We’ve all been that righteous person at a gig who tuts other audience members for videoing or photo-snapping on their phone. I mean, show some respect for the artist, right? Tsk.
Then again, we’ve all been that person taking photos or videos of a show on our phones. And we’ve definitely all watched grainy live footage on YouTube uploaded hours or minutes after (or even during) a gig.
Using your phone at a live show is a contentious issue and has been since technology enabled it. Numerous artists have spoken out against or banned phones at their shows – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Solange, Savages, Kate Bush, Björk and Wilco, to name a few. Some – including Jack White, Alicia Keys, Childish Gambino, The Lumineers and comedians such as Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle – are now using Yondr, a service requiring gig-goers to lock their phones in pouches, which can only physically be unlocked at designated zones.
Pro-phone names aren’t easy to come by. Katy Perry has voiced favourable comments and some artists occasionally ask crowds to unleash their phones in unity, though that doesn’t make them staunch advocates. But it’s fair to say that the buzz generated by countless posts and re-posts of concert photos and videos on social media might come in handy for some artists, whether they admit it or not.
Artists’ motivation for an anti-phone stance is usually that fans should focus more on the show as it’s happening, rather than spending showtime pressing buttons, they say. Which sounds fair enough, but if someone wants a visual memento of the gig they’ve paid for and they don’t disturb anyone when they’re getting it, should they really be denied that?
Then there’s the fact that someone can share the photos or videos with other fans who couldn’t attend the gig. Kind of a nice thing in many ways – but also a potential copyright issue.
Whatever the motivation, using our phones at live shows is something that more than just a few of us do. A new study on the topic, commissioned by Eventbrite and carried out by research consultancy ComRes, found that 49% of people who had attended a ticketed live event in the last 12 months (from a total of 1,031) used their phone to take photos or video.
Only 6% of those people said they took more than 20 photos or recorded entire songs during a set. For anyone who’s been to a gig in the last few years, this may seem a surprisingly low number, suggesting that perhaps not everyone is willing to admit the extent of their phone usage. But 40% openly agreed that taking photos or videos of a performance is “an important part of the live experience”. 51% disagreed.
I think they’ve become a bit of a drug. People need to learn how to party without their phone.”
For Holly Ross, lead singer and guitarist with psyche-punk duo The Lovely Eggs, the main issue with fans and phones lies elsewhere. “The thing for me is people on Facebook or Twitter when they’re in the front rows,” she explains. “A few photos or a short video is fine. Personally, I’d prefer it if people didn’t, but I appreciate they want to take a picture. But if you’re committing to the front row at a gig and you start going on social media… we don’t go on tour to play to people on their phones.”
But Ross still doesn’t support phone-ban policies. “It needs to be an unwritten agreement. You shouldn’t need rules.”
Despite half of gig-goers admitting they use their phone at shows, there’s still a lot of audience support for her standpoint. 81% of gig attendees in the ComRes survey said they understood why artists might not like fans taking videos or photos, with 71% agreeing that constant photographing or filming is ‘irritating’.
But is it doing more than just irking people? Studies have shown that taking photos can impact negatively on memory. The theory goes that if you’re taking pictures of/filming something, your brain effectively stops trying to remember it, because it knows there’s a record elsewhere.
When we take pictures at gigs we are less psychologically engaged with the live event"
“When we take pictures at gigs we are less psychologically engaged with the live event,” says internet psychologist Graham Jones, “resulting in lower levels of enjoyment and poorer long-lasting memory of the gig. From a psychological perspective, it makes no sense to take pictures or videos at a live event.”
Jones also says there are “contradictory issues for artists” when it comes to phones at shows. As well as the obvious downsides, large numbers of people taking photos can be reassuring and confirm to an artist that they’re popular, he says. And then there’s the exposure. Some don’t need or want it, but some definitely do. Jones says that some artists “love the picture-taking, because they know it extends their visibility through social media, which can have commercial benefits through extra sales and an increased fanbase.”
Fanbase-booster or otherwise, it appears many gig-goers are now keen to see fewer phones at shows. 69% of respondents to the ComRes survey who had attended a live ticketed event in the past year would support “more than minimal action” to reduce filming or photographing.
However, severe measures weren’t so popular. Only 17% agreed with spot checks and 13% with “no phone zones”. The preferred option, for 41% of respondents, was simply for people to be asked to make their phones more discreet.
This belief in self-regulation is shared by Marlon Hoffstadt, a producer and DJ from Berlin who runs Savour The Moment, a phone-free event series where attendees are asked to switch their mobiles to ‘flight mode’ during the show – not by security, but purely via a reminder logo on a lightbox.
“I don’t think that forcing people to hand-in their phones or leave them at home will help at all,” Hoffstadt explains. “People just need to experience it out of their own will. When I see someone at my party taking pictures, I always talk to them and ask if they know about the concept and if they like the idea. If they don’t understand or don’t put their phone away, I just leave them alone. They’re missing out on a great chance to have a real-time experience.”
It’s easy to see the negatives of using your phone at a show and it’s hard to deny that the majority view seems similarly negative – certainly among artists and at least marginally among audiences, even for some who dabble in it themselves. But it’s far from a clear-cut issue, particularly when it comes to all that invaluable free publicity generated. And even with phone-free parties and lock-away pouches on the rise, it seems impossible to imagine live shows without phones on a widespread scale anytime soon. But maybe let’s agree to use some good old-fashioned discretion and keep our fellow humans happy while we grab that killer live pic. Deal?