The guitarist announced that he'll limit fans' ability to shoot photos during his concerts on his upcoming tour. Will it be possible at the Fair Grounds?

jack white photo
Jack White, by David James Swanson

It’s hard to imagine that Jack White will be able to lock up people’s phones when he plays Jazz Fest Sunday, May 6, but that is the plan for the tour behind his upcoming Boarding House Reach album. Yesterday, he announced that “no photos, video or audio recording devices” will be allowed at his concerts. He’s not worried about bootlegging, though. “We think you’ll enjoy looking up from your gadgets for a little while and experience music and our shared love of it IN PERSON,” the statement reads.

“Upon arrival at the venue, all phones and other photo or video-capturing gizmos will be secured in a Yondr pouch that will be unlocked at the end of the show. You keep your pouch-secured phone on you during the show and, if needed, can unlock your phone at any time in a designated Yondr Phone Zone located in the lobby or concourse. For those looking to do some social media postings, let us help you with that. Our official tour photographer will be posting photos and videos after the show at jackwhiteiii.com and the new Jack White Live Instagram account @officialjackwhitelive. Repost our photos & videos as much as you want and enjoy a phone-free, 100% human experience.”

There’s a lot of condescension in that statement, and that same controlling vibe emanates from many Third Man projects. Still, it’s hard to imagine that rule will apply at Jazz Fest. With so many points of entry into the show, bagging cameras sounds completely unmanageable. 

When White played The Saenger in 2014, he didn’t have a technological solution and instead discouraged phone photos and video by sending a member of his entourage onstage pre-show to ask the audience not to shoot it. White wanted people to be present and to really experience the show, and that the tour’s photographer would make his photos available online the next day for free download. The request worked, and there were far fewer cameras in the air during the show than at a usual concert. There were also good pictures online to choose from the next day, but it’s not clear if photos people didn’t take meant as much to fans as ones they took.

Do they relate the same way to shots of moments they didn’t notice taken from angles they didn’t have? It’s one thing to emphasize the “100 percent human experience,” but part of sharing something on social media is sharing my experience in the moment. Waiting 24 hours to share an approved photo that I didn’t shoot takes the human element out of the sharing experience. And since social media is, at its core, human connection, what White’s really asking for is for fans to spread publicity shots for him. 

White considers his effort successful and popular. White told Conan O’Brien, “People applauded when we asked them for that. They applauded and everyone as a mob agreed. We don’t like this idea, this practice [of everyone filming]. Because I think it’s distracting for people in the back who really want to watch. They see this see of blue screens in front of them—between them and the artist.”

It’s an open question if people were applauding White’s bold, thoughtful request, or if they were applauding because they loved Jack White. The request certainly got a positive response at the Saenger, and it’s one that fans at shows are at least casually sympathetic to. Now, it’s rare to look at an artist on stage and not see the blue lights of smartphone screens held up high enough to shoot a shot or a video. Is it genuinely distracting? For me, only when the show itself hits a lull, but individual mileage may vary. At Jazz Fest during daylight, I don’t notice screens at all. Are fans distracted by looking at their own phones? I’m not so sure. The Saenger show was certainly loud enough and intense enough that even fans looking down at their phones were having a very primal experience with the sound. And it’s not like White’s so jumpy on stage that if fans look down for a moment, they might miss a move that speaks volumes.  

I wonder if the photos and videos shot in the moment aren’t simply souvenirs because what I see posted on YouTube often features bootleg quality sound and ragged video that says little more than that the shooter was in the room. True, it was just such a video that went viral after Hannibal Buress joked in 2014 about Bill Cosby rape allegations, but more often that not, they look like meta ways for fans to say they were at the concert and demonstrate how much they’re fans. I wonder if the pleasure they get from watching their videos is memory-aided, with their recollection of the show’s sound cleaning up in their minds the churn that made it through the iPhone’s mic. The joy they experienced at the show makes the singer seem closer to them than he does to those of us watching online.  

White may be one of the first artists to tour with a phone locking system—Who else has done it?—but he’s hardly the first to try to stop fans from using their phones, even here in New Orleans. When Arcade Fire played a private party the night before it played Voodoo 2016, attendees had to check their phones at the door. When comedian Dave Chappelle hosted a Dave’s Juke Joint after-hours party at Bayou Barn in Marrero, fans had to hand over their phones before they could board the bus to the then-undisclosed location. 

Musicians don’t like being represented on YouTube by amateur video, but comedians hate it more. They rely on surprise for their jokes to work, and if videos of their routines can be seen online, the impact of their jokes is muted. Kevin Hart’s management posted signs in the Superdome when he played Essence Fest 2015 that stated, “No cell phones, texting, tweeting, talking, cameras, recording devices of any kind during the show or you will be ejected.” Ushers walked the aisles during Hart’s set with unusual vigilance, and while I only saw them wave occasionally to people to put their phones away, I’m told people were removed.

At Hart’s show like White’s at the Saenger, most people voluntarily cooperated, which suggests that smartphone photos and videos aren’t things that fans are attached to. They’re simply part of an opportunity to document a moment that didn’t present themselves when technology required fans to bring a separate camera or recorder to capture it.

As is often the case with Jack White, the rock he makes that you love comes with a strong undercurrent of his desire to control and make things conform to his notion of how things were better back when. He believes in vinyl, so real fans buy vinyl. He didn’t grow up texting with friends or processing a show with others on Twitter or Snapchat, so fuck that 21st century shit. Ultimately, it’s condescending, and White underestimates his own sound if he thinks people can tune it out when they look at their phones. Head up or head down, nobody’s missing the power of his music. 

At Jazz Fest, we can expect Jack White or one of his proxies to ask us to put away our phones and get our pictures from his site the next day, and a lot of people will do so. In these cases and others though, I suspect artists will only get away with it as long as they remain compelling. Right now, agreeing to bag, pocket or turn in your phone is a way of saying, I’m with Jack/Dave/Win/Kevin. When that statement and its implications mean less to people, cooperation will likely erode as well.