Cell phones have changed the concert experience, and not for the better.

passion pit photo
Fans at Passion Pit at the Civic Theatre, 2013, by Patrick Ainsworth

When cell phones were merely cell phones with nothing smart about them, it was a common sight at concerts to see fans holding their open phones over their heads. The sound for those on the receiving end was terrible, but the impulse to share the moment was understandable and common. Once a camera became a part of the phone, everybody became a photographer and--with greater regularity these days--videographer, but they're not necessarily good ones. 

In today's New Orleans Advocate, I talked to a number of musicians about their feelings on the phenomenon. Most felt a mix of flattery and frustration. It's nice that fans like you enough to want to video their performances, but the rough sound and visuals often don't represent them very well. 

After my deadline passed, I heard from two people who know a little bit about fan recordings: Dave Malone and Papa Mali. Malone wrote:

My general stance is that a particular show belongs to the people who paid to come see it on that date, unless, of course, it has been pre-announced as being broadcast or taped for future release. As coming from an older musician, I'm sure that you wouldn't be too surprised that I have major problems with how the Internet has made it so easy for people to steal music from the people who agonized and put in hours and hours of effort into creating it. Of course, that started back when musicians still had to possess musicality and generally were able to play a musical instrument.

The general anxiety that fans are getting something that isn't theirs is a common one among musicians, though a bigger concern is how shooting video on phones affects the musician/audience dynamic. Papa Mali and I had an exchange on this subject after the deadline for Advocate story as well.

In general, I dislike 99 percent of fan vids from live shows - poor sound, shaky camera, bad angle, crowd noise. Also dislike seeing partial songs. But I'm also the guy that never listens to my own live shows, no matter how good the recording quality is--unless (and this goes for video, too) there is a very special guest--Allen Toussaint, Maceo Parker, someone on that level. Then it gets a spin or two.

Recently, I asked my FB friends to video one of my shows, my record release gig at Chickie Wah Wah. We were performing the entire album, in sequence with the same lineup that we recorded it with. The idea was that we'd have multiple phone camera angles to choose from in an intimate setting with good sound and involve the fans, thereby generating interest for the record's release.

A few people contributed worthwhile footage. One in particular staked out front row tables early and did it right with a small tabletop tripod and an external mic.

However, the negative backlash I received on my FB request (for encouraging this) far outnumbered the people who wanted to participate. Apparently people are really sick of everybody's amateur phone cinematography interfering with their live music experience. I can dig it. As a result, I have thought twice about trying this experiment again.

One final thought, I played several shows in Italy last summer--two outdoor festivals and a lively bar, out in the country. I didn't see one single smartphone held in the air while I was performing. Everyone was actually paying very close attention to every note. After each song, they would applaud enthusiastically, but during the song it was perfectly silent. After the show, many people asked politely to have their photo made with me, but usually after offering me a glass of wine or grappa. They had the latest technology, they just did not want to be rude about it, especially while we were performing.

That's cool. I wonder if it was out of respect for the music or an entirely different cultural phenomenon. I wonder if videos and photos from shows are really just a form of souvenir. I also wonder if it's sometimes an opportunity thing. On occasions when I've found myself able to get really close to the stage, I almost felt an obligation to take photos, like, "When am I going to get another chance to shoot good pictures of this person?"

Yes, I take photos and vids, too. Photos more so than videos. And I try to be aware of how flattering or unflattering the result is before I post it on social media, though most of the time I end up just keeping the best photo as a souvenir of a great show and deleting the rest. Lately, I've become more conscientious about whether I'm distracting the folks around me, or worse, the person on stage. Personally, I think most performers have just accepted that it's part of being a performer in these times and that is not likely to change. In fact, I would start to worry if nobody was posting photos or videos of my shows!