WASHINGTON – Ian MacKaye saw the telltale tiny blue dot.
The D.C. hardcore punk pioneer was speaking to an auditorium full of college students in New England. In one of the last rows, one audience member appeared to be either sleeping or listening reverently.
But that blue dot in his glasses gave him away.
“I said to him, ‘You in the back, you’re texting,'” MacKaye says.
In a good-natured tone of voice, MacKaye explained to the surprised young man how his texting had been discovered.
“‘Just so you know, that blue dot in your glasses, I can see it,'” recalls MacKaye.
MacKaye is not the first or only musician to notice audience members focused on their phones.
Last month, in the middle of a song at the historic Newport Folk Festival, the singer for The Lumineers addressed the crowd:
“What do you say we put away those cellphones and cameras and just be here, right now?”
The audience cheered the suggestion.
Also in July, Beyonce encouraged a distracted fan during a singalong, “You’ve got to seize this moment, put that damn camera down.”
When the now-focused fan sang along, Beyonce rewarded him with, “Yes, that’s much better.”
In the 1980s, as the frontman of Minor Threat and guitarist in Fugazi, MacKaye often had rambunctious fans leaping on stage to sing along and mosh, before diving back into the crowd.
Today, as singer-guitarist in The Evens, MacKaye sees preoccupation with smartphones as a distraction.
Ian MacKaye, third from left, is seen on the steps of the former Dischord House in North Arlington. This photo was used for Minor Threat’s "First Demo Tape" release. (Courtesy of Dischord Records/Rebecca Hammel)
“Our society at the moment is stoned on technology,” says MacKaye, sitting at the dining room table in a North Arlington, Va., house known as “Dischord House” – where members of Minor Threat practiced and the Dischord label was launched.
Citing psychological research that texting and tweeting prompts a pleasing jolt of dopamine, MacKaye likens consistent smartphone use to marijuana use in the 1970s.
“Quite literally, people are a little high on technology,” MacKaye says.
While not suggesting mandatory compliance, MacKaye believes smartphone-wielding fans are cheating themselves because the energy at shows comes from the audience, rather than the band.
“I want the audience to have a sense of their responsibility in terms of making a show,” he says. “Not the responsibility to us, but their responsibility to themselves.”
Seth Hurwitz, co-owner of the 9:30 Club and I.M.P. Productions — which produces major concerts at venues that include Merriweather Post Pavilion — says customers constantly fidgeting with smartphones isn’t limited to music.
Promoter and club owner Seth Hurwitz says enforcing smartphone use would be more disruptive than the activity itself. (Courtesy of I.M.P. Productions)
“This is happening everywhere, isn’t it? It’s happening at the movies. It’s happening in restaurants. It’s the same problem with yet another setting,” Hurwitz says.
Making people aware their smartphone use can be distracting to others is a first step, says Hurwitz.
In general, Hurwitz believes enforcing smartphone rules would “probably make more of a commotion than the activity itself, so I think the best you can do is put up some notices reminding people, sort of like those things that run before movies now.”
“There have been bands that have actually requested us to put up signs. We’ll put up signs, but I don’t think we want to be sending (9:30 Club security guy) Big Josh into the audience, bothering people that are texting,” says Hurwitz.
At Wolf Trap, audience members during last week’s concert featuring Cheap Trick and Pat Benatar were reminded by ushers to avoid photography, including with smartphones.
“Our photo policy is based on artist discretion, and we honor the artist and their management’s approach to photography and the use of smartphones during performances,” says Camille Cintron, manager of public relations for Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.
Hurwitz’s entertainment entities embrace social media and are fully engaged on Facebook and Twitter.
While excited fans often share photos, Vines and Instagrams during shows at the 9:30 Club, Hurwitz hopes they’ll use common sense and courtesy.
“Word of mouth is great for anything, whether it’s a restaurant, a movie or a concert, but you don’t want people standing up in the middle of the restaurant yelling, ‘Hey, this is a great restaurant!’ to their friends,” Hurwitz says.
“You can tell your friends about a great show or a great artist, without bothering other people.”