May 16, 2014 1:31 pm

Can a crowd keep a secret?

‘Could you turn off your phones, your cameras?’ Chris Martin said. ‘Let this just be between us’
Illustration by Shonagh Rae of a gig©Shonagh Rae

Last week I watched something striking unfold in New York’s Beacon Theatre. The British band Coldplay performed a gig to a small(ish), exuberant crowd. As midnight approached, Chris Martin, the lead singer, stepped forward and declared that they would play an encore – but with a caveat.

“If you don’t mind, could you possibly turn off your phones, your cameras?” he said, with his trademark charm and winning smile, as he looked into the audience, a waving sea of smartphones. “Please don’t put this on YouTube – not everything has to be on YouTube. Sometimes you have got to keep things to yourselves, so let this just be between us.”

The crowd obediently complied (Coldplay fans seem to hail from a very law-abiding demographic). So, after those tiny, glowing screens had all disappeared, Coldplay duly performed their new song amid a blur of yellow and red lights, and for a few minutes we experienced a moment of transient creativity which felt unusual – and precious.

Welcome to a curious cultural wrinkle of our modern world. In recent years, there has been a growing tendency for marketing experts, politicians and artists to assume that if something is “valuable”, it needs to exist permanently in cyberspace, as well as in the real world. Trained to hunt for information on the web and communicate digitally, kids and young adults also increasingly assume that experiences only “matter” if they are shared online. To understand this, you need look no further than to Gwyneth Paltrow (the woman from whom Martin is now “consciously uncoupling”), who has built up a huge following with her lifestyle website Goop.

But as this hyperconnectivity spreads, it is also creating an occasional reaction: precisely because so much information and activity is now rushing into cyberspace, experiences which are “real”, “live” and “exclusive” can sometimes feel doubly valuable, even to young(ish) rock fans.

The main reason why Martin made his appeal last week, for example, was that Coldplay have not actually released their new song yet; protecting intellectual property rights is part of this game, just as theatres typically ban people from filming plays or movies. But I suspect that there was a second reason why he made his appeal: he is savvy enough to realise that, sometimes, it pays to look intimate.

A couple of decades ago, rock bands generally made their money by selling piles of records and performing in gigantic stadiums; mass access was crucial. These days, music is so commoditised that the really big revenues come through cutting deals with sponsors to sell images, music and a sense of access and exclusive experience. While Coldplay were in New York, they only did two small gigs – one of which was a private performance for Citigroup – and when they arrived at their “public” event, they went backstage to chat with potential sponsors (which they did with extraordinary professionalism and charm) before appearing on stage.

It is not just in the music industry where this pattern is playing out. In theory, the rise of the internet should have put elite conferences out of business; after all, the idea of any corporate executive paying $15,000 – or $50,000 – to attend a conference organised by the Milken Institute in Los Angeles or the World Economic Forum in Davos seems bizarre in a cyber world. But elite conferences are flourishing precisely because executives feel that “real” interactions are so valuable. So too with book clubs, which might seem an anachronism in a digital world, where people can always read reviews and chat to their friends online, but are more popular than ever. And live music festivals are benefiting from the same principle, as face-to-face experiences become more valuable – even among young people.

. . .

This does not mean that everyone is going to the extreme of banning smartphones; for most performers, particularly in the rock world, that is a step too far, since the idea is alien to the young. But Coldplay are certainly not alone. Last year, at concerts in New York and London, Prince issued “purple rules” banning phones and cameras. The actor and singer Zooey Deschanel has done the same. So has Björk, who told fans they should “not be preoccupied with recording the show”, and The Savages, who say that, “the use of phones to film and take pictures during a gig prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves.” Indie band Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been even more explicit, posting signs at their concerts saying, “Please do not watch the show through a screen on your smart device/camera . . . PUT THAT SHIT AWAY as a courtesy to the person behind you.”

As phraseology goes, that might be a trifle stark but it is a potent reminder that cultural trends do not always go in one direction and can spawn some surprising reactions. I would hazard a bet that in the next couple of years this sentiment could spread, as a new generation discovers that sometimes it can feel sweet just to live in the (real) moment and emerge with nothing but vague memories, which can then be edited in our minds with a shifting narrative, and without a permanent digital record over which we tend to have less and less control.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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