The last thing Jack White wants to see, when he’s standing onstage, is a sea of fans more involved with their phones than the music. So after pleading with fans not to use smartphones at earlier shows, he’s going hardcore for his sold-out spring tour – hiring Yondr, a tech company, to force attendees to lock their phones in pouches. “The way they react tells me what to do next,” White tells Rolling Stone. “And if they’re not really there, I don’t know what to do next.” Adds his manager, Ian Montone, who also manages the like-minded LCD Soundsystem: “No one wants to be standing behind 1,000 phones filming the entire show.”
White’s shows, beginning April 19th, make up the first full music tour to employ Yondr, which provides phone zones in case of emergency calls. In addition to Guns N’ Roses and Alicia Keys, Team No-Phone also includes Bob Dylan, whose security removes fans from shows for filming; Dave Chappelle, a Yondr enthusiast who recently told an audience, “You all need a break from that shit”; and Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, who ejects phone users not for taking photos but “because they’re recording things and they’re annoying the fuck out of their neighbors.” Some fans complain, but artists make a point of announcing the policy in advance so nobody’s surprised – early adopters were comedians, such as Tracy Morgan and Chris Rock, who didn’t want their material on YouTube. “We really don’t face much pushback,” says Graham Dugoni, who created Yondr in 2014 in San Francisco and remains the company’s CEO.
“It’s very distracting for me,” says Bonnie Raitt, who asks fans not to shoot photo or video of her shows but often invites them to do so during the final encore. “It’s hard for me to connect emotionally. It’s like a sacred space between me and the audience.”
But not every touring star agrees. Although promoters acknowledge that artists playing smaller, more intimate shows might not want phones flashing everywhere they look, pop stars with younger fans at larger venues consider smartphones a crucial marketing tool. “Potentially, the communal experience for a Justin Timberlake or a Drake is enhanced by a cell phone,” a concert-business source says. “Potentially, a cell phone at a Ryan Adams show detracts from it.”
“The last thing [artists] want to do is shut down socials during the show – if anything, they get upset if the bandwidth is not big enough for people to be able to Snapchat or Instagram,” adds Brock Jones, a longtime Nashville promoter. “They want people posting during the show.” And Randy Phillips, president of EDM-festival company LiveStyle and manager of boy band Why Don’t We, calls banning cell phones a “bad idea,” and adds: “Social media and the Internet are about freedom, not restricting freedom.”
Yondr provides its own staff for events. Justin Timberlake recently used it for an album-listening party, and promoters who’d never heard of Yondr last year are starting to accept it as a requirement for working with certain artists. “You’re not hiring the coat-checker to do it,” says Andy Cirzan, a vice president for Chicago’s Jam Productions. “This is a tried-and-true method from a company that has thought it through.” Dugoni, who also works with schools to wean students away from intensive phone use, repeats the word “experience” to describe device-free concerts.
“It feels weird at first, but once you immerse yourself, it becomes a unique kind of concert,” adds Jon Lieberberg, manager of Haim, which has used Yondr. “It’s almost like a social experiment.”
Additional reporting by David Browne, Patrick Doyle and Kory Grow