On the opening night of the Silk Sonic residency at Park MGM in Las Vegas, Bruno Mars and Anderson brought to life some of the best things of the ’70s: snug, sensual grooves, tailored polyester suits, and enjoying an evening without a smartphone.
As mandated by the band, audience members were forced to lock their mobile devices in small bags for the evening, courtesy of a company called Yondr. Once secured in their bags, they can only be opened electronically at a station near the entrance to the venue.
“We’re taking your phones away!” Mars sang to the audience near the start of the concert.
“That was one of the best parts of the show,” said Margaret Wittner, 51, who attended the show on February 26. “It’s good to be in the moment without any electronic distractions, especially during a pandemic, where many are forced to be more connected than any time ago. And if people can share concert footage online, why would others want to pay to go? “
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the live music industry has been on and off for the past couple of years. Artists and fans have tried to capitalize on live-room broadcasts and video chats, but as Omicron ebbs and vaccine requirements are hidden and dissipated, many businesses are now back on the road, as some seek relief from the pandemic’s growing reliance on technology.
“Being a master of ceremonies and being able to read a room—understanding the dynamics of what this room must feel—that feeling disappears when you look at a wall [phones]Mars told The Times. “With the cameras, you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I’d like to try a dance move tonight,’ or you’re afraid that joke will go viral on the internet.”
Graham Dugoni thinks this problem predated the pandemic: He founded Yonder in 2014, after attending the Treasure Island Music Festival in San Francisco the previous year. “I kept seeing a lot of people on their phones, texting other people in other places, and then logging someone who didn’t know they were being logged in and violating their privacy,” Dugoni said. “Once the intention leaves the room, it’s hard to go back.”
The business grew through the 2000s, as Yondr began to be applied in schools and courtrooms. Alicia Keys, John Mayer, and Jack White became the most well-known Yondr ambassadors, choosing to use the service on tours. Although the pandemic has greatly limited in-person events, Dugoni is happy to announce that in 2022, business is booming again.
“During the pandemic, people have realized that it is not cool to look at a screen eight hours a day,” he said. “Being able to go inside and temporarily disconnect from the power source is valuable.”
With halls selling out at levels similar to pre-pandemic times, concert-goers are clearly eager to get real face time with their favorite artists — but their interactions remain, to the artists’ frustration, via their phones. Several performers, from Jeff Tweedy to Björk, have asked well-meaning fans to refrain from using devices during concerts.
Indie rock star Mitsuki performed in front of a fully-fledged audience at the Shrine Auditorium on Wednesday night — but not before a pre-recorded ad was released just before the theater started asking fans to limit their excessive phone use, “so I can see you when you’re singing.”
However, the frosty glow of smartphone screens still obscured this reporter’s view of Mitsuki and her band during the opening of “Love Me More”.
“They should get it from TikTok,” a young man said in the crowd.
The problem came to Mitsky’s fans in late February, when the artist, who left social media in 2019, posted a rare series of tweets that addressed the abundance of phones in her shows.
She wrote, “When I’m on stage and I’m looking at you but you’re staring at the screen, I feel as though those of us on stage are being taken in and consumed as content, rather than sharing a moment with you.”
While some fans sympathized, others said smartphones are essential for young concertgoers. Some have argued that phones help alleviate issues such as social anxiety and dissociation in large crowds. After a day or two of inflammatory rhetoric among her fans, Mitsky’s tweets were deleted. (Mitsky declined to comment for this story.)
Among Mitsky’s fans at the shrine, divisions abounded—and varied surprisingly across generational lines.
“[Mitski] At odds with the digital age because she only wants to perform when she is on stage,” said writer Chingyi Nya, 28, who also attended the show on Wednesday night. “It must be tough as an actor when everyone prefers an amateur videographer over to be an active participant.”
“I think she has a liberating style in the music industry,” said Rocky, 21 (they declined to use their surname). “I was recording everything, but I realized that no matter how good I felt [can get] Watching these videos, it wasn’t worth the attention I gave my phone in real time.”
“The video is a souvenir, and it doesn’t cost as much as a T-shirt,” Kristel, 36, said. “Just don’t use the flash and it won’t bother anyone.”
Kristel led her daughter and niece from San Bernardino to capture Mitsky at the shrine. You got to know Mitski on TikTok. “Social media is important,” Kristel said. “Otherwise, how will young people know who you are? TikTok is what makes people come to your shows.”
TikTok wasn’t quite getting its start in the US yet when Jan M Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, began writing her 2017 book, iGen: Why Today’s Super Connective Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—And Totally Unprepared to adulthood.” Thanks to the platform’s meteoric rise, and subsequent dominance during the pandemic, Twenge says it’s already collecting data in a follow-up book.
“Generation Z was in rehearsal for the epidemic,” Twenge says. “They were already communicating less. They were driving less. They were already communicating more digitally than in person. They were really depressed. But young people did not ask to be born into a world where technology is designed to be addictive — I mean, it achieved a number in all our attention spans. I see More young people are speaking out against the exhaustion of social media than ever before.”
The constant demands of social media have many emerging artists, who are expected to market themselves online with the same enthusiasm with which they create their art, are on the verge of collapse. In January, electro-pop artist Chelsea Cutler, 25, announced the same amount in an Instagram post that has garnered more than 104,000 likes and support from artists like Maren Morris, Hayley Kiyoko and James Blake.
“I don’t feel like a content creator, I feel like a musician and artist,” she said in her post. “I don’t know how to keep up with how voracious our content culture has become.”
“TikTok is a huge music discovery platform, but users post 10 seconds of a song in videos, and that song goes viral without anyone knowing who the artist is, the story behind it or anything else,” Cutler explained to The Times. “Everything feels wildly disconnected. And when we’re in the studio, the lack of attention these days makes the artist think about writing shorter songs, instead of thinking about art.”
“[Social media] “It allowed a lot of talent to break through today who never had an outlet, but I can’t imagine a more difficult time than now,” said Cutler Director Jesse Corinne. “Reaching fans to them, scrutinizing, negative comments and hurtful messages – managing social media is a whole new responsibility for artists, an invasive responsibility and one that weighs a lot on their mental health. It should be used in the music business today, it just needs to be done in balance.”
“The goal of social media is to make you feel like you should be somewhere else and with other people that are cooler,” said Cutler, who traded phone time for surfing and making crafts at home with her friend. “When you’re online, it’s really hard to feel good in your present moment.”
Putting smartphones in airtight bags may seem like a dramatic measure to take in the third decade of the internet’s existence, but it’s a concession that some artists believe will bring people together.
“Without phones, there is no fear,” Mars said. “You just have to paint — really live in the moment. And I think there is a beauty in seeing something fail and then being able to talk about it with the audience.”