Cellphones at Concerts: Ruining the Concert Experience?

Getting a UC Berkeley student to admit that they use their cell phone to record concerts is tough work. It is understandable, as we are in Berkeley -- home of many music purists who will most likely shame you for admitting to the fact. However, I did manage to coax it out of Lindsay Cook, a current junior majoring in Plant Biology. She reluctantly confessed to the fact that she does sometimes film concerts on her phone, but she wants to stress that she didn’t film the entire time. Rather, just a few moments that she wanted to hold onto firmly in her grasp to remind herself of the night she saw one of her favorite bands, Radiohead, back in 2012. “I need this in my life,” was her rationale for taking a few videos of the band performing her favorite song or the moment when Thom Yorke showed off his hilariously awful dance moves to the crowd. Rewatching this video brings her back to the mindset of that night; for her, it’s simply a pathway to nostalgia.

People recording concerts on their cell phones has become a popular occurrence at live performances as of late. No longer is there a shared glance between the artist and spectator, as many audience members have chosen to, instead, view them from behind a lens. Is recording a concert or any type of live performance disrupting the connection between the performer and the audience? Or is it no harm no foul? While recording any type of live performance is done to keep the memory alive, it has prompted people to under appreciate the value of what makes a live event so unique and special.

During my interview with Greil Marcus, music journalist, scholar, and author of the acclaimed “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music,” he spoke about the joy of truly experiencing an event while watching a live performance. “Some people come to life on stage,” Marcus said. “On stage they don’t know what’s going to happen next…and that sense of uncertainty and unpredictability creates a kind of excitement that just can’t be replicated anywhere else.”

That level of excitement never reaches its full threshold when holding up a phone to record the show, as it creates a wall between yourself and the performer. It generates a sort of shield that protects the audience member from connecting with the artist. “When you’re holding up your cell phone and you’re recording a video of a performance, you are yourself representing it rather than experiencing it directly,” Marcus said. “You’re putting distance between yourself--emotional, physical, technological--and the performance.”

This distance has had such an effect that many performers are now fighting back, writing personal messages to their audience so that they will refrain from taking videos. Prince, Beyonce, She & Him, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Jack White have all led the charge in restricting cellphone use during their live performances. It even led the normally private and reclusive Kate Bush to release a statement to her fans before her return to the stage in 2014 after a 35 year absence. After making a request for fans not to use their cellphones she stated, “I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads, or cameras. I know it’s a lot to ask but it would allow us all to share in the experience together.”

Don Henley, Eagles’ drummer and co-vocalist, took a much more aggressive stance on the matter. During their “History of the Eagles” tour in 2015, the band implemented a policy to reprimand anyone caught recording.  “This could be our last time around,” Henley told news.com.au. “We want people to be in the moment with us and experience the concert through their eyeballs and not a tiny square on a phone.”  

Comedians have also joined the fray, and have even paired up with a phone-locking company to battle this issue head-on. During a string of shows in Chicago late last year in 2015, comedian Dave Chappelle made a deal with San Francisco-based company Yondr, which provides smartphone-locking pouches for concert attendees. Theatre attendees place their smartphones inside the Yondr case, and upon entry of the phone-free zone the cases will lock. If anyone wants to use their cellphones, they simply step out of the phone-free zone to unlock the case. The company, founded in January 2014 by Graham Dugoni, has been used by music venues such as Oakland’s Stork Club and San Francisco’s FAME Venue. In an interview with Newsweek, Dugino explains that the idea is to “remind people why they’re at a live event and to give people a reprieve from hyper-connected lifestyle while forcing them to interact with others instead of reflexively pulling out a device.” Stated on Yondr’s website, the vision of the company entails a single purpose: “to show people how powerful a moment can be when we aren’t focused on documenting or broadcasting it.”

While it may sound extreme, the policy established by the Augusta National Golf Club during the 2015 Masters Tournament takes the cake. According to officials, any attendee taking a cell phone onto the course at Augusta National will be escorted off the premises and banned from purchasing tickets there for life.

Nick Bielak, a fourth year Classics major, performs guitar and vocals for the local Berkeley band Animal Pants. He was more open-minded about the subject, but said he had mixed feelings. He admits that there are benefits if people choose to share their videos on social media, as more people can be exposed to his band’s music, and they can help him and others remember the show.  “I know that I particularly will go through my pictures and videos,” he said. “And every time I do, it brings me back to that day.”

Despite being pleased that fans want to film his show, Bielak explains that it serves as a barrier between the performer and the audience more than anything else. “The point of a show is to let go, dance, and enjoy the moment,” he said. “I don’t see it as not paying attention, but rather [as] not completely immersing yourself in the moment.”

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Can these two conflicting sides of wanting to remember a performance while still being present in the moment be reconciled? Founders and supporters of the StereoCast app seem to think so. The app, created in October 2015, gives concert attendees the ability to download a live recording of the concert as soon as the show is over. Its technology is directly linked to the artist’s soundboard, thus providing digitally mixed and mastered recordings of the performance to be directly shared only with the people who attended the concert. If this app became available to all concerts, and not just a few, it would change the music landscape for the better as both sides would win. For fans who want to have that digital souvenir, it would now readily available to them–all while being totally immersed in the concert experience and not having to spend time filming it on their cell phones.

What makes the StereoCast app unique is that it unites the artist and their fans. No one is taking away anyone’s phone here. But at the same time it values the idea of watching a live performance through one’s own eyes. The memory inside your head is an underestimated tool that will bring an even more lively and rich experience than a shaky video filmed on a phone ever can.

When I asked Marcus if he would, given the chance, want to go back in time and film the night he saw Johnny “Rotten” Lydon’s band, Public Image Ltd, on his phone in order to relive it again, he didn’t know.  “If there was a DVD of that particular show…I’d probably buy it,” he said. “But I don’t know if I would ever watch it. I would be sort of comforted knowing that I had a record of that night.” He added that it wouldn’t hold the same significance as remembering it from his own point of view, however. “But I was at that show, and I remember it really well. It was distinctive. It was so powerful, I can’t even tell you if someone was holding up a phone. I didn’t notice… I didn’t care.”  

I’m not promoting enhanced security or a lifetime ban from a venue or sporting event to police phone usage, because, simply, there is a shared understanding of the desire to physically document a special live performance that you want to cherish for years to come. Wanting the memory to be kept alive is not an evil inclination. Well, except if you’re over six-feet tall and are blocking the view of the Stevie Nicks swaying in a gypsy-like dance while bellowing out “Gold Dust Woman,” because you’ve decided to film for the entire two and a half hour concert. That’s when you officially cross the line, and become the spawn of Satan in my eyes.

The idea is to put yourself in the perspective of your favorite artist, comedian, athlete, or other performer you are dying to go see in person. Imagine setting up this whole live experience in your head: endless preparation and rehearsal of songs, speeches, or jokes,  or exhaustive training sessions and practicing for the tournament you’ve been waiting to compete in for your entire life. Now, you look into the audience, anxiously waiting for them to be in this moment with you. But instead of locking eyes with the people who are there to support you and see you perform, you find yourself alone on stage. You are faced not with their eyes, but instead, with the steady white glow of iPhones. Is this the kind of interaction you were hoping for?

OpinionSarah Soussi