Update, Aug. 8: Since this column published, representatives at Jack White's Third Man Records have denied that anyone directly associated with White has ever posted signs at concerts forbidding fans from using Facebook or Twitter during his sets. They write:
We really encourage fans to talk about the show however they please, but just ask that they be respectful to the other concert attendees. Third Man uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr every day to communicate directly with our fans. All of these are important tools that are great to open up lines of communication for us and for you, the fans. We are not luddites who hate technology.
The "news" that White had put the clampdown on social media at his shows was the hook I used to consider a larger, less newsy topic. That subject was the pleasure an artist bargains away when he or she becomes an artist. I regret falling prey to the Internet mill of rumor and conjecture as a way of getting this column going. Still, it's worthwhile to think about the difference between our experiences at gigs and those of the musicians. This story really began with White's quote earlier in the year about what he sees from the stage -- the "sea of blue screens" of fans watching his show from their smart phones. White's words give us an extraordinarily vivifying picture illustrating where we're at presently, as an audience. Together, we've entered into an unusual cultural reality, to say the least, where we seek to embalm our experiences before extending them the courtesy of actually dying and passing into memory. So it goes. Thanks to White's candor, we have a crisp image of what we look like, en masse, from the other side of the barricade.
Original post: Well, hello! Let's talk about social media at live shows, shall we?
IPhones, Twitter, Instagram: I'm all for them. Jack White, on the other hand? He is not. White has taken to posting signs at shows telling his fans that the use of Twitter and Facebook is "strictly prohibited" during his set. (No word on whether he'll have the signs up for his Outside Lands set this Sunday.)
"The gadgetry for the experience of a live show has gotten ridiculous. You look out and see a sea of blue screens," White said earlier this year. "The worst thing is to watch a young kid watching a show on their camera screen, instead of watching it on stage. You just want to take it out of his hand and go, 'Come on man, that's not what this is about'."
Now, about me you might be thinking: of course you are pro-social media at concerts -- you're a member of the audience, not part of the band. But I've earned my claim to objectivity in two ways on this topic. First, by not enjoying live music to begin with. It's been years since I've attended a show for reasons beyond the self-flattering sense that I was doing a favor for a friend in a band, or a date who was a fan of the group. Besides my general distaste for large crowds, there's the fact I abhor our super-distracted, super-discourteous smartphone culture. And I refuse to take part in it anywhere, whether it be at a Jack White gig or in my friends' living rooms.
However, there are other things that bug me besides the ubiquity of iPhones. One of those nuisances is the lie that has grown up around the live music experience: that show-going is some kind of sacred rite -- a religious experience, of sorts -- and a music fan's passion can be measured by how much money they give to Live Nation each year. The conventional wisdom on the preciousness of live music is overblown and silly. In my experience, most venues are a lot closer to being shopping centers than they are cathedrals. Particularly the kind White plays. And I've always been a little embarrassed upon seeing my favorite bands in such a subhuman environment as, say, an outdoor festival.
But there is one important detail I recognize in all this: other people love going to shows and live music is a fan experience that at its best can become an incubator for a genuine community. So members of these enclaves should be allowed to document their communion however they wish, with the obvious caveat that it doesn't threaten the band's potential earnings.
Which somehow brings me back to Jack White, standing alone on stage, living out a bedroom fantasy he dreamed up before there was Facebook. A gig means something different to White than it does to us. That much should be obvious. But what exactly does it mean to him? One can only grope toward a guess here. But several millennia of documentation on artists relationships with their own work has provided us a few pointers.
The main takeaway from those annals -- whether it be Vincent Van Gogh's letters to brother Theo or John Lennon's book-length interview with Jann Wenner -- is this: it's less fun being an artist than it is being a fan of an artist. And like all rock stars worth a damn, White doesn't get to enjoy the fruits of his imagination as viscerally as we do. Live shows might be his only shot at finding that immediately gratifying place of transcendence listeners can reach fairly easily when they sit down with one of his records. So if you're Jack White, I'm sure it can be a bummer, to say the least, to see some fan watching your show through an iPhone screen while they update their Facebook status.
But this is the deal that is struck when you become a rock star: music -- especially your own music -- loses its easy rewards for you. If you're Jack White, imposing Wimbledon-style rules of conduct on your audience isn't going to restore any of that pleasure you bargained away when you committed to your vocation. That joy is gone forever from him. As for the "sea of blue screens" White sees from the stage? Like everyone else these days, he will have to accept his life has become just another drop in this murky ocean.