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.
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.