A big name musician announced this week that he was moving to ban all mobile phones from future shows. It’s a bold step by anyone’s yardstick.
Several questions immediately arise. Does it represent a positive move that helps to bring artist and audience closer together? Does it encourage greater engagement, more inclusive atmospheres, and fewer distractions? And the big one - will it set a precedent for other artists to follow?
Of course, the man behind this ban, Jack White of White Stripes fame, isn’t a Sheeran, Bieber, or Timberlake with huge industry clout, but he’s still a world famous artist who will make others sit up and take notice with, what he calls, his attempt at a “100% human experience”.
Undoubtedly, it’s a ballsy move, but you have to wonder how he’s been allowed to get his way. Surely his advisors had their qualms, citing the inevitable backlash from fans and the logistically tricky nature of such a step, particularly when it’s more likely to come across as enforcement rather than free choice.
From a PR point of view, it could be disastrous for a man who’s not been without his controversies. After all, White’s dubious roll call of unsavoury incidents has included assault charges, numerous public spats with fellow musicians and journalists, an attempt to force bandmates to adopt new names, and his ex-wife filing a restraining order against him for harassment.
His phone ban obviously isn’t the most controversial of those, but it plays further into the public perception that he’s a spoilt bully who is unable to compromise on anything and is now attempting to set a dangerous industry precedent. It’s reputational damage, pure and simple.
His stated problem with mobile phones? He insists that he hates his audience to be distracted. In other words, White abhors those who spend more time on their device than watching the show.
This is nothing new of course; artists regularly throw their toys out of the pram at the ubiquity of the smartphones, be it over the ever-present demand for selfies when they deign to walk down the street with the rest of us mere mortals, or when faced with a sea of invasive, glowing screens being pointed at them throughout their performance. It’s horrible being loved by your fans.
In modern times, this has meant that everything has been captured for YouTube posterity – from grumpy mid-concert rants and bum notes, to sudden plunges into the crowd when a musician has misjudged the edge of the stage.
Where, I suspect, White differs from many of his counterparts is that he’s a man who isn’t enamoured with the modern world at the best of times – he prefers his music to be issued on vinyl, records on reel-to-reel tape, reveres old Blues artists that most of us have never heard of, and distances himself from the Spotify generation.
Who knows? He might live in a cave, only coming out to hunt his dinner and ask who the president is!
Naturally, smartphones aren’t welcome in that sort of analogue world.
White now plans to issue his audience with a specially designed pouch in which they can place their phone for the duration of the show, allowing them to keep it with them but not use it. If they really need to use it, he says, they can find a special ‘phone zone’ in the lobby or concourse.
Those with the unreasonable urge to post photos and videos on social media have meanwhile been asked to repost those captured by White’s official team.
There are several obvious issues with this. Gig-goers want to be free to capture their own content, as and when it suits them, and not to be told that they can only post sanitised, officially sanctioned material by control-freak artists. Fans also don’t want to post what everyone else is posting – they want their own individualised experience.
It should be noted that White has form in this area. Previously, he asked that his audience minimise smartphone use. Fair enough – and it was mostly respected too.
However, things start to get a bit police state when you’re telling your audience what they should appreciate most and that they should have eyes for only you throughout. An outright ban is a step too far.
You’re also potentially creating a situation where many will defiantly keep their phone turned on in order to make a point, resulting in a whole different kind of disruptive issue.
In extreme circumstances, you could even say that, if a terrorist situation arose, then a phone ban would actually serve to inhibit the response of emergency services, reducing communication, creating greater confusion, and placing more lives at risk.
It’s all well and good for White to pose as a musical purist who wants to return to the good old days when people didn’t watch entire gigs from behind their phones, but banning them altogether only smacks of someone who wants to control the entire fan experience.
The smartphone genie is well and truly out of the bottle; it’s not climbing back in – and White should recognise that.
There are a few places that you can now justifiably ban phones – behind the wheel, in schools and hospitals – but concert venues aren’t one of them.
Smartphones are simply far too intimately tied up with how people interact with each other, express themselves, and choose to view the world in our always on, 24/7 society.
Is Jack White the torch-bearer for a new type of hushed, reverential gig experience? No, he’s simply another in a long line of pampered, deluded artists who think they can tell their audience what they should like.
Frankly, Jack’s Whitewashing of the smartphone generation is only serving his insecure self. The definition of a good show? Give the fans what they want.
That old maxim remains as strong as ever in 2018 – so give them back their phones.
We are PR and marketing specialists - with our finger firmly on the technology pulse. Contact us on 0800 612 9890.