Chris Thile and Jason Isbell talk about stupid iPhone videos

In recent weeks, I’ve come across quotes from two favorite artists, Jason Isbell and Chris Thile, expressing frustration with concert-goers who watch their shows through the viewfinder of a phone camera or, God forbid, a tablet. What’s interesting is that neither singer/songwriter was upset about losing revenue through unauthorized recordings – both were lamenting artistic problems with the practice.

Here’s Isbell in a 2013 interview with the New York Times:

Isbell reserves special scorn for people who record his shows on cellphones and post clips to YouTube. “It’s an intrusion because I’m not performing for documentation’s sake, I’m performing for people’s ears and their eyeballs,” he said. “I don’t mind the scrutiny of it. We’re good every night. I just feel like people aren’t participating in the community of the room when they’re behaving that way.”

He shook his head. “My favorite thing about going to concerts has always been looking around and thinking that there’s a lot of people in here that are very much like me, a lot of people in here I could have a full conversation with. I might even get laid in this room. You’re not getting laid if you’re standing there with your cellphone.”

Then he laughed and said: “I can’t get too mad. I would have done the same with Neil Young when I was a kid, if I could have.”

And here’s Thile in this year’s January-February issue of relix magazine:

“Now, to be a performing musician is to look out on a group of people who are largely experiencing the concert through their devices—sometimes, with 40 percent of the crowd, you just see iPads and phones, with that barrier between you and them… I’ve thought about that a lot: the continued human desire to connect, to be connected, to be a part of something bigger than you, to have meaningful interactions with one’s fellow human beings. But how we go about it these days is more convoluted than ever. Many times, it’s prompted by a wonderful impulse, which is to share with someone else who can’t be there; that’s a beautiful thing to do and it’s something that’s important, and we, as a band, have benefited from that. But at what cost to the person who actually captured that moment? In our desire to share things with people, we need to make sure we’re not depriving ourselves of a vibrant existence.”

It’s interesting to think about this from the artist’s perspective. As an occasional preacher and former high school debater, I can tell you that, no matter how sneaky you think you’re being, the speaker up front can tell exactly how much attention you’re giving. Closed eyes are obvious; I’m looking right at everyone in the crowd and I know how they’re all reacting. You know if you have the room or not. So if it’s damn ugly to look at a picture and see hundreds of people raising their phones, how bad must it be for the band to look out at that?

But I do take photos – very rarely videos, though I’ve done that too, especially in the more distant past – but I do take photos. And it’s for exactly the reason Thile describes: To share with people who aren’t there. (See: This blog.) I try to just snap a few with different focuses and different stage lighting, put the most focused few on Facebook and Twitter in real time, then say mission accomplished and put my phone away for the rest of the night to take in the show. I used to be a much more egregious offender, but unless you’re a professional photographer, there’s not much chance your 200th photo will be any different than your 20th, and a concert is about sound, not sight, so get your damn Facebook shot and then just put the gadget down.

What do you think? Do you take photos, or even videos, at concerts? Why or why not? Do you agree with Isbell and Thile? Do you think there are important differences here between the fans’ perspectives and the artists’?

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