Put Away the Cameras and Watch the Show, Music Fans

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In a recent interview with Spinner, White Stripes/Raconteurs/Dead Weather mastermind Jack White explained why he doesn't allow fans to shoot photos and video during shows at Third Man Records:

When we have concerts [at Third Man Records headquarters in Nashville], we don't allow people to film and take photos. That's not about not letting people have a memento, that's about: how sick are you of watching people in the crowd not looking at the stage? They're watching a tiny little TV screen in their hand instead of watching what's really going on in life.

I notice this phenomenon at nearly every show I see -- but especially the larger ones: Fans, often ones fortunate enough to have great views of the stage, watch most of the concert through the screen of their camera, smartphone, or other device, rather than their own eyes. Since they're holding their camera/phone high enough for me to see the screen (and partially blocking my view), I can tell that this is usually a waste of time. Their pictures usually look like crap. And let's ponder for a second the likelihood that these people, in some future state of sobriety, will actually watch the 90-second video they shot of Tool from 50 yards away, recorded with a tiny lens and a microphone with the dynamic range of a Playskool telephone.


But as White hinted, there's something more deeply disturbing about the explosion of cameras and camera phones at shows. It is absurd that music fans pay hundreds of dollars, in some cases, to stand in the same room/hall/arena as the artists they love, then spend most of the event watching the performance through a screen. It makes you wonder whether we've become so dazzled by our gadgetry that real-life experiences seem less noteworthy or exhilarating without them. (Although some argue the opposite.) But what else could explain the hundreds of fans I saw watching large chunks of a Paul McCartney concert -- surely one of the most noteworthy performers and exhilarating performances I've ever witnessed -- through the harsh glow of an LCD screen?

Another reason comes to mind: Our relentless urge to share. Converting our life experiences into ones and zeros allows us to exchange them with others. We can prove we saw Sir Paul. We can prove -- or at least argue with evidence -- that witnessing him perform "Let it Be" was a transcendent. In an age where everything it seems can be saved, linked to, archived, e-mailed, posted to the Facebook wall, or tweeted, there's a reassurance in converting the most rare moments into a shareable format. Keeping them inside the hazy confines of our own minds feels pretty much like losing them forever.

I'm certainly not immune to this urge. I regularly photograph the shows that I review for this blog, and certainly feel the rush of capturing fleeting moments onstage with the click of my shutter. In the midst of a show, I sometimes see a new image appear on my camera's screen and feel a rush of anticipation for the moment when I can post it to the Internet. Even at concerts I'm not photographing -- my preference is to leave that to others -- I sometimes feel an anxious urge to capture moments so I can share them later. 

But I also want to fight that feeling. Like White, I'm sick of people (including myself) not looking at what's actually in front them, in the real world, on the stage they paid to watch. It's a disservice to the artists, who are usually fighting to make the kinds of human connections with the audience that can't happen through a screen. (There's a big difference between watching a concert live and watching a concert DVD, after all.) It's a disservice to ourselves when we mediate a rare, real-world experience through the stifling glare of a camera or a phone. And that's saying nothing about what a pain it is to crane one's neck around a forest of bright screens to catch a view of the show. Screens, after all, are everywhere in our world. Stages are not.

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