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Does Using Your Cell Phone at a Concert Make You a Douchebag?

Yondr are trying to create phone free gig environments. We asked a bunch of musicians if they cared.

Chris Farren of Fake Problems entranced by his cell phone. “It takes a while for an idea like this to become part of the mainstream conversation,” Graham Dugoni, founder of Yondr, tells me over the phone. The idea he’s referring to is simple: he wants people to stop using their cell phones at concerts.

We take our cell phones for granted, to the point that they’re almost extensions of our bodies. But therein lies the problem. By whipping a phone out at a show, you might unintentionally annoy people around you, or be disrespectful towards the artist—and Dugoni wants you to change your ways.

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Here’s how Yondr works: You attend a concert and agree to forfeit your phone to a nylon sleeve that locks it up until you decide to leave the concert or step out to use it. Certain bands will partner with Yondr to create a cell-phone free concert, which you will consent to prior to purchase. If you’re at the show and absolutely have to use your phone, there’s a cell-phone zone clandestinely located on the outskirts of the venue. One might assume that people wouldn’t like the idea of Yondr, mainly because nobody likes being told what to do. However, Dugoni claims the opposite is true. “The feedback has been extremely positive,” he says. “I expected when I was out doing tests in the Bay Area that I would receive more negative pushback, honestly.”

The very existence of Yondr asks, however tacitly, the following question: is using your phone at a concert an inherently shitty thing to do? I was curious to see how artists felt about phones at shows, so I reached out for comment.

According to Mel Kyles of the Houston hip-hop group The Outfit TX, no matter what the situation, you’re distracted when you’re prioritizing your phone over the dude on stage. “It’s kind of like a MacBook almost, you know? If you have a bunch of shit open, after a while, shit is gonna start running a little slow,” he explains, “so if you’re on your phone, I’m getting 50% of your attention, and 50% of the response I need.”

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Some feel strongly one way: “I believe in Big Brother. Document everything,” said Dylan Walker from Full of Hell. Others seem apathetic: “[This issue] has never come close to bothering me. I don’t necessarily think it’s cool for someone to try to police the way you experience a show,” said Chris Farren of Florida punks Fake Problems.

“In general, fans’ tendency to photograph and video parts of the show seems appreciative,” says Chris Cain of New York-based indie rockers We Are Scientists. “If I looked at Twitter and Instagram the next morning and saw that nobody had posted any photos, I’d suspect the show had sucked. Or that we had looked really ugly on stage. Or—god forbid, worst-case scenario—both.” He’s right: the modern show experience is in many ways not constrained to the club or concert hall. When a fan Instagrams or tweets that they’re enjoying a show, it is essentially free marketing for the artist.

The rules are not concrete. As Farren suggested, “If you're standing in the very front of the stage and you're just idly thumbing through your phone with a despondent look on your face, maybe just go to the back.” That’s not taking pictures or documenting your good time. That’s being lame. Lower your head with shame. Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy agrees. “When I’m at a small or quiet show and someone in the front row is texting during a performer’s set… That’s distracting and rude.”

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Most artists can’t remember a time without the dominance of cell phones or cameras. “I grew up going to punk shows in the age of Motorola Razrs, so if people wanted to take photos at shows, it involved bringing a real camera, getting in the band's face, and if you shot film—not having a guarantee that your photos would come out at all,” Meredith recounts. In this sense, whipping out your phone to capture footage of the concert is the very definition of DIY.

meredith graves perfect pussy

Meredith Graves of Perfect Pussy.

As a lighting director who's worked with Arcade Fire, The Strokes, Interpol, Metronomy, Mumford, and many more, Ed Warren spends his evenings orchestrating dramatic light shows, facing the band on stage, and an audience with their hands aloft. Of course these music fans aren't all flinging their arms around dancing, many of them are holding their phones steady in order to Memorex the moment. "It’s like some strange future-cult, like people are brainwashed by their phone screens, not by what’s happening right before them live on stage," he says. "Except like most cool cults, there’s no aliens or suicide pacts at the end: just a shit, blurry reminder of what was probably the best gig you never saw.” He has a point. Nearing the end of my journey toward cellphone enlightenment, I had a stack of personal opinions, but I wondered what effect phones have on us psychologically, especially when we’re trying to do two things at once like record the perfect video while absorbing music.

I turned to Linda Henkel of Fairfield University, who did a study on the relationship phone-camera usage has on our immediate memory. Linda told me, “It’s like we’re counting on the camera to remember for us. So cameras serve as a distraction. We’re sort of outsourcing our memory. It’s like when you write something down and then you think ‘OK, so now I don’t have to think about that anymore.’” Obviously, I learned a few life lessons from a brief conversation with Linda. Thanks, Science!

The reality for a company like Yondr is harsh and unforgiving: people have been whipping their phones out at concerts since like, forever, and it probably isn’t going to stop anytime soon.

It seems the issue Yondr is trying to tackle is a societal one. It’s a response to the oversaturation of cell phones in our tech-obsessed culture. As long as you aren’t the asshole in the front row recording on a gigantic iPad obstructing everyone else’s view of the stage, you’re probably fine. “Live music is one of the few spaces in modern society where people can be swept up into a shared mood and create something that’s broader than themselves,” says Dugoni in defense of Yondr. Maybe this “shared mood” isn’t entirely destroyed by the presence of our phones. But if you’re under the impression that it is, the good news is Yondr now exists. You can expect to see Yondr as a viable option of concert-going starting in 2015. But maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t have to have something like Yondr force you to put your phone away at a live show. Just saying.