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Black Sky Thinking

On Mobile Phones At Gigs & The Tyranny Of The Dopamine Economy
Jazz Monroe , January 21st, 2019 10:52

Mobile phones are now such a ubiquitous presence at gigs we've started to not notice them. Is it time we start to resist the tyranny of the "dopamine economy", asks Jazz Monroe

Photo by Valerio Berdini

It was my first time seeing Lucinda Chua live, and the location was ideal: a long, narrow hallway, situated deep inside the illustrious Somerset House complex. The room had a grand archway at one end and a mould-speckled ceiling with hospital lights suspended from the pipes. A ramp led to the stage, where an upright piano was surrounded by microphones on craning stands, like surgeons peering into a mahogany body. Lucinda walked in from a rear door with her cello, plugged it into a pedal board, and said nothing at all.

The songwriter, a onetime member of the Kranky duo Felix, ran her bow along a string and, rather than introducing herself, let the instrument do the talking. The audience hushed. The cello and the silence converged to create a sound that was engulfing, surely too large for such a room to contain.

This is when the intrusion occurred. The congregation for this event, organised by the Ninja Tune artist Nabihah Iqbal, was not large, a few dozen arty types and people who seemed to be friends of the artists. The cavernous sound of the cello anticipated an epiphany.

Almost as soon as it rose, the phone politely, self-consciously retreated. We millennial music fans endure the odd photo - it’s 2019, after all, and we are not somebody’s drunk uncle. But I couldn’t help thinking, melodramatically and against my better judgment: we’d been experiencing ‘a moment’, and the intrusion violated its sanctity.

In the dopamine economy, the violator - the picture-taker or message-checker - is also the violated: we’re all digital victims here, condemned to life under notification tyranny. When we submit to a profound experience of art, it’s a rare reprieve from the everyday torrent of triviality and distraction, low-level boosts that get us through the day. Likewise, when you finish a great book, there’s supposed to be a moment when you reflect on it. But it’s so easy to just check your phone, or tweet some earnest statement about it.

At concerts, the intrusion should be distinguished from the distraction. A passing police siren or dropped cup might distract you but can be integrated into the live experience, like birdsong into a dream. These analogue intrusions are part of the soul of live music, because concerts are analogue entertainment - these are compatible species. Digital intrusions, on the other hand, are alien interlopers carrying a ton of baggage.

Here are some facts about phones. Small concerts are not designed to outperform a £600 device containing the entire internet. That makes the radioactive slab of social energy in your pocket a cultural hazard. When you shoot a casual glance at its screen - perhaps unconsciously, out of undiagnosed boredom - the megawatt glare that screams into the gently lit room is not discreet. Not everybody else was bored at that moment.

Many artists hate the presence of phones at gigs. I don’t just mean the sort of annoying artists who might insist on personally upholstered phone drop-off sacks on the door. I recently spoke in private to a very good and only slightly melodramatic musician who told me that part of the reason he abandoned his solo project was because the stage is now a viewing platform for a sea of smartphone lenses. It was no longer satisfying to tour.

Lucinda Chua, for what it’s worth, was revelatory. She certainly wasn’t put out by the intrusion, if she even noticed. When she walked down the ramp and into the crowd, sing-whispering with a lost expression and bathed in delicate blue, only one shining replica flashed into my line of sight. Perhaps this attentive audience underlined the malignancy of the violation. Our tranquillity contrasted the distracted state we take for granted, our lost ground as the dopamine economy encroaches on the cultural space. The moments we sacrifice to carry around frozen memories, some unlikely to be seen again.