Cell Phones at Concerts: To Ban or Not to Ban?
We recently reported about Jack White being the latest artist to employ a “no cell phones” policy for his shows. It’s a growing trend of late with artists taking greater control of how their performances are presented to audiences, with White promising a “100% human experience” for those in attendance. Two of our writers -- both of whom, of course, are veteran concert goers -- share their thoughts on cell phones at shows.
Is the live concert experience better or worse because of fans' use of cell phones?
Chad Childers: Having been to Stone Temple Pilots' show last fall where they introduced Jeff Gutt, I have to say it was a refreshing experience to be at a show without my view being obscured in the slightest by a cell phone or even feeling the urge myself to pull out a phone to take a shot.
I’m old enough to remember what it was like seeing shows prior to the advent of cell phones and the energy and excitement of seeing the band in their element. The cell phone shooting seemed to pop up overnight and kind of like file sharing, it was something that the industry wasn’t totally prepared for. At first there was a fascination by those with cell phones to video anything and everything, and to some extent, that still happens. People are so engrossed with capturing the live experience they forget to engage in the live experience.
I myself have been guilty of pulling out the phone at shows, but I assume like many, my usage of what I actually filmed/shot is fairly limited after the show. A social media post that goes up and that’s it. It’s not as if I’m repeatedly revisiting the footage on my phone and reflecting on it. There is that bit of regret feeling that it would have been much better to actually enjoy that moment than to try to recapture what it was by checking it out again on a small phone screen with lesser audio quality.
Joe DiVita: What a lot of this comes down to is weighing the experience of the collective against the experience of the individual. There's no argument that an unobstructed view is favorable, so I'll side with you there — it's like being behind a tall person in a movie theater, but now they're holding their arms up.
But as someone who has taken their phone out up front at a show, I've lost the right to complain. Today, it's about being connected and sharing your experience with others. Engagement is everything. I try to be selective about the moments I capture and I'll use my experience of seeing Iron Maiden at the conclusion of their tour supporting The Book of Souls as an example.
It was my tenth Maiden show I finally landed general admission tickets and was just a few heads back from the stage and the energy was a wildly different experience. During the end of "Children of the Damned," Bruce Dickinson extended the mic to the crowd for the "whoa-oh-oh-oh-ooooh" chant and I still look back on that video pretty regularly (I'm a complete Maiden dork) as it perfectly captured the passion of their fanbase. When I shared the video on Instagram, it was my "you should've been there too" moment.
Besides, at a two hour show my phone was out of my pocket for maybe a total of five minutes at most, so I wholeheartedly engaged in the live, in the moment experience.
How do cell phones at concerts impact the bands?
CC: Now, some artists have spoken out against the experience and the biggest reaction from artists has been holding back new material from fans for fear of letting their artistic work or things they’re still ironing out suddenly appearing on the Internet in a less than flattering form.
In many ways, it feels that the spontaneity of the live show has lost something by the introduction of cell phones into the crowd, with artists sticking to the tried and true favorites rather than testing out new music before it’s absolutely been set up in the best way possible.
Yes, there are exceptions and those who will still try out their music onstage regardless of the fear of how it’s being presented, but the norm these days is to hold back the new material for a "proper rollout." I feel like we as music fans are losing something of the magic from live shows by being buried in our phones and I admit, while it's a fascinating technology to have, the joy of taping something live gives only a fleeting satisfaction and takes away from the experience.
JD: The model for releasing albums and touring has flipped. Touring used to be aimed at driving album sales, but now music is released to give a band purpose for heading back out on the road. Touring is the most important thing today as money is generated not only from ticket sales, but merch and VIP meet and greets. If a band performs an unreleased song for the first time onstage and someone captures it on video, it goes viral in a sense... and how is this bad for the band? Now the fans are drivers of publicity and word gets out about a new song just as quickly as the traditional, calculated release of new music.
Bands were also writing with a greater frequency during those days where they would jam on new material onstage. Look through the catalogs of the '70s and '80s and there's a new album almost every year, some issuing two in the same year. It was also a byproduct of the days where sets were extended with improv jams (Deep Purple's Made in Japan anyone?). These bands came from the club days performing multiple sets as a house act a few nights a week and it's an art form that seems to have been entirely lost in the modern era.
Is it right to tell fans they can't use their phone at a concert?
JD: I spoke about this with Troy Sanders from Mastodon late last year after A Perfect Circle and the Misfits announced they would implement a ban on cell phones at their shows. He told me, "I don’t think that we’ve even entertained the audacity to try to restrict our fans who are paying hard-earned money to see us." And that's what it comes down to. If the fans are paying for it, they can experience the show however they want (within the parameters of the law and other obvious things). To be fair, he did note if the artist announces the rules before the tickets go on sale, that's their right to do so.
But does it even work? After the Misfits performed in Las Vegas, dozens and dozens of photos and videos cropped up even with the immediate risk of being booted from the venue. If that isn't enough to deter fans from taking videos, nothing will. And what if there's an emergency and you don't have access to your phone to know about it?
Bootlegging has been around long before phones were. Somehow attendees would sneak camcorders in and film the whole show — we've all seen the grainy footage on YouTube. Just like how file sharing wasn't the first form of music pirating, phones at shows just represent the shift in the technology and a different means of achieving the same end.
CC: It just depends on how far said artist wants to take it. If it's a hardcore ban, there are ways to enforce it and the Yondr pouches combined with a vigilant security staff, especially in smaller venues, can pretty much eliminate the bootlegging video, but the bigger the venue, the harder it is to enforce just by the sheer numbers attending, which is where the Misfits may have run into issues. As Jack White's notice for the Houston show suggested, there are ways to access your phone in an emergency and having been to a show with the Yondr pouches, it is a relatively quick fix if you need access.
Is it right to tell fans they can't use their phones at a show? In a world where the cell phones at shows are the norm, it's almost more of an artistic statement to do something like that. It's providing fans with a different kind of show, one that they don't typically get these days and one that harkens back to the good ol' days of concert going. Perhaps it even frees up the artist from a performance standpoint as well, being able to control how a song is transmitted to their fans and making it a more interactive experience. For the artist as well, often times they're playing and seeing people's faces and you see that connection, whereas seeing a sea of phones and noses buried in them kind of takes away that connection. We've all been to shows where the energy is unreal and it's brought about by the interaction between the fan and the performers, but we've also seen bands that seem like they're going through the motions. Might as well be playing to a bunch of wannabe Scorsese's becoming their own amateur directors at your concert video shoot at some shows.
The lack of an audience full of people shooting video brings back some of the mystique a bit, knowing that you're the only crowd getting that show that night as it's happening. And in White's case, if you are still more interested in that social media connection, he is providing pro shot photos and videos from the show that can be shared. You can still say you were there and with arguably better shots or video than you might have taken yourself.
So long as the artist makes it known in advance that these are the rules, they have every right to present the show they want and fans have every right to decide if they want to show up without having their phones handy. So long as you know what you're getting into ahead of time, everyone should be on the same page, but the almighty dollar speaks. If going to a show without your phone is enough of an issue to keep you and others from going, it will be felt at the box office and that approach to playing without phones may be reconsidered. But for those who haven't experienced a show this way, don't just dismiss it. It might be an experience you'll never forget (even without the cellphone video).
Would you ever skip a show because they wouldn't let you shoot?
JD: Absolutely not — the main purpose of going is always to see the show first and to share the experience second. To your point with the Stone Temple Pilots show, it'll be refreshing to have no option other than to exist exclusively in the moment. I won't miss the baker's dozen likes I would've gained on Instagram for posting a photo or video. There's plenty of other concerts for that.
CC: Agreed. Let us not forget the primary draw here is the music and not the "likes." Even if I was somewhat annoyed at not having known about a "no phone" policy before entering the venue, which has happened, it's a minor bump in the road. The music is what got me there in the first place, it's what I want to see and experience and it's ultimately what will leave me with my final impression. Skipping a show because of a policy, even if it was one I wasn't aware of in advance, it's not something I'd want to do. Being without my phone for a few hours is not something I'd let ruin my night.
We've had our say on cell phone at concerts. What's your take? Does it make your enjoyment more or less at shows where cell phones are present? Do artists have a right to dictate terms on their performances? Would you skip a show because someone dictated a "no cell phone" policy? Have your say in the Comments section at the bottom of this post.