The digital divide – artists and today’s technology

Last weekend, I was at the Wilco show in Memphis at The Orpheum Theatre. In between songs, frontman Jeff Tweedy – never one to pull punches – stopped to lecture the rowdy crowd.  He politely explained that the band was kind enough to allow audio taping and still photography, but the one thing they asked was that the audience refrained from video taping.

He’s right.  Audio taping and photography are a privilege, not a right.

Then, during the next song he spotted the girl who ignored his request, and all hell broke loose.

There she was, standing right in front of him – literally two feet from the lead singer – Blackberry in hand, videotaping "Impossible Germany."  Mid-song, he crouched down – still playing his guitar – and with a snarl on his face asked her "Are you f*cking kidding me?  What’s wrong with you?" He then snatched her phone from her and tossed it behind drummer Glenn Kotche’s kit.

They finished the song, and Tweedy strode back to the microphone, and said something like "We asked nicely."

It was an uncomfortable scene that hovered over the rest of the show. She eventually got her cell phone back during the encore, but the point had been made, and frankly, the damage done.  

It’s an interesting dilemma, this new-fangled technology.

Many, many bands today would not exist had their forefathers not been liberal with what, at the time, was the equivalent of cell phone video recording.

The Grateful Dead have discussed how, on their first east coast tour, they were shocked at how many folks new the lyrics to their original tunes, attributing it to the tape trading.  They allowed audio recording of their shows, and the tapes spread across the country.

Today, things spread even faster via the Internet.  With the advent of bit torrent file transfer, in just an hour, you can have a copy of your favorite show.  Some bands have entire catalogues of their shows hosted on sites like archive.org, available for download.

Other bands, like the Allman Brothers, have continued to allow audio taping and traditional, through-the-mail trading, but forbid digital file transfer, citing its impersonal nature and the lack of the community vibe that came with the trading.

To play devil’s advocate, in today’s society, everything is becoming more and more impersonal.  In a night, I can watch a movie that came from Netflix, which I ordered online – never having talked to a single person when procuring said film. I can order a pizza online, inputting my credit card and adding a tip, so that when it shows up, all I have to do is sign my name (I guess I do have to open the door and look at a living, breathing person, however.) 

All this begs the question – if the Dead were just emerging as a band today, would they allow video recording, the modern-day equivalent.  For just $200, you can buy a Flip camera that records in high definition.  With the built-in USB connector, you just plug it in and upload. It’s that easy.

Because it’s that easy, it’s that difficult to stop.  During his time discussing the issue at the Memphis show, Tweedy mentioned how he had no realistic expectation of curbing the video taping, and how all he could to was ask politely. It was the perpetrator’s blatant disregard for his request that set him off. 

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