It's the first night of Sasquatch! 2016 and British electronic-pop act Disclosure has just arrived in a cloud of dry ice and neon spotlights. The shadowy masses of festivalgoers, however, stare into their phones, their devices aimed at the stage. Cheering fans' phones aren't dead (or lost) yet, and they will record as much of the performance as possible. No moment will go undocumented.
This sort of scene isn't only commonplace at festivals; the glowing blue screens are now a staple at shows of all sizes. People want to remember these often costly experiences. They want to show their friends how Beyoncé's outfits slayed or how Tim McGraw sang right to them.
But by doing so are we losing a piece of the concertgoing experience?
Knitting Factory President Mark Dinerstein says the topic is markedly gray. Phones can serve a purpose but also cause distraction. On a personal level, he says he wishes that folks would put the devices down.
"You used to interact with people at the show," he says. "You had conversations about what was going on onstage. That was the capturing-the-moment stuff, you stored it in your head."
He says at the Knitting Factory, the artists and fans are equally as important — nothing can occur without the other — and both sides must be appeased. When musicians do make requests for no photography, the company attempts to help comply with that, yet they never take anyone's cellphones at the door.
These days, it seems Americans can't be without their smartphones. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that while 36 percent of Americans don't own smartphones (seriously!), a whopping 79 percent of people who do said the devices made them feel productive and happy. But documenting everything we experience isn't necessarily helpful either.
Researchers like Connecticut psychologist Linda Henkel argue that the more we record, the less we experience. She told NPR that unless you take the step of actually looking at the photos you take, it's hard to get memories from them.
Meanwhile, many local artists have no problem with fans taking photos and videos at their shows, it's a great marketing tool, they say. The local rock band Quarter Monkey says they always take it as a compliment when a concertgoer has their phone out recording. But not only lesser-known groups are pro-phones at their shows, as seen at the recent sold-out Spokane concert by the 1975, a rock band quite popular with the young ladies.
"If it's a young show, the fans are going to be on their phone, that's their lifestyle," Dinerstein says. "And it's reasonable to assume the artists are into their phones, too, and they invite people on stage and take selfies. It's a different school of thought. It can enhance their show, and those bands use it for promotion and to connect with fans on a personal level."
For better or worse, many of these shows end up online, and copyright law stipulates that artists or music publishers — if they even care at all — must go after posters directly; venues are not responsible. But these videos also bring fans together. YouTube channels like Better Than Nothing Videos take clips posted from Pearl Jam concerts and cobble them together for one cohesive video synched with the band's official bootleg release, much to the pleasure of the band's cult-like following.
For the artists trying to stop fans from filming everything, some options seem to work better than others. Wayne Larson, who books the shows at Chateau Rive, says that for the upcoming Hot Tuna show, tickets read "no photography" right on top. Father John Misty has toured with a big stage set piece that reads "no photography" and even Beyoncé has urged her fans to put their devices down during her set. Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel told the audience his no-phone policy wanted to "keep everyone in the moment," when he came through the Knitting Factory here late last year. Most fans seemed to comply.
Still, it can be extremely distracting when ushers have to tell audience members to put their phones away, like a few did at April's Joanna Newsom concert at the Bing Crosby Theater. As Wesley Schultz of the Lumineers told the Washington Post, "If you yell at the audience or treat them like kids, they're going to act like kids. You want to give people the responsibility and put the onus on them."
Schultz's band has recently taken to encouraging their audiences to take as many photos as possible for one song and then put the cellphones down.
And there's something extremely special about a show where you're free from your phone. A show where you're dancing with one arm waving free and sweating and getting lost in the sound. Those are the nights you wish would never end.
As Chateau Rive's Larson says: "Adults watch concerts. Kids record them." ♦