When Yeah Yeah Yeahs rolled through Toronto on their latest tour, they posted a sign at the venue saying,
“PLEASE DO NOT WATCH THE SHOW THROUGH A SCREEN ON YOUR SMART DEVICE/CAMERA.
PUT THAT SHIT AWAY as a courtesy to the person behind you and to Nick, Karen, and Brian.”
A couple of months later, when She & Him headlined a day at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival, they posted a similar notice.
“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 put together in 3D.”
Response varied. Spin reported a “massive and overwhelmingly” supportive response to their story about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs request. Gawker published a snarky article about She & Him, full of equally snarky quotes from several Torontonians.
At the time, I chalked the divided response up to standard confirmation bias, which I’m still pretty convinced of: Yeah Yeah Yeahs are badass and punk rock and they’re not afraid to call people out! She & Him are waify and led by a celebrity diva who can’t handle the real world (despite the fact that M Ward is the one on record as being anti phone, not Zooey)!
More recently, Savages and Bjork played Toronto on the same night, and both of them posted similar notices. My friend (and excellent writer) Nicole sent out a few tweets, which went thusly (it’s three consecutive tweets that I stuck together):
“two more shows in town tonight (savages & bjork) with artists “requesting” people don’t use their phones. like, no, bands. maybe it’s hard to tell when that usage is to the detriment of others’ enjoyment and so trying to stop it altogether is the better option? but i tend to think no.”
And my immediate reaction was totally the opposite – that this was a good thing. That bands are totally in the right for asking people to put their phones away. I felt that pretty strongly, but I couldn’t explain why. Like, at all.
Later, Nicole’s colleague Richard Trapunski asked me to contribute to this article. So I sent him a version of what follows, selections from which he included in the article. But, presumably because he didn’t want the notoriety of including the longest band quote ever in his article, he suggested I post the whole thing elsewhere.
So this is all his fault, really.
First off, I realized pretty quickly that this conversation actually needs to be about the idea of a band asking (or demanding) that fans leave their phones in their pockets during a show, as opposed to the larger discussion about whether or not it’s “good” to have a camera at a show or not. The latter boils down to a simple matter of druthers and so there isn’t a productive conversation to be had about it. The former, on the other hand, at least has the potential to get everyone to look at where everyone else is coming from. So let’s talk about that.
As we talk about it, though, let’s also bear in mind that this isn’t some kind of epidemic. Okay, a lot of people do a lot of things with their phones at shows. Okay, a lot of bands don’t dig it. Okay, a few bands are pushing back and a few concert goers are up in arms about it. But it isn’t really as big an issue as you might expect it to be, considering how many words I’m about to say on the matter. So please don’t think I’m freaking out about this - by and large, I think that things are going pretty okay. It’s just that this conversation gets at something a little more fundamental about how we’re engaging with the world, and that is a discussion I think is going to be important. So consider this my own small(ish) contribution to that.
Also: hi, I’m in a band so I’m probably biased. Caveat emptor.
Tokyo Police Club has never discussed having a “no pictures/no phones” policy. As a performer, I can’t remember ever being bothered by anyone using a phone during a show. I don’t recall ever noticing someone doing it, and though obviously I must have at some point it clearly didn’t leave much of an impression. As a show goer, I’ve been annoyed every once in a while, but never enough to think twice about it.
So prior to this whole Yeah Yeah Yeahs/She & Him thing, I didn’t have any opinions about cell phones at concerts. But as soon as people started talking about it, I found myself knee jerking to the “no phones” side of the debate without really understanding why. So I started doing some reading and some thinking, and I realized that what bugs me about all this is the tone of the dialogue that I’ve been running up against: people aren’t just disagreeing with the notion of banning cell phone photography, they’re shocked that anyone would dare suggest such a thing. Which I would humbly like to suggest is some bullshit.
Check this paragraph from an article on the All Songs Considered blog that I linked earlier, about an M. Ward concert where photography of any kind was prohibited:
“I want to take pictures and I want to text and tweet and Instagram. I can do two things at once. I can snap a photo, shoot a minute-long video, send out a tweet or two and still thoroughly enjoy the night. I’m conscious of others around me, I turn the brightness on my phone as dim as it can go, and never shoot video longer than a minute … In fact, this year I’m trying to take a one-minute video of everything I see and will put something cool together.”
That’s some self centred, entitled hooey right there. And I think it - the self righteousness, the arbitrary self-imposed rules, the “but I’m making something” justification - typifies an attitude that’s gaining prevalence.
And hey, maybe that’s the right attitude. There’s a strong philosophical argument to be made that every experience we have in life is ultimately going to end up being a selfish one – that at the end of the day, we only really have what we can process in our own brains. Everyone is the main character in their own story, after all. And if that’s the case then, sure, maybe people are right to rage against any imposition on their own experience. I just think that a) the world would be way less awesome if we acted like that all the time and b) that even in the very specific instance of going to a concert, something is lost by experiencing it on an entirely selfish level.
Bands put a colossal amount of into creating an experience for you. From the first inkling of a song all the way through the end of the concert, people have busted their asses to create something that will make people feel something. If you’ve ever left a concert feeling transported, feeling like you’ve been part of something transcendent, that’s not by accident! That’s the exact end goal of an often-meticulous process of writing, rehearsing, travelling, choosing setlists, aiming spotlights, EQing drums, and so on. Nobody spends an hour listening to someone tweak the mids on a floor tom because they like it. They do it because every minute detail sweated over makes the concert better. The performer has a deep investment in your leaving the concert feeling wonderful, because that’s how they earn a living!
What I’m trying to say with this is that the idea of banning cell phones (or moshing or stage diving or crowd surfing or, loathe as I am to publically agree with Morrissey on anything, the sale of meat at the concession stands) might be more than just an oversensitive artiste trying to shape the world in their own image. It can be the extension of a pointed effort to make something beautiful and dazzling and transporting for you. And if you’re willing to put aside your pathological need to document and collect and share and appropriate everything you encounter to add to the giant Pinterest that is your life , you might actually have an experience you weren’t expecting. And that’s really, really good!
(A brief aside regarding journalists. Yes, there are some people who are being paid to provide an account of the show, and not being able to access their phone could theoretically hamper them in that. But I would argue that if the band is requesting a no cell phones show, that’s part of what the writer should be providing an account of. Wouldn’t an article about the experience of a no cell phones concert, which is what everyone there actually experienced, be of infinitely greater value than having, like, an accurate setlist or a verbatim quote from the singer? Or maybe bands with no camera policies could start providing notepads to accredited members of the press.)
The idea of an experience you aren’t expecting is important here. It’s 2013, and you basically don’t ever have to engage with anything you don’t at least stand a decent chance of liking. You have this incredible amount of control over your comfort zone. You interact with the people you know you’re friends with, you hear opinions from people you know you agree with, a special computer brain even tells you what new movies and music you’re probably going to enjoy.
Neat! Okay! I love it! Progress is super cool and fantastic. I’m in. But maybe we should stop for, like, one second to consider that maybe this isn’t entirely a good thing? That subscribing to only our preferred SubReddits of life necessarily means that whole enormous chunks of the world are going to pass us by, totally unnoticed? And can I gently suggest that at least part of the role of entertainers is to nudge us out of our comfort zone, even if it’s maybe just a little bit against our will?
Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy put out this concert movie called Sunken Treasure, in which he crosses the Pacific Northwest playing acoustic shows. It’s another sterling entry in the Tweedy/Wilco canon of course, but I’m bringing it up here specifically because at one point he addresses the audience, many of who are talking through the show . And he ends up saying some of the most beautiful and important words I’ve ever heard from a performer, words that sum up exactly what I’ve been trying to say with all this perfectly. Seriously, this is some heady shit. You can watch the whole thing here, and you should, but I’ll excerpt a few key pieces.
“I want us all to be here together. Can you shut up for once in your fucking life and have some fun? … You feel yourself being in a room full of people, with all their hearts beating, and all of their thoughts and feelings, and you’re a part of it. You’re not just you, you are a part of a group of people in a really beautiful way. It’s a really wonderful thing to be a part of. But you have to pay attention to it.”
And then he folds his arms, and waits for the audience to be quiet. And it takes forever. People do that thing where they take advantage of the hush to shout things and make themselves heard. But eventually even they shut up, and you hear something in the film that you might have never heard at a concert: total silence. There’s no sound. None. And it’s fucking beautiful. And I guarantee you everybody at that show walked out of that room feeling something. Maybe they didn’t know what it was, maybe it never even occurred to them that it had anything to do with concert. But they were a part of something special.
That’s what musicians want for you. That’s the whole reason we’re up there. But that requires something from you, too. In a way, it comes down to a question of trust. You bought the ticket, so presumably you have some interest in what the band has to say to you. So if they ask something of you, some small sacrifice, because they think it will make your experience better, do you trust them enough to go along with it?
There’s no right answer to that. You either do, or you don’t. But I really sincerely believe that you’ll have a better time at concerts - that you’ll have a better time in life – if you can say yes, okay, I’m on board, now where are you going to take me?
 I realize I’m making harsh assumptions here. I know many many wonderful people who don’t engage with the world this way at all. But I also know many many equally wonderful people who do. It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon (ask your parents how many vacation photo slide shows they sat through in the 70s), but it’s one that’s increasingly prominent thanks to all the awesome technology we have now. And as I think everyone has the impulse to some degree, it really is worth paying attention to.
 I also have talked through many shows. And while I’m on the topic, I’ve also used my phone at shows. Lots of times. So I’m really not trying to be authoritative here, and I apologize very profusely if that’s how it comes across. I’m not trying to say OBEY BANDS. I just want to share something I deeply believe could help people experience the things they love in a way that might just allow them to love those things even more. I’m trying to say that if you can open yourself up to things, especially when those things don’t jive with what you think you want, you might be surprised. And being surprised can be a very, very beautiful thing.