Are Cell Phones Destroying The Concert Experience?

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I was halfway through an editorial on stage lighting today when a new post from our friend Anthony at The Needle Drop caught my attention. In the clip, a fan wrote to Anthony asking him about his thoughts on cell phone usage at shows, and what he remembers from attending performances before smart phones. I was both fascinated and made to feel extremely old by Anthony’s response, as I had never thought of my life as having been lived in an era now known as ‘pre-smart phone,’ but I was also incredibly intrigued by the notion that such technological advancements have forever changed the way people experience live music. Before I ramble on, however, it’s only right that I share Anthony’s video first:

Most people discuss concerts and the age smart phones by beginning with the issues it presents, so that might as well be where we begin too. It’s no great secret or shocking revelation that cell phones causes light pollution, and any setting where a lack of lighting is used to set the mood is almost instantly ruined by the use of phones. Movies theaters are a common place to encounter this problem, but it can apply to concerts as well. When you’re waiting for a headliner to go on and the venue finally drops the lights, what is the first thing you notice? Phones. Lots of them. It could be any date of the tour in any city and there are at least a few people in the crowd that feel they absolutely must have the first few moments captured on their phones. Why? Who cares! It’s [insert band] and they were there, that’s all the reason needed to block the view of whoever is seated/standing behind them. Do people even watch these videos? If they do, does anyone ever ask themselves why they tried to film a clip while jumping up and down and holding a beer cup with their teeth. or do they simply hit delete and move on with their lives, never giving a second thought to the impact their actions had on other concert attendees? I hope for the former, but I assume the latter is far more often the case.

It’s not just light pollution, however, because if it were there would be far less people constantly complaining. Light is the tip of the iceberg of problems people have discovered in the age of smart phones, and it’s followed by an endlessly updating juggernaut known as social media. Between tweeting updates from the show, sharing photos on Instagram, capturing videos and pictures for Snapchat, checking email, texting with friends, and ever so often ignoring a phone call it’s not uncommon to see several people spend entire performances with their fingers wrapped tightly around a little glowing rectangle that refuses to go dim. You may even hear them complain to their friends and family about a lack of 4G, or that their ‘phone’s battery totally sucks,’ even though it’s simultaneously running a dozen apps that each require different bits of information to be shared from the device, bounced off a satellite, received by a computer, sent back via satellite, and returned to the phone within fractions of a second. Stupid, lazy technology. Why can’t you be perfect already?

Anthony talks about this a bit in his video, but there was a time not too long ago when none of this was common place at concert venues. The first sixteen years of my life I attended shows without ever seeing people with phones in hand, and even when they began to appear it wasn’t until closer to 2010 that their presence reached a point that it was, at times, overwhelming. That said, there have always been assholes in this world, and I am willing to wager that as long as there have been concerts there have been those who go to shows for all the wrong reasons and end up ruining the experience for others. Before phones, some of the common complaints overheard at shows dealt with noise levels from other people’s conversations and the pseudo tough guys who felt they could only express their excitement about the show be attempting to start mosh pits that never full took off. Instead, those tough guys ran into people who didn’t want to be covered in other people’s sweat, which gave that stranger a story to then convey to all their drunken friends, thus causing the aforementioned noise problem. 

The worst noise problem I ever encountered was the first time I saw the band Mewithoutyou following the release of their sophomore album. It was a great release, but far more subtle and atmospheric than their raucous debut. As a result, several people in the audience who came with hopes of hearing music worth mousing to found themselves faced with an evening of acoustic instruments and sing-a-longs. They were respectful at first, for the most part, but as the evening carried on the number of random conversations taking place throughout the crowd began to build, which in turn considerably raised the overall noise level. You could see the frustration on the band’s face, but they powered on as all great bands do, and the moments I was able to make out through the white noise of distracted concert goers was sublime.

Noise pollution is still a problem today, but often it takes a back seat to smartphones because people are too caught up in their glowing screens to attempt a conversation with anyone by their side. That is one unintentional bonus to peoples’ obsession with their phones, I guess, but nine times out of ten I would gladly take a few loud voices over a room of glowing phones. You may disagree, and that’s okay too. Link me to your blog on this very topic and I’ll share it.

I’m not sure the music world will ever find a solution to the problems caused by smartphones, but there are those in the industry who are trying their best to curve its impact on the overall concert experience. Neutral Milk Hotel, for example, asks fans to not film or photograph any part of their performance. People still do, of course, but the number of people doing so are far less than they would be in a situation where no one had asked anything of the audience. People can follow instructions, believe it or not, but it’s needs to be presented in a way that does not come across as being too stern or threatening. As an artist, you have the power to try and downplay phone usage through leveraging similar tactics, but at the end of the day people are going to behave however they please. Treat fans with respect and ask them to do the same for each other, you never know what might happen.

For those of you reading this who stand in crowds instead of performing on stage, you also have the power to make a difference in these situations. Bullying or otherwise taunting those who use their phones extensively will get you nowhere, but taking the time to politely ask those around you to put their phone away is completely fine. They might not listen, of course, and in some cases they may even say some rather nasty things to you, but at least you will have expressed your opinion on the matter. You can also try to get to the show early enough that the number of people between you and the stage is low, which in turn lessens the likelihood of phones blocking your view later in the night.

I do think it’s important to note that not all cell phone use is bad. Back in April I had the opportunity to see Miley Cyrus perform at TD Garden in Boston, and at one point in the evening she asked everyone to pull out their phones as a way of illuminating the room. The visual that created, as I witnessed thousands of tiny screens bouncing up and down to booming top 40 production, is one I will never forget. Similar effects can be achieved in smaller venues too.

Additionally, several artists have begun developing apps that can enhance an individual’s concert experience. Dan Deacon, for example, created an app that syncs with and responds to his live show. A video of that application in action can be viewed below:

There may be days when it seems smartphone technology has backed itself into a creative wall, but I think we have only scratched the surface of innovation as far as the crossover between music and the little devices we all carry in our pockets are concerned. The problems caused by cell phone use at shows is bothersome, yes, but the possibilities for how those phones could be used to better the future concert going experience is almost too enticing too resist. The best thing you can do is take it upon yourself to be conscious of your own phone usage and encourage others to do the same. Some will listen, others will not, but at least you will have made an effort to better the world for everyone else.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.