In the movie “Almost Famous,” writer William Miller finds himself scribbling down notes at a Stillwater and Black Sabbath concert until Penny Lane takes his pencil away and shakes her head. She does this to bring his attention back to the music and the experience of the concert.
This scene portrays what concertgoers everywhere now struggle with, whether they are journalists or not. Should cellphones be allowed at concerts? Are we really present at an event if we watch it through a screen? If we’re preoccupied with documenting a performance, does it take anything away from our experience?
We’ve all been there. We’ve all paid stupid amounts of money to watch performers we adore and wanted a recording to remember the show later. But how often do you actually re-watch those videos? I rarely have. The quality is poor and it never seems to do the performance any justice. I’ve often felt remorse over the amount of time I’ve spent trying to capture photo and video of concerts I’ve attended because it is always more work than it’s worth. And hey, there’s always a press photographer with a better camera and better access than I have, and their photos always find their way onto the Web.
Then there’s the issue of respect for others, which is something we could all stand to consider a little more. Those of us who happen to be a little shorter in height have a hard enough time trying to see the stage without having our views obstructed by a thousand tiny screens recording the whole concert. Spoiler alert: nobody follows you on social media to see videos of the concert you attended, because if they cared they probably went to the show themselves.
I’m sure going to a concert and seeing people holding up their phones everywhere you look, particularly in front of you is annoying to all of us, including the performer. That’s probably why Jack White, Prince, She & Him, Björk, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, M. Ward, Savages and even The Black Crowes (who are apparently still a band), have asked their audiences to stop taking cell phone pictures during performances. On his last tour, Prince took this a step further by refusing to allow phones in the venue at all.
You might expect some outraged fans after these artists made this in some cases not-so-polite request, but that’s not what happened. When SPIN Magazine tweeted a photo of the no-phone-photos signage outside a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show, what followed was a string of support from fans and other musicians.
There has been no large demand for the peoples right to record a concert. Even though NPR’s Bob Boilen wrote on the All Songs Considered blog that he wanted the ability to record, snap photos, text and tweet at a concert, the readers feel differently. A poll posted on the site asks whether cell phones should be allowed at concerts, and 61 percent of responders said, “No. They’re obnoxious, just watch the show!” While 21 percent said, “They don’t bother me,” and only 19 percent said, “Yes, I want to text my friends and take photos.”
If most concertgoers have experienced a slight annoyance with the cellphone use of the people next to them, then why do we continue to do it? Is it out of desire to be the next great music journalist? Are we trying to obtain a souvenir more telling than a ticket stub or a t-shirt? Do we want to show our Facebook friends how good of a spot we fought through the crowd for? Or are we just being drunk and silly?
A friend of mine recently described the action of posting to Instagram as “the humble brag.” I’m certainly guilty as charged, so the last concert I went to I told myself I was allowed to post only one photo. I snapped a few and then put my phone away to look at later between sets. It was amazing. I drank beers, chatted with strangers and danced with my friend. I was fully present at that show instead of acting obsessed with my phone and I really enjoyed it. Not like that time I saw Gwar at the House of Blues and just kept getting so many crazy pictures that my phone never left my hands. That, by the way, was a wasted experience because you can’t even begin to make sense of a photo of Gwar without ever having seen them in person. How I managed to get my shoes covered in fake blood that night, and not my iPhone, I will never understand.
Would the opportunity to take a few quick photos on your cellphone be better than an all-out ban? I think so, but for this to work we have got to all act like courteous and respectful people. We also have to make those few shots look good if they’re all we going to take. There’s no reason to spend all night trying to get a good shot if you can get one right off the bat and give yourself the rest of the show to enjoy the experience.