Geek mythology: Smartphones held aloft at gigs don’t herald a new era of bootlegging

 

As a teenage boy I was mildly obsessed with The Cure and, in the early 1980s, I spent a reckless amount of pocket money sending off for cassette bootlegs of concerts they’d done in small German towns.

For five quid you’d get a cheap Maxell cassette tape containing a fourth-generation audio copy, wrapped in an inlay that had been mass-photocopied on fluorescent paper. They looked awful and sounded worse – not because The Cure were particularly ropey back then but because rock music was never intended to be consumed in this way. Back then, you couldn’t capture the deafening, sweaty atmosphere of a gig on a handheld device and despite astounding technological advances in the last 30 years, you still can’t. The experience can’t be replicated.

The sight of hundreds of people holding up smartphones at pop concerts might lead us to assume that we’re flinging ourselves enthusiastically into a new era of bootlegging. So endemic is this behaviour that some bands have spoken out to discourage it, others have patiently explained that by doing so you’re depriving yourself of the full “sensory experience”, while the ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr thinks that “you’re just being a dick”. This “lose-lose” scenario of people experiencing gigs through their phones has inspired the launch of an app, Lively, which is aimed at bands who resent it and would rather fans’ recordings didn’t sound like a warthog roaring into a metal bucket. By giving bands a tool for an iPad to capture a stereo feed from the venue’s mixing desk and upload it for people to enjoy, Lively’s founder Dean Graziano hopes that the fans will put their “phones down”.

Other start-ups such as fanfootage.com and Outlisten have also attempted to harness fans’ behaviour by sourcing smartphone video recordings, combining them with “official” audio and producing professional results. But these ventures ignore that these recordings aren’t really being made to watch or listen to later. It’s a behavioural impulse we’ve learned, a need to document our lives, to prove that we were there and then dump the resulting pictures and recordings on a hard disk in case we feel like digging them out years later. It’s understandable that artists might want to use these services to control how they’re being consumed but it’s largely futile; it’s just how we’ve become as gig-goers and no amount of eager hyperlinking to a gig recording from the mixing desk (which is by no means guaranteed to sound that great either) is going to persuade most fans to put down their phones. They just want a memento of their night out.

It’s annoying when people hold stuff in the air and obscure the view of others, whether it’s smartphones or cigarette lighters, but give it a few years. It’ll stop. Less obtrusive ways of recording everything we do will be invented, and the results will probably sound great and look great. Which is probably enough to strike fear into the hearts of live musicians across the globe, but mark my words, he said, cautiously, we still won’t be that interested in watching them later. Listening to bootlegs will still be the niche obsession of anal completists like myself. Because it’s just not the same as going to the gig.

twitter.com/rhodri

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