Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Concert crowds full of fans watching through cellphones. Can it be stopped?

YBOR CITY — One by one, the gatekeeper took their phones.

She framed an iPad above each device to scan a digital ticket code. Then she peeled off a 7-inch strip of thin blue tape and wrapped it around each phone's front and back camera lenses before handing it back.

"Don't take out your cellphone," she warned as patrons entered the Ritz Ybor beneath a banner bearing the words THIS NEVER HAPPENED.

What never happened? A recent Tampa concert by a DJ called Lane 8, apparently. The concept of the concert, and of Lane 8's entire fall tour, can be summed up in two words: no cellphones.

"It's nothing personal," said Lane 8, aka Daniel Goldstein. "It's just that we feel this is the best way for us to play a show and for fans to experience the show."

This was the first overt experiment in anti-smartphone technology at a concert in Tampa Bay, but it won't be the last. The overuse of cellphones to capture grainy, blurry photos and videos at concerts has for years vexed and enraged artists like Jack White, Alicia Keys and Mumford and Sons. If you raise your phone at Sunday's Amy Schumer concert at Amalie Arena, expect an usher to wave it back down.

Smartphones have become our windows to the world, the lens through which we view life, and that extends to the arts. With an estimated third of millennials experiencing live events largely through their phones, the concert industry is struggling to find a balance between living in the moment and life in 2016.

Cellphones have irreversibly altered the way we experience live music, and short of drastic measures — which could, in fact, be coming — it appears there's no going back.

• • •

A confession: I, too, spend a lot of time at concerts on my cellphone.

I snap photos and post them to Instagram and Twitter. I take notes, browse setlists, check Wikipedia, Google lyrics, Shazam song titles. Like many journalists, I've written and filed entire stories from my phone. I have no doubt this annoys some of those around me — I've been admonished by ushers and fans for my little glowing box — and when that happens, I try to keep it to a minimum.

But I also know I'm not alone. At every show, I see phones in every direction. Fans taking photos and videos they might share with friends, or which they might never scroll through again. Fans live-streaming a concert via Periscope, Facebook Live or FaceTime. Fans near the stage snapping selfies with the singer. Fans at festivals monitoring the Doppler of an approaching downpour. Fans streaming playoff baseball via Slingbox.

Is any of this appropriate? It depends on who you ask.

A 2015 poll commissioned by Ticketfly.com found that 31 percent of those 18 to 34 used their smartphones during at least half of concerts and other live events. Forty percent of women and 24 percent of men in that age group used their phones to take photos; 35 percent of women and 22 percent of men shared them on social media.

"People live through their cellphones now," said Kevin Preast, senior vice president of event management at Amalie Arena. "You see people watching the entire show through the lens of their phone. They seem more focused on sharing the experience with other people than they do enjoying the experience on their own."

In September, Libby Altwegg flew from Dallas to sit front-row-center for Brian Wilson at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. Standing maybe 15 feet from a singer she has worshiped for decades, she took so many photos and videos that by the end of the show, her iPhone was completely dead, and she admitted she had annoyed those around her.

"Brian gestured to me, Put the cellphone down," said Altwegg, 61.

But the way she saw it, she shelled out $500 for the seats, which included a meet-and-greet with Wilson and access to his afternoon soundcheck. She should be allowed to stand and enjoy herself in the presence of her idol, and to share her once-in-a-lifetime experience with friends on Facebook.

"I try to turn people on to my joy," she said.

Artists don't always see it that way. I've seen Adam Levine delay a song by more than a minute as he begged fans to put away their phones and enjoy the moment. I've seen David Lee Roth grab a fan's phone and snap a photo down his pants. When Hootie and the Blowfish played the Mahaffey in September, Darius Rucker chastised a fan near the front for shooting video.

"I want to give you an email address, and the next time you watch what you're recording, email me," Rucker said. "Because you'll never watch that s---. You will never watch it."

On the other hand, some artists implore fans to pull out their phones and follow them on social media, or use a special hashtag or Snapchat filter created specifically for the tour. They ask fans to raise their phone flashes like lighters to create a cool sea of waving lights. Some use phones the same way fans do, capturing the moment on Instagram or Snapchat. Miranda Lambert recently had a crowd in Tampa sing Happy Birthday to her brother in Texas.

"You can spend all your time complaining about it and trying to get people to meet you on your level, but really, there's an audience that is there," said singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. "They came. It's not my job to mediate their experience. It's just my job to play as good as I can."

And when that happens, cellphones can benefit artists even more.

Ticket sales for Kanye West's Amalie Arena show on Sept. 14 were strong from the get-go. But when the rapper debuted an otherworldly floating stage at his tour kickoff in August, the flurry of fan clips that circulated on social media "absolutely ignited sales," Preast said.

"Everybody's watching," he added. "When you post something on your social media, it's not a local thing. When you tweet it, it can be seen by anybody in the world, and it can be a reflection on (artists) in the global marketplace. And they're very cognizant of that."

• • •

For venues, adopting a strict cellphone policy is close to impossible.

The BB&T Center in Sunrise prohibits "video recording, including cellphone video," according to its website, as well as "cellphone usage (texting in seating area, etc.)." The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa does not allow cellphone use during Broadway or orchestra performances, but it does have a "Tweet Seat" section where fans at certain shows can hop on Twitter at will.

Over the summer, Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater began displaying its nightly photo policies on the auditorium walls with a light projector, encouraging fans who must take a photo to limit their clicks to the first couple of songs.

"This way they can enjoy it and get it in, and then we say, sit back and enjoy a live performance," said Susan Crockett, Ruth Eckerd Hall's chief operating officer and vice president of operations. "You don't want to be watching it through a lens."

Others have largely thrown up their hands.

"Unless a show has a specific policy on it, we don't restrict cellphones because, frankly, it's daunting to do it," Preast said. "You can't tell a mom or a dad that's here and has a babysitter that they can't bring a phone in. They're going to freak out."

The tightest anti-cellphone security at Amalie Arena came in May 2015 for two performances by comedian Kevin Hart. The artist and venue hired around 30 additional ushers to patrol the aisles; people caught using a phone were ejected.

There may come a day when technology renders that extra manpower obsolete. A company called Yondr makes lockable pouches designed to keep phones out of fans' hands. They've been used by artists like Guns N' Roses, the Lumineers, Dave Chappelle and Tracy Morgan, who will deploy them at his Nov. 11 show at the Mahaffey Theater.

"Etiquette and social norms around something radically new, like a smartphone — of course it's going to take some time to develop," said Yondr founder and CEO Graham Dugoni. "I think in the not-too-distant future, people might look back and go, 'Of course you couldn't have your phone out everywhere, all the time, recording everyone and anyone you want.' The implications, socially and psychologically, are becoming apparent."

In June, Apple applied for a patent on technology that would use infrared signals to temporarily disable a phone's cameras "in areas where picture or video capture is prohibited."

"Soon enough, they'll have something where they can geofence an arena and squash everybody's camera," Preast said. "It's not there yet, but once it happens, it'll be a different way of protecting content, no different than the battles of iTunes and Pandora and Napster. . . . Certain bands might say, 'If you don't have this, we're not coming.' "

Crockett agreed: "I think there will be a day when an artist is going to require it. That'll probably be the thing that prompts us." And when that happens, she expects fans to react as they did to wands and bag searches.

"At first it seemed oppressive, but now people just expect it," she said. "It's just keeping pace with what people expect in our culture."

Goldstein, aka Lane 8, didn't want to take such drastic measures on his This Never Happened tour. Separating fans from their phones could lead to a "potentially hairy situation" in the event of an emergency.

"We've always felt that the best way to make this work is for the fans to actually buy into the concept," he said. "If we're trying to impose it on people that are not willing, and are not really up for it, it's just such an uphill battle the whole time and it's going to be a negative experience for all involved."

The feedback he got about his early phone-free shows was positive — so much so that he plans to turn "This Never Happened" into an event management brand that other artists and venues might buy into.

"Our focus is convincing people that this is worth trying," he said. "It should be enjoyable. That's the whole point."

• • •

Are phone-free concerts really more fun? With my phone taped and pocketed, I entered Lane 8's concert at the Ritz to find out.

Inside were hundreds of fans on the dance floor, waving their hands and drinks and glowsticks in the air. Little dance-off circles opened up here and there. It looked and felt a bit retro, like footage of a club from a film set in the '80s.

I resisted the urge to check texts, Twitter, even the time (note to self: replace watch battery). I noticed, but did not act upon, the show's Instagrammable imagery — enormous inflatable globes dangling from the ceiling; lasers swirling through translucent balloons; kaleidoscopic videos of flower petals, metaphors for the night's ephemeral experience. My hands were actually free, so I grabbed myself a drink. I struck up conversations with strangers. I watched Lane 8 do his thing.

Perhaps because my eyes were tilted higher than usual, I spent more time people-watching, to gauge whether other fans had bought into Lane 8's concept of living in the moment.

Barely five minutes passed before I saw a glow in the crowd. It was a guy checking Facebook.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

   
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