Jack White has never seemed an individual entirely at ease with the 21st century. A musician destined to walk desolate railroad tracks during the Great Depression, a guitar strapped to his back, he’s spent his career investigating faded technologies, whether that is vinyl production or analogue studio equipment.
However the American artist’s latest move has riled some fans. Announcing a string of dates on both sides of the Atlantic, Jack White has attached a caveat: no phones allowed.
“We think you’ll enjoy looking up from your gadgets for a little while and experience music and our shared love of it IN PERSON,” advises a statement from the singer’s team, recommending a “100% human experience.”
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He’s the latest in a series of artists to take umbrage with the intrusive impact of the mobile phone, whether that’s recording as-yet-unfinished material and placing it online, asking for selfies at inappropriate times, or simply that annoying white light beaming through the crowd.
Almost concurrently Annie Mac gave a new interview to Music Week, decrying the impact mobile phones have had on club culture. Returning to DJ duties after taking a break to be with her family, she noticed the increased use of mobile technology: "There was this constant kind of need for documentation of the night and it just killed my fucking vibe".
"The ultimate idea and goal of clubbing is to connect," she argued, and to "experience the same emotional charge together" – something she believes fans can’t achieve with "a fucking screen in front of you that you have to record everything on".
Perhaps she has a point. After all, we’ve all had nightmare experiences of the person next to us at a show recording Every. Single. Moment. and it’s not fun, and no doubt alienating for the artist trying to make this show happen. Some venues – such as Berlin’s iconic, vastly influential Berghain – have banned phones altogether, while other promoters kindly place notices that phones perhaps don’t belong on the dancefloor.
Yet there is also a positive impact of mobile phone technology. One of the primary reasons DJs exist is to share music, and apps such as Shazam have brought fans closer than ever to musicians, allowing them to check Track IDs in seconds, rather than sourcing through endless forum chains at odd times of the day and night in an attempt to lock down an obscure vocal sample.
Mobile phones have completely changed the way tracks break, with labels noting spikes when, say, the Ibiza season opens or major festivals like Glastonbury or Outlook take place. By placing a song online artists can sit back and watch as it makes its insidious way into club culture, an echo that keeps returning, getting louder and louder and louder.
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What ultimately connects Jack White and Annie Mac’s viewpoints is their belief that mobile phone use disrupts the essential connection between artist and performer that drives any great live show. They could well have a point here, which is no doubt what drove both Savages and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to ban mobile phone use at their shows.
But what this stance misses out on is that music shows aren’t like the cinema or the theatre – where phone use is similarly banned – but a liminal state, a continually morphing realm largely guided by fans themselves. A certain freedom has to be allowed, if not tolerated, and this could certainly lead to some surprising results.
For instance it’s common ritual now for live performances to end with an entirely acoustic encore, musicians pushing aside the microphone stands to remove any barrier between themselves and the audience. Yet this is often accompanied by hundreds of phones lighting up, the illuminations themselves creating something striking, wholly unique, and undeniably beautiful.
It’s also worth noting how new this technology is. When The White Stripes released their debut album phones could just about play Snake, with the idea that having your entire photo galley and record collection sitting on one tablet still remaining the stuff of speculative pieces in tech magazines.
So perhaps fans can’t be blamed for being a little over-excited with these new tools, and the power of perfect recall suddenly afforded to them. Equally, though, the internet certainly doesn’t need a dozen wonky videos of Jack White attempting a guitar solo, or a drunken selfie with Annie Mac while she blends a new tech-house track into an exclusive (and hence not on Shazam) edit.
The solution is probably a two-way street, with artists declaring their dislike but affording fans space to guide their own actions, while the audience itself needs to reflect on the impact singular actions can have. Perhaps Ian Brown put it best during one of those enormous Stone Roses re-union shows, when he advised those in the audience to put down their phones: “You’re recording a moment that you’ll never be a part of...”
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