Are phone-free gigs the future? Artists and audiences need to meet each other halfway to find a workable solution

Amit Gurbaxani

Nov 17, 2019 11:07:33 IST

Last month, I went for an Indian independent music gig with a twist. Audiences in Mumbai who signed up to attend the album launch of Safe With Me, electronic music producer Riatsu aka Shadaab Kadri and multi-instrumentalist Neil Gomes’s new collaborative album, were informed that it was a “phone-free” event. At the venue, Levi’s Lounge in Lower Parel, a few minutes before the pair took the stage, our mobiles were taken and sealed in paper envelopes.

This was a limited-capacity show, restricted to only 50 people, so the process of surrendering and taking back the devices was relatively smooth. Kadri, Gomes and the organisers, artist and event management company 4/4 Experiences were well aware that the exercise was an experiment. Nikhil Udupa, the co-founder of 4/4, told me the length of the performance, just about 60 minutes, was ideal to try out something so seemingly radical in this day and stage when your average gig goer splits their time between watching the act and updating their social media.

The music was immersive, and I found myself occasionally wishing I had my phone not because my attention was wavering but because I wanted to Instagram live a couple of songs. Yes, I’m frequently that guy who’s watching it all through a screen.

 Are phone-free gigs the future? Artists and audiences need to meet each other halfway to find a workable solution

There’s little denying that by blocking people’s line of sight with your phone, you risk spoiling gigs for them. Photo by John Nyberg from FreeImages

I wasn’t always like this but after having spent too many concerts peering at the proceedings through somebody’s phone, I decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. Over the years, I’ve convinced myself this bad gig behaviour is justified because it serves a larger purpose than this seemingly insatiable need to capture everything we see. Like when rapper Enkore aka Ankur Johar told me that he heard from a couple of friends who couldn’t make it to one of his shows that they were glad they caught parts of it on my Instagram feed. This is ultimately benefiting the artist, I’ve told myself, and isn’t that the ultimate aim of attending a gig?

Yet like most people, I admit that I rarely watch the clips after posting them. The exceptions are videos of concerts by big-ticket international acts, which help in writing the reviews. Occasionally, I also share these with family members who didn’t attend the events and aren’t on social media.

This particular album launch, which in other ways was similar to your average Indian indie gig, got me pondering whether more artists will attempt to stage phone-free performances. A number of international acts have banned phones at their shows. Alicia Keys and Jack White, to name two, have made attendees place their devices in Yondr pouches. (Though they don’t implement this everywhere they play.)

There’s of course the school of thought that — as long they don’t violate any laws — paying audiences should be allowed to experience a concert however they like. Notably, the Riatsu and Neil Gomes show was a free gig. But there’s little denying that by blocking people’s line of sight with your phone, you risk spoiling the concert for them.

Seven years ago, The Guardian published a gig etiquette guide, most of which applies even now. Personally, I don’t think banning anything is the answer. Taking away phones might work for intimate settings but it could potentially lead to a logistic nightmare at bigger shows.

Instead, perhaps musicians and fans could meet each other half-away. Maybe acts can allow attendees to shoot only the first three songs, which is the standard number that professional photographers are granted at most music festivals and large-scale concerts. On second thought, that should be the first and last three tunes because the greatest hits are almost always left for the end.

This way, fans can record the highlights and then everyone gets to enjoy the bulk of the gig sans distraction. Naturally, this would require some self-policing on the part of fans. Artists particularly testy about having gadgets in their face all the time could get security personnel to ensure the rule is enforced. Could my suggestion be a game changer for the concert experience? Like the baby step that was the Safe With Me show, the only way to find out is to try it out.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2019 12:01:58 IST