Yondr, and Other Horror Tales from The Land of Live Music

Cell phones and concerts…they’re a lousy pairing for sure. 

Craned heads fixed to glowing screens, poorly governing bodies errantly bumping into one another in congested lines, and hallways, and bathrooms, and seats. A shitty 8-bit version of Rhianna’s “Umbrella” notifying everyone in section HH that “Jenny From Pilates” is calling. Or the guy in front of you creating wobbly, bush league recordings of the first ten seconds of every f***ing song.

Concerts were better before cell phones. Life was better before cell phones—or at least that’s my stance. So, I was a bit surprised by my own sarcastically disgusted reaction after stumbling upon a recent exaltation of a phoneless concert experience, courtesy of Jack White and Yondr, although they are not unique to this new industry fascination. 

For those unfamiliar with the concept, it goes something like this:

  1. Phones (and sometimes smart watches) are placed and locked in little magic pouches before the show.
  2. Concertgoers cannot use their devices except for in certain cordoned-off areas.
  3. Devices are unlocked and pouches returned at the conclusion of the evening.

Sounds great. No phones, no disturbances. That way we can all “be in the moment,” “live in the now,” or tune in to some greater collective consciousness that was hitherto unavailable when formerly enslaved by our pants-dwelling electronic overlords. Yondr would have you believe this fairy tale, as would White and numerous other performers and venues that now elect to add this feature to their modern concert experience. 

A few artists are honest enough to admit that part of this policy aims to cut down on the leaking of new material, and the unfortunate amount of amateur video detritus that clogs youtube, reddit and other internet piracy communities. To be fair, these are valid concerns. With traditional media sales in the tank, musicians can only capitalize on their performances, and no one wants to compete—and lose to—a digital knock-off of themselves. Grainy snippets from the upper deck can still reveal costumes, stages, and other nuggets from the live experience, losing their luster and immediacy when dribbled onto the web for all to see. But, when compared to comedians, movie theaters, and classical performances, the live music product suffers least from piratical dilution.

Setting aside copyright infringement and the financial losses associated, we can turn to the main argument proffered by Yondr and their adopting artists. 

“It’s a better fan experience.”

Really?

I don’t find cell phones to be all that detrimental to my concert experiences. I rarely take selfies or other documenting pictures and I usually have my phone set to silent before a show, so I’m not being inundated with requests from the outside world. I can’t speak for other patrons, but I assume that they also use (or abstain from using) their phone at a level at which they feel comfortable.

Of course this leads to potential discrepancies in what constitutes appropriate phone use. I’m going to guess that most people at a rock concert aren’t bothered by a fellow fan’s ringtone (you probably can’t hear it), their social media selfies with friends, or even the occasional brief recording. I can’t speak for everyone, but if I’m out to the show, once I’m in, I’m in. Every once in a while these phone-obsessed guests can take it a bit too far. A brief call from a babysitter is no sin, but frequent calls to the office and co-workers get old really fast, and the poor fool who fancies himself the next Scorcese…ugh.

Usually these philistine faux pas can be brought to the offender’s attention and successfully resolved with a pre-emptive, olive-branch beer, accompanied by a plaintive “sorry to bother, but when you “fill in the blank” it really makes it tough for me (us) to hear (see).” In more civil times this was known as adult behavior, and it’s not too late to bring it back! For larger transgressions, one can notify any soldier in the modern concert security army. For repeated micro disturbances I would advise simply paying less attention to your neighbor and more attention to the music.

My disdain for mobile devices aside, even I must admit that the little gadgets have their uses, and occasionally really are a wonderful convenience. Although the 2012 version of myself would shudder upon hearing me speak this blasphemy, phones have become indispensable parts of our modern existence. If I had children and the babysitter called, I’d want to know. If my friend were on his way to the hospital having succumbed to anaphylactic shock, I’d want to know. And if I wanted to check my phone on the way to the bathroom I want to do so without having to get permission from security. I’m not a child (most of the time). At the show I try to use cash for its simplicity (as well as the tax considerations for the hardworking servers), but a lot of people have shifted to the incredible efficiency of e-pay methods that become decidedly inefficient when one’s phone has been sequestered. Many of us have switched to e-ticketing, maybe to save the environment or maybe because it’s just the way things are going. Good luck trying to find your seat assignment if you can’t see your phone.

But more than any of the above gripes, what I really hate are line-inducing security processes. Whether it’s metal detectors, ID checks, or pat-downs, nothing does more to suck the fun out of any activity like waiting in line for mandated inconveniences. Why has modern commercial flight become a nightmare? There are a few reasons, but it starts with crowded and endless queuing. At least after deplaning a domestic flight I can leisurely make my way to the exit relatively unencumbered by more lines. With Yondr, you get the added perk of having to unlock your pouch at the conclusion of the show as well. We won’t even get into the potential nightmares of having to do this if the technology isn’t working properly, or trying this streetside after an emergency evacuation.

All that Yondr and its competitors really provide is annoyance. Frankly, I can get that for free just about anywhere, but I forgot one thing. Yondr isn’t free either. The pouches, the technology development, and the employees implementing it, they all cost money, and you know who pays. Just add it to the already exploding concert price along with the other (in)convenience fees.

So does Yondr really improve the live music experience? Not for the end user. I’m pretty certain that it adds a nice revenue stream for the company while lining the pockets of its creator, and no doubt some musicians may find it useful to give their presentations an air of false artistic gravitas. I can’t speak for the venues themselves, but it’s hard to imagine that adding a task to an ever-growing list of operation requirements would be a positive.

This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done to safeguard our musical havens from the scourge of modern technology. Those searching for an old-fashioned concert experience might want to try a couple old fashioned methods. Inconvenienced fans could simply exercise a bit of self-control and turn their phones off. Disgruntled artists might want to announce and implement a policy of prohibiting “inappropriate cell phone use.” It doesn’t take more than a few punted punters for the rest of the crowd to get wise to the rules. Think of it like concert drug use in the old days. Discretely ducking under your seat to spark the one-hitter will probably go unnoticed, but trying to share key bumps with security is gonna get ya tossed. Use your head.

In the absence of perfection there is reality, and the pursuit of absolute perfection in this reality leads to madness. The idea of Yondr in 2022 is one step short of madness. Cell phones aren’t going anywhere, and if they are, I promise that what’s going to replace them will be worse. Instead of quixotic eradication, we could try a bit of mitigation. Sometimes adding more inconveniences to solve the original inconvenience just results in…well, more inconvenience. Not every solution needs to come in the shape of a new gadget from Startup Candyland. 

And don’t worry about Yondr. After rightfully (hopefully) banishing them from the music scene you will still be able to find them in all your favorite fun-filled places…like school and court!

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