About a month ago, I scored a couple of tickets for Jack White’s June 7 show at the Dome Arena in Rochester.
It was a pretty unremarkable experience as online ticket sales go — log on to Ticketfly, select the tickets (though, as it’s a GA show, not much selecting needed to be done), enter in my credit card info and voilà, off to see Mr. White we go.
Except, when I got my confirmation, I received two big surprises. The first was a pleasant one at least.
Every online ticket purchased includes a physical copy of the forthcoming Jack White album Boarding House Reach. Fans will have the option to upgrade their CD to the standard black vinyl single LP.
“Score!” said I. And, sure enough, a couple of weeks later, I get a second email asking for a mailing address to which said compact disc should be sent.
And then I stopped and thought about it for minute. I’ve taken advantage of several similar offers in the past — I got the entire No Doubt song catalog on MP3 when I purchased tickets to their 2009 tour, while Mastodon offered a digital version of The Hunter to this punter for the same reason in 2011.
But this was different. Mr. White is offering a physical copy of his album, mailed at his own personal expense and brought to my door by a courier on his appointed rounds.
It begs the question: Has music, in this age of downloading and streaming, become such a cheap commodity that artists now think nothing of giving away physical copies of their music? I know that CDs these days cost pennies to produce. I know, too, that Mr. White not only owns his own record label, Third Man Records, but his own vinyl pressing plant, so his overheads are even lower than most. But potentially, to give away a product — one that his own website retails at $15 for a CD and $25 for 12″ vinyl — to people buying tickets at $50 a pop for almost 30 US shows this summer …. well, I’m not about to do the math, but it seems to me that’s a lot of promotional revenue to be chucking away.
More, I wonder about the message it’s sending, about music as a disposable commodity, that it’s now the same as that free package of Tide soap you get in the mail every once in a while. And I wonder how bands who still press CDs to sell on CD Baby or at their shows are going to suffer. Not from a revenue standpoint, but more from an attitude that’s now being instilled in the fan base that, hey, you know that stuff musicians spend huge amounts of their own emotional and financial capital to produce? Well, it really isn’t worth you spending your money on any more.
But perhaps Mr. White’s largesse has an ulterior motive. Further down the confirmation email, I read this:
PLEASE NOTE: this is a PHONE-FREE show. No photos, video or audio recording devices allowed. We think you’ll enjoy looking up from your gadgets for a little while and experience music and our shared love of it IN PERSON. Upon arrival at the venue, all phones and other photo or video-capturing gizmos will be secured in a Yondr pouch that will be unlocked at the end of the show. You keep your pouch-secured phone on you during the show and, if needed, can unlock your phone at any time in a designated Yondr Phone Zone located in the lobby or concourse. For those looking to do some social media postings, let us help you with that. Our official tour photographer will be posting photos and videos after the show at jackwhiteiii.com and the new Jack White Live Instagram account. Repost our photos & videos as much as you want and enjoy a phone-free, 100% human experience.
Now, Mr. White isn’t the first artist to lay down a strict cell phone prohibition at shows. The doors to Steven Wilson‘s shows on his last tour were plastered with notices about it. Security at last year’s Tool show almost booted Tessa and a few others who dared to snap a quick pic during the encore.
But this seems altogether different. This seems like a whole different level of artist control, one that basically says the audience can no longer be trusted to conduct themselves appropriately. (Like we ever could. This is rock music, folks, not the opera.)
Part of me gets this. I’ve been at shows (the Red Hot Chili Peppers show at the Key Bank Center in Buffalo last February springs immediately to mind) where the sea of screens between me and the stage was simply staggering. If it was infuriating from my angle, I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like from the stage.
There will always be a segment of an audience that takes the whole thing just that little bit too far, breaking the bond between artist and fan and taking all the participants out of the moment.
But do artists have to impose harsh restrictions on an audience to stop this? Why not, as the Grateful Dead and other bands have done, embrace the whole thing instead, and accept that audiences are gonna do what they are gonna do. Why not, as the Dead did, set aside a GA section of the auditorium to those who want to record and let them have at it? That way, they get what they want, while those who don’t want to be distracted by it — including the band — don’t have to be a part of it.
Remember, the Dead benefitted enormously from the policy of allowing the audience to record their shows. (See An Insider View of “The Grateful Dead Marketing Philosophy” as just one take on how the Dead enhanced their brand this way.) Maybe Mr. White and the Chili Peppers feel they’re already too big for this, and maybe they are. But the Dead’s policy ensured a fan base that stayed loyal for decades. This, in turn, increased demand for their official recordings and, just as important, their merchandising, which grew out of the process organically. And they did it without ever sacrificing control or integrity or — most important — the goodwill of their fans.
It’s a business model that we can all learn from, no matter what our business or status in it. And you don’t even have to bribe your fans with a CD to do it.
Firstly, let’s pick up on one of your latter comments about the Grateful Dead and their loyal fan base. Yes, they were loyal but they were also a different era. To do what the Deadheads did – live for a band – is virtually impossible these days due to work commitments (many of the Deadheads had none), society (it was considered cool back then), expense (ticket prices, transport, accommodation), and other things plus the fact that the bands don’t tour like the Dead did – 180 shows a year in the USA. Their fans were loyal because they thought they had nothing else. That’s not true in this day and age and there’s one more thing about the Dead and all the bands from that era and that was that they were inaccessible, they had a mystique. To experience and recount a Dead show was something special. These days we know everything about a band before they hit the stage so where is the personal experience of going to a show? Not there.
Not sure I agree with you on this point. There are a number of bands who have adopted the Dead philosophy — Phish immediately spring to mind, and, at least in the early days, Metallica to a degree — who connect(ed) with their fans in the same way and who made it work for them. It’s not a marketing strategy that everyone can, or should, follow. But it does work for some.
But where I really disagree with you is your categorization of the Dead fans. One of the things the Dead really understood is that their fans were growing old alongside them. While what you say may have been true for their fans in the early 70s, it was certainly not true by the end of that decade. The fans had all settled down — jobs, families, responsibilities — and the Dead rethought their touring, ticketing, and merchandising strategies to accommodate that.
And that’s really my point. The Dead and their fans enjoyed an almost symbiotic relationship, which all artists need to figure out for themselves. Jack White’s “no cell phones” policy is going to alienate some fans (how many is debatable), and that’s not good for an artist. Instead of saying, “here’s how we’re going to do this,” why not say to your fan base, “how can we, collectively, creatively, deal with this issue.” The Dead embraced the unconventional and made it work for them. Jack White is taking a different approach. Time will tell who got it right.
Point 2: ‘More, I wonder about the message it’s sending, about music as a disposable commodity, that it’s now the same as that free package of Tide soap you get in the mail every once in a while’. That boat sailed years ago and U2 threw away the anchor in 2014 when they forced all new iPhone buyers to have their new album without telling them. Music is now disposable because it doesn’t have to be paid for with downloads, Spotify, etc. The only way to combat that is accept it and try to recoup in other areas – live and merchandising – which brings me to my next point…
Agreed, but my point is one about physical, not digital, product. I wonder why go the physical route when digital is easier, cheaper, and the format of choice for younger consumers?
Point 3: If all you have as revenue stream a musician now is merchandising and shows, why would you want to allow people to film the show? I agree hardheartedly with bands who are doing this and I hope more follow suit. You mentioned that …the audience can no longer be trusted to conduct themselves appropriately…’ and then go on to say that we didn’t – I disagree. We didn’t bootleg shows, it was never our first thought when we trudged down to the DeMont and why? Because it was illegal and guess what? It still is! How is that conducting themselves appropriately? Not only is it breaking the law, it is disrespectful to the artists who specifically request it not to be done so as a musician said to me recently, what else can we do? They can’t arrest the entire audience so the only option is these kind of controls. It also has the added bonus of making a ticket buying concert goer actually watch the show without blocking someone else’s view.
Here, I think our disagreement is over terminology. What the Deadheads did was not bootlegging. They strictly adhered to the band’s honor code — they did not sell the product they made, they traded it. That meant the concert recordings were worthless; even if someone did try to professionally make and sell the product, they couldn’t make money from it because the market was saturated with free product. And the band weren’t losing revenue, because this was not product they were going to invest in to begin with.
So, no laws were being broken. The activity was not illegal, as it had the band’s blessing. More, the band embraced it because (a) it was a marketing strategy that cost them nothing and (b) the fans could connect with them on a very personal level. They didn’t just attend the shows. They WERE the shows.
And I think that’s what the phone users are doing now. They want to take a part of the show home with them. It’s their way of connecting with the artist. It may not be my way of doing that. It’s clearly not yours. So why, as an artist, would you say, “You can only connect with me in the manner of my choosing”?
Again, I would involve the fans in this debate, which is really the message the Dead were sending. They respected their fans enough to invite them in, and the fans responded with their loyalty.
Finally, I will add one more thing. Would this behaviour be acceptable at an opera, a ballet, a performance at the RSC or a play at the Haymarket? Of course not so why should musicians have to put up with it?
No, it would not be acceptable behavior at these places. Neither would dancing in the aisles, singing along, chanting, and pumping fists in the air, all of which are currently acceptable at a rock and roll show. Rock has its own etiquette and norms, which may or may not eventually include cell phone use.