Social Media is Ruining Music Festivals

So many cell phones. Too many, even.
So many cell phones. Too many, even.
Timothy Norris for LA Weekly. More here.

I had been waiting more than twenty years to see Pearl Jam live, and last fall, the time had finally come: I was going to see Seattle's finest at the final weekend of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.

It was worth the wait. Eddie Vedder drank a bottle of wine onstage and sang his heart out. Mike McCreedy played the guitar solo for "Even Flow" behind his head. The crowd sang "Alive" in perfect unison.

It was an amazing experience -- right up until the moment a short middle-aged woman in front of me stuck her hands up to record the band's rendition of "Jeremy" for her Instagram account. Every fifteen seconds she'd hold up her phone, not only blocking my view but ensuring that she experienced what was obviously a favorite song, one she'd presumably paid a lot of money to see live, through the screen of her phone.

This experience is the obnoxious side effect of the connected world that we live in and one that frequent concert-goers have become accustomed to. What makes this instance different from the thousands that have come before it is that it was motivated by the organizers of the festival.

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The push began as soon as I purchased my three-day passes. I was supposed to brag to my friends on Facebook and Twitter that I had made my ticket purchase, which seemed like a rather pretentious thing to do. Did people really need to know where I was going to be that particular weekend in October? It just seems like an invitation to plan to rob my apartment. I even downloaded an app to my phone called #aclfest so I could prepare for the weekend by planning out the schedule of who I want to see.

At the festival, I was bombarded with alerts making sure I didn't forget to use my free ride from Uber or stream the fest on my cell phone (did they not know where I was?) They gave out the printed copy of the schedule as soon as we walked through the gate, but that didn't stop the plethora of attendees of all ages from keeping their heads down as they looked at their phones to see where Capitol Cities was playing. If they had looked up, they would have seen the stage right in front of them marked with the logo of the aptly named sponsor. When they finally realized where they were, they turned the phone toward themselves, snapped some selfies, and moved on.

As we anxiously waited for St. Vincent to take the stage, the video board ran through a slideshow of hashtagged photos of festival attendees, encouraging anyone with a smartphone and an Instagram account to use #aclfest on all their pictures so they could see themselves on the screen. Then, like an all-knowing voice of reason, an announcement bellowed through the loudspeaker explaining that our enjoyment would be enhanced greatly by putting away our electronic devices. This is the underlying theme of St. Vincent's latest album, and I mostly complied with her wishes. Weeks later, it's her performance I'm still raving about.  

Walking the grounds, there was more evidence that the festival promoters and sponsors wanted you to use your cellphone. You could have a festival volunteer take your picture in a giant, Instagram-ready square-shaped frame in the middle of the park against the Austin skyline (I missed seeing Jenny Lewis to take part in this admittedly charming endeavor.). If you tweeted something cool about Miller Lite, they would print that picture out for you for free. Then you could go to the Samsung tent and swap out your battery so you could take more selfies and download an app to listen to the artists you missed perform because you were waiting in line to learn about AT&T's super-fast WiFi. At many points in the evening, the cell phone towers in the area became so overloaded that I couldn't make a call or send a text.

I always believed the festival experience was unique because you and a few thousand people were collectively sharing an experience. At other festivals, I've met cool people as we waited in anticipation for a headliner to take the stage or shared our feelings about a mind-blowing performance while sitting on a bench eating expensive festival food. Something was different this time around. Everyone was urged to share the experience instantly with the world and, more specifically, their friends who weren't there, at the expense of sharing the actual experience with the actual people around them. It's as if people spent hundreds of dollars to brag about where they were instead of getting swept up in the moment. This meant they were missing out on St. Vincent climbing the rafters, dancing to tUnE-yArDs in the mud on a rainy Texas afternoon, and Beck performing "Debra" on the last show of his tour.

It wasn't until we boarded the plane on the way home that the experience finally seemed complete. It was obvious we had all been at the same place. A woman from Seattle and I compared our notes for Outkast and Beck and suddenly everyone joined in, talking about who they loved and who could have been better. This is what I wanted to take part in, what I wanted to share, not what I wanted to brag about to #everybody. And -- surprise, surprise -- it happened when everyone's cell phone had no service.

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