For my wife’s birthday, we went to the Bonnie Raitt show at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre.
As we entered, staff told us that taking photos or video was prohibited at this performance. And once through security, paper signs said:
Out of respect to the artist, there is to be absolutely …
NO Video Recording
NO Audio Recording
Thank you for your cooperation!!!
As we headed to our seats, we talked about how this was surprising, because it seems to buck the trend of concerts being a sea of people holding up their phones, taking selfies and posting something to social media before the encore even ends.
There was a time, in the prehistoric days before cellphones, when artists zealously fought to prohibit unofficial photos or recordings. Some still do. But at some point many musicians not only gave up, they embraced the idea of fans using their phones to basically create free, crowdsourced marketing.
So we thought it was interesting that Bonnie Raitt had gone the other direction and prohibited it. We figured maybe she long ago reached the point in her career where she doesn’t need to create a buzz. She just needs to say she’s going to show up somewhere with her guitar and voice and, as was the case at The Amp, the seats will fill.
We thoroughly enjoyed the night, starting with Marc Cohn and leading its way to some surprises — one of Bonnie’s final numbers was a cover of the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
I would share some video of that but … I adhered to the rules. Most people did.
A woman a couple of seats from us did record a bit of “Angel from Montgomery.” But for the most part, people didn’t use their phone to record anything. For the most part, even though some use of phones was allowed — for instance, you could text someone — people weren’t looking at their phones.
They were looking at the stage.
It turns out that’s why Bonnie Raitt has these rules for her shows.
It wasn’t until the end of the show that we realized this. As she and band members took their bows, she thanked everyone for coming, for not being glued to their phones, and said — I’m paraphrasing because, again, I wasn’t recording — something like, “It’s really nice to see your faces.”
I’ve been thinking about how this ever since then, how it made the show more enjoyable, partly because I wasn’t sitting behind a bunch of people holding up their photos — but maybe also partly because I wasn’t doing it?
That’s right. I’d like to point a finger at others, but I’m too busy trying to take a photo.
I realized that it would be a bit hypocritical for me to say people should just put away their phones and enjoy the experience. When Mia was doing plays at the JCA, I spent countless hours recording shows with what now seems like an ancient video camera. To be respectful of others, I almost always did it from the back of the room. And I think I always told myself that the act of the recording kept me engaged in the performance. But did it?
When I go backpacking, even if I’m completely disconnected from cell and wifi, I’m constantly pulling out my phone or camera, trying to capture the landscape, the light, the moment. So am I living in that moment? Maybe.
The Bonnie Raitt show made me think about that. If she didn’t have that rule, would I have taken some photos and video? Probably.
‘An unplugged, real-life experience’
Raitt is hardly the only artist trying to keep people off their phones.
Some still do it for control of what makes it outside the venue (Beyonce). But others do it for what happens inside it. Jack White, the former frontman of White Stripes, might be one of the most ardent anti-phone disciples.
He once told Rolling Stone magazine that people can’t even clap anymore “because they’ve got a (expletive) texting thing in their (expletive) hand.”
The solution for him: use lockable pouches from Yondr, a San Francisco tech company, to create “phone-free shows.”
Before White came to the Amp in September, a note to ticket buyers told them that the Yondr pouches would be distributed to all patrons as they entered, so that they could have “an unplugged, real-life experience.”
If people wanted to use their phone at any time, they could head to “Phone Use Areas” on the concourse. But when they were in their seats, the phones had to stay locked in the pouches.
“Why are you doing this and is it mandatory?” said one of the concert FAQs. “We believe this creates a better experience for everyone & yes, it’s non-negotiable.”
We had to do something similar when we went to a comedy club in New York earlier this year. But I’m guessing that it was for the old-fashioned reason — comics trying out material didn’t want it to end up out there on YouTube the next day.
You might think that what White does would lead to blowback, especially from audiences that typically skew younger than for a Bonnie Raitt show. But it turns out people of all ages seem to appreciate putting away their bleeping texting thing and having an unplugged, real-life experience.
Tap dancer Savion Glover has compromise: a photo minute
While some places — Broadway theaters, for instance — routinely restrict cell phone usage, many venues now allow it. To a degree.
Numa Saisselin, president of The Florida Theatre, said their official house policy is to allow photo and video taken discreetly from your seat with a smart phone. No cameras or flash photography. No full-size tablets held aloft.
But from his viewpoint, this isn’t just a matter of blocking someone else’s view.
“Speaking personally,” he said, “what I like about going to a show is allowing the show experience to take my mind somewhere else, and that’s not going to happen when you’re handling a phone.”
If the artist asks them to prohibit cell phones, they do. Saisselin will mention this during his curtain speech and, he says, they usually have 100 percent compliance.
Some artists go to the other extreme and actually encourage taking photos and video all night. And then there’s the compromise of choreographer and tap dancer Savion Glover.
“His concern is bright lights,” Saisselin said. “They’re actually dangerous for dancers. You don’t want to be blinded mid-leap.”
So Glover makes a speech at the start of the show. He tells the audience that at the start of Act II, the whole company will strike a pose for a minute. And during that minute, people take all the photos they want.
That basically is what happened at the end of the Bonnie Raitt show. After the final song, as Raitt and her band took their bows and acknowledged the crowd, quite a few people took out their phones and snapped a photo or two. And at this point, she didn’t seem to mind.
It turns out Raitt has been doing this for a while. In 2014, Peter Cooper — a country singer, songwriter and music journalist — wrote a piece for The Tennessean with a headline, “Put phones away and enjoy show.” In it, he described going to a show at The Troubadour, with a few hundred people crammed into the legendary West Hollywood club. Beforehand, the audience was asked to put their phones away and “watch this show in 3-D.” Not everyone did.
“When Raitt walked onstage, a man who was five feet away from her raised his cellphone,” Cooper wrote. “She slayed him with a brutal glance and a finger-wag, and he and his phone disintegrated instantly into dust. It was cool, and special to see. Wish I’d taken a video of that.”