The esteemed Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, while famous for its commitment to a quality movie-going experience, is probably best known for its strict no-cellphone policy. After one warning, they will eject any patron who is caught texting or talking on their phone during a screening. Obviously, some people don't take kindly to this, but in terms of the greater good, it's a pretty fantastic idea.
They explain it as such:
"One of the things making Alamo a great place to watch movies is our enforcement of the ‘rules for watching movies.’ In other words, we don’t tolerate disruptive behavior in the theaters and we’ve received a lot of press and accolades for our adherence to this position. If you are a person who likes to talk, text or use your cell phone during a movie, we are not the place for you! If on the other hand, you crave a great movie watching experience free from interruptions, please join us!
We position ourselves as a theater that takes extreme pride in providing an excellent and undisturbed movie watching experience. If you are a movie lover, you can expect a great environment at our theaters, free from talkers, texters, cell phone users or disruptive behavior. We enforce the policy with pride and people who disrupt other patrons will be ejected from the theater."
I'm not the biggest movie buff, but I really appreciate their gall and commitment to making sure an art they love is experienced in the right way, and while I can't say I've had the privilege of attending a screening at the Alamo Drafthouse, it's on my life bucket list for sure.
But time and time again after hearing about the Alamo's no-cellphone policy, I keep pondering over the same thought…
WHY DON'T CONCERT VENUES DO THIS?
In my other life, I have the good fortune of writing a weekly music column for a website called Brightest Young Things, which comes with the added bonus of getting to see a lot of great live music; I'm usually catching at least two shows a week at various venues around Washington DC. In short, it's pretty awesome.
But over the past few years, the concert-going experience has been absolutely crippled by the smartphone.
It's impossible to take in a show these days without seeing hundreds of lit screens speckled throughout the crowd at all times; hundreds of fans forfeiting true enjoyment of the present in hopes of reliving a canned version sometime in the future.
And trust me, no one is winning in this situation…
The non-phoned members of the crowd don't like it:
As a tall person who long ago had to learn the concept of responsibility to other fans behind him, I can assure you that no one likes to be anywhere near the person who is taking 500 blurry photos for their Instagram account with their camera stretched high above their head.
The bands don't like it:
Acts like Jack White, Yeah Yeah Yeah's, She & Him, Savages and Prince have all attempted to dissuade fans from using their cell phones, some with aggressive signs like "PUT THAT SHIT AWAY as a courtesy to the fans behind you," but most plea for fans to enjoy the connection that makes live music so enjoyable. "Our goal is to discover better ways of living and experiencing music. We believe that the use of phones to film and taking pictures during a gig prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves. Let's make this evening special," reads a sign that blog-buzz band Savages posted in venues for their tour.
And, whether they realize it or not, the ones doing it don't like it:
I occasionally go to shows alone, sometimes out of desire, sometimes because no one I know wants to go check out the band I'm reviewing that's playing a hole in the wall at 10pm on a Monday night. It was a little daunting when I first started doing it, but soon I realized the magical thing about live music is that it creates a universal connection between not just the musician(s) and the audience, but between the audience members themselves. Haven't you ever experienced a "holy shit" moment during a great concert, looked instinctively around you to confirm that it had happened, and locked eyes with a total stranger who you realized "got it" just as much as you did? It's beautiful.
But when those other audience members are nose deep in an iPhone screen, that connection is broken. They're too busy connecting to the world outside that room, isolating themselves in a sea of other individuals.
As Jack White himself put it when talking to News Limited, "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.'"
So let's change it up. Let's fix this broken system.
And I might have an idea how to do it...
Music venues, I am asking you to make a pledge that you will not allow cellphone use DURING a performance. Treat it like another bad habit, smoking, and restrict it to outside the venue or the balcony section. Make it clear it won't be tolerated and do your best to enforce it.
But I know that won't be enough.
And this is because people are mostly, as Dr. Cox on Scrubs once said, "bastard coated bastards with bastard filling."
So we as audience members need to come together and decide that we deserve to enjoy a show the way it was meant to. We need to be the ones shaming the screen-lit until they see the true light. Minor Threat and Fugazi alum Ian Mackaye theorized, "Our society at the moment is stoned on technology. I want the audience to have a sense of their responsibility in terms of making a show. Not the responsibility to us [the musician], but their responsibility to themselves."
Sure clubs can put up all the signs they want, but it's the people, the music-loving COMMUNITY that needs to start this revolution. I mean, all way back in 2003, New York City banned the use of cell phones at public performances, but I can assure you no one's ever seen the $50 fine attached to this law. The esteemed 9:30 Club's manager Ed Stack compared trying to enforce an artist's no-photo policy to "playing Whac-A-Mole."
So let's help them.
As a DC resident and proud proponent of the DC scene, I'll go ahead and call out 9:30 Club…
Dear 9:30 Club,
You are consistently ranked as one of the best venues in the world. You have the clout and the power to change the game. If you have the guts to actually ban cellphone use on the first floor, let us prove to you that we as fans can not just control ourselves but monitor those around us.
Together, we can do this. We can make a Venue of Dreams.
Yes, you might get some backlash from some people, especially from the growing tech sector in DC, who will bring up things like Radiohead's fan-shot movie or NPR's Bob Boilen's defense of there being proper phone etiquette, but look no further than the Alamo Drafthouse to realize that there is a huge contingent of people that will stand behind you in your attempt to give the people what they want, even if they don't know they want it (or need it) yet.
And to those concert-goers arguing they want to document their experience, we can point them to the now less-famous Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and then remind them that there are professional photographers in front of them being paid to make sure the great moments are captured. It's what leads to iconic concert photography that we can all universally recognize and appreciate instead of blurry iPhotos taken on a phone that will eventually be left in a cab. And if there really is a need for fan-shot video, let's do it the right way like The Beastie Boys did with Awesome: I Fuckin' Shot That.
You were the home to some of my first and favorite concerts, and you are the embodiment of everything great about live music, but you can be better. You can be a pioneer.
And together, we can fix this broken system.
We can bring change to Washington.
Sincerely, your brother in arms,
Bryce Taylor Rudow
During a recent interview with Travis Morrison, the lead singer of my favorite band, The Dismemberment Plan, I told him how much I appreciated his music and let him know what a huge impact it had on my life. With all the sincerity and humility in the world, he graciously only replied, "That's why we did it, man."
So let's remember why WE do it. Let's remember why as fans we spend the $30 on a ticket to see something in person instead of on a screen for free at home and lets get venues to remember why they decided to erect themselves as temples to live music.
Fans, venues, Luddites, lend me your e-signatures.