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Bird & Bramble: No Phones

by / February 25, 2018

Jack White’s team recently released some information prior to an upcoming show which stated that audience members would not be allowed to use their phones during the show. Phones would be locked away in Yondr pouch (which the person would keep), and only unlocked at the end of the show. The idea, it was stated, is that they “…think you will enjoy looking up from your gadgets for a little while and experience music and our shared love of it in person.”

Jack White isn’t particularly ground-breaking in this idea of keeping phones and cameras out of the performances. The YEAH YEAH YEAHS, Bjork, Kate Bush, and Adele have all been vocal about wanting to keep phones in pockets where possible, but is there really a need? What, really, is the big deal about someone using their phone?

Well, many argue this on several points: Phone and camera footage tends to be fairly low quality, and can result in a less-than-polished product being sent out to the masses. By keeping videos restricted, artists can control the media that is put out to the public. Another often-stated reason is the experience. Looking out into a sea of phones is seen by many to be at the very least, off-putting, and sometimes even completely ignorant. Are people even listening, or enjoying the performance if they’re busy freeing up storage for a 2-minute video filmed from the back of the room with a shaky hand and poor audio? For a well-known act, a little slip-up on stage can suddenly become viral, and can be potentially damaging to their career, so is this a way of protecting their carefully crafted social media presence? It’s irritating as an audience member (and I’m only 5’2, so visibility is a real issue), to try and watch a performance through a sea of phones/cameras. It affects then not just the performer, but also the rest of the audience. Most of my friends would think similarly in terms of this, and we tend to take one or two photos, maybe a video, but not much – we’re there to enjoy the gig, not record it.

There’s a flip-side to this though. As a music fan, paying to see an act, do they even have the right to tell me what I can and can’t do with my own property during a show? If I had bought a ticket for a big show, I would be pretty fuming if I was asked to lock away my own property. In the case of Jack White’s rule on no phones, there are a few red flags for me: I’m a parent, so I want to be able to be instantly contactable if I’m at a gig. The Yondr pouch system would, in reality, result in me leaving the show several times to go into the lobby, unlock the pouch, check for calls/messages, re-lock the pouch and back in, and spend the rest of time worrying if someone is trying to get in touch. Surely that is more disruptive than me taking a few photos or short videos of a show. If there’s an emergency at a show, mobile phones can give vital location markers, and help people keep in contact. I can’t even begin to imagine being caught up in an emergency in an arena, and trying to find someone to unlock a pouch to access my phone. NOPE. Nope nope nope. That’s a game-changer for me, and I would probably end up selling my ticket and not going at all.

Grassroots performers often rely on videos and photos captured by the audience to build their social media presence, and for some international artists that was their gateway to the ‘big time’, so is it just plain cheeky to then ask people to keep their phones away when they’re playing?

Or is it more about how the artist is asking? Seeing signs asking people politely to put their phones away, and enjoy the experience, and certainly asking for phones to be put on silent isn’t such a big deal. It respects people’s right to use their phone as they want, and there are few who could argue with a polite request to be respectful and accommodating of the artist on stage. It’s a matter of respect going both ways.

There’s a social dichotomy here then. On one hand, we rely on phones and social media to be searchable, accessible and contactable, but – oh, how we love to hate social media and our reliance on phones. I have heard people say that mobiles should be banned at gigs, as they only detract from the experience and annoy everyone around them. When musicians play live, it’s as much about connecting with an audience as it is about being a mechanical jukebox on a stage. I can only imagine how disconnecting it is to look out onto a sea of little lights and screens, and struggle to make eye contact with the human beings in the room.

On the other hand, as an audience member, it’s really lovely to have some photos and videos of a performance to keep as a memento/share with others. Maybe it’s a matter of balance…. if every member of the audience used their phone to take one or two snaps, and perhaps a video of a special moment, and not put a screen up for the entire performance…it would become a non-issue. Likewise, if artists are respectful of their paying audience’s right to whatever they like with their own property, perhaps the ill-feeling would be lessened.

Balance and respect then? – not a bad life tenet altogether.

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