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Have Mobile Devices Killed the Live Music Experience?

John Kane • February 2020My Rant • February 10, 2020

I’ve always had a deep appreciation for live music. The social interaction, the production, the musicianship. However, as an aging Gen X’er, changes affecting this immersive personal musical experience have spoiled the culture I once revered. At a time when recent developments in the recording industry have created exorbitant concert ticket prices, why are we no longer present during live performances?

According to Pollstar, 2018 was a record-setting year for the concert business, with more than $11 billion in ticket sales alone. Big production efforts by Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, the Eagles and Rolling Stones all set attendance records and likewise were recorded on millions of phones. The once-forbidden act of taking a photo or video at a concert has become commonplace, yet somehow tolerated.

Artists, however, have been noticeably concerned, some even attempting to reclaim their art. During a performance, pop star Adele reminded fans that they can enjoy her show in “real life.” Alicia Keys requested beforehand that her fans seal up their phones using a personal pouch-locking device, designed by San Francisco-based company Yondr (overyondr.com). Occasionally, things have become confrontational. Recently, heavy metal frontman Rob Halford field-goal kicked a phone out the hands of a Judas Priest fan recording his every move, claiming on Twitter that if you “physically interfere” with his performance you “know what will happen.” It seems that both artist and concerned concertgoers (such as myself) have had enough.

‡‡         Digital Disruption

In a post-9/11 concert world, modifications to concert security are very evident. Since then, a laundry list of somewhat tolerable and logical rules, have sterilized the contemporary concert experience. However, nothing has been as disruptive as the digital phone, a technology that has sucked the remaining marrow from the bones of live music. The days of seeing your favorite group uninterrupted by someone’s blazing light searing your eyes are history. Bics have now been replaced by backlights. Something I first noticed at a 2005 Coldplay performance, two years before the first generation Apple iPhone landed in the hands of concertgoers? During the band’s emotional numbers, up went an ocean of flip phone blue screens. This Luddite was aghast.

With much anticipation, I saw the Canadian rock band Rush at the Boston Garden in 2015. Within the light show lulls, the darkness of the concert hall revealed a grid of brightly lit displays. Every person anxiously awaited to capture a Facebook pic or YouTube video to impress their envious homebound friends. This was the situation for almost every song. Feeling guilty, I put my phone away, thinking, “Have we forgotten how to be present and listen to live music?” According to the late media critic and author Neal Postman, we have. Even before our infatuation with a surplus of digital information, Postman foresaw how technology could get in the way of our personal and social experiences. In his 1992 book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, he proposed that “the tie between information and human purpose has been severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds,” and is “disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.”

‡‡         No Signs of Improvement

When tickets cost so much, why do we revert to our devices, detached, as our idols perform? How respectful is it when musicians are faced with a sea of screens? After the show, I realized the quality of my concert experience was forever destroyed. Waves of glowing displays recording the event, obstructing views, all feel invasive. After every performance on that Rush tour, countless (similar) images were shared online. The outcome was redundant, meaningless. And it’s getting much worse.

I recently went to see The Who at Fenway Park in Boston, MA, likely my last arena rock adventure. My seats were nothing to scoff at — turf, nine rows back, center stage. Really close. Exhilarating. For the most part, the Baby Boomer PBS crowd was well behaved, except for the woman in front of me. Her phone raised into the crisp fall air amid the greens of Fenway, she happily filmed the projection screens (positioned on either side of the stage) for her online “friends.” At times culpable of this, I still try to be conscientious of the person behind me. An hour into the music, I realized that she didn’t look up at the live performance once. At one point I had to tap her on the shoulder and kindly request that she lower her device so I could see. She shrugged, lowered a bit, and continued recording. Unavoidable, I noticed that not one person joined her Facebook Live offering. Fortunately for me, she left early. Tired arms, I suppose.

Who knows how our relationship with these devices will evolve, or even their impact on our culture. According to Postman, “the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity… undermining certain mental processes and social relations that make human life worth living.” Perhaps we should take a closer look at our behavior during these special moments. In this multitasking universe, we engage with our devices while driving, eating, sleeping, walking and even in conversation. Under one roof, entire families stare into their phones. They are together — while not being together.

In this way, what have we learned about ourselves that has bettered our lives in the real world? Obviously our devices have changed what we do, but have they also changed who we are? Have we removed ourselves from the human experience and by doing that achieved being alone with each other?

John Kane is an author and communications/media studies professor living in New Hampshire. His forthcoming book The Last Seat in the House: The Story of Hanley Sound will be released in February 2020 with the University Press of Mississippi.

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