Why Filming Concerts With Your Phone Is Actually Good

It’s 1966. Jerry Garcia is tripping on acid while walking through Los Angeles at dawn. He and his band, The Grateful Dead, have just driven to a local neighborhood to stare at the Watts Towers art installation. An iconic work of outsider art, the cement-and-steel towers were built out of found objects over the course of 30 years by an Italian immigrant construction worker named Sabato “Simon” Rodia. It’s precisely the sort of thing you want to look at if you’re high as hell at sunrise.

Jerry peers at the towers. As his mind expands beyond the limits of his skull and toward the farthest reaches of the universe, he decides that his future as a musician will be the opposite of what these towers represent. He will not devote the next 30 years of his life to building a monument that will come to dominate the landscape. He will instead live in the moment, and for the moment, without any thought of what he leaves behind. Instead of creating a legacy that will survive his own death, he will have fun now.

When I first heard this story in Amir Bar-Lev’s 2017 documentary Long Strange Trip, I was confused. Yes, I understood how Jerry’s point translated to the Dead’s philosophy of live improvisation and favoring the concert experience over the relatively stale ordeal of making albums. But … aren’t The Dead basically the musical equivalent of the Watts Towers? That’s where I assumed the story was going! It seemed more logical: As a group who allowed — even encouraged — fans to tape their shows, they are likely the most closely documented rock band ever. Maybe Jerry left the music behind each night as soon as he left the stage. But the rest of us are able to hear practically every note he ever publicly performed. And this, many would agree, has been an incredible boon for music lovers.

I bring this up in order to address what’s become a hot-button issue in the live music world. A scourge that has compelled some of our most famous musicians to speak out. No, I’m not talking about the run-of-the-mill annoyances that seem frustratingly unsolvable: The guy behind you who won’t stop talking over the music no matter how many times you flash him a dirty look, the idiot who starts whistling non-stop when the person on stage attempts to tell a funny story between songs, the beefy dude who won’t budge when you attempt to recover your spot on the floor after hitting the bathroom.

I refer instead to the epidemic of phones. Some artists apparently find them anathema to the concert experience. Last month, Mitski took to Twitter to complain about fans using their phones to film her performances. In Jerry-like fashion, she declared that phones can get in the way of living in the moment. “When I’m on stage and look to you but you are gazing into a screen,” she wrote, “it makes me feel as though those of us on stage are being taken from and consumed as content, instead of getting to share a moment with you.”

Jack White — possibly the most anti-phone musician on the planet — has gone as far as to confiscate phones from fans before they’re permitted into his concerts. And he’s defended this, again, using “Jerry at the Watts Towers” logic. “I want people to live in the moment, and it’s funny that the easiest way to rebel is to tell people to turn off their phone,” he said in 2018. “If your phone is that important to you that you can’t live without it for two hours then I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to see a therapist.”

As was the case when I watched Long Strange Trip, I can certainly understand where the anti-phone people are coming from. The prevalence of phones in every facet of our lives can seem oppressive and even anti-human. We are all stuck living a highly mediated existence in which we are cut off by technology from the primal immediacy of the natural world. If you have the courage to stand on stage in front of thousands of people in order to expose your very soul via your art, I’m sure it can be disconcerting to look out and see rows and rows of gadgets made in sweatshops staring back at you.

Personally, I try not to use my phone at concerts. Occasionally, if I have downed one too many beers, I will tweet an over-enthusiastic assessment of how my face is being rocked off my head and in the process use too many exclamation points. (I apologize for this.) But I’m not one who is generally into shooting videos or taking pictures. For the most part, I guess, I subscribe to the idea that concerts are great because they are fleeting, and you have to hold on to them with your own personal memories.

But here’s the thing: I’m happy not everyone is like me. In other words, I think the Watts Towers are cool and I’m glad they exist, even though I would never spend three decades building art out of garbage. Similarly, I’m grateful that I can go on YouTube and see literally millions of shaky, grainy, and sometimes shitty videos of wonderful performances I wouldn’t get to see or hear otherwise.

Just last week, someone posted a video of My Morning Jacket performing the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” with Phish’s Trey Anastasio in Mexico. It appears that the person who filmed it was standing about 100 feet from the stage, so it’s not a great angle. You don’t ever get a close up of the musicians. The sound quality is decent but I wouldn’t want to hear it on a Dolby system. Nevertheless — as a person who enjoys MMJ, the Rolling Stones, and Trey Anastasio — I was delighted by the video. Was it Jonathan Demme directing Stop Making Sense? No. But it brightened my day.

I have had countless other experiences with fan-shot videos over the years, both as a fan and as a music critic. When I wrote recently about The War On Drugs’ current tour, I was enriched greatly by the scores of videos that concert attendees have posted, including several complete shows. When I was unable to attend a local Turnstile gig, the raucous clips circulating on social media provided a methadone fix (while also exacerbating my FOMO). When weighing the pros and cons of purchasing a concert ticket, I have often consulted YouTube to determine whether the money is worth it.

And then there’s the documentary aspect of these clips. The era of phones capable of shooting decent-ish video is still relatively young. We can’t fully appreciate yet how these amateur-made mini-movies will affect how music history is written. But it seems clear that the ability for anyone to collect sounds and images in the live-concert wild will inform how the music of today is remembered many years from now. These videos won’t have to be filtered through the perspectives of filmmakers or journalists with their retrospective biases. It will be raw data available for anyone to appreciate in the future. All because the person next to you took out his stupid phone last night and filmed the set’s hottest banger.

There’s an assumption, I think, on the part of anti-phone artists that people who shoot video of a concert are more enamored with their phone doing something cool than with the music. And maybe that’s true for some or even most people. But there are also those who wind up sharing those videos with the rest of us, and I would argue that they are providing a service that benefits fans and, yes, artists. (That is, unless you suck at performing live. Then posting video evidence might in fact be a hindrance.)

Circling back to the “Jerry at Watts Towers” story: For an artist, there’s obvious merit in approaching a concert as a once-in-a-lifetime proposition, because it gives every performance the urgent edge it needs. But for us listeners, having the ability to revisit great performances of the past also has obvious merit. Imagine if phones had existed during all of the legendary concerts of the past that technology wasn’t around to document — the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the first performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, any barroom gig by Robert Johnson. Even Jack White would probably be probably psyched to see that last one.

For all of the irritating aspects of ubiquitous phone use, documenting live music performances for the sake of posterity strikes me as a rare positive attribute. That doesn’t mean I won’t get mad if your phone blocks my view. But as long as the phone people aren’t impeding on the experience of their fellow audience members, I see little harm and lots of good that come from their efforts. Living in the moment is essential. But making the moment last for others has value, too.