Savage Guardians: Why Bands Are Right About Cameras At Gigs

Jeremy Allen normally gets annoyed at people leaving notes telling him what to do. But in the case of Savages and Yeah Yeah Yeahs instructing their audiences not to wave their cameraphones around like bellends, he can get behind the cause... even if it is doomed

I don’t know about you but I’ve never been much of a fan of note leavers. Whether that’s prescriptive public safety notices you’d hope weren’t necessary ("don’t put your limbs in the cage unless you want your arms ripped off by gorillas") or flatmates who really should get out more letting you know they know you’ve been surreptitiously skimming their Utterly Butterly when they’ve not been guarding the fridge. Being told what you can and can’t do by others is galling, and so it is with some surprise that I find myself sympathising with Savages, who on Tuesday issued a notice at one of their shows in Seattle requesting patrons refrain from playing with their mobile handsets during the concert or from taking photographs/filming:


It follows a similar, more indelicate missive issued by Yeah Yeah Yeahs in April, where the trio urged fans in attendance not to watch the show "through a screen on your smart device," before telling those who’d paid to see them to "put that shit away as a courtesy to the person behind you and to Nick, Karen, and Brian."

Having watched Lana Del Rey at a HMV invite-only show in the intimate surrounds of the Jazz Café last year, I was astonished by how many of the audience thrust their phones into the air as the singer appeared on stage, and who didn’t put them away again until the brief appearance was over. These young punters had – unbeknown to them at the time – won tickets for purchasing Born To Die in a traditional format, and so given that some were first-time gigs goers, it was annoying to witness more than 50% sizing up Lizzy Grant like she was about to get a happy slapping. In some cases you’d wonder if they’d seen her at all with a naked eye. I came away from the show feeling less like I’d been to a gig and more like I’d witnessed a rally for amateur paparazzi, and uneasy that the assembled were less interested in the artist and more a celebrity commodity to grab a piece of. It made me wonder if this was to become the norm.

In the 25 years I’ve been attending gigs, technology has changed a few things: most notably it killed off the moshpit (or at least confined it to hardcore shows) so concerned are people about losing their smartphones. On a more positive note, you no longer have men in raincoats mooching down the front bootlegging gigs with a tape recorder strapped to their leg, because who these days would buy a dodgy cassette of a show when they’re not even prepared to fork out for the recorded version of songs? Those things aside, I would assert not much has changed, or at least I would have done. People pay their money to participate, they turn up, make some noise when the band or artist comes on stage and for the encore and then everyone goes home happy. It’s the same as it ever was, right? But throw technology into the mix and perhaps expectations are more disparate than I’d considered. Perhaps being there making some noise isn’t enough anymore?

The wording of Savages’ note is interesting. If it seems randomly antsy it’s nothing of the sort. Carefully worded, it’s certainly in keeping with the name of their forthcoming album – Silence Yourself– and could easily be an outtake from the spoken manifesto delivered by Jehnny Beth at the outset of their new video ‘Shut Up’.

Interference via smartphone prevents "all of us" from "totally immersing ourselves", and the "all of us" part is key: that’s artist and audience, all in it together. A show is ephemeral by its nature. If you grow up with little money like I did then the gigs you chose weren’t just pop concerts but life-changing, identity-forming events. What is becoming lost is the idea of a transient spectacle, a one-off never to be repeated, intimate one night stand between those on stage and those in front of it. The use of mobile phones threatens to take away that intimacy and cheat those people in the room while giving a (sometimes literally) distorted impression to those who weren’t in attendance in the first place – and why they’d want to see an out of focus performance from 400 feet away recorded on substandard equipment is anyone’s guess.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the picture of the singer being taken didn’t invariably look like a fire on a faraway hill. Is that a song or an elephant being fisted in the back of a Formula One car while a Jumbo jet full of circus performers flies overhead? I can’t quite make it out. So congratulations, you’ve only gone and spoiled the view of all those people stood behind you holding your iPad up so 184 people can watch a blurry and distorted 45 seconds of Lady Gaga from four miles away on the internet; your lonely footage will pray tumbleweed might stop by and give it a like one day, living in silence in some cyberspace equivalent of a grief hole away from the rest of the well-thumbed action the internet has to offer.

Our word ‘souvenir’ is the French word for ‘memory’. So why isn’t a memory of an event souvenir enough? It used to be not so long ago. Jarvis Cocker said something along those lines in 2006 when he ran a series of musical workshops in London and Paris that people could turn up to and join in if they felt the desire: "People feel the need to film events on their phones so they can relive it later," he told The Quietus. "It drives me insane at concerts. It’s just happening, innit? Why not just look at it? It seems stupid to have something happening in front of you and look at it on a screen that’s smaller than the size of a cigarette packet… There’s something nice about having an experience and how it changes as it goes into your memory. It always gets altered by being filtered through your brain. If you have it all on DVD or mpeg files, you’re cutting out that imaginative factor because you can see it again and again."

"We’re in an age where everything is accessible," Mike Patton told the Quietus in 2011, "and I’m not convinced that that’s a great thing. That’s the best way that I can put it. I’m off to see Portishead playing here in San Francisco and I’m not going to record the concert, I’m going to record it in my head!"

So here are three simple things to remember when you’re using your smartphone at a gig.

a) Invariably what you’re trying to record will look (and sound) terrible.

b) It’s intrusive. Think of the poor goons stood behind you.

c) Should you need a c) then it’s also theft. That’s right, you’re counterfeiting your favourite pop band and making them look like arse. Patrons are more often than not requested not to use phones in art galleries, and the majority respect that. In that sense Savages have every right to attempt to protect their own art.

So is leaving notes about the place po-faced? Perhaps. Will it do any good? I’m doubtful. Technology is more powerful than art now in most people’s consciousnesses, and unless most of earth’s satellites are taken out in a freak meteor shower then this is likely to remain the status quo. You sense Savages are fighting a losing battle, and yet if bringing people’s actions to their attention and making them think ‘what am I doing?’ for at least one moment has been achieved by a prohibitive note, then that’s at least a small victory in the war with the Philistines. It’s a war that’s almost certainly unwinnable, but it’s important to go down fighting.

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