you pay to get in, and you’re still missing the moments, and you’re not getting the pay-off, how long before you just stop going?
There are some wonderful images out there of bands asking everyone in the crowd to light up their phones. There are moves afoot to build venues that actually harness the technology to make fans part of the show. That’s fascinating, but perhaps not completely suited to what rock music is all about. (Maybe I’m wrong.)
There’s always something to be said for the joy of hearing part of a new song from a favourite band, or even someone going on their kite on stage (it’s all about spectacle, innit). But ultimately, if the audience is more distracted and less engaged, why would they pay to be there? And why would a musician want to stand there above it?
If it all goes into the past, I’ll miss the real social power of the concert experience, where the crowd generate an excitement, the band focus it through the vocalist and he or she projects it back into the room. That’s amazing. That’s tribal. That’s so difficult to described that people like me spend entire careers trying to do it. But it’s so difficult to describe that people who don’t understand it may kill it, without even knowing. So that’s why I can see an argument for a phone ban.
Except for me.
I need my phone at shows. Principally because I work in the entertainment industry and I find inspiration in the most surprising places, never mind when I’m taking notes because I’m reviewing the show. And, yes, sometimes I’ll shoot a wee performance clip because something is happening that’s too powerful to put into words at that time, and I need a multi-sensual note to guide me later. (But let me add that, in almost every venue I go to, I’ve previously established a location from where I can observe and note without getting in anyone else’s way.) I increasingly have to explain to angry fans of some band or another that I’m not just messing about on my phone, that I’m working –– but I hate revealing that I’m a reviewer because it changes the vibe around me, the vibe I’m there to record. On more than one occasion I’ve had to be rude to a fan who started out by being rude to me, then, on discovering my mission, decides to “help” by telling me how good everything about the show is. Thanks mate. Dae wan.
And on that note… a note to those promoters who have decided to cut costs by having a reviewer attend without a plus-one guest to accompany them. The reviewer does need to remain neutral from the vibe around them, but they also need a sounding-board, just to test that they’re interpreting the experience accurately. To send a reviewer in there alone is to misunderstand the social nature of concerts – and you, as promoters, are taking us all to a very bad place if you don’t understood exactly what it is you’re promoting.
*Joke. Or what passes for one here.