Photo taken at Revolution Hall in Portland, OR during a performance by Neko Case on April 18, 2015. Shortly after this was taken, the artist requested that filming from the crowd cease.

Photo taken at Revolution Hall in Portland, OR during a performance by Neko Case on
April 18, 2015. Shortly after this was taken, the artist requested that filming from the crowd cease.

In his debut article for opbmusic, contributor Matt Drenik addresses the perfect artist, consumer conundrum. What are the acceptable boundaries of cell phone use at concerts in a new media world?

The other night my wife and I were sitting around watching TV when she asked, “Hey, can we watch the speech that Patti Smith gave about Lou Reed the other night?”
“Sure.” I said, “What channel?”
She was scrolling on her phone.
“It’s only on YouTube. Some guy filmed it from the crowd.”

And sure enough we found and watched a crappy video taken from the upper bleachers of Lou Reed being inducted, posthumously, into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. It was complete with people talking, hooting, and even some guy whistling when Patti Smith said Lou Reed once asked her to come up to his hotel room.
“Did that guy just whistle?” she asked.
“Let’s turn this off.” I said.  

It was hard to hear and I started to feel bad for Patti Smith. I don’t know why. It had nothing to do with her. But something about the cat whistle made me feel awkward, like I was supposed to imagine Patti Smith and Lou Reed making out in a bath tub, and pretty soon the whole speech seemed pointless through the lens of an Android phone. By the time Lou Reed’s wife took the stage I was done. “I’m going to bed,” I said.

Last week I read an article from The Oregonian about Neko Case skipping her encore in Portland because some audience member wouldn’t stop filming her after she asked the crowd not to take photos or videos with their cell phones. Attached to the article were some 250 comments. I made it through about 3 before rolling my eyes and moving on. But just for laughs, here’s a good one:

“LAX2PDX 5 hours ago: Seriously!!! Relax Neko!! Don’t take yourself so seriously! You get filmed all day everyday and everywhere you walk in a city. The city of Portland was filming you the whole time. Plus, every person has a camera and video on their phone. It’s 2015 get over it. What you needed some compensation for your likeness!? Duh….”

 I guess the gist of that comment lies somewhere in the fact that Neko Case is a superstar and should be used to being filmed, so she should just shut up and get over it. Hell, everyone’s got a cell phone, right?

Why should anyone care about any of this? So what if Neko Case walked out. She played a full set, gave us the finger, said goodnight, and moved on. And here we are, beating her up for not following the rules we’ve so arbitrarily set upon her. But maybe we’ve got some pretty lame rules to begin with. It’s the perfect artist, consumer conundrum.

The thing is, not everything needs to be seen through the lens of a phone. And not everyone wants to be filmed or documented at all times. We put these parameters on entertainers, like they’re puppets just asking for it. But I’m guessing that if you were sitting at dinner and some guy came up and just started filming you, you’d probably get irked and ask him to stop. Or better yet, take his phone and throw it in the street.

“If they don’t like it, don’t get on stage!” someone else commented on the article.

But seriously, that’s crazy! Why can’t an artist request not to be filmed at their shows? Also, who in their right mind would pay $30 for a seat, sit back, and think, “Screw her. I’m filming”?

Ultimately, this feels like a much bigger problem than just Neko Case not showing up to her encore.

I’m a musician that loves to stand in front of people, most of whom I don’t know, with sweaty palms, and get constantly judged, for the sake of art. In all honesty, I think it’s pretty lame to look out into a sea of shadowed faces and see a bunch of blue lights blinking on and off. But beyond the tiresome banter of whether this is fair or not, can we just start to talk about, gulp— why? Why are we so afraid of letting the world happen without catching it through the lens of a cell phone? Why can’t we just be in the moment? It just seems ridiculous. I’m guessing most of us can agree on that. And this really is the big question; why do we take cell phone videos at concerts? They’re awful. They sound awful. I’ve yet to hear one that blows me away. They mostly sound like over-driven piles of crap that only make you think, “Wow, this band really sounds horrible.” 

Maybe we shouldn’t try to live vicariously through each other on social media all the time. Maybe we should just let things be. People always talk about how things were better back in the day, and I’m beginning to think that they were. And maybe that’s because there weren’t all these buttons to push. Maybe life was simpler. A play was a play. A movie, a movie. A show, a show. You went, you saw, you came home, you went to bed. But now it’s so complicated. We have to complicate things to give them importance and all that importance just sucks the imagination dry.

Can’t we all just go watch Neko Case, have a beer, and listen to her sing? If we did that, we might slowly burn those memories into mental notes and pretend that they were bigger than life, and certainly bigger than a cracked screen.

Hopefully Patti Smith will never see the video my wife and I found on YouTube. I think she’d be bummed. I wish someone would bury it. And having listened to the Velvet Underground for years, singing their songs and thinking about Lou Reed in that bathtub, quoting poets and modern machinery, and NYC and black and white stripes bursting from his sleeves, I can’t imagine him seeing that video and saying, “Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Very rock ‘n’ roll.”

Matt Drenik is a musician, part-time writer, lives in Portland, plays in Battleme, and enjoys getting lost in the desert with his wife and dog.  Email Matt at mattvondrenik[at]gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @MDrenik.