AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 16: MC Michael Diamond of the Beastie Boys performs live on stage during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festival at Rachael Ray's Feedback Party held at Stubb's on March 16, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jim Bennett/WireImage)
No phones please: Mike D of the Beastie Boys © Jim Bennett/WireImage

Dear readers,

Earlier this year, I went to see the Beastie Boys in Brooklyn. No, no, this was not some reunion concert of the seminal hip-hop group, although there was music aplenty. It was a Spike Jonze-directed, two-man show in which the surviving members of the trio — Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz — told the history of the Beastie Boys.

It was everything you would expect from a Spike Jonze production: from the offbeat, deconstructed narrative to the delightfully inventive use of theatre, video and audio projections. It also opened my eyes to the commercial possibilities of depriving people of technology. Lex more usually writes about the profits available from widening access to tech.

You won’t find any fan footage of the three-hour performance online. That is because all attendees had their phones locked away in so-called “baggies” before the show. It was the first time I was asked to surrender my phone for a gig. This was my first encounter with Yondr, the San Francisco-based company that made the phone-locking pouches. 

Yondr is a decidedly low-tech solution for our hyperconnected times. Devices are put in a grey neoprene case and then sealed by a magnetic locking mechanism that resembles antitheft tags found in clothing stores. Phone owners get to hold on to the pouch during the performance, easing the potential anxiety of being separated from their devices. The phones can only be released from their “prisons” at a designated Yondr unlocking base.

The appeal of these “iPhone coffins” as one comedian called them, are obvious. Big, established acts can avoid having their materials leaked online and perform without the distraction of being surrounded by a sea of glowing screens. Dave Chappelle, Jack White, Madonna, Guns N’ Roses and Alicia Keys are among the Team No-Phone converts. (New and smaller groups will remain dependent on photos and videos to promote their gigs.)

But with artists increasingly pushing back against having their performances filmed and photographed, don’t be surprised if you are asked to Yondr your phone at your next concert or play. Adele once blew up at a fan for taking out an entire tripod during one of her shows. More recently, Broadway star Joshua Henry and renowned violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter both made headlines for taking a stand against mobile phone users. 

Privately held Yondr doesn’t release sales figures or staff size. A spokesperson for the five-year-old company would only say that the number of employees tripled, and revenue quadrupled, in 2017 from the year before. It typically charges $2 to $3 per seat for shows and concerts, although the rate can vary for Broadway theatrical runs. 

Educators have also been taking notes. Yondr, whose motto is “Be here now”, says its pouches are used in more than 600 schools across the US. It may do well to look into opportunities overseas. Some McDonald’s restaurants in Singapore have taken to installing phone lockers in a bid to promote “family togetherness” and face-to-face conversations.

For some, being told you can’t access your phone for a couple of hours can be a scary thought. But having done it, I have to admit it was nice to disconnect and get a break from people who are constantly filming, texting and tweeting every bit of the show. To paraphrase Mr Chappelle: “We all need a break from that stuff.”

May technology lessen, not increase, your anxiety levels this week.

Pan Kwan Yuk
Lex writer, New York

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