We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid the helpful $40-a-pop reminders not to speed on North Capitol Street is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This week: a discussion of cell-phone recordings at concerts.
Katherine writes via email: “Last night, I was at a music festival for which The Lumineers were the headlining act. During the immensely popular ‘Ho Hey,’ frontman Wesley Schultz stopped the song for 30-60 seconds to ask fans to stop filming the concert on their phones. I was put off by this admonishment and thought it put a damper on the moment for which fans had been waiting all night. But, of course, I am not the artist, so I can’t speak to how disruptive this behavior actually is to them. Thoughts? I know Beyonce did something similar recently, but after watching the video, I think she handled it in a little more sassy/good-natured fashion.”
This is a tough one, in part because it’s an etiquette question — and in etiquette questions, there’s no clear-cut, one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t involve everyone deciding en masse to do the most polite thing possible. It’s also a tough one because I’m genuinely of two minds on the issue.
On one hand, I’ve said before that one of the pitfalls of creative expression — any creative expression — is that the creator doesn’t get to control how the audience consumes his or her art. Sure, you can say, “Play it loud!” or “Listen on headphones!” or “Pay attention!” or “Stop holding up your phone!” or “Put your shirt back on!” But you don’t really control whether your advice is heeded.
As long as no actual harm is done, each person in the audience will do his or her own thing — and the more people engage in the same mildly selfish or thoughtless act, be it holding up their phones or yakking through the opening act, the harder it becomes for behavior to be policed. The singer for The Lumineers has a right to try and keep that behavior in check, just as you have a right to be irked by having the band’s best-known song disrupted in ways that affect paying customers’ enjoyment of the show.
The best course of action for everyone — in virtually every etiquette-based conundrum — lies with a simple degree of empathy for everyone involved. If you’re a fan in the crowd, you want a way to at least briefly document that you were there; and, hey, sometimes an excerpt of a live performance can help fans spread the word about a band to their friends. But if you’re a musician, you want to perform for the people in front of you, and you want those people to be present for your performance. You don’t want to simultaneously play to a crowd and anywhere from zero to a zillion non-paying judgmental randos on YouTube, and if you’re fussy about your music, you’d just as soon not have your songs lifted out of the context of a performance and archived in ways that look and sound atrocious. Think about how infuriating it must be — how alienating it must be — to want to connect with your fans, only to find their damned iPhones situated between their faces and yours.
Setting aside the issues surrounding the legality of bootlegging concerts, live performances are improved immeasurably by the presence of a rapt, distraction-free audience. The more we keep our phones in our pockets — the way we would during a good movie or play — the more we can attach ourselves to the music and connect with it, be it rhythmically or emotionally or even spiritually. And, frankly, putting your phone away will enhance not only your own experience, but also those of the people behind and around you in a crowd.
As for the specifics of your situation with The Lumineers, it would absolutely bug me to have a singer cut off my favorite song in order to to scold me for not paying close enough attention. But if I were the one facing a sea of phones every night, I’m sure I’d get snappy about it eventually.
I love my cell phone, and I’ve certainly been guilty of failing to detach myself from it when art is going on around me. But, as with any human interaction, the best moments in life and music happen when everyone involved is fully plugged in to the experience — and, by extension, unplugged from everything else.