Feature: Smartphones at Gigs

A fan watches a gig through his mobile phone

The way that we enjoy music has forever been subject to new media technology. From the compact disc to Spotify, and back again via music television, the music industry has altered in line with the new possibilities that technology has provided. Likewise, technology has provided new ways for fans to get hold of their favourite music with home taping and then illegal downloads making music more accessible for less. Now it is the nature of live music that is altering at the hands of technology, with the prominence of smartphones at gigs and DJ sets becoming a polarising issue amongst fans and artists alike. These, and other recording devices, have become part of the furniture at music events of all styles, genres and sizes, with numerous implications for the artists and the fans.

The ease with which a smartphone user can capture a moment in time is something that was always likely to appeal to music fans. Many great memories have been made at shows so there is little wonder that the opportunity to relive such memories is an exciting prospect. I recently came across a nostalgia-inducing clip on YouTube from when the Red Hot Chili Peppers played at Pride Park Stadium in Derby when I was 13. Both the audio and picture quality were awful, but having a clip from your first ever gig stored in the realms of the Internet is not something that previous generations are able to have the luxury of.

Whilst the quality of this particular clip was atrocious, the same can’t be said for many of today’s videos. The ever-increasing capability of devices means that some videos are now in high definition, something that is sure to be a prerequisite for smartphones in the not too distant future. Meanwhile software such as that provided by 45sound / Fan Footage allows users to sync their video clips with high quality live sound from the gig itself, with impressive results.

biebermadison600You need only observe the sea of camera phones or the number of hits on YouTube to prove the popularity of this practice. People want to share their experiences or indulge in ones that they have missed and this is understandable, but it has numerous detrimental effects. From the simplest of perspectives, it’s incredibly selfish. If you’re arms are aloft with a camera in hand, the chances are you’re restricting the view of a good few people. That could be okay if you’re taking a quick picture as a band arrive on stage, but when it amounts to recording a whole song it becomes downright discourteous.

It isn’t just the view of others that people are restricting with their smartphones either. For every moment that you watch an artist through the screen of your phone, you lose the ability to connect with the moment that you’re in. Not only is that disrespectful to the artist that you’ve paid to go and see, but it detracts from atmosphere for those trying to fully interact with the performance in that moment.

Introducing his Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1 last year Dixon, Resident Advisor’s DJ of 2013, said, “I really do hate it when people film with their phones in the club, or Shazam the music. I really don’t understand it. For me the whole of going out is to disconnect from the real world and enjoy that very moment. Be there instead of trying to record it”. Talk of living in the moment and disconnecting from the real world might be seen as somewhat clichéd in certain circles, but if that’s the case then it’s because there’s a big element of truth in it.

Another factor in this argument is the prominence of social media, which has changed the nature of social interaction and fostered a need for people to record and share much of their life online. Experiences alone no longer seem enough for many people; almost as if the approval or interest of others through social media serves to legitimise people’s personal experiences. In reality this firstly serves to detract from your own experience and that of other people. Facebook & Twitter can be great platforms and I’m not suggesting that everyone should stop interacting via them, but perhaps people could moderate their activity a little better when it concerns live music. As it stands, this obsession is diluting the essence of live music.

I don’t think that this is an exaggeration either. I have seen people upload numerous poor quality videos of the same gig, whilst still at the show. The bands hadn’t even finished their set, yet some see the need to record and upload instantly in order to fuel their online persona. People like this should just simply stay at home and watch their favourite bands on YouTube rather than sapping the atmosphere from live performances. Foals front man Yannis Philippakis puts it, “It’s part of a wider temptation to want to go to an aquarium, and instead of looking at the fish you take photos of the fish so that you can show your friends and pretend that you understand what a barramundi is.” It’s an interesting analogy, but it’s one that seems to summarise this point quite well.

The actions of smartphone-happy fans aren’t just causing a nuisance at one show either, with longer-term implications attached to the clips that are uploaded to the Internet. I’ve been at 130408-yyyssignnumerous shows where bands have tried out new material or played songs that had been absent from setlists for numerous years previous. But with moments like this being captured and strewn across the Internet, going viral amongst fan communities, fans are being robbed of the wonder that witnessing such an event without prior warning could bring. Setlists might be made public with relative ease nowadays, but knowing that a band are debuting unheard material or playing an old track once more is very different to having a video of that track in full on the Internet.

Likewise, where does this leave the artist that wants to debut new work, but knows that there’s a good chance that it will readily available all over the world at the click of a button within hours of playing it live? These are all things that I don’t think many people are really considering when filming at shows and uploading their videos to the Internet.

Can anything really be done about this though, especially when there is no clear consensus amongst fans or amongst artists? Whilst artists such as Jack White, Johnny Marr and most recently Prince, who enforced a no phones or cameras policy at one of the much talked about London shows with 3RDEYEGIRL, are direct and concise in demonstrating their distaste for fans filming at their shows, many remain on the fence and others see absolutely no problem with it. However what can be noted from attempts to stop recording at shows, is that the musicians themselves hold a lot of the power to stop it.

130417-savagesBands including Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Savages have put up signs at their shows asking fans not to film and explaining their reasons for why. Nowhere did I read that fans ignored these requests to resist filming, with the audience remaining a mass of illuminated screens. Those making up an audience are big enough fans of these artists to have paid good money for a ticket, many even idolise the performers. If they decide that they don’t want camera phones at their gigs, I’d wager that audiences would consent.

New applications could also play a role in changing peoples attitudes towards recording at gigs. Having been premiered at an Alt-J gig in 2013, the Soundhalo app seemed a really interesting and effective initiative, producing professional live audio and video at gigs and making it available for purchase after the show. The app has failed to take off, which is no surprise given scale with which they would need to operate combined with the fact that paying for music is an alien concept to many listeners. It does however provide a potential framework, alongside a refined business model, that could satisfy fans desire to capture and relive live shows, whilst affording artists the freedom to select the segments of their live performance they wish to make available to the public.

Filming at live shows is indicative of a wider cultural change and it wouldn’t be right to moan exclusively about fans that engage in it. Fans haven’t suddenly become more shit, but technology has triggered a culture change that is affecting live music more so than it affects other spheres. A number of artists and fans are beginning to take it upon themselves to bring this in to the consciousness of others, and for the sake of live music I hope that it pays dividends soon.


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