A few weeks ago, mere hours before Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds took the stage at Milwaukee Theater, I made a joke about the show on Twitter: “MKE drinking game: Take a shot for every Nick Cave picture you see in your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feeds tonight.” The joke being, of course, that there would soon be tons of blurry cell phone pics posted from the show, and that anyone participating in the proposed drinking game would be dead long before Cave got around to “Red Right Hand.” Sure enough, dozens of photos popped up on my feed that night, some accompanied by variations on “Take a drink, Matt!” In the interest of my health, I politely refrained. Plus, a few of them were pretty cool.
My tepid Twitter joke was (mostly) in jest, but the contentious issue of cell phone usage at concerts has been brewing for years, and seems to be coming to a head in 2014. Earlier this week, Esquire published a piece entitled “Why concerts stopped being fun.” In it, writer Ryan Bort opens with a recent quote from Jack White:
“People can’t clap anymore because they’ve got a fucking texting thing in their fucking hand, and probably a drink, too! Some musicians don’t care about this stuff, but I let the crowd tell me what to do. There’s no set list. I’m not just saying the same things I said in Cleveland last night. If they can’t give me that energy back? Maybe I’m wasting my time.”
Setting aside the eye-rolling “texting thing” part, it’s easy to sympathize with White. More and more shows these days are filled with people more interested in fiddling with their phones than they are in watching the performers in front of them. It can be a distraction for other people in the crowd, and a distraction for the musicians on stage. Plus, who in their right mind wants to watch a shaky and shitty sounding video of, say, a Girl Talk show? Especially when the most prominent thing about the video ends up being other people holding their phones? As someone who recently braved a Girl Talk show, I can confidently answer my own question: Absolutely no one.
Before we go any further, it’s useful to remember that cell-phone-show-goers come in many different varieties: those who snap a few pictures during a show; those who insist on filming most of a show; and those who simply dick around on their phones before, during, and after a show. The Esquire piece is more concerned with the last variety, and blames their actions not only on shortened 21st century attention spans, but on large summer festivals like Bonnaroo, which are filled with endless, non-musical distractions. It’s a terrific piece, and definitely worth a read.
But let’s get local: What does Milwaukee think about cell phones at shows? I reached out to a friend who has expressed some strong opinions on the subject in the past. Here’s what he said:
“Here’s the thing, I get it. People want to show all of their ‘friends’ on social media that they are doing something super cool. ‘Look at the show I’M at!’ ‘Look how close I am!’ ‘Look at the cool thing I get to do!’ I get it. My whole thing is that people are more concerned about showing people WHAT they are doing, than actually doing it.
My most recent example is when I went to see the band Whores play at Cactus. There is this dude in the front watching the ENTIRE SHOW through his phone. He was actually getting into it, and he started like, headbanging. BUT TO HIS PHONE. Do you know how ridiculous you are being? They were literally two feet in front of him. I will be honest with you, I had a few drinks. After about three songs of him recording it, in between songs I just said, ‘Dude, put your fucking phone away. You will never watch your video, and you are missing them play right in-fucking-front of you.’ He got mad or embarrassed and left. Granted I WAS being an asshole, but you would not believe how many people in the crowd came up to me and said, ‘That was hilarious.’”
In the interest of fairness, I posed a counter-question to Twitter yesterday: “Anyone out there NOT bothered by cell phones at concerts?” Some of the responses:
“I like to get a couple pictures of the show I’m at, but try to put the damn thing away after the first song or two.”
“Cell phone use doesn’t bother me. In fact, if I’m writing a concert review, I use my phone to take notes.”
“Snapping pics at a Cactus show or something, no. Shooting minutes of video sitting in front of me at Pabst, yep.”
So yeah, for the most part, people think excessive cell phone usage at concerts blows. Is it time to think of holding aloft bright-ass phones during shows as a public nuisance, like smoking? Or maybe it’s time for more clubs to enforce “No phone” policies, like movie theaters? Plenty of bands have done it, to varying degrees of success. Why stop there?
But let’s be honest: Asking people to completely ignore their phones and enjoy a show like they used to is like asking people to pay $18 for an album like they used to. It’s not going to happen. Still, there seems to be some common-sense rules we can all adhere to when attending club or theater shows. (As the Esquire piece notes, there’s little hope for Bon Jovi- or Taylor Swift-type shows.) For example:
1. If you must take a picture during a show for personal or social media purposes, do it quickly and discreetly. Try to do it early in the band’s set.
2. Unless you’re shooting video that will eventually end up on a website or blog, don’t shoot video at shows. It will suck.
3. If you must check your Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, email, etc. during a show, step away from the crowd. Check your shit in the bar, in the bathroom, or outside.
4. If people around you are ignoring any of the above three rules, relax. Try to ignore them. It’s their shitty time, not yours.
Here’s a final thought: Maybe some of the burden of giving an audience a reason to stop checking their phones should fall on the musicians themselves. This Saturday, Jon Mueller’s Death Blues will perform with Old Earth and Marielle Allschwang at the Cactus Club. Mueller’s heady, multi-disciplinary Death Blues project is about a lot of things, but its main concern is about being present in the moment, and meditating on the fleeting nature of that moment. It’s a show that practically demands to be experienced sans phone. So maybe its worth taking a cue from Mueller’s project: Be present. Be in the moment. And most importantly, remember that others around you are trying to do the same.