There’s a certain camaraderie we’ve all felt at a great live show—a force that pulls you into the stories the band spins, until you’re outside of yourself and part of a collective linked together by the music you came to hear. In the crowd, you might find yourself jammed up against a stranger, wincing in response to the hair that keeps brushing against your face or the sweat dripping onto your shirt. A few songs in, a crowd surfer’s foot might kick the back of your head, and it could seem that she’s totally wrapped up in the music. She is, after all, willing to dive into a mass of strangers and trust they’ll keep her afloat.It’ll only matter for a brief moment, though, until you hear your favorite song and forget all about your lack of personal space.
At Governor’s Ball last weekend, however, I saw a crowd surfing young woman flop around uncomfortably, unable to balance herself on the palms of the crowd. I wondered why she was having such a tough time—something seemed to be preventing her from flowing with the motion of the mob—and then I spotted the source of her instability: an iPhone set to record, clutched tightly in her hands.
Many have pointed at the urge to chronicle live music with a phone or camera as a passive practice that takes you out of the experience and something that poses a huge distraction to nearby music fans. One could argue, though, that a concertgoer’s drive to record what he’s seen is not really passive at all in our social media-saturated environments. Instead, many of the moments documented at live shows and other festivals seem to be intentional bits of information assembled to make a point about the person who posts them. Certainly sharing pictures of your favorite band or artist to Facebook is not a narcissistic move, but what if the artist doesn’t even factor into the content of your post? What if it’s only a selfie featuring the fan’s festival-ready flower crown and trendy boho-chic threads, and nothing more?
Numerous media outlets have affirmed this trend of cutting the discussion of actual music out of the social media conversation of the contemporary music festival. It only takes a simple Google search of the words “music festival” to find numerous pieces that single out attendees for their fashionable garb and project the attention of the discussion onto the audience members themselves. Are these stories inherently hurtful to the integrity of music festivals? No, not necessarily—folks expressing themselves through fashion can make for interesting stories from a dedicated fashion blogger. I do wonder where the line is, though. At which point do the stories about the proper festival attire overshadow the music, the main reason (I hope) that folks made the trek out to the show in the first place? Shouldn’t writers and fans primarily discuss the performances that they’ve watched at the festival?
At last weekend’s Governor’s Ball, there were festival-goers carting inflatable plastic dinosaurs, cardboard cutouts of a shirtless Jeff Goldblum, as well as huge blown up pictures of their own faces. Did I laugh when I saw these things? Hell yes, I did. They were really funny. I did wonder, though, why this batch of concertgoers also tried to get their own hashtags (associated with their particular stunt) trending on social media feeds. It seemed that these people were trying to be a part of the show. Was the music their primary focus? Well, no one can say what their intentions really were, but, I, along with other festival-goers around me, was distracted from the performer up on stage by their antics.
The use of social media, or any sort of recording during a concert is not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve definitely snapped photos of an artist and tweeted them out after the set with a few comments about the performance. In fact, it can be really interesting to see the story all the members of the crowd have created together with their tweets about the show and photos from different angles of the stage. But, what about those Snapchat-happy concert-goers taking ten-second grainy videos and selfies of themselves with the stage? They’re breaking their engagement with the performance and not even creating a memory for themselves to look back on. They blast out these bits of Snapchat distraction to a list of friends to let them know what they’ve been up to all weekend. Ultimately, this type of online interaction boils down to them, and not the events of the festival they came to see.
In an interview with Reuters prior to last weekend’s festival, Governor’s Ball founder, Jordan Wolowitz, shared his views on the event’s role as a New York-based festival—a market that was previously hard to tap—that caters to eclectic tastes. Wolowitz said that fans are “digesting more music and their palates are more diverse than ever” and that Governor’s Ball is “indicative of how people digest music in the 21st century.” Wolowitz is dead on. After all, a music fan can be dialed into just about any genre as long as she has internet access and a bit of curiosity.
But before we pat ourselves on the back for our eclectic tastes and celebrate the genre-spanning nature of many contemporary music festivals, we must consider the way this translates to the individual music fan’s experience of a live show. Perhaps the festival-goer relentlessly hops from stage, to stage, to stage, one after another—he gets the perfect Instagram shot, but was he really listening? Or, was he just devouring each experience, contemplating its precious place within his personal feed?
On our computers, we have dozens of tabs open in our browsers, but maybe we’re only skimming through the content. We can talk about culture without even interacting with the work itself, without even listening to the song. Is self-centered Internet babble spilling out into our everyday lives and into the experience of live music? For some fans, this appears to be the case. Phone in hand, it’s so much harder to forget the smelly guy next to you, the elbow that keeps jamming you in the back, and how it feels to just let the music wash over you without a care about how you look, or who knows that you’re there. To get to this space is so much a part of seeing a live show, and you cannot get there when you’re posing mid-Snapchat, eyes cast down at a screen.
Follow Mel Johnston on twitter @mel_johnstonx