When R&B singer Miguel came onstage at The Joy Theater in New Orleans in July, there was almost as much light coming from fans’ phones as there was illuminating the show.
When he crowd-surfed to the middle of the room, camera phones were up to capture the moment. When he sang “Adorn,” his biggest hit, people all over the theater recorded the song, one on two phones simultaneously.
Some of those videos appeared in 15-second chunks on Instagram, but none has been uploaded yet to YouTube. That’s just a matter of time, though. The online video library is populated with fan-shot videos from concerts they’ve attended. If you wonder what Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge” looked like from the worst seat in the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, a fan has uploaded your answer.
What was it like to watch Missy Elliott sing “Get Ur Freak On” at the Essence Music Festival this year? One fan puts you in the 3,472nd-best seat in the house, complete with bootleg-quality sound.
“It makes you wonder what they’re listening to, doesn’t it?” asked David Doucet, guitarist for BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet. He, like most musicians, must deal with the change in fandom that cellphone camera technology has brought. Once, cameras required some financial and physical commitment; now almost everybody has one in their pocket.
Fans are trying to share the moment with friends via social media or extend it via videos, and the “I was there” statement once only made by a tour T-shirt is now announced in a self-shot video.
What if the musician doesn’t want to be recorded? What if the artist finds the person staring at his phone’s screen distracting? How does an artist tell a fan to put down the phone and knock it off?
If you’re Jack White, you send out a member of your entourage to tell fans that White would prefer it if they enjoyed the show with their ears and eyes.
“It’s better to be in the moment,” White told Conan O’Brien.
Each night, White had an official photographer shoot photos and video that fans could download from his website, and while his efforts cut down the number of cameras recording the show, a clip from his show at the Saenger in New Orleans on YouTube presents a performance of “Seven Nation Army” that sounds like it’s being swept away by a landslide of distortion.
For singer Ingrid Lucia, such clips are a problem.
“I know fans think they are doing a favor,” she said. “But when a piece is put out of less-than-the-best quality possible, it tarnishes potential for opportunities when clients have to weed through anything but the best presentation possible. There’s a video on YouTube with my name on it where all you see of me is my booty.”
Still, Lucia recognizes the affectionate impulse behind the recording.
“I don’t have a problem with fans recording for their own personal memories,” she said.
Part of White’s concern is that the sea of phones are distracting for those further back. Local musicians are more concerned with how it will affect their performances.
“It’s flattering in a way if they do it right,” Doucet said. “But people taking videos/photos can be distracting.”
According to Lucia, “It’s a wall of separation. A big part of performing is connecting with the audience and eye contact.”
Guitarist Alex McMurray isn’t bothered by people shooting his shows, but he knows musicians who are.
“I’ve played with people who will stop playing if they see people obviously videoing,” he said.
When Kevin Hart headlined Essence Fest recently, he made it very clear that recording wouldn’t be tolerated. No video, no photos, no texting, no Tweeting, no Facebook and no phones out. Still, there is a short clip on YouTube of Hart, his kids, and opener Trey Songz celebrating Hart’s birthday onstage at the end of his set.
In Hart’s case, the issue isn’t simply one of distractions and quality control. Stand-up comedians will tour on the same material for a year, so having parts of his show go viral takes much of the surprise out of his jokes.
Still, the fan with a camera can have an unexpected impact. Women alleged for years that they had been raped by Bill Cosby, but it took a fan-shot video on YouTube of comedian Hannibal Buress calling him a rapist during one of his shows for people to get interested.
In most circumstances, the stakes are significantly lower for musicians and boil down to simpler questions of quality, consideration and fairness.
“This business is hard enough as it is,” Lucia said. “Having your goods constantly being given away for free is disillusioning.”