Experiencing Concerts through a Screen: Concert Venues as Quasi-Media Spaces

Everybody was holding up their hands, and here and there I could see guysholding up their cell phones, playing the music for someone else – Neil Strauss

Earlier in September my boyfriend and I went to watch one of our favourite bands, Imagine Dragons at the Entertainment Centre in Sydney. The moment the band came on stage and opened the night with Shots, I could not contain my excitement as my body started moving to the music. Because I was enjoying the performance so much, my hands instinctively went to my smartphone as I felt the need to record and document the live performance of one of my favourite songs. Of course, I was not the only person engaging in this practice. In fact, my smartphone joined a sea of other smartphones; each pushing and moving, trying to capture the best footage of the performance.

However, as we all were engaging in this practice, I was suddenly left feeling conflicted as a stream of questions gushed through my head: What am I doing? I spent $90.00 to watch Imagine Dragons live and now I’m watching them through a screen? Do I even remember how Dan performed the song? Upon realising how quickly Shots ended and my lack of engagement with the song once I got my phone out, I was left feeling disappointed. I told myself I would not let my phone get in the way of the rest of the concert again! However, when the band played another one of my favourite songs, Demons, I was once again in a state of inner turmoil. I wanted to capture the moment on my phone, but then again, I didn’t want to worry about my smartphone and erode my experience! Nevertheless, I could not help myself and decided to record the song anyway.

After the concert ended, I remember complaining to my boyfriend about how I struggled finding the right balance between immersing myself in the concert and recording it for later consumption. However, according to him, using smartphones at concerts is ‘stupid’ as ‘you can’t enjoy a concert like that’. As we ate upon our late night Maccas feast, he informed me of how bands and artists such as Jack White are banning the use of phones at their concerts. Apparently, it’s just as distracting for artists and band members as it is for fans.

This whole experience made me question how the concert experience has developed in the past two decades; after all, before the Smartphone era, concert-going patrons did not hold their Smartphones up in the air; so what did they do? Did they simply wave their hands in the air to the rhythm of the music? Or did they do something else?

I believe the live music experience has changed drastically for most concert going patrons with the development of Smartphones and online social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and SMS text messaging. I suspect the live music experience would have been more enjoyable before the Smartphone era, as people would’ve been more ‘present’, connected and conscious of the live performance than people are now. As Lucy Bennett drew on Cavicchi’s research and claimed, ‘within music fandom, live concerts have been determined as constituting a ‘powerful meeting’ place where individuals come together to ‘enact the meaning of fandom’”. However, does this ‘powerful meeting space’ as a collective and communal activity still really exist in the Smartphone era? I obviously did not have the answers to all these questions as I’ve grown up in this Smartphone culture. Thus I decided to interview my boyfriend’s mum, Nicole, about her concert going experience back in the bubblegum pop era of the 80s!

Nicole was born in 1966 and grew up in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. Nicole remembers the 1980s music culture being primarily focused ‘around dance music and disco music’. As she claims, ‘music was a big part of life back then, especially [considering] how limited music availability was compared to today where downloading on the internet is an everyday occurrence’. When asked about the popularity of concerts, Nicole remembers how ‘concerts weren’t as popular as going to nightclubs and shows’ which ‘were popular places’. Nevertheless, Nicole admits that she went to many concerts, her first one being in 1982 when she went and saw Boy George with her friends. It was one of her most memorable concerts as she remembers dressing like Boy George and having a good time with her friends.

Nicole remembers the 1980s live music experience as a positive one as ‘people danced a lot’ and ‘were engaged with others around them and the music’. When asked whether the concert experience has changed since the 1980s, Nicole agreed, saying ‘changes in concert experience from back in the day to now, is everyone uses their phones at concerts, the lighting and the sound system is definitely a lot better because things have advanced in technology. The venues are bigger so people can go to these concerts at once. So yeah there have been a lot of changes since the 1980s when I first started going.’

Drawing on the notable change in the use of smartphones at concerts, Nicole claimed that she herself uses her mobile phone at concerts, the most recent use being when she saw the Madden Brothers live at the Entertainment Centre. Asked why she uses her smartphone, Nicole responded saying she uses it to ‘usually take pictures, to share the experience through social media or I take pictures with my friends or the actual artists’.

Indeed, this idea of sharing the experience is important and draws on Steven Colburn (2015)’s argument of the way in which the use of the smartphone as image and video recording device at concerts contributes to the wealth of online cultural capital, which can help extend the concert experience. As Colburn (2015, p.59) claims, ‘filmers are fans who position themselves as cultural intermediaries, blurring the boundaries between producers, consumers, and broadcasters’. For example, many of Colburn’s respondents held they enjoyed capturing moments from the concerts as well as broadcasting their footage and images to other people who lacked original access to the material presented. Nicole reflected on how she too embodies this role as she enjoys showing snippets from the performances to her friends and family who cannot attend the concert.

Additional to the use of smartphones as image and video capturing devices, Lucy Bennett (2014) found how many of her respondents used their smartphones to text, post messages and set-lists on Facebook and Twitter as a means to keep non-physically present members informed. She found that many individuals enjoyed engaging in this practice and granting online individuals the ability to follow the developments of the concert as it happens, ‘live’, in front of their computers.

Thus broadcasting live concert videos, images and information in the online world facilitates the experiences of those who cannot attend concerts. As Colburn (2015, p.64) claims, those who film concerts can act as gatekeepers, ‘providing visual access to relatively scarce material’. Indeed, as Colburn’s research indicates, most of the viewers appreciate the sharing of such videos —provided they are of good quality—because it enables them to virtually become a part of the experience, and have access to the artists, bands and their live performances, in a way that would not otherwise be possible. As one of his respondents said:

‘Before moving to Los Angeles I always heard of the great club shows going on practically every night. I was always searching YouTube, Vimeo and other video websites for fan shot videos of the performances I wanted to see. One of my favourite musicians is Dave Navarro and when I began going to see him perform in various settings I would tape portions of the show to share with other fans not living in the area. Since I know how it feels to not live “where the action is” I decided to start uploading videos for those people who were in the same situation I once was.’ (Colburn, 2015, p.66).

This notion of being able to ‘capture the moment’ was also quite central to Nicole’s explanation of why she uses her Smartphones at concerts now. As Nicole explained, ‘the benefits I would say, would be with the smartphone at the concert, I can record the experience if I want to and capture it live, I can take photos at the concert – of the actual concert, artist and I can take photos with my friends at the concert, I can tag myself at the concerts and this all goes onto social media’. This sense of immediacy of being able to capture the experience instantaneously for later consumption seems to be a motivating factor for Nicole as well. As she reflected, ‘you can have all the memories recorded, all the photos to look back on that day, the next day the next year, years to come, you can show your children, so yeah it’s definitely worth having a smartphone at a concert’. This also draws on the reflections of Colburn (2015, p.65)’s respondents, who also used their footage and images as ‘an adjunct to their own memories’. Furthermore, while some recordings of live performances can be purchased on DVD, the benefit of recording your own footage is that it makes it more personal. After all, as one respondent claimed, it is ‘from your point of view’ which enables you to ‘re-live the whole thing’ (Colburn 2015, p.66).

However, when I asked Nicole if she thought there were any negative implications to the use of the smartphone, the answer was a straight out ‘yes’. As she said: ‘I suppose the negatives would be distracting others that aren’t using smartphones. It also takes you as a person actually away from the concert experience by being distracted by the use of your phone because as you’re using the phone, you’re not actually concentrating on what’s in front of you.’ Similarly, Bennett (2014) also reflected how ‘the bright glow of the mobile phone handset is viewed as a pollutant that contests the ‘dark and quiet’, traditional setting of seated music concerts’ and renders fans as ‘not-present in the moment’. Thus using such technological devices transforms the concert event by distancing the user from the immersive experience of being in attendance (Colburn 2015, p.60). As a result, concert-goers no longer share the same connective experience as concert-goers once did before the rise of the Smartphone culture. Instead, fans experience the performances more individually, thereby eroding the homogenous nature of fandom cultures (Colburn 2015, p.61).

Upon doing some online research, I learnt that many individuals express similar concerns:

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 10.08.01 pm

In fact, in response to the ever-growing use of smartphones in the concert environment, venues have reacted by employing new techniques to create cellphone-free zones. For example, American based service Yonder is a new and innovative technology which prevents concert goers from using their phones by having to place it in a casing which automatically locks when in certain areas of the venue. The phone is not completely off limits, but the catch is that individuals must leave the cellphone-free zone, which would involve missing the concert. Further advancements in this area include Apple patenting technology that can identify invisible infrared signals that are programmed with instructions for cameras to follow in order to prevent them from operating. Such pioneering technology appears to be crucial to the future of live music experiences by presenting no viable options for phone tempted concertgoers.

In closing, it goes without saying that the smartphones have pervasively penetrated and transformed the presence and behaviours of audiences in public spaces. As Ingrid Richardson (2007) claims:

Smartphones ‘have effectively transform[ed] the relation between body and world, ready-to-hand and tele present interaction, and actual and virtual environments’.

Particular in the context of concert venues, the smartphone has significantly transformed the live music experience —not only does it allow the smartphone user to share their presence from the venue, but it also extends the energy of the concert experience outside the physical boundaries of the venue, to those who cannot attend the concert. This suggests that the issue of time and space no longer exist as constraints as they once did. Indeed, such technologies have created the possibility of greater media democracy as individuals have more agency in negotiating and expanding their music experience (Wall & Dubber 2010, p.168). This can facilitate quite a special shared group experience for fans as it gives them a sense of community through their acts of viewing, commenting and sharing of the videos, images and information. Thus Smartphones enable a sense of inclusion for non-physically present fans as they can participate in the live experience from the comfort of their home. As Bennett concludes:

In this sense, Cavicchi’s notion of concerts being a ‘ powerful meeting of the various forces and people and ideas involved in [fans’] participation in musical life’ is further invoked, with the boundaries of these events being contested to include non-physically present fans who, together with the attendees that include them through technological acts, are able to repeatedly ‘enact the meaning of fandom’ where they may have been unable to before.

However, while smartphones have positively created a live, virtual, connective experience for fans, it has also detracted concert going patrons from having an authentic experience. Nevertheless, Nicole believes the Smartphone has changed the experience for the better. As she summed up:

So yes [the smartphone] has benefits and negatives, but overall, it does enhance the experience because you can share the experience virtually. You can have all the memories recorded, all the photos to look back on that day, the next day the next year, years to come, you can show your children, so yeah it definitely worth having a smartphone at a concert because it changes the whole experience into a better time.

In my opinion, it’s ultimately up to the individual person on how he/she would like to enjoy a concert. If it’s through a screen, then fair enough. However, I think it is important to nevertheless respect the people around you and ensure you don’t erode their concert experience.

References:

Bennett, L 2014, ‘Texting and Tweeting at Live Music Concerts: flow, fandom and connection with other audiences through mobile phone technology’ Independent Scholar <http://www.academia.edu/3210222/Texting_and_Tweeting_at_Live_Music_Concerts_flow_fandom_and_connection_with_other_audiences_through_mobile_phone_technology> 
Cavicchi, D., 1998. Tramps Like Us: Music & Meaning among Springsteen Fans, New York:Oxford University Press.

Colburn, S 2015, ‘Filming Concerts for YouTube: Seeking Recognition in the Pursuit of Cultural Capital’, Popular Music and Society, vol.38, no.1, pp59-72.

Richardson, I 2007, ‘Pocket Technospaces: ‘The Bodily Incorporation of Mobile Media’’,Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol 21, no.2, pp.205-215.

Wall, T, & Dubber, A 2010, ‘Experimenting with Fandom, Live Music, and the Internet: Applying Insights from Music Fan Culture to New Media Production’, Journal of New Music Research, vol.39, no.2, pp.159-169.

 

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