A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
First published in Trad and Now magazine, February 2014
A funny thing happened on the way from the Illawarra Folk Festival.
It was Monday morning and I was walking to the Bulli train station in the light drizzle, a damp swag slung o’er the shoulder, a song in my heart and a tune in my pancreas. And as is my wont on a post-festival morn, I was ruminating on the music and song-filled days just passed when it suddenly struck me.
Something had been missing. Something had not been there. There had been a yawning chasm, a gaping void.
I couldn’t recall one single mobile phone sounding in a concert venue.
Not one loud blast of ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’ at an inopportune time.
No sudden fanfare of Morris Dancing’s greatest hit in inglorious polymorphic tones.
And while others may have suffered in the auditory department from SMS Alertsville, I could not recall one chirp, beep or apocryphal whistling tone* to announce an incoming text message.
(* I’m a liberal with a small ‘l’, but the creation and use of this whistling alert sound for text messages is, in my book, justification enough for the re-introduction of capital punishment. Especially on Sydney trains.)
When I first started attending festivals regularly almost a decade ago, the cacophony of mobile phones ringing merrily on high and low was an inevitable part of the aural landscape.
As an MC, I borrowed an old gag and had to routinely employ it, often to seemingly deaf ears: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we do have a mobile-jamming device in operation in this venue. [Insert gasps from some sections of the crowd.]
“If we hear a mobile phone go off, we’ll jam it in your ear.*”
* Depending on the time of the day or night, other orifices were substituted at this point.
I have a theory about this.
It’s not an original theory, it’s not empirically-tested nor peer-reviewed. It just occurred to me on the weekend (mostly when I realised there’s a publication deadline in two days).
Back in the mid-noughties when mobile phones were relatively new, we used them for a rather novel purpose: to make and receive phone calls.
By then, text-messaging was already in full swing and so the strange process of talking in real time to an actual person was slowly being supplanted by the equivalent of two thumbs on the end of a long piece of string.
But our morbid fascination with our wireless, roaming companion* was still to fully develop to the neck-bending, zombie-walking, OCD-like concentration demanded today.
* Just on topic, my [ex-]girlfriend recently bought a new phone and the default screen background says (and I am not making this up): ‘Life Companion’.
“Life Companion”??? It’s a phone, for fig’s sake!
So, back in the day (or several days roughly grouped together), you’d make a call and then return the device to a pocket or handbag.
And there it would sit, disregarded and unloved and forgotten, until some highly embarrassing moment like mid-way through a concert when it would sing you the song of its people.
If you have not already seen it, I highly recommend the finest example of cautionary visual tales on this point that occurred during a classical recital. Just plug ‘viola nokia ringtone’ into your favourite web search engine or direct into Youtube and enjoy. Or just click on this handy link. Or on the pretty picture below.
So. Now we are in the age of smartphones (pardon the oxymoron) and that observational re-imagining of Franki Valli’s ditty by ‘The Shiny Bum Singers’ has never been truer when it comes to the relationship for many with their portable device:
‘You’re just too good to be true
Can’t take my eyes off of you
You’d be like heaven to touch
I wanna hold you so much’
So while a phone may have been forgotten in a pocket or purse to announce its presence during the slow and introspective bridge of that one song, now we’re painfully aware of the things, and the message has finally sunk in that turning the damn thing to stun and flicking the volume off is a good thing.
“Hello? I’m in the Concert Tent. I’M IN THE CONCERT TENT! No, I can talk now. Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?”
At this point in time, I should plead the Fifth Amendment, insofar as one can invoke a statute from a far-distant shore.
I have used a string of portable telephonic devices during gigs for the purposes of posterity, reportage and instant transmission.
Like it or not, this is the age of as-it-happens publishing. Why wait for the act to get off stage to post the photo set, share a whole song via video or even write the review?
What do we want? Content.
When do we want it? Five seconds ago.
I believe in about three or four years our obsession with this instant reportage may have peaked and channelled into some other direction, for a couple of reasons. One is a pet theory of mine since about 2010, two years after begrudgingly signing up for Facebook and then grabbing it with both hands and several toes.
Many of us are so consumed with creating content we don’t have the time nor interest to actually attend to anyone else’s. Or much of it.
I’m guilty as the next person. Since you’re reading this, I scarcely need to draw you a picture.
In the heady days when I attended as many as 15 festivals in one year, my photo set volumes were eye-watering. But who has enough interest or time to click off to Picasa and work their way through 100 photos of an event they didn’t attend and only have mild or no interest in?
Who’s going to read the 1400-word blog deconstructing the work of the seminal act from Kikatinalong that’s just crowd-sourced its progressive-rock experimental folk-baroque fusion album released on biodegradable hemp discs featuring the world’s newest exponent of the seven-stringed electric triangle?
We have information overload and fatigue. Coupled with an information-age propensity towards mild symptoms of ADHD: concentration on one thing for too long is something of a…. I’ve deviated off my point about phone etiquette in concerts.
Unless we’re in a stadium or amphitheatre with a 45 degree incline, there is a sentence that many of us have employed from time to time to the buffoon in front of us who’s making their very own video bootleg: ‘For the love of Bob, put the ****ing thing down!’
There was a time when you couldn’t watch a gig without a sea of waving arms (or lighters for the power ballads) but now it’s the ubiquitous video recorder a la téléphone. (Again, I plead guilty, your honour.)
Never mind the fact that venue and festival regulations often expressly forbid video-recording, or that the live DVD will be out in two months: we want OUR shaky, blurry, pixelated version with dodgy audio. Occasionally with us singing along in an embarrassing monotone.
If you want to see some examples, just look at the Overheard Productions channel on Youtube. I once had an artist contact me after 12 months and politely request I take down a video I’d shot of an outdoor lunchtime gig of hers, which I immediately complied with. It was a nice idea at the time but it was not good for her image or brand, if you’ll forgive the term.
(For the record, we were in THE back row and I wasn’t holding my phone in front of anyone. I captured just the two of these, and Youtube leapt on to them like seagull onto a chip. The ads that you see pop up reap advertising revenue to the copyright holders which is pretty cool.)
Others get on to the front foot on this score. I can remember MC-ing a gig at Illawarra several years ago where the solo artist set the rules at the start of the performance: photos are OK, but no video. For the very reasons stated above: the pictures and audio don’t always do the performer justice.
I believe there is a place for discreet snapping, short video grabs, and the wholesale publishing of same. I personally want to know what’s on, what I should have been at, what others are enjoying, what acts are on in Brisbane that are headed south that I should be getting to.
I want to know about your band and how it’s going and what it’s doing. I want to share bits and pieces with muggles (and friends of muggles) who might just have their interest piqued by a band, a performer, a venue, a festival.
It happened recently when a friend of a friend saw a posting on the first friend’s Facebook wall and invited herself along with us to see Enda Kenny and Lindsay Martin at Fairlight Folk in Sydney – and very welcome she was too.
I have no good feel for what the electronic landscape of self-publishing in the world of folk may look like in a few years. I have said often enough for the past two years that I believe Facebook’s days are numbered, and by 2016 it will be just a vague memory and as big a joke as Myspace is now.
Until then, I want to see your content there when time permits. But if you’re at a gig and you’ve taken one or two snaps or even videos, I humbly echo the words of the Transport fo NSW road safety campaign and suggest (to myself as much as anyone else): Get Your Hand Off It!