A Rage Against the Phones

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A Rage Against the Phones

After a four-year absence, art-punk trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are making a comeback on the back of their new record, Mosquito. Fans file into Webster Hall, the famed New York rock venue, to watch the much-anticipated show. The sign in front is emphatic. “Please do not watch the show through a screen on your smart device/camera. Put that sh*t away.”

If the signatures of the band members don’t make it clear, then frontwoman Karen O’s onstage speech does. “Put those motherf*ckers away,” she shouts at the sea of smartphones, according to Spin Magazine. Nobody complains. And for the most part, the crowd does what they’re told.

A few months later, British buzz band Savages posts a more politely sign-slash-manifesto. “We believe that the use of phones to film and take pictures during a gig prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves,” they wrote to their website. “Let’s make this evening special. Silence your phones.” Fitting for a critically acclaimed band with an album titled “Silence Yourself.”

The most striking aspect of a concert used to be the strutting rock star onstage. Or perhaps the flashy light and smoke show. But today, the sight to behold is the sea of concertgoers holding up phones to film and snap every moment. If you didn’t make it to the show, no worries. You can still watch bits of it on YouTube.

But the backlash against gadgets isn’t just for punk bands with attitudes. Industry veterans are speaking out against the omnipresence of phones — they’re tired of looking out and seeing handsets held up like lighters. Prince, for example, asked people not to use phones during his set — even threatening to remove audience members who didn’t comply. But the tide of technology is hard to turn, especially as it transforms live entertainment.

Bad Manners, Bad Experiences

Rock was about rebellion. In some ways, it’ll always rail against the bourgeoisie, but now, artists often complain about the annoyance of gadgets. “I would never turn on a cell phone at any musical event,” Roger Waters, former bassist and vocalist for Pink Floyd, told the BBC. “How could I possibly truly experience the thing I’d paid to see and hear, if I was fiddling with an iPhone, filming or twittering or chatting or whatever?”

The Rolling Stones, for example, held a surprise gig at the Echoplex in Los Angeles. While the show received rave reviews for the performance — and the $20 ticket price — it was also praised for the lack of intrusions. “It even more exclusive and old school, freeing concertgoers’ hands of the gizmos that have become commonplace at concerts nowadays,” Derrik Lang wrote in his review of the show.

Beyond the idea of manners and consideration, people say watching a concert through a flat, isolating screen isn’t the way music — much less life — is meant to be experienced. Rock at its best is visceral, a communal, even tribal experience.

While the argument is subjective, it turns out critics have neuroscientific research on their side. The impact of technology on the brain is just being studied, but findings suggest that constant use of gadget is rewiring our synapses, subtly altering our experience of time and memory.

Live music of all kinds — classical, rock, jazz and pop — aims to induce an experience, called “flow,” by cognitive psychologists, characterized by a brain state where analytical and critical thinking temporarily stops and the higher cognitive functions of the frontal lobe, which also govern creativity, are dominant. In short, when you’re in flow, you feel like time stands still or disappears altogether.

Sounds appear richer, colors become more saturated, even your emotions are heightened. But to experience that state of mind, you need focus, and above all else, immersion, which constant tapping, framing, photographing, texting and uploading takes away from.

Innovations in the Concert Arena

Companies are transforming the live entertainment experience, too, using phones to expand a performer’s reach. One business, 45sound, does this by scouring the Internet to corral those bits of fan footage of concerts and turn them into professional videos. “We take the poor quality on-camera audio from fan videos, and analyze that to see patterns,” Cathal Furey, co-founder of 45sound, told the BBC. “The technology matches it against what we call a master audio recording, which would be a professional live audio recording.”

And if there’s more than one clip of the same moment, it’ll combine videos to let you switch camera angles. So perhaps, you can get a better view of the show if you’re stuck in nosebleed seats.

Other innovations are harnessing the critical mass of phones. CoSync, for example, links gadgets through Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, allowing you to share cameras, microphones and features. A master phone then tells all the connected devices to take pictures, creating a multi-camera recording system. The result: footage that avoids bad lighting and overexposure, which individual phones often falls prey to, according to inventor and MIT engineer Eyal Toledano.

As much as artists and their audiences like to rail against the phone, gadgets are here to stay. When you find yourself standing in a swarm of phones at a concert, instead of looking up to watch the band onstage, you may watch them through a neighboring screen. Sure, it’s not ideal — but if all else fails, you can always watch it on YouTube, chopped up into fragments, captured by hundreds of different phones.

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Culture Desk

A look at the arts and entertainment of technology.
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