Concert goers at a Fifth Harmony show in New York City, 2015. (Photo by Theo Wargo/ Getty Images)
We’ve all been there. Stuck behind someone at a show whose arms stay aloft for entire songs at a time, filming with a cell phone, putting an electronic barrier between you and the artist you paid to see. Not only is it an irritant for ticket buyers, it’s become a major aggravation for artists too. This has been an ongoing problem since the invention of the smart phone, but musicians are finally trying to do something about it. Jack White, Alicia Keys, Guns N’ Roses, Bob Dylan, and more have all opted to ban phones at their shows recently, and more are sure to follow.
The new movement, coming 11 years after the introduction of the iPhone, is being aided by the invention of Yondr pouches. These neoprene phone sleeves have locks that can only be opened using a special tool that resembles the device that removes security tags at clothing store checkouts. Dave Chapelle was the first to popularize the use of Yondr at comedy shows, in order to protect his material. Chris Rock, Ali Wong, Michael Che, Joe Rogan, and other comedians have followed.
Though comedy audiences have been compliant with these new restrictions, whenever a musician goes to the trouble of prying electronics out of the hands of concert-goers, the objections are plentiful, loud, and occasionally borderline hysterical.
It's understandable. People do hate being told what to do. Marry that with the fact that our phones make us feel secure -- about everything from checking on children or with parents, to not losing friends inside the venue -- and people's unwillingness to go phone-free gets exacerbated. That's before we even get to the unending modern desire to capture and share every moment of our lives online.
The problem is, in the last decade, smartphones have utterly transformed how we experience live events -- and not in a positive way. In fact, if you are in your early 20s or younger, it's likely that you've never had the luxury of enjoying a live show in a fully immersive way, the way that generations before you took for granted. Even if you're not messing with your cell phone, chances are someone next to or in front of you is.
In 2018, audiences may still share the same physical space, but mentally they are scattered like never before in the history of pop culture. This need to be connected to the outside world via technology causes a disconnect within the room that unequivocally makes concerts less of a united, cathartic experience.
Cell phones do not enhance our enjoyment of live music at all, unless you count the five minutes inside the arena after an artist has asked everyone to turn their cell phone flashlights on for a song. Sure, it looks cool, and our parents used to have to burn their fingers on lighters to get the same effect, but realistically it's not something anyone would particularly crave if it was no longer possible.
One Direction made a pretty good attempt at incorporating audience phones into their sets, by routinely taking and making little videos on stage with them, to the delight of lucky fans. But even when artists try and incorporate audience members' devices into the show, it can go horribly wrong, as this video of Justin Bieber demonstrates. (Take note also of the girl in the background, on the left of the screen, at 1:22 who, despite being only feet away from a person she probably idolizes, does not look up from her phone even once to look at him.)
Similarly, at this year's Super Bowl, we saw Justin Timberlake take a selfie with a kid in the stands. We also saw that kid immediately go to his phone to post the photo, rather than pay any more attention to the superstar still performing right beside him. All the while, the other crowd members in the vicinity watched Timberlake through their own phones.
This is filtered reality. This is disassociation. And it doesn't have to be like this.
Here's a reminder of what gigs looked like before cell phones. The people in the clip below aren't climbing on stage to take selfies. They're climbing on stage because they're feeling it. Imagine how many distracting cameras would be in Tupac Shakur's face if this same show was happening today:
Then there's this footage of Deee-Lite playing in 1990. There is zero footage of the audience even in this clip, but you can hear how present everyone in the room is. When was the last time you went to a show in a small club and heard an audience this engaged and this enthusiastic about what they were watching?
There is a question to be pondered about whether modern audiences could even go back to pre-phone levels of audience engagement, in the event of a cell phone ban at venues. Do we even remember what we're supposed to do at concerts without our phones? Have we had electronic barriers up for long enough to leave permanent mental ones in place?
The main argument usually thrown in the direction of keeping phones in music venues has to do with security. But in the event of, say, a fire, haven't we all been trained to leave behind our belongings and just get the hell out of there? And in the event of a terrorist attack or shooting, a security expert recently told NPR that having cell phones could actually increase dangers for individuals. Ken Trump believes that ringtones could make it easier for attackers to locate potential victims, that people posting on social media could give away their locations to the attacker, that distracted people using cell phones may be slower to react to immediate danger, and that jammed circuits may impede emergency services.
Aside from anything else, services like Yondr don't make it impossible to access your phone all night -- you just have to go to an unlocking station to make your call or send your text. Given the fact that previous generations managed just fine with lobby payphones, this isn't a great hardship in the grand scheme of things.
In the end, we just need to start experiencing live music in a phoneless state again. If not for the sake of common decency towards fellow audience members, then as part of a much-needed exercise in mindfulness. (It's no coincidence that mindfulness practices started gaining popularity at the exact same time the iPhone was invented.)
In our every day lives now, it feels impossible to step away from our phones because doing so feels as if we're stepping away from our work, our families, our responsibilities. But if we can't take a break for a couple of hours for the sake of a communal live music experience, it leaves little hope for the rest of our lives, or our general stress levels.
Psychology professor Alejandro Lleras recently conducted a study of 300 university students around phone use and mental health. It concluded that “using these technologies for escapism was found to have a relationship with higher depression and anxiety scores.” Surely, rather than using our phones as an escape, we should actively be ditching our virtual realities to experience real ones, uninterrupted by apps. An immersive, phone-free concert once in a while could be just the ticket.