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FIGHT: Are Festivals and Musicians Right to Actually Ban Phones at Their Events?

Noisey editors Sam Wolfson and Joe Zadeh had a massive argument about it. But who is right?

The question of whether or not mobile phones belong at gigs has been a bone of contention for longer than bones have existed. It’s caused arguments worldwide, from basement punk gigs by UK band Savages to blockbuster shows by Beyonce, and it shows no signs of cooling down.

Since the dawn of social media, humans and their hand-held devices have been as inseparable as Conservative MPs and their expense accounts, but have we gone beyond the realm of self-control? Do we need to be told to check our phones at the door, focus on enjoying ourselves, and collect them again at the end? Or is it a backwards-facing endeavour to try to alter what has very much become standard human behaviour.


Two weeks ago, Mumford & Sons took the furthest possible step in the UK by actually banning mobile phones at their Brighton gig. Fans were asked to queue up before the show, hand them in, and then queue up again afterwards to retrieve them. Now, two of this summer’s music festivals, Innocent Unplugged and Questival, have announced a “no phones and no laptops” policy to be imposed on entry, to ensure that the environment can be one of “digital detox” where people can feel “disconnected”.

So who’s right and who’s wrong? Noisey editors Sam Wolfson and Joe Zadeh hold passionately opposing beliefs, so they thrashed this one out like two sharks in a bin liner.


What is it that Mumford & Sons are saying by banning phones at their show? Basically: “You pathetic arseholes can’t be trusted”. That's what they've told four separate crowds already in the last 12 months before entering the venues they were playing.

They aren’t the only prissy luddites acting up about the modern reality of phones that can do things either. There’s the Innocent Smoothie Unplugged Festival, where you can get your technological dependency frowned upon for a whole weekend. It proudly promises no Wi-Fi and no 4G, where all electricity will be provided by pedal power and giant hamster wheels, and festival goers caught using their phones will be made to undertake penalty challenges. Just imagine the type of sordid penalty challenges that will come from the imagination of party planners who think electricity should come from human hamster wheels. Something like "You must wear this pirate hat for the rest of the day and say 'Aargh!' to passers by!" Honestly this country is full of fucking luddites. Sounds right up your street actually, Sam.


I get their idea. That we need our phones taken from us because we’re sorry states and incapable of having any self-regulated discipline when it comes to taking photos, filming things or using the internet. We need to feel “less connected”, because less connected is how everyone was in the olden days, where Mumford & Sons and Innocent Smoothies come from.

Some humans using a phone. Photo by Mary Alice

Listen, I’m not some ranting flag bearer for those idiots that do wave their phones and tablets at gigs and music events. I am a human person, so I also find it really irritating when I’m trying to experience live music and an arm lurches into my view and starts experimenting with Instagram filters. But I’m firmly against the idea that phones must now be actually taken from your hands so that you can be forced to enjoy yourself.

Unless you’re watching Andre Rieu at the Albert Hall, then the live music arena is supposed to be a place of foolish liberation, where you dance like a twat, sing like a seagull and at least try to have the time of your life. It’s not really supposed to be a place of stringent rules, beyond a) don’t steal b) don’t kill c) don’t piss in a bottle and throw it forwards. Therefore, I’m really not sure people should be having their phones taken off them as they walk into venues, like untrustworthy kids losing their spork at the dinner table because they flicked kiwi into Grandma’s good eye. It feels invasive, patronising, and it sounds really long. Also, it’s totally how the Daily Mail would react if it became sentient and formed a UK chart band.



I can see you’re upset Joe. The mere thought of having your phone taken away for a few hours while you’re out having a great time (as I know you would be at a Mumford show, you wear their T-Shirts to the office every day after all) has sent you into a blustery tizz. Have you ever thought that you’re a bit too reliant on your phone?

I get it. I love my mobile, I love it more than some aunties. I check it every second or two and if I don’t have anything new on my lock screen a sense of dark sadness falls over me like I might never be touched again. But I also recognise that this level of involvement with a piece of technology is probably something I should try to keep in check, especially when I am in a place with other people, where life should be happening.

The idea of a retreat is nothing new - there are health retreats where you just do yoga and eat market greens, there are silence retreats where you’re not allowed to talk to anyone. Festivals are themselves a bit of a retreat - yes you could stay in a hotel full of modern luxuries, but the idea is that there is joy to be had in campfires and Argos tents and wet-wipe washes and the rest. A little something to make you feel human again, in our lives where the most connected we are with nature is picking a blemish off our M&S broccoli.

Sometimes taking away luxuries, not forever Joe, but for a brief, earmarked time, can actually make us enjoy life more. Otherwise the pinnacle of human happiness would just be getting a Kiehl's lubed handjob in a floating Jacuzzi for all of eternity, and I actually imagine that would get a bit boring after a few months.


Questival's phoneless festival agenda. Screencap from their official website.

So the idea of a phone-free festival - one where you’re not counting Instagram likes, or trying to find a slightly better group of friends to hang out with - sounds like a relief. Am I a dick to think that festivals are made better for meeting weirdos, macking strangers and having stories to tell?

Obviously, a Mumford gig and a festival sponsored by a smoothie company are not the most important cultural arenas in which to have this debate, but I think the principle still stands. The enforcement of no phones, which might seem like a hardship at first, can actually increase your enjoyment.


Hey, I love macking strangers just as much as the next person. And I get what you’re saying, but I don’t feel so helpless as to need my phone physically confiscated from me so that I can actually look out into the big, sexy universe and find someone to mack in the first place. We’re not banging each other via Oculus Rift’s yet, and I think I still have a vague idea of what real life is, and how to best take part in it. I can just decide: “Okay, let’s not get my phone out for a bit”, and that works quite well. I’m pro-choice.

You don’t solve the problem of phones at gigs by banning them, you solve it by promoting the moral high ground. Savages and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs both did that. Kate Bush nailed it when she put her honest preference to fans ahead of her London shows last year. “I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras. I know it's a lot to ask but it would allow us to all share in the experience together” she wrote. Jack White did the same, and by all witness accounts, that worked. It automatically created an atmosphere at those shows where it felt disrespectful for someone to wave their iPad in her face during the climax of “Cloudbursting”. Don’t get me wrong, some people still did, but that’s their choice. Just like it’s our choice to then stare at them like they just shit on a newborn child until their soul disintegrates into a small heap of uncivilised ashes.


Brian May of Queen, making a strong case pro-phone. Weirdly, the audience remain on Sam's side.

Whether Mumford & Sons, Innocent Smoothie’s Unplugged Festival or Questival like it, this is present day. Our personal lives, communication and cameras are usually located in the devices that reside in our pockets. And yeah, we like to take photos now and again. You can’t ban that, you can just help encourage an atmosphere of respect, excitement, exclusivity, and anticipation, that strongly implies a more self-aware approach to waving the damn thing around, snapping with the flash on, filming the whole gig, and other general digital shithousery.

After all, the problem isn’t the mobile phones and the iPads - the problem is morons. And morons will be a problem until the day the sun consumes earth and scorches humanity.


I would agree with you if I thought the purpose of these bans were for the artists. Bands can’t stop you taking photos, just like hotels can’t stop you outing them on Trip Advisor as THE GNARLIEST PLACE I HAVE EVER STAYED SERIOUSLY THE THREAD COUNT WAS LOWER THAN YOUR MUM GETS WHEN DUTTY WINE COMES ON. The best they can hope for is a Kate Bush vow of silence, in which the artist and audience are complicit.

But these technology detoxes are not for bands, they’re for us. The simple principle that for a weekend in the summer you can fuck off to a field in some ghastly part of Tory Britain, put up a few yurts, and transform it into a brief haven from the drab everyday of Tesco reduced stickers and WhatsApp notifications. That is not totalitarianism, it’s idealism.


It’s all very well saying that we can be trusted to police ourselves, but the truth is that policy has already been tested at festivals for the last decade and the result is we just can’t let go of our phones. And that’s fine, at 99% of festivals and gigs you can use your phones, but in such an overcrowded marketplace, let's celebrate a couple that are trying something different. Let's try a world where I don't have to see your photos of your mates on the Glastonbury sign and your inaudible Snapchats of when Jamie XX dropped the song with the steel pans in. They all have steel pans in, Joe.

Here's what the alternative looks like: this Telegraph article about the top apps for festivals. So now you can track all your friends with "Find My Friends!", like a CIA super-hawk, following their every step away from that Sunshine Underground set you wanted to see. Then you can use "Festival Ready" and drop a pin where you threw up on Friday night so you can go and show your friends the next day. And then, Joe, you can use "Virtual Zippo Lighter" so "you can put your lighters in the air… without burning any hair."

Is that what you want Joe? You and all your friends holding up your virtual Zippos while Mumford play the one that goes fast for a bit and then goes slow again? Of course it fucking is.

Follow Joe and Sam on Twitter.