A few nights ago I saw Jack White in concert. It was a wonderful night, and a big part of that was due to a new rule he has imposed on all his tour dates: no phones.
When you arrive, you have to put your phone into a neoprene pouch, supplied by a company called Yondr, which they lock and give back to you. If you want to use your phone during the show, you can go into the concourse and unlock it by touching it to one of several unlocking bases. The concert area itself remains screen-free.
The effect was immediately noticeable upon entering the concert bowl. Aside from the time-travel-like strangeness of seeing a crowd devoid of blue screens, there was a palpable sense of engagement, as though—and it sounds so strange to say it—everyone came just so they could be there.
People were visibly enjoying the opening band, at least in part because that band no longer compete with the entire internet for the crowd’s attention. Even the crowd’s milling around and chatting between acts was so much more lively. People were either talking to their neighbors, or taking in the room. And everyone taking in the room was taking in the same room. It felt great.
This is an interesting article but, for me at least, a weird one. I don’t have a smartphone. My phone is about 15 years old and the reason I keep it is because I have 4 days battery life and really…what do I need a phone for? The odd text message. The odd phone call. That’s it.
Need directions to a place? I look them up beforehand, or ask someone nearby or just like… do what I’ve done on occasion and just… look around and pick the direction that seems right. That last one I did in Paris because I don’t speak French but at the same time I just didn’t want to talk to anyone anyway. Did I get where I wanted to go? Actually yes. Did it take a long time? No, because somehow I picked the right direction.
But back to gigs.
The article says “everyone came just so they could be there” – which I think would have been true even if everyone could have kept their smartphones. I’ve been to the odd gig where the artist performing has been pretty hyped in the press and you can see the subset of the crowd who is there so that they can say that they were there (you can kind of tell who they are, because they tend to be standing in circles talking to each other at the tops of their voices all the way through and it would probably have been cheaper to hang with their friends in a pub or something).
I can’t say that I’ve personally felt the black hole of disengagement from the smartphone using crowd around me. Perhaps it’s the fans that the artists I go to see attract? Anyone who shows up for the support acts is always there to actually see the support act that their ticket money is going towards. Sure, people use their phones between acts – but that doesn’t prevent the crowd doing an impromptu sing-a-long to the Queen song that drifts out of the speakers while we wait.
But yeah. I don’t have a smartphone. I go to gigs on my own. Sometimes I’ll talk to the people around me (nearly all of whom have smartphones in their pockets). Mostly, I like being there and hearing the people chatting around me but I don’t necessarily have anything to say to them. I’m content to sit or stand and just wait – I don’t need the constant entertainment of a phone or conversation with another person. So maybe the change that the author of the article experiences wasn’t because everyone around them didn’t have a phone, but primarily because they personally didn’t have a phone. All of the things they talk about people doing at the gig without their phones, they have been doing at all the gigs where they had their phones – the author just didn’t notice.