Is It Time To Ban Phones From Concerts?

With pending technology that would disable smartphone usage at concerts, what side of the fence do you sit on?
  • Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images
  • Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
    Adele
  • Photo: Lester Cohen/WireImage.com
    Jack White
  • Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
    Alicia Keys
  • Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
    Paul Dean
  • Photo: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
    Caveman's Matthew Iwanusa
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August 25, 2016 -- 6:00 am PDT
By Roy Trakin / GRAMMY.com

As Adele ascends to the stage in the middle of Staples Center in Los Angeles for the first of her eight sold-out summer shows, she has them at "Hello." And by "them," I mean the hundreds of mobile devices being held aloft to capture her grand entrance, fit for a queen in her glittering black gown.

"I'll probably never watch it again," admitted a young fan pointing and shooting next to me, "but I will post it on Instagram and Snapchat just to say, 'I was there.'"

Another smartphone-yielding fan, who was taking selfies before the concert, casually insists she'd rather experience the show live than watch it on her screen. But by concert's end, she still raises her device aloft to capture the climactic, show-stopping "Rolling In The Deep."

Though Adele made headlines for admonishing a fan for filming at an earlier stop on her current tour, by the time she reached Los Angeles she was shamelessly mugging for those in the front row, jokingly pleading with her trademarked cackle, "I know you're taking a picture, but I'm talking to you in real life."

Yes, performance video has come a long way since Elvis Presley was filmed from the waist up, teenage girls screamed for the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and MTV put a man on the moon.

These days, thanks to mobile devices boasting high-quality video and still cameras, every concert offers a chance for fans to digitally capture their favorite stars and share the footage instantly on social media. Artists performing seem helpless in the wake of a sea of upraised phones, which, depending on the observer, are either a profound nuisance to the concert-going experience or an inevitable outcome of our oversharing age.

Like everything else in our virtual universe, holding up an iPhone or Android at a concert is a way of putting an artificial distance between the observer and the observed, an intermediation that seemingly goes against the very spirit of the longed-for spontaneity of the rock and roll, EDM, pop, or hip-hop experience.

"It's here to stay," says William Morris Endeavor executive Marc Geiger, regarding devices being used by fans at concerts. "It's a very necessary annoyance, but also serves as both marketing and promotion. Everyone wants to share the content on social media to show that they were there. It's a bit like the new T-shirt."

Indeed, several companies have materialized to edit fan-filmed footage into a visual wiki. The Beastie Boys were among the first to turn crowdsourced video into product with their 2006 concert film, Awesome; I F***in' Shot That, in which they handed out camcorders to 50 audience members at a sold-out Madison Square Garden show and combined the footage into a documentary, which showed at the Sundance Film Festival and South by Southwest before being released on DVD.

Outlisten emerged in 2012, asking users to upload footage from the show to a central location, where they could sync it to a high-quality audio track recorded directly from the soundboard, enabling the band, rather than the record label, to own — and sell — the results. The company is apparently now inactive, but other similar applications such as CrowdSync, FanFootage and Vidrack have since popped up to fill the void.

On the other side of the coin, Silicon Valley-based Yondr creates "phone-free" zones at concerts and other entertainment events. In these spaces, phones are sealed in a lockable pouch that stays with the user inside the phone-free zone. The phone unlocks once you leave the zone, so it is in reach in case of an emergency. Alicia Keys is one artist who has tapped Yondr in a bid to keep her concerts distraction-free.

Even for a grizzled rock and roll veteran like Loverboy guitarist Paul Dean, creating the "distraction" of taking smartphone video at a concert is hard to resist.

"There's no way to stop it," says Dean. "Imagine a free show on the beach, with 300,000 fans and their iPhones. Second, I do it all the time. I may even watch it once or twice after. Though usually, I go, 'What was I thinking? This sounds terrible.'"

In fact, the best use of mobile devices at Adele's Aug. 5 show didn't involve recording at all, but occurred when she asked everyone to hold up their phone, forming a glittering backdrop to her rendition of Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love."

Meanwhile, just as fans consider it their constitutional right to shoot artists in concert, Apple is reportedly working on a patent to block the use of iPhones at concerts. The technology involves an infrared signal being sent from the stage, which would effectively disable devices from being able to film. If implemented, such technology would radically alter the modern concert-going experience and dry the well of fan-filmed video and photos on social media.

Artist manager Ian Montone opposes the attempt to combat the practice: "I don't like any technology that restricts freedom of choice, even if it's behavior I find largely obnoxious."

While Montone notes his client Jack White "politely" asks his audience to refrain from recording him in concert, and though he himself finds the practice "annoying and distracting to others," he does see the preservation side of the argument.

"Every show now seems to be well-documented and living on YouTube, which is interesting from a historical perspective," he says.

Other artists have their own deterrents in place. Prince, who was a noted internet disrupter, placed a notice of "Purple Rules" before a surprise show at New York's City Winery in August 2013, informing the audience that photography, videos and phones would be prohibited. Prince's security physically removed phones from fans trying to record, ushering them out of the theater if they didn't comply.

She & Him's Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward have posted a sign outside venues where they perform, announcing, "At the request of Matt and Zooey, we ask that people not use their cell phones to take pictures and video, but instead enjoy the show they have put together in 3-D." The duo even went so far as to have security guards shine flashlights in the eyes of concertgoers who didn't comply.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have posted their own plea at venues: "Please do not watch the show through a screen on your smart device/camera. Put that s*** away as a courtesy to the person behind you and to Nick [Zinner], Karen [O] and Brian [Chase]."

London-based punk rockers the Savages have implored fans to "silence your phones," insisting, "our goal is to discover better ways of living and experiencing music. We believe that the use of phones to film and take pictures during a gig prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves. Let's make this evening special."

The now-defunct Black Crowes, largely celebrated as a people's band, refused to allow cameras into their shows, though, like the Grateful Dead or Phish, still actively encouraged people to record audio.

Even the affable Flight Of The Conchords, during their July 27 comeback gig at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, gently admonished their fans: "We say the same thing to you as we do to our sexual partners. Please stop filming." Though that message still didn't prevent their classic reunion with manager Murray and super fan Mel from appearing on an Instagram feed.

And that's one of the problems with the potential banning of smartphones in concert: the chance a historical moment will pass us by, and won't be captured for posterity.

Not all performers are opposed to being filmed by their audience, however. Matthew Iwanusa, frontman for Brooklyn-based indie-rock band Caveman, says, "I'm not totally against it, to be honest. If you're playing on a lower stage and someone in the front row is shoving a phone in your face, I guess that could be annoying, but … I think fans being able to post live pictures and videos helps the bands out a lot."

Iwanusa even admits to occasionally filming other bands performing. "It's nice to have good memories of good shows. Or good memories of bad shows."

(Roy Trakin is currently a senior news editor at All Access, a past contributor to a number of legendary rock magazines [remember those?] and a die-hard Cantonese Chinese food fanatic [love crispy noodles, duck sauce and hot mustard].)

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