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Is the smartphone now the live music industry's number one enemy?

Not a single concert or music festival goes by without the artist on stage having to perform to a cloud of smartphones raised to film or photograph them

Published: Jan 31, 2023 10:54:44 AM IST
Updated: Jan 31, 2023 11:09:38 AM IST

Is the smartphone now the live music industry's number one enemy?Not a single concert or music festival goes by without the artist on stage having to perform to a cloud of smartphones raised to film or photograph them. Image: Shutterstock

For the past two decades, cell phones have taken on a significant role in our daily lives. We take them everywhere with us, including to concerts and shows. But some artists take a dim view of the presence of these digital devices in the hands of their audience members.

No phones. That was the rule for the select few, hand-picked journalists and influencers who attended Beyoncé's January 21 concert at Dubai's Atlantis the Royal resort. They even had to put their smartphones in locked pouches so that they wouldn't be tempted to record snippets of the performance, according to the Guardian. But this precautionary measure did not prevent several pirate videos from being posted on social networks after the show. Much to the delight of fans of the American singer.

This case illustrates how cell phones have invaded the world of entertainment. Not a single concert or music festival goes by without the artist on stage having to perform to a cloud of smartphones raised to film or photograph them. Some artists have adapted to this, working with the trend by integrating the codes of social media into the staging and set design of their shows. Others, meanwhile, are increasingly less willing to put up with the intrusion of these technological devices in concert venues.

Neoprene pouches lead the fightback

For example, Japanese-American singer, Mitski, spoke out against this phenomenon on Twitter in February, even though she officially quit social media in 2019. She explained in a series of tweets, seen by the Los Angeles Times before being deleted, how uncomfortable she is with the presence of smartphones during her performances. "When I’m on stage and look to you but you are gazing into a screen, it makes me feel as though those of us on stage are being taken from and consumed as content, instead of getting to share a moment with you," wrote Mitski.

Many artists and bands, such as Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys, Kendrick Lamar, Guns N' Roses and The Lumineers, are asking their fans to keep the magic of live shows by refraining from taking out their phones when an artist is performing on stage. "This combination of people, right here, right now, will never happen again. And we would like to remember it. So please, bitteschön, can we do one song together with no phone?" said Coldplay frontman, Chris Martin, in July 2022, during a concert in Frankfurt, Germany.

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A few go further by banning the use of smartphones outright during their concerts. Jack White was a pioneer in the field, partnering, back in 2018, with Californian start-up Yondr. The company has developed a neoprene pouch, into which audience members place their smartphones as they enter the venue. These are then sealed with a locking system resembling anti-theft devices used for clothes. The aim is to ensure that everyone can enjoy the show without the slightest digital distraction. The founder of Yondr, Graham Dugoni, even stated in an interview with New York Times that the initiative is "about helping people live in the digital age in a way that doesn’t hollow out all of the meaning in your life."

The pressure of the digital world

But what do fans think? Are they ready to momentarily go without the devices that are always by their side, allowing them to share every moment of their lives with strangers? This is a difficult question to answer, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, the temporary halting of concerts and festivals pushed music lovers to seek entertainment online. They turned to video game platforms like Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft to see virtual performances from their favorite stars, on stage in the form of hyperrealistic avatars. They could comment live on these futuristic performances with their loved ones on Twitter, and other platforms, all while sharing screenshots.

But real-world concerts do not lend themselves as easily to this digital experience. Artists often conceive live shows as special moments to share with their fans, far from the pressure of social media. "With the cameras, you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I want to try out this dance move tonight,’ or you’re afraid this joke might go on the internet," singer Bruno Mars told the Los Angeles Times in 2022.

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This desire to distance themselves from the digital world is not limited to concerts and festivals. Many international musicians are denouncing the pressure they feel from record companies to produce content for social networks, especially TikTok—even if their musical creations are not aimed at the (very) young users of these platforms. The multi-award-winning singer Adele said in an interview for Apple Music that she has no desire to become popular on TikTok. "I would rather cater to the people that are like, on my level in terms of like the amount we've spent on Earth, and all the things we've been through. I don't want 12-year-olds listening to this record," she said, speaking of her album '30,' "it's a bit too deep." 

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