The ubiquity of cell phones at live music performances is an ongoing conversation in my world. My colleague Omar Gallaga tackled the topic last fall in a Digital Savant column titled "Bad cell phone etiquette at concerts is here to stay." I’ve heard loads of grumbling about the practice in my social media circles, and many people whose opinions I respect abhor the way many music fans these days essentially watch live music through their phones, or even worse, their tablets. I’ve heard plenty of banter about venues considering a (logistically impossible) ban on cell phones that reflects the Alamo Drafthouse’s famous policy.
My opinion is very nuanced and I tend to err on the side of tolerance. For smaller bands and emerging artists, those cell phone snaps and Instagram videos are a great free way to build buzz. As a professional music writer I use fan shot amateur videos to research bands I’ve never seen live all the time. Yes those videos are frequently poor quality, but there’s a lot you can learn from watching them.
Also, I’m the biggest culprit I know. I regularly take videos of full songs or long clips of artists and post them, with the artists’ permission, to this site. Some people say that’s different. It’s my job to share my feelings about music. That’s true, but long before chronicler of music was my full time job it’s something I did as a labor of love. I ran a small blog with an audience of a handful of folks who knew me. Who am I to say that my opinion is more valid than that of the small blogger you happen to read? Or your best friend, who’s way more likely to turn you on to a new band you’ll love for the rest of your life than I am? The internet has become the great leveler and that can be an incredible thing for artists who figure out how to harness its power.
Even with massive artists who play in large arenas and don’t necessarily need the exposure, it doesn’t really bother me the way it does some folks. Sure, there’s an element of narcissism to concert selfies, and yes, you’re bragging to your friends that you were at that Beyoncé show no one else got tickets too, but beyond that I think people are trying to capture a moment. Sometimes music reaches deep into you and affects you in ways that are almost unfathomably awesome. Like lightning in a bottle you want to freeze time, create a visceral snapshot of exactly how you felt at that moment, then turn around and share it with the world, shout it out to everyone you know. I felt like that after hearing Gary Clark Jr.’s mind blowing solo on "When My Train Pulls In" at the Scoot Inn last October. And I was filming the whole thing. You can watch it here. It’s a very deep way for artists to interface with bands and it can be a beautiful thing.
But then we come to Jack White. Last night at White’s Austin Music Hall show there was a strict ban on cell phones. Security informed all patrons entering the building that cell phones were forbidden and anyone spotted brandishing a phone during the show would be immediately escorted out. Before White took the stage an announcement was made. White explained he wanted everyone to be in the moment with him and not watching the show with one foot in the building and the other in the future. It’s a totally valid position and it makes perfect sense coming from a retro-revivalist like White. He’d rather you buy his records on vinyl than MP3. He doesn’t want you to record his shows. He wants you to freeze that moment in your heart, and hey, if you use that free hand to squeeze someone your love that’s cool too. To go one better, his team offers free photos from each concert on his web site the day after the show. He welcomes fans to grab the pics and share them freely.
As an artist that’s his prerogative and as his fans it’s our job to respect it. With that contract between artist and audience clearly spelled out, I felt infuriated like never before when I saw people sneaking out their phones. I can’t understand how there’s any joy in posting a video that has nothing to do with interfacing with the artist, but instead is a complete violation of everything he believes. This artist you claim to love has told you in no uncertain terms he hates this behavior and by extension he will hate you for engaging in it. Why is that ok? How does it make you feel cool? At that point your crappy shaky cam video of "Seven Nation Army" is about narcissism. It’s about nothing but you, and it doesn’t prove you’re some kind of a rebel superfan, it just proves you’re a jerk.