MUSIC

How Musicians Deal With Smartphone-Obsessed Crowds During Shows

The phone backlash at shows is increasing, but some artists are embracing it

Mar 25, 2016 at 9:19 AM ET

In 2005, Bono asked fans to take out their cellphones at a U2 concert and hold them up high. “Make this place a Christmas tree,” he instructed, likening phones to a “modern cigarette lighter…but far more powerful.” But just over a decade later, phones have changed and so have artists, with many viewing the ever-intrusive devices as a nuisance that detracts from the purity of the concert-going experience.

Take a recent Ellie Goulding show in Manchester. According to a fan who attended the show, after a lengthy performance, Goulding “asked everyone to put their phones away,” user Ollie Crook wrote on Reddit. “No phones for the last song. Just faces, hands and happiness. And if we stuck to the rule we may get an extra song.”

But the request was roundly ignored. “Three seconds into the song the arena lit up like a night sky with phone torches on recording,” he continued. “After the song she commented again. She’d like no phones and people just ignored her… people watched and recorded a three-hour show but couldn’t stop for three minutes.”

But before Goulding asked fans to put the phones away, her drummer snapped a picture from the drum set, which Goulding posted on Instagram.

Beautiful really

A photo posted by elliegoulding (@elliegoulding) on

“Beautiful really” she commented alongside the photo.

The comment implies Goulding at least still found beauty in the moment, and there was no evidence she reacted negatively to their refusal to put them away. (Goulding wasn’t available for comment.) But Goulding is just one of many artists who’ve moved toward asking or demanding, nicely or otherwise, that fans focus on the experience of the live show rather than view it entirely through a tiny rectangle. In the last handful of years, as smartphones have become more ubiquitous than ever (with some 68 percent of Americans owning one), artists have increasingly protested phone use during concerts, all citing the impediment they create to being in the moment, and all with varying degrees of irritation, and rarely with total success.

Over and over, artists cite the disconnect phones create. “It seems stupid to have something happening in front of you and look at it on a screen that’s smaller than the size of a cigarette packet,” the Guardian quoted Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker as saying. “If anything, it undermines the experience because it seemed like a really good moment, and now I can see it were crap. It’s like wedding videos.”

In April of 2013, art-rock trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made headlines when they posted a flyer at a Webster Hall show that asked fans, “Please do not watch the show through a screen on your smart device/camera. Put that shit away as a courtesy to the person behind you and to Nick, Karen and Brian.”

According to Spin, Karen O reiterated the message when, after the second song, she told fans to snap away for the next couple of minutes, then “put those motherfuckers away.” The crowd mostly complied.

Around the same time, post-punk band Savages asked fans not to whip out the camera phones at a Seattle show.

 

Other artists demand no phone use, and include threat of removal if the request isn’t heeded. That was the case on a recent Prince tour, when ticket buyers were reportedly warned by venues in Australia and New Zealand in advance via email that “The use of mobile phones will not be permitted during the show,” according to the Mercury News. “Any person using a mobile phone or camera/video device will be identified by security and asked to leave the venue immediately.”

The Eagles banned cellphones during a 2014 tour, employing security guards to shine flashlights at offenders, issue warnings, and then throw them out. Don Henley recently applauded Mumford & Sons decision to follow suit, saying “the madness, the rudeness, the thoughtlessness… must stop. Constantly looking at the world through a viewfinder is not seeing. Listening to live music while recording on a ‘smartphone’ (or texting every 5 seconds) is not hearing. Experiencing life second-hand is not living. Be here now.”

Some artists simply deal with the nuisance on a case-by-case basis. Neil Young angrily doused two women with water in 2012 because they wouldn’t quit texting during a show even after he gave them the stink eye. In April of 2014, Peter Frampton reportedly scolded two fans in Carmel, Indiana, who arrived late to front-row seats, having missed or ignoring the warning prior to the concert beginning that flash photography wasn’t allowed. They took loads of pictures; Frampton asked them to stop. When they didn’t, he asked them to let him see the pictures, and when the fan handed Frampton his phone, he flung it across stage.

But the phones don’t seem to be going anywhere, and attendees seem to have mixed feelings about the requests. Numerous think pieces on the issue have tried to size up the real threat versus the inevitability of smartphones given the social-media driven need to document every moment, if not for posterity, then proof of an enviable life. Most of them fall somewhere between the pointlessness of taking crap video you’ll never look at, versus the argument that, after all, you’ve paid for this show—why don’t you have the right to film or photograph it, assuming you’re even moderately tasteful about it?

In a Pitchfork op-ed called “It’s Time to Put the Cameras Away,” the indie rock standard-bearer took a predictable position: All the photos and videos have led to oversaturation. There are now 69,000 crowd shots of any given show online, with the relentless recording of every moment obstructing views and “diluting not only their own but other people’s cultural intimacy.”

These arguments may be objectively true—the fan isn’t taking in the atmosphere and largeness of the moment, or the nuance of the performance. The artist can’t see the faces of the fans, just screens. But if it benefits anyone, oddly, it’s everyone who wasn’t at the show. Those 69,000 crowd shots democratize the pop music experience, so that now nearly every moment is now documented—something that would make fans of music before cellphones jealous if they thought about it for a few minutes.

And yet, some high-profile artists see the phones as inevitable; a good thing, even. Brad Paisley encourages fan cellphones at his shows, going into the audience to sing into them, or take selfies that show up on big screens, telling Rolling Stone, “I want to see it. Get a good one. Get good audio if you can. Your videos [are] a memory, something you can have, and what an amazing experience. Yeah, you see people looking at the concert through their phone. But that’s what they want to do. And what YouTube video of a concert ever made you not go?”

Taylor Swift said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in 2014 that the use of cellphones, and therefore the widely available recordings of her shows, setlists and secret guests every night, was actually the impetus for changing things up every night. “In the YouTube generation we live in, I walked out onstage every night of my stadium tour last year knowing almost every fan had already seen the show online,” she wrote.

“To continue to show them something they had never seen before, I brought out dozens of special guest performers to sing their hits with me. My generation was raised being able to flip channels if we got bored, and we read the last page of the book when we got impatient. We want to be caught off guard, delighted, left in awe. I hope the next generation’s artists will continue to think of inventive ways of keeping their audiences on their toes, as challenging as that might be.”

While fans risk the wrath of their fellow music lovers and favorite artists, expecting phones to disappear from shows is a bit like trying to stuff a genie back in a bottle. This is how we live now—and the phones have become part of the experience, too.

At a recent Albert Hammond performance at Teragram Ballroom in Los Angeles, a fan jumped onstage and tried to snap a selfie with the Strokes guitarist. Hammond wasn’t happy about it, and grabbed the phone and threw it into the crowd. Fans cheered, but the intruder himself reportedly laughed, too. Welcome to 2016.