Raise Your Smartphone To The Sky?

How selfish people are ruining the live concert experience

A recent study in the journal Psychological Science followed a group on a museum tour. They were told to take photographs of certain pieces of art and to simply observe others. The study found, essentially, that people who took a picture remembered less of what they saw than those who just observed.

We can all agree: there’s no place in our culture where this phenomenon applies more than live concerts. During a show these days, an annoyingly large percentage of fans raise their smartphones in the air like the lighters of yesteryear, photographing and videotaping throughout most of a performance.

Despite the effort involved in holding your phone in the air and holding the frame steady, despite the perturbed looks from fellow audience members, the urge is just too strong for many of us. We feel compelled to record the events on stage; the smartphone and its myriad capabilities are too available, too ubiquitous.

Interestingly, the study found that if the subject zoomed in on the art there was no impairment of memory. But zooming in at a concert — when you’re typically dozens of yards away from the performers — is pointless. In fact, anyone who has used a smartphone knows that even zooming in on your cat from close range in a brightly lit room often produces subpar results.

The truth is, smartphone cameras are ruining the live concert experience, both for the people taking the pictures and for the performers inside the frame.

A Tiny Blur

I’m no scrooge when it comes to smartphones. I’m as consumed by staring into my tiny screen as everyone else. Before I begin almost any activity, I have to decide if I shouldn’t first spend a few more minutes or hours scrolling and scrolling, checking the feeds (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), going through emails, seeing how many steps I’ve taken in a given day.

What am I looking for? What is there that is so interesting? I have no idea. Nor do I really care. I’m just acting on what has become a basic instinct of human beings in our modern age — staring intently into this small device as text and images float by.

You might think a concert would be different. There are actual people — talented musicians — performing for you, right in front of you. Yet as I sat recently in the balcony of the Cadillac Palace in Chicago watching John Legend play and sing his heart out at the piano, I did so thru the prism of the tiny screens held up in front of me.

Some were taking one indistinguishable photograph after another — a fuzzy blur of lights and the vague pixelated resemblance of a person on stage. Some were tweeting about their presence at the concert or recording what would later become an unbearably low-quality YouTube. And the rest were texting.

It ruined the moment. It just did.

Legend was doing this very intimate, stripped down acoustic set — just him and the piano, and occasionally some strings. It was the kind of thing you just wanted to soak in. Just sit there quietly and listen. But you couldn’t because of the constant distraction of all those tiny blurs watching the concert for you.

I can understand taking a couple of shots so you have something to post on social media and say you were there. But why do you need hundreds? Why the non-stop flurry of people taking the same bad photo for two hours? Why not just watch, enjoy and actually remember the live talent you’ve come to see?

A Lesson in Photography

Photo: Garick Asplund/Flickr

It doesn’t take an expert in photography to know that you need a certain amount of lighting to create an image. And yet here are all these fools, their smartphones raised to the sky, mindlessly snapping bleary shots.

What do you tell your friends when you show them these photos? Do you say, “OK, see that flash of purple? Well, the shadow across it, that’s Drake.”

Smartphone photography, even in perfect conditions, is far from ideal. The photos tend to be grainy, it’s hard to hold the camera steady and very few people have the ability to capture anything at all artful. In some ways, Instagram is a godsend in that it has helped make our mundane photos visually pleasing. It’s also a curse, because it’s made everyone think they are qualified to take pictures and share them.

And then there’s the method people use to take photos at a concert. It’s often holding the phone up in the air, trying to angle it above heads, with no idea what’s actually in the frame.

Here’s a tip: it actually helps to be looking in the viewfinder when you’re taking a picture. This is why, unless you’re a professional, concert photography is so universally bad.

The problem isn’t just that we have to look at our friends’ awful photos — after all, one darkened, blurry concert shot is basically the same as the next. The worst part of it is that all these hundreds and sometimes thousands of lousy photographers are in the way of what I actually want to see — the concert itself.

They may not realize it, but it’s detrimental to their experience too. As the study suggests, they’re essentially erasing a tiny bit of their memory with each picture.

I Can See What’s On Your Phone

Photo: Christopher Brown/Flickr

A couple years ago I was out to see Trombone Shorty at a place called Lincoln Hall in Chicago. It’s a wonderful small venue, a place where the crowds tend to be a touch more respectful than the average. The jazz virtuoso was going through his set to the typical glittering of obnoxious smartphone users, but there was one particular phone that stood out.

There was someone on the screen of this girl’s phone looking back at us. The concertgoer was actually Facetiming or video conferencing with some guy, who looked like Newman from Seinfeld. He appeared to be hanging out in his underwear munching on a bag of potato chips. It was creepy, revolting and utterly counterproductive to the mood of show.

And it lasted so long, with her hopelessly trying to transfer the concert experience to her Newman back home.

Then I’m at Jay-Z (The Magna Carta tour) at the United Center. One of the guys in front of me spent much of the concert creeping on a couple of young girls next to him — rubbing up against them, sharing his drugs with them, trying to dance up on them.

I felt filthy enough watching that. What was worse was when I could see his text in full view later in the night. It said something to the effect of (and I’m paraphrasing), “Brenda, you know I love you. Why don’t you trust me?”

You’re in such close quarters at a show, everything you do even on the relatively small screen of a phone can be seen by the people around you. I don’t need to know that someone stood you up, or that you’re high on cocaine or that you have to get up early tomorrow (all things I’ve seen).

Of course, what I hate seeing most is the pitiful photo you keep taking over and over again.

The Artists Hate It, So Stop It

I know one concertgoer who was the ultimate amateur photographer. He wanted a memento for every show — and he went to like five shows a week. Then he realized, quite rationally, that not only was he only doing it mostly to brag about his concert-going, but also that the artists wanted him to stop. This may be the ultimate solution to the problem. Someone with authority has to tell the smartphone paparazzi to stop.

We’ve seen it work in the movie theaters. Until the last five years or so, going to see a movie was often a terrible experience because of people talking. They’d blurt out surprises and otherwise discuss things happening on screen, as if they were in their own living rooms.

It was at epidemic levels — every trip to the cineplex tarnished by the insipid commentary of some ignorant person behind you. Then it stopped, because movie theaters started sending someone in before the movie to essentially tell everyone to shut the fuck up. Sure people still talk in the movies, but it’s much less. The pre-emptive reprimand really made a difference.

It’s already starting to happen on the concert scene. Artists as big as Prince and Beyonce have starting posting rules against photographing and recording concerts. Prince even went so far as to have people in the crowd, snatching phones away from offenders. The occasional asshole is always going to be a problem, but the widespread behavior will likely decrease.

It Didn’t Used to Be Good. Now It’s Worse.

Photo: Eduardo Merille/Flickr

It’s not as if behavior at concerts was so wonderful before the smartphone. It was sort of bad enough when you just had someone breathing on your neck, elbowing you on their way to the front of the stage, blowing marijuana smoke over your head, throwing up on the floor or drunkenly singing along to every word (I didn’t come to hear you sing, dude).

The additional nuisance of the smartphone drones is simply too much.

So don’t put your phone in the air, put it in your pocket. It will be better for everyone — the artists, your fellow concertgoers and even for yourself.

Follow Stefan Schumacher on Twitter @DeathStripMall.
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