A Gig Without Phones

On Wednesday, I went to a gig without phones for the first time since… well, since before everyone had a camera on their phone.

I wasn’t planning to go to a gig on Wednesday but on Tuesday afternoon I received an email from Songkick inviting me to a secret gig by Haim. I accepted the invitation and on Wednesday I got further details of the show. This second email also contained this information:

HAIM would like to invite you to enjoy a distraction free concert experience at their upcoming show at Islington Assembly Hall.

No cellphones, cameras or recording devices will be allowed at this show. Upon arrival, all phones and smart watches will be secured in Yondr pouches that will be unlocked at the end of the show. Guests maintain possession of their phones throughout the night, and if needed, may access their phones at designated Yondr unlocking stations in the lobby.

We appreciate your cooperation in creating a phone-free viewing experience for this intimate show.

That sounded interesting. I had heard of Yondr before, but I had never been to a gig where their system had been used. I didn’t even know that they were active in the UK.

But let’s start by addressing that first paragraph.

HAIM would like to invite you to enjoy a distraction free concert experience at their upcoming show at Islington Assembly Hall.

To put it bluntly, that statement is bollocks. Oh, sure, perhaps it’s true that bands would rather people were watching them rather than taking photos or telling their friends on Facebook how much they were enjoying the show. But let’s be honest here, no-one would have invested time and money developing a system to prevent people from using phones at gigs if it was just about encouraging a “distraction-free” environment.

No, this is about copyright protection. That’s where the money comes in.

It’s surely no coincidence that the first gig where I see the system in use is one where the band are trying out songs from their (as yet, unreleased) new album. It also happens to be a show that is being filmed for later release as part of a documentary about the band.  That’s why they don’t want us to record it.

The system itself works well enough. While we’re queuing outside, someone comes along and demonstrates it to us (annoyingly reiterating the bogus “distraction-free” excuse as she does it). It’s a neoprene (or something like it) pouch with a sealable top. She describes the sealing mechanism as “the strongest magnet available”. It looks to me something like the devices they use to tag clothes in shops – certainly, the release device looks identical to the mechanisms used to remove those tags.

As we enter the venue, our phones are taken from us and sealed in pouches (there are several different sizes to accommodate different phones) but the sealed pouch is returned to us to hold on to through the show. This is, I guess, the clever bit. You’d get a lot of kickback from people if you took their phones away from them. But letting them keep their phones, albeit rendered unusable, removes a lot of objections to the system.

If you find you really need access to your phone to during the show, you can go back to the foyer, where someone will open the pouch for you. But you’ll need to have the pouch re-sealed before returning to the venue.

At the end of the show, you file out past two desks that are set up with the release devices. There were maybe a dozen or so in total, and I didn’t queue for more than about a minute.

So, the system works and is pretty painless. I didn’t really enjoy the hour or so that I was waiting in the venue before the show started, without access to Twitter or Facebook, but I’m sure I’d get used to it. I don’t think that the distraction-free environment really added very much to the atmosphere, but I suspect the band (or, more likely, their management and record company) are very happy that no footage of the show will have leaked out.

I do wonder if it’s all necessary. I’m reminded of a couple of gigs I saw within a couple of weeks a few years ago. Bjork was recording her “Biophilia” show at Alexandra Palace. All around the venue were signs telling us not that filming and taking photos was banned. And there was a lot of security trying to enforce the rules. But hard rules like that just encourage people to try to break them – so the security guards were having to work really hard as a large proportion of the crowd tried to grab a quick photo.

On the other hand, a little later I saw David Byrne and St. Vincent at the Roundhouse. Before the show, there was an announcement over the PA (it might even have been by David Byrne saying that they understood people would want to take videos and photos and asking the audience to just please try not to get in the way of anyone around you. That, more friendly, approach seems more likely to succeed. I’ve also seen shows where the act announces that the next song is unreleased and asking the audience not to film it. If you have a nice audience, that works (and if you don’t have a nice audience, then you have a whole load of other problems to deal with).

All-in-all, I’m not sure. I didn’t find Yondr to be a huge inconvenience to me. But I’d rather not be part of an audience where I feel slightly untrusted. I don’t think it will stop me from going to a show, but I really hope it doesn’t become very common.

What do you think? Have you been to a Yondr-ed show? How was it?

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