Are cell phones ruining the concert experience?

by Thor Christensen

The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

16 May 2008

C.J. Ludwig talks to a friend on his blackberry while The Spill Canvas performs during a concert at the Granada Theatre in Dallas, Texas, March 30, 2008. (Ben Fredman/Dallas Morning News/MCT) 

What if you gave a concert and the crowd refused to watch?

It’s not as far-fetched as it seems. As more and more concertgoers fiddle with cell phone cameras and fidget with BlackBerries, some people say mobile technology is ruining the concert experience.

Are cell phones ruining the concert experience?

“It’s extraordinarily irritating,” says Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame. “All these people holding up these horrid little squares of bright light.”

“It’s like they’re not even there,” says jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. “It’s like, `Why don’t you put that away and listen to the music?’”

“It drives me crazy,” says singer Steve Earle. “They have their use, but there’s definitely a price to pay.”

It’s not just a case of cranky baby boomers griping about the young and the restless. Plenty of younger artists and fans are also getting fed up with the tech intrusion.

“As a performer, it’s frustrating to look out and see a sea of cell phones instead of faces,” says Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein.

“There’s definitely a problem where people are so busy documenting the moment that they forget to just live in the moment.”

Of course, pop concerts were awash in distractions long before the cell phone. In the early `60s, shrieking girls made it impossible to hear the Beatles perform. In the `90s, mosh pits made going to concerts a contact sport.

“You never expect 100 percent of people’s attention,” says rapper Ice Cube. “You learn to take 80 percent.”

But the levels seem to be rapidly shrinking thanks to “microboredom,” a term invented by - who else - a cell phone company to convince people they need to escape reality with their mobile gadgets.

At concerts, microboredom usually means fans snapping dozens of photos of the band, the crowd and the stage lights. The ultimate disconnect comes when they take pictures of the pictures on the video screen.

“Everyone has this strange archiving addiction now. It’s like they’re trying to pin a butterfly to a corkboard,” says Canadian singer Feist.

“To me, a gig isn’t supposed to be for posterity,” she says. “It’s supposed to be a bunch of people tossed together in a room, making a mood, and then it’s over. You can’t see the world through a viewfinder.”

Ray Davies of the Kinks sang about the problem 40 years ago in “People Take Pictures of Each Other,” a song about obsessive photo-takers trying “to prove they really existed.”

But the existential crisis isn’t confined to photography. To some fans, a concert isn’t a concert until they’ve text-messaged their buddies about it.

“It’s a really interesting trend - instead of clapping, they’re blogging,” said Michael Stipe, poking fun at the tech-addicted crowd at R.E.M.‘s recent show at March’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

But not all musicians regard mobile technology as a buzz-kill. When cell phone use exploded in the late `90s, bands had fans wave them in the air to create a million-points-of-light effect. Suddenly, flicking your Bic was passe.

Later, as text-messaging flourished, groups asked concertgoers to post messages on video screens. Today, some artists embrace the tech boom as a potential career boost.

“My bottom line is communication,” says English rocker Billy Bragg. “If they want to capture a photo of me and send it to a friend who can’t be at the gig, I don’t have a problem with that.”

Concert videos are the latest rage as fans flood YouTube with clips they shot using their cell phones and digital cameras. The videos are often so fuzzy and muffled they’re unwatchable. Still, some bands embrace them as free instant promotion.

Bowling for Soup recently made up a song onstage and “that thing was on YouTube before I even got back home from the show,” says singer Jaret Reddick. “That’s just the way it is now.”

In an age of multitasking, some wonder if electronic gadgets are really that much of a distraction - or if the anti-cell phone brigade is just being crotchety.

“Do you want people to be strapped to their seats, with their eyes pinned open and a jolt of electricity if their mind should stray?” says Police drummer Stewart Copeland.

“Cell phones don’t bother me,” he says. “An audience that’s so excited it’s shooting the band with its cell phones is an audience that’s throbbing with the pulse of the band.”

But is it really about a communal pulse? Or is it more about stroking your own ego?

“I see people calling their friends and saying, `Hey! Guess where I am? I’m at the Roger Waters show,’ just so somebody somewhere can be impressed by them,” says Waters. “It’s about them showing off.”

One solution would be to forbid fans from using phones during the show - a protocol already used at classical concerts, plays and movies.

Then again, rock prides itself on personal freedom. Banning cell phones might seem totally un-rock `n’ roll.

“It’s a personal choice. We shouldn’t say `you can’t have a cell phone,’” says Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney.

“But it’s frustrating,” she says. “There’s a generational gap where people no longer know how to experience life without technology.”

Music lovers can only hope they’ll learn. It may take decades, but some future generation is bound to hit the “off” button and rediscover the joy of focusing on the concert.

“All these new toys, people have to play with them for a while,” says musician-producer T Bone Burnett. “But ultimately, they’ll figure out how dehumanizing they are.”

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