We’ve all been there. You’re out at a show you’ve been waiting weeks to see. You plunked down more than you would’ve liked for tickets, but c’mon, when’s the next chance you’re going to get to see this band live? They haven’t toured in years! The lights in the vast hall go down, and your favorite performer ambles onto the stage out of the darkness, only you can’t see them. At that exact moment, a sea of LED screens shoots up out of the crowd all around you in a desperate attempt to snap a low-res picture, or worse, film a shaky video. You try to sneak a glance through the forest of upraised arms to little avail. As the first notes of the opening song blast out of the speakers, you resign yourself to observing this hugely anticipated moment through the small screen of someone’s iPhone X. It sucks, but maybe they’ll put their hand down in a minute…maybe?
Then again, maybe you’re not the aggrieved Luddite straining their neck to catch the action, arms fervently crossed across your chest in indignant anger. Maybe you’ve been waiting your entire life to catch this artist live? All your friends and family know how much they mean to and have filled your inbox and DMs all day with encouraging texts and happy face emojis. The moment you see them in the flesh, mere feet away from you is overwhelming. All you can think to do is capture the moment and share it with everyone you know. Sure, it’s a little insensitive to those around you, but who cares? It’ll only take a second. They can chill.
Perhaps you’re not in the crowd at all? Maybe it’s you onstage. Your latest record just dropped and you’re beyond stoked to finally play these new songs live after months and months hunkered down in a windowless recording studio. The time comes and you give the stage manager the signal that you’re ready to begin the show. When you walk out you’re blasted with spine-tingling roar of a thousand voices, but you can’t see a single face. All in front of you is a galaxy of tiny bits of light. It looks cool, but where are the people? Are they here for me, or are they here for their Instagram feed?
Cell phones are the scourge of the concert-going experience in the 21st century. They’re a fact of life. A necessary evil. However, this past couple of years saw some artists fighting back. In 2017, A Perfect Circle made headlines by chucking dozens of people from a show in Reading, Pennsylvania for violating their no phones policy. As someone who saw them just a few weeks after this infamous incident in Chicago, let me tell you, they are dead serious about enforcement. Signs lined the backs of every chair in the facility, and ushers combed the aisles for offenders. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the band’s frontman Maynard James Keenan was blunt about his motivations. “They’re not being ejected from our shows for taking photos,” he explained. “They’re being ejected because they’re recording things and they’re annoying the f*ck out of their neighbors.” Needless to say, my phone stayed in my pocket the entire evening.
Kendrick Lamar seemed to make a move toward no phones during his current run of shows through Europe, but a representative later clarified that the policy against photography extended to professionals only, which, is kind of weird, but okay. In fact, most rap acts have been quite welcoming of cell phones into their concerts. Kanye West’s most recent Saint Pablo run, which featured a floating stage and a massive mosh-pit of people swarmed together just beneath him, seemed tailor-made for the second life on social media experience. Similarly, Drake and Jay-Z both put together a showcase heavy on eye-popping ‘gram-able visuals.
Gen X curmudgeon Jack White has decided to go a different route entirely for his upcoming tour, forcing fans to deposit their phones in locked bags throughout the duration of the show. “We think you’ll enjoy looking up from your gadgets for a little while and experience music and our shared love of it IN PERSON,” a note posted to White’s Ticketmaster landing page posited. White has long looked to eliminate phones from his shows, telling Conan O’Brien in 2014, “Nobody is in the moment, everyone was documenting the moment,” he said. “It’s better to be in the moment.”
I personally have mixed feelings regarding White’s policy. On the one hand, I agree with him that a concert would make for an all-around better experience if the entire crowd was engaged and focused on what was happening onstage. As much as a concert is a spectacle, it’s also an exchange of energy. A performer can only give back as much as the crowd is willing to give them. The best shows I’ve ever attended are the ones where the audience participates to the fullest of their abilities and hangs with the person onstage, surrendering themselves to the moment as White described, rather than becoming amateur, lo-fi documentarians.
On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of being forced to lock away my phone before entering a venue like I’m a high school freshman walking into homeroom. You can ask me not to use my phone and I probably won’t. Hell, you can even enforce the policy as harshly as A Perfect Circle did and I’ll grumble about the draconian measures, but acquiesce in the end. I draw the line however at having my personal items locked away. It’s fine to have expectations of your audience, but you run a real risk of alienating a large section of your fan base when you treat them like a mass of scolded children.
Years and years ago, during the 1970s, White’s blues-rock forebearers Led Zeppelin enacted a similar, hardline anti-bootlegging policy. The only difference was that instead of locking a cell phone into a pouch, if the group’s 300-pound, ex-professional wrestling mountain of a manager Peter Grant caught you among the crowd with recording equipment, he’d make you pay in broken gear and a bit of blood. Of course, more than a few folks braved this threat of bodily injury, and thankfully some of the band’s most explosive moments have been captured for posterity by unsung legends like Mike “The Mic” Millard in Los Angeles and “Mr. Peach” in Japan. While it might be a nuisance to some — performers included — there is an important historical record being cultivated and cataloged by those intrepid few willing to work outside the bounds of printed policy.
If the point of banning cell phones from concerts is, as Maynard so eloquently put it, to stop people from “annoying the f*ck out of their neighbors,” it’s a futile gesture. People will always find a way of annoying those in their general vicinity in a confined space no matter what rules you put in place. If the goal is to enhance the concert experience, I’m not sure that works out so well in our “picture or didn’t happen,” world either. I personally think artists would be better off worrying less about what the audience is doing and focusing more on what they can do onstage to keep them engaged. Swimming against the tide of culture and technology is not a great look.
For me at least, upraised phones have been a part of pretty much all of my concert experiences going back to my first show in 2005, when I had to peer around my neighbor’s sliver-thin RAZR. The best advice I can give is to take a cue from those around you, and in general, try not to be a jerk. With history as our guide, no matter what artists do, people will continue to bring them into gigs and snap photos and selfies and shoot 7-second snap streams until some other technology comes along to replace it. I’m sure Jack White will want to lock that in a bag as well.