rock shows then and Can You Hear Me Now?

I went to my first rock concert in years last night. Wife and I took our oldest daughter to see Snow Patrol.

The base player for opening opener Silversun Pickups had an amp with a GREEN LIGHT on it instead of a RED one. What’s up with that? Kids these days…

Seriously, it wasn’t very different from years ago. OK Go (the middle band) had a a screen behind them with their music videos playing. The music was pretty much like early U2 with a maybe a little Iggy Pop thrown into the first two.

One thing that was kind of weird: no lighters in the air. There was enough cigarette smoking to make my hair stink, but not very much. No pot. Instead of lighters, people held up their cell phones!

Some of that was for taking pictures. It’s kind of interesting that where they used to ban recording devices (they may still do so, officially), there’s no freakin’ way that they can effectively stop that now. (The drummer for one of the bands actually whipped out a little camera to take pictures of his bandmates on stage taking their bows. From behind. Probably included a lot of the audience.) I wonder why they don’t have a live Web site on the screen to which the audience can upload their pictures while the show is in progress. More participatory and all…

Anyway, seeing all those cell phones being held up in the air was pretty weird. It was like some sort of bizarre Verizon ad.

It occurs to me that one of the reasons that we are all so accepting of government abuse is that we came of age going to concerts where we would be searched for alcohol (and recording devices), and then be served alcohol on the premises. There’s no flipping principle of safety or law at work there — it’s simply the exercise of commercial power. We accept it when it’s convenient enough to do so, and don’t accept it when it irks us enough. For example, we’re not going to throw away our cell phones during the entry search. And the “them” accept that, and only try to enforce the abuse of power that they can get away with. So as long as the government keeps the planes running without TOO much delay, and doesn’t send us personally to Iraq, we acquiesce.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.


  1. In 1976, I went to the race track with my late Uncle John to see the ponies run. From before the first race until after the last, all the pay phones were padlocked — presumably to keep people from calling bookies to place bets.

    I think the social implications of the cell phone will take a long time to be fully appreciated. From 2000 to 2003, I used to rent a room in a house I shared with a bunch of grad students. I spent about 4 nights a week there. We shared kitchen & bathroom and living room. Not much pulled us together — normally each person got his own meals, etc — but we did sometimes watch TV together in the living room. And there was one phone we all shared. At least, that was the case in 2000. By 2003 each person had his own cell phone, and those who wanted to watch TV had cable service in their rooms. When I was a newcomer at the house, I joined a kind of tiny working community. With normal turnover, by 2003 I was the old-timer. There was no longer any community in the house, just 5 guys, strangers to each other, who happened to share a bathroom and a front door.

  2. A couple years ago I saw Aimee Mann play at the Orpheum in Boston. She took the stage and said something about how weird it was for her to be playing there: “I walk in here, and I’m thinking, ‘I saw Elvis Costello here.’”

    Early in the show, she noted the people waving cell phones and mocked them during her inter-song patter (“Hey look, I’m at a concert,” she droned in a dopey voice). I think she got some people to snap their phones closed and, you know, Be There Then instead of living life filtered through a little 2-by-3-inch pixellated screen.

    For the encore, she asked for requests but the acoustics of the Orpheum didn’t allow her to hear anything distinctly out of the chorus of song titles, and she ended up asking, “Don’t you want to hear ‘Voices Carry’?” In response to her complaint that other pop songs from that era have gone on to appear in commercials, but not that one — “Why not ‘Voices Carry’ in a commercial?” — someone called out, “For Verizon!”

    When she sang the song, she altered one of the refrains to incorporate the telecom giant.

  3. There is the feeling of a non-consensual act when someone expressly ignores posted or announced policies of no recording or viddying. I have had people holding small camcorders and cell phones sitting near me at the concerts I’ve attended over the last few years. There are many issues to consider, e.g., only small chunks of money make it back to “artists” who are touring and recording musicians, when the various costs are are added up, and I won’t take this space to dispel many of the misunderstandings the public has in regards to this, or the dialectic that as audience recordings make it onto the web the public develops a greater craving for their “product,” and therefore free (web-posted) material ostensibly profits the artist in the medium and long term. As Howard implies, it is becoming next to impossible to police the activity because of the nature of cell phones, miniturization and digital recording and viddying. Suffice to say, when an event is mediated by commerce, the audient often feels a “right” to use the time and space to his/her own supposed benefit, and considers the “product” they are witnessing (experiencing) something to be “owned.” There seems to be a process of rationalization by the good hearted supportive fans of the artist, but one thing remains, the artist has requested and how would s/he feel if not violated by this non-consensual taping? The Grateful Dead allowed a section called “tapers’ city”, Dave Mathews has allowed taping, and some of the best recordings of Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra, and Led Zeppelin have been “bootlegs.” The choice is up to you……

  4. In my mind, the relationship of the listener to the musician has always been that demonstrated by the troubadour or shaman. The musician helps us to feel … something… and we choose to participate or to reward the musician directly as we see fit.

    Sometimes we sit fit to act en masse, and sometimes to respond one-to-one. It may depend on the music, and it ALWAYS depends on context. There’s a long but rewarding article on the famous street musician experiment (http://www.washingtonpost.c…). My friend Paul K (above) sent me this link to a blog on this general subject from the great guitarist Robert Fripp (…). Funny how this comes full circle for me: I saw Fripp and King Crimson at the famous intimate Orpheum that Kellska mentions. Before the show, I saw bassist Tony Levin out on the street without quite recognizing him. He was a scary guy, and I crossed to the other sidewalk of the alley, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him either. Then I sat in a box at the show a few feet from his station on the side of the stage. As it happens, my daughter insisted that I wear one of my old concert T-shirts to the Snow Patrol show. She picked out one with the face from “In the Court of the Crimson King.” My wife was horrified at the sleeveless Tony Levin look, but I wore it just the same.

    Anyway, we may get something out of choosing to participate in the way that the troubadour or shaman leads us. Often this involves negotiating “rules” with the audience, and many of the most entertaining musicians will make great fun out of breaking those rules with a wink and a nod. But whether we go there depends on all parties, and is not just the entertainer’s choice alone.

    When I was young, I sat in arenas and held up a lighter, trying to feel whatever it was that everyone else seemed to be feeling, in much the same way that I stood in temple and recited the prayers. Now my context has changed, and I think only of my direct relationship – transient though it may be – with the artist and how the music makes me feel. If I like it, I may put some money in the virtual hat by buying a CD. I bought two after the Snow Patrol concert. I also made copies to give to friends. And I wrote about the experience and shared that. I even made a suggestion above that I can imagine OK Go acting on, and wouldn’t dare think of limiting or restricting them from doing so. If they want to build it, they might consider hiring me to set it up (I would decline), or they might not. When I next buy music or talk up a band, I might think of them, or I might not. But regardless, no one has the moral right, in my opinion, to tell me how I must feel or whether I must accept artificial restrictions and unnecessary scarcity. The game, the art, and the experience are mutually arrived at.

    All of which relates to something now being done in Croquet. These guys (…) are creating social spaces in which each participant chooses a musical tag – their own personal theme music loop. The spaces they visit then use a genetic algorithm to produce a combined loop based on the combination of all those present. The “artist” consists entirely of the audience who are making up the experience.

  5. For more on the relationship of Shamanism with “sound”, “vibrations,” and the vulnerability of attack by those in their sphere of influence, please see pg. 18-19 of this interesting interview with a famous wacky physicist who also once played a Ferengi on Star Trek!

    I have had profound and mundane experiences at rock and electric music shows, and my experience is that the intention of the performer and the intention of members of the audience are of critical importance to the quality of experience available to “plug into.” To the degree we are present to our own experience (NOT the ego’s experience, not self-consciousness, but just BEING PRESENT) the quality of the listening of the audience and performers gets wider and deeper and has greater access to subleties we often categorize as “art” or “inspiration,” or “affinity,” etc.

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