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  • Rich Kassirer

Can musicians get fans to put down their cameras?

Photo by Brandon Remler

“At the request of Matt and Zooey, we ask that people not use their cell phones to take pictures and video, but instead enjoy the show they have put together in 3D.”

This is a sign posted at recent concerts of She & Him – the duo of M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel. The pair is among a recent group of musicians attempting to gently tell fans to put down their cameras and actually pay attention at their shows, instead of experiencing them entirely through a viewfinder.

Other bands, such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Dunwells, and the punk band the Savages have made similar pleas – through similarly posted signs and even messages from the stage.

My first thought is right on!… and then good luck! But my third thought is tinged with a little bit of regret.

Let me explain…

I’m glad bands are trying to take hold of this. It is an epidemic at concerts that is not good for those of us who want to enjoy the live experience of hearing and seeing the show without a wall of cellphones blocking our view. It obviously annoys some artists as well, who look into the crowd and see a bunch of cameras pointing at them.

So bully for them. I hope it helps.

However, I am also someone who seeks out photos and especially video on YouTube of concerts that I wished I could have attended or those where I’m hoping to catch a special moment from a show across the country or the world that I have read about. I love seeing Kathleen Edwards and Sarah Harmerperforming a cover of the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” somewhere in Canada, or Jason Isbell and Dawes doing a version of “Cortez the Killer” on a Cayamo Cruise.

And, I also have to admit I am guilty of being the camera guy, though I did my best to be as unobtrusive as possible. When my magazine was in its heyday, I would bring an actual camera (do they even exist anymore??) to a show. I was committed to document in words, pictures and video the concerts I attended. I would determine beforehand a particular song that I wanted to record, and then maybe if there were something special, I would try to capture that too. My Modern Acoustic YouTube page has a bunch of these moments captured for posterity. I’m still incredibly proud of being the only one the Internet to have captured Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Justin Townes Earle, and members of Old Crow Medicine Show and the Felice Brothers doing “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock n Roll)” during the Big Surprise Tour, and Josh Ritter playing an acoustic version “Thin Blue Flame”with a violinist during his Boston Pops concert.

Apparently NPR’s Bob Boilen has been fighting this battle since 2012. He had this to say about M. Ward’s obsession to ban cellphones: “I want to take pictures and I want to text and tweet and Instagram. I can do two things at once. I can snap a photo, shoot a minute-long video, send out a tweet or two and still thoroughly enjoy the night. I’m conscious of others around me, I turn the brightness on my phone as dim as it can go, and never shoot video longer than a minute. The idea of being at a club or a public event, standing around and not being able to silently share seems almost old fashioned to me…”

The problem is, Bob, that most fans aren’t as respectful in their attempts to document their experiences. I too have tried to be respectful when taking pictures or videos. I know I irritated people standing or sitting behind me, and for that, I am sorry. It’s also pretty clear, most people don’t give a hoot about the people around them.

Not too long ago, I wrote about the many distractions that take place at concerts these days.

In a post headlined “An Open Letter to ‘Fans’ Who Talk Incessantly Through Concerts,” I wrote: “Maybe I’m just old, maybe this is what the concert experience is now: get a group of friends together to go to a show and talk all night with the band as background; pull out your cellphone to take pictures and watch the entire concert through a 4-inch screen; call your friends who couldn’t make it, tell them all about how great the concert is, and have them listen to the show over your phone; invite more people into your chatty group, even though others have been standing in that same spot all night.”

The jungle of camera phones that come out when a performer hits the stage is beyond irritating if you actually want to pay attention at a show. To have to constantly shift your position to see around the dude who has decided to videotape the entire show… well, let’s just say I’ve gotten very close to “accidently” bumping him hoping the phone would fall out of his hands and smash on the floor.

While cameras and cellphones have been part of the concert culture for some time now, it wasn’t until the last couple years that cellphone cameras have become as powerful as the bulky camera I used to carry around. My iPhone now has the same megapixel capability as the Canon that I bought back in 2008. Everyone now is a Photographer, who can Instragram “amazing, spectacular” photos and post “cool” YouTube videos.

But… while it may be hurting the concert experience, it does provide fans with the opportunity to see intimate moments at shows we can’t be at.

So is there a fine line?

It’s important, if musicians and venues are going to try to corral the cellphone problem, that they do it gently, with explanation instead of threatening postings.

A note by the venue, saying “No cameras or videotaping. Violators are subject to blah blah blah” sounds angry and unnecessarily aggressive. Artists that post similar notes comes across bitchy and unwilling to allow fans to share their favorite songs with others.

An explanation, such as the one by She & Him, acknowledges that they are looking out for their fans’ best interest: a help us/help you attitude.

A friend told me that the Dunwells asked fans not to videotape their new songs because they are still a work in progress. It was a nice explanation that may have worked.

Musicians should also remember that those YouTube videos are among their best publicity. The sharing of pictures and videos these days is one of the best ways to spread the word and the music they are trying to sell.

My feeling is: Post the gentle signs, tell the crowd from the stage to limit the picture taking, that you would like them to enjoy the live experience, and hope that fans, in turn, understand that something special happens when musicians play and fans are truly listening.

And when it does happen, let’s hope the band’s official videographer will be there to capture the moment so we can all watch it later.

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