Fan Photography at Live Shows: A Right or a Privilege?

By on Monday, 4th July 2016 at 11:00 am
 

Header photo: Fans capture live photos of Sylvan Esso’s surprise show at SXSW 2016

You’ve queued for over an hour to get into a gig. You rush into the venue to claim a coveted spot at the barrier. When your favourite band finally takes the stage, you whip out your smartphone to capture a video of them playing their most popular hit tune. You touch the Record button, and—you get an error message. “Recording disabled”, your phone screen reads.

Wait, what?

According to a recent article at NME.com, tech giant Apple has recently been awarded a patent to develop an infrared data transmission system which, among other potential functions, could prevent fans from filming or taking photos at concerts using their iPhones. The new system would use beams of infrared light to transmit data to phones or cameras as described in this excerpt from the patent:

For example, an infrared emitter can be located in areas where picture or video capture is prohibited, and the emitter can generate infrared signals with encoded data that includes commands to disable the recording functions of devices. An electronic device can then receive the infrared signals, decode the data and temporarily disable the device’s recording function based on the command.

While this system is currently limited to Apple devices and software, it seems reasonable to assume that similar systems will soon be devised for non-Apple smartphones and even stand-alone digital cameras. Whether or not you’re an iPhone user, you might be asking yourself at this point, “What does this mean for me, as a live music fan?” Essentially, it means that artists and venues could use the new infrared system to prevent concertgoers from taking photos or shooting video at gigs, either by disabling the photo and video functions altogether, or by applying a photo-editing effect such as a watermark to prevent sharing of the photos or videos.

As a music blogger, I’m of two minds on the subject of restricting photography at gigs. On one hand, it can be distracting when half the audience is watching the show through their camera screens rather than focusing their attention on the stage. This is especially problematic when punters hold their cameras (or worse, something larger like a tablet) over their heads to get a better vantage point, effectively blocking the view of anyone standing behind them.

Artists themselves have begun to express their frustration with the growing trend of obsessive live gig photo and video sharing, with Ryan Adams and Foy Vance being two examples in my own concert-going experience. Pop songstress Adele recently voiced her opinion on the subject at a show in Italy. The irony of that moment being captured and shared on a fan’s Twitter feed wasn’t lost on us here at TGTF.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/JTKjjLibr5U[/youtube]

On the other hand, I have to admit to being guilty of this offense myself when I review live shows, though perhaps in a more official context. As an established music Web site, TGTF can usually secure a photo pass ahead of a gig, or at least general permission to take photos. Photo passes currently take the form of a special wristband or sticker for the photographer to make it easy for security to identify credentialed photographers. However, our editor Mary points out that the new infrared system, or any similar restriction put into action at the behest of either the artists themselves or the venue, would require electronic credentials for each individual camera or video device. Given that many smaller venues haven’t even switched over to electronic tickets and scanners, it’s hard to imagine that electronic press credentialing will happen at those places in the near future, even if the new technology to block digital photography and video recording is implemented.

So where would this leave music bloggers who review shows with the good faith intent of publicising and promoting the music and bands we love? Certainly, we could attend shows and post live reviews without photos. But as anyone who’s ever attended a live gig knows, concerts aren’t only about the aural experience of the music. Pictures and live video hold extra appeal for readers who weren’t in attendance at a gig. More importantly, they can pique the interest of readers who might be considering buying tickets to a future show. Our main goal at TGTF is to spread the word about music that inspires us, and we feel we can do that more effectively if we include visual content in our reviews.

"iPhone

As one example, a large part of our live reporting here at TGTF includes annual coverage of the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. SXSW is our chance to see many of our favourite artists from around the world here on American soil, and to promote their music to American audiences. If our live reporting is restricted at events like SXSW, our content would be less dynamic and our readers’ interest in an event as it was just unfolding would certainly decline. The musicians themselves would likely also feel this lack of publicity and decline in interest, perhaps deciding that international festival participation and touring were no longer worth their time or the very considerable expense.

There are also safety and human rights issues at play with such restrictions inside music venues, both at festivals and at individual shows. Consider, for example, how outcomes might have been different at the Bataclan in Paris or the Pulse in Orlando if patrons inside those clubs hadn’t been able to use social media to communicate with first responders and their own friends and family. From a broader perspective, the possibility of these new restrictions could have a much greater impact outside the realm of music journalism. TGTF reader and avid concertgoer Peter Dysart Erickson writes, “Think media blackouts; think local police forces flipping the switch to prevent the filming of police brutality and rights violations; imagine governments outside the U.S. shutting off cameras to prevent news from escaping. The implications of this technology are far ranging and ultimately against basic human rights.”

We at TGTF believe that the final decision on gig photography is best left in the hands of the musicians themselves. We’re willing to respect the wishes of artists who prefer not to be faced with a sea of smartphone cameras every time they go onstage. We’re sympathetic to artists who want to be able to perform new songs in live context, without the fear of amateur video footage showing up on YouTube before the songs are officially released. Above all, we’re eager to allow our favourite artists to fully engage with their audiences and, as audience members, to fully engage with them in return. Even if it means keeping our smartphones in our pockets. However, artists must make this decision with the understanding that if such restrictions on photography and videography are put into place, our ability as music journalists to provide full and complete reporting on live shows will be greatly compromised.

Editor of TGTF Mary Chang contributed to this report.

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

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