It’s long been a hot topic amongst gig-goers and bands alike: is it ever acceptable, just as the opening notes of your favourite artist’s best song float over the PA – that gentle, delicate ballad that feels like it could snap and break at any moment – to then whip out your phone, hold it in the air, obscuring someone else’s view, and loudly take a snap or a video?
It’s long been assumed amongst ‘serious’ gig goers that this was something akin to a crime against humanity – ruining the experience for other people but also, crucially, for yourself; after all, why would you take yourself out of the moment and stop yourself taking in what is directly in front of your eyes, to watch something on a crappy little screen, which will look and sound terrible when (if) you watch it at a later date?
However, according to the New York Times, new research has shown that taking photos ‘won’t take you out of the moment’, and could even help you remember the occasion more accurately.
I am, let me say, highly dubious about this claim.
If I had to prove that I had ever been to university, it would be pretty difficult. In the pre-cameraphone era, I have barely any photographic evidence of my time (occasionally) studying and (mainly) getting up to fun stuff; additionally, pre-social media, mercifully, there is no record of my many lightbulb moments when I was sure I had figured out the meaning of life and all of its complexities when, in reality, I absolutely, definitely hadn’t.
In the last decade though: completely different game.
Facebook rolled into town at the same time as the cameraphone was beginning to make actual sense on a practical level, and before you knew it, documenting every single little thing in your life was utterly essential. If it wasn’t Facebooked, it didn’t happen, as you desperately began to constantly show everyone what an amazing time you were having, all the time.
An odd thing: many soon realised that, with everyone still bang into Facebook, actually, the ultimate expression of fun-having was then not to post anything at all – the implication being that you were far too busy doing all the fun stuff to post about it, or even think about looking on Facebook.
However, as Twitter and then Instagram became widespread, this game of reverse-bragging soon receded, to be replaced – via a brief period where people were still naive about the genius of humblebragging – to straightforward bragging. Hey, at least we know where we all stand now.
And so we come to the world of live music, where three strands of photography collide: photography for the purpose of bragging to your mates that you’re at the hottest show on tonight; photography for the purpose of having a snapshot of the night to look at at a later date; and those for whom any form of photography at an act of cultural vandalism akin to whitewashing the Sistine Chapel.
I’ve tried to sympathise with the photo-takers. I’ve even – mea culpa – done it myself on occasion.
But it’s time to be clear about this: it’s utterly unacceptable. You need to stop doing this. It’s ruining gigs for everyone, including yourself.
But – you cry – what about this new research? Won’t it make me remember the show better? Well, dig a little deeper and you’ll discover that this is, frankly, nonsense.
The NYT article is based on a study from Psychological Science which documents several experiments where researchers found that taking photos during an experience – in this experiment, walking around an art gallery whilst listening to an audio guide – helped people to remember visuals more accurately, even if they didn’t then revisit their photos at a later date. The same group published research last year which found that photo-taking “made people more engaged with experiences, leading them to enjoy positive events more than people who didn’t take pictures”.
However, crucially, snapping pictures also appeared to decrease how much spoken (i.e. audio) information people retained.
Equally crucially, the group found that “taking pictures with the primary goal of sharing them on social media can counteract the positive effects of deeper engagement and memory” – because you’re now concerned with taking a great pictures, and all of those sweet likes and comments, “which can increase anxiety”.
I can see where this is coming from in an art gallery setting. By taking a photo, you’re forcing yourself to concentrate on the object in hand – in fact, even having a camera with you means that you’re subconsciously weighing up whether each exhibit should be the one that you want to photograph. Thus, the ones that you choose to photograph, you’re going to think about, and remember, more than those you choose not to. And if your audio guide memory suffers as a result, it’s not really much of an issue. After all, with most art, the primary focus is the visual aspect. Also, in an art gallery, the exhibit is (usually) not moving around. There’s no sense that’s it’s going to do something once-in-a-lifetime, that you might miss. It’s not going anywhere.
Not so at a gig.
Firstly, while gigs are frequently all-encompassing shows where the visual element counts for a hell of a lot, ultimately, this is a music gig. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d say the sound is pretty important. Feeling the music, and allowing yourself to be immersed sonically, that’s fundamental to the whole experience. You might be able to remember a particular visual moment slightly better if you’ve taken a photo, but if, by doing so, you’ve missed the most emotion-inducing listening (i.e. audio) moment of the track (as suggested by the research), then you’ve missed out, haven’t you?
Secondly, the unpredictability of a gig is what makes live music so brilliant – go listen to the album at home if you just want the same thing every time – but a gig carries with it the possibility of something shocking, unexpected, a twist, some rock star behaviour, whatever it is – you want to experience that as it happens and not miss it because you’re messing about with filters.
Thirdly, let’s be honest here – how many times are people taking photos for themselves? The vast majority are for social media – to prove how cool you are and that you’re at a sold-out gig that others aren’t at.
On the occasions that I have done just that – hey I am human and I need to be loved just everybody else does – and taken a photo and posted it on Facebook or whatever, you then spend the rest of the gig wondering if you could have got a better shot, if your caption could have been better, wondering how many likes it’s got – and trying to resist the urge to check, but by thinking about that urge, you’re still thinking about it when you could be watching the show that’s literally happening in front of your eyes right that second.
It’s stupid. Don’t do it. Every time I’ve done it myself, I’ve regretted it.
And none of this takes into the account the effect your phone wielding has on all those other people around you who’d quite like to enjoy the gig. Concerts are dark. Phone screens are bright. They are massively distracting. And, again, if you’re standing there desperately trying not to let yourself be distracted by these irritating beacons, you’re still being distracted, because you’re thinking about trying not be distracted. And then the bastards have won. Even in an art gallery where it’s likely to be light, you still run a massive risk of being a distraction to people who simply want to stand there, be immersed in the artwork and allow their thoughts to run free.
Don’t even get me started on videos. While, if you really must, a quick photo – if you really are taking it just for yourself, and really are just trying to record the moment to aid your memory (although if the gig was that good, you’d have no trouble remembering it anyway) – is not necessarily a long-drawn out process, a video is just the absolute, indefensible worst. It will sound terrible. It will not capture the gig. It will not stack up with your actual memory of what the gig sounded like because you have two very high quality ears and two very high quality eyes and this has one very poor quality microphone and one camera lens. You will never watch it back. And you will, at your leisure, wonder why you missed your favourite song (because this will be the one you video) on the night for the sake of a pointless minute-long clip which will rot on your hard drive until the aliens come and view it and wonder why on earth anyone bothered to watch this band, because they sound and look terrible.
Here’s a tip for you: go and watch amazing bands, put your phone on airplane mode and don’t take any photos or videos.
I have no documentation of my time at university. I have no documentation of watching Rammstein at Download Festival in 2010. I have no documentation of watching Sigur Rós in a mini amphitheatre near Florence in 2003.
And I can assure you that I have no problem remembering how amazing all of these were.