Dumb rule: Banning smartphone concert pictures

Palm Beach PostOctober 5, 2013 

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A general view of atmosphere during day 2 of the 2013 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival on June 14, 2013 in Manchester, Tennessee. Like it or not, fans now live part of the concert experience vicariously though electronic media – phone pics and six-second Vine videos and Twitter updates.

JASON MERRITT — Getty Images

When I went to see Bob Dylan open his AmericanaRama tour in in June, I almost got thrown out before the first song.

My offense? I pulled out my smartphone and tried to take a blurry, far-away picture of the opening act.

And last month at a Steely Dan concert, security workers started flashing penlights on the faces of people in the front sections who were taking pictures with their phones.

Normally, an over-50 geezer like me would be the first one to tell these young punks to put down their gadgets, stop texting your BFF and listen to the music (whoa, whoa) – without all that dad-gum electronic distraction.

But I think Dylan, Steely Dan and others may be out of touch with the times. And out of step with fans who are keeping them in business.

Banning smartphones

It’s ridiculous to ban smartphone photography during outdoor shows at arenas and amphitheaters. (At smaller venues, where the glare from phone screens could be seriously obtrusive, they’ve addressed the situation by letting tweeters occupy special seats.)

Like it or not, fans now live part of the concert experience vicariously though electronic media – phone pics and six-second Vine videos and Twitter updates. It’s how they process the show in a multitasking age: If you didn’t Facebook it, did it really happen?

For the most part, they aren’t using blinding flash photography, which is what prompted bans in the first place. And I don’t see that many people with sophisticated zoom-lens capability on their smartphones – they’re taking the same blurry pictures I do.

I understand the artists’ side of the argument. They’re probably tired of having their pictures taken – or don’t want an on-stage goof or misstep to go viral across YouTube. But they are inviting the public to view them in concert – and expect us to pay a princely sum for the privilege. It’s pointless to care whether the lens is an eyeball or a camera.

When Dylan’s rep took the stage to asked concertgoers to enjoy “an analog” experience (i.e., without smartphones), she got a healthy round of boos. And despite security efforts, plenty of people shot videos and pictures during the show.

Bottom line: This is a rule that is simply impossible to police.

So, maybe there could be some common-sense compromises.

Concertgoers could be encouraged to take pictures and videos only during the first song (which is when professional photographers shoot). And encores are already a free-for-all: From my experience, there is no effort to stop fans from rushing the stage and holding up their smartphones when a show is about to end. That leaves most of the concert for old-fashioned, artist-to-audience communication.

Electro-junkies, of course, should be courteous to the fans around them: If you’re going to tweet (as I’m paid to do during concerts), hold the phone low and away so the glare doesn’t bother your seatmates. If you’re going to take a photo, do it fast and sit down.

Overzealous security

While artists are setting these rules, promoters and concert venues should be concerned that photo enforcers are unnecessarily antagonizing fans. It’s one thing for security officers to keep the rowdies in check; it’s another for them to ruin your experience by hovering around and giving you the evil glare and threats of ejection (as I got when I admittedly broke the rules at Dylan’s show and tried three times to take pictures. I guess I did need a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing).

But at Steely Dan, a fan behind me who wasn’t taking pictures kept getting inadvertently flashed in the eye by an overzealous security officer. He let loose with a string of expletives worthy of an audition for a Scorsese movie.

His night was ruined. I can guarantee you what he thinks about when he thinks about Steely Dan.

So, I would turn it around and ask performers: How does a smartphone irritate you any more than everything else you see at concerts – drunks, chit-chatters, random projectiles, people yelling “Free Bird” for the millionth time?

A concert, to a reasonable extent, is about freedom. Letting loose of your cares. Letting your freak flag fly.

I’ve heard an anecdote that most people only go to one concert a year. They pay the high ticket prices, get dressed up, spend lavishly on dinner before. They’re primed to have a transcendent time – until they pull out their smartphone and security swarms in.

How many times can that happen before they stop paying for tickets – not to mention those overpriced drinks and T-shirts?

Aydlette: larry_aydlette@pbpost.com.

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