by Jacob Wingate-Bishop

Let me start this piece by saying that I am going to come across like a very old man. I’m going to sound like an embittered, mumbling wood-whittler who hates young people, technology and the world. This is partly true, but I also want to clarify and defend my statements. So, bear with me. There’s a sincere point beneath all the cynicism.

I recently attended an Ava Max gig at the O2 Empire in Shepherd’s Bush, London. I got there an hour early, I waited for a good spot, had the ritualistic pre-show wee and then took my place. I was about halfway back in the standing crowd, but the Empire is small enough that you’re promised a good view anyway. Or so you would think. So, I thought, that Wednesday night.

What I got for the hour-or-so long set of Max’s, however, was her head. I saw her head move surreally across the stage, as if held aloft by the heads of the fans in front. That’s all I saw of her. She might have been wearing a banana costume from the neck down, and I’d have been none the wiser. Now part of this is down to how low the stage is compared to the ‘pit’ – I wasn’t the first that night to complain about the view (or lack thereof) and I don’t imagine I’ll be the last. That’s poor performance on behalf of an architect, not Ava.

Ava Max at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 19.04.2023. (Photo credit: Jacob Wingate-Bishop)

The real problem for me is that I didn’t even get a chance to see Ava Max’s head for most of the set. As soon as the first song, ‘My Head and My Heart’ kicked off in earnest, a wall of smartphones appeared before me, like great, rose-gold tinted spiders springing from their trapdoors, watching every second of the performance. And I do mean every second.

From the first digitised chord, people were thrusting arms into the air, cradling mobiles in hand like torches in a mob, pressing their fingers down on the ‘record’ button until the track gave way to applause. As soon as the first row started, so the one behind had to lift their devices up higher. And so on, and so on, in some military operation akin to a Roman tortoise formation. Perhaps, if I were not so annoyed at seeing nothing but the lighting sequences, the sight might have impressed me.

I get it. People record stuff. People take pictures of the act onstage. As they should. As do I! Gig tickets are like gold dust these days, nevermind what one also spends on travel, accommodation costs, drinks at the venue, merchandise, etc. For the money you pay, you want a memento. You want a half-decent shot you can print out, frame and put on the wall. I can’t say that I agree with musicians who try to ban smartphones outright. Fans used to sneak in compact cameras, take videos, make bootleg albums from them. It’s part of the music scene, and it’s a kind of anarchy I think we should cherish.

But the most I, myself, record is the first verse and a chorus maybe, or a particular part of the song I like. Enough to watch later, smile at, and little more. I want to spend more than 50% of the concert actively engaged. That’s what I’m there for. Actively watching the spectacle unfold first-hand, not through a lens or screen, however many megapixels phones might boast nowadays. There were many that night at the Empire who might as well have kept the camera running and started livestreaming the whole thing. At least that way it might have benefitted more than just the social media-obsessed freak with a spilled beer in one hand and iPhone in the other.

I know this argument has been raging for years now. You may, quite rightly, be wondering why I’m so late to join the fight. Why am I only getting angry in early 2023? Well, I didn’t notice this epidemic before. My music taste lies with the mums and the dads among you. I’m typically one of the youngest in the audience when I go to gigs. I stand in line to see The Cult, Adam Ant, Bryan Adams, Magnum. At most concerts I go to, I’m the biggest offender where phones are concerned, and I make sure to adjust how much I use it throughout accordingly. Especially if I’m in the front row. It’s common decency. It’s just part of being a nice person. Enjoy the live atmosphere, let the band see my giddy face, let the people behind me watch unobstructed.

Even at those gigs with younger crowds – The Killers, the Vaccines, Ghost, Black Honey – people aren’t so obsessed with immortalising every second in megabyte form. Perhaps those into the more indie or alternative side of music are just better people? I wouldn’t say either way for sure. It’s a hell of a statement to make. But Ava Max is by far the ‘trendiest’ musician I’ve seen live, and – whether correlated or not – it showed in just how many screens I saw that night. How, to be blunt, little regard there was for live music.

What left a bitter taste in the mouth was seeing the person in front of me take a snap during one of Max’s songs for BeReal. For those unfamiliar with the app, it prompts you each day to take a candid photo within two minutes and share it with the world. It’s an application designed to counteract the scripted sickliness of other social media apps like Instagram or Snapchat. Instead of painstakingly setting up every photo, the lighting, the content, the aspect ratio, you’re put on the spot, and encouraged to share whatever you’re doing in day-to-day life. It’s, well, being real. The irony of watching that man open the app, zoom in, focus in on Ava Max’s face and press the button was enough to make me sick. Alanis Morrisette could have got a whole verse out of it.

Ava Max at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 19.04.2023. (Photo credit: Jacob Wingate-Bishop)

And, naturally, there were yet more of them around me opening the classics; Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook – not even recording things to their camera roll; opting instead to upload it straight to their feeds. For friends to gawp at, families to wow react at and those caught in the algorithm to follow them over. I use social media, of course I do. I’m not advocating to banish it from your hard drives. I’d be a hypocrite. But no one should seek such validation from a mobile app. It’s so far from what gigs are designed to be. It’s live music. It’s not meant to be artificial, digital or even particularly planned. Mistakes are made, requests taken, hecklers put in their place, outpourings of the heart given by singers in the heat of the moment, professing their love for the audience or preaching about the world’s injustice.

Take a picture. For God’s sake, take a picture. Record a bit of your mum’s favourite song for her. Record the moment where your mate is invited onstage and permitted to touch the lead singer’s hair. Why shouldn’t you?

But what’s the point in live music if you’re going to take the life out of it? Soul is what makes up music. Only 5% – at best – is instrumentation, rhythm sections, vocals, overdubs, fancy production and sound effects. The lyrics and inspirations are micro in comparison. Soul fills the rest of that space. And there’s no soul in Instagram. Stop pandering to the algorithm. Stop playing into the silver-suited CEOs hell-bent on ‘engagement’ and world domination. Stop giving a shit about what your friends think about you, or how you spend your Friday nights. Start living in the moment, as worn-out a phrase as it is. Live in the now, enjoy the show, and look back on half-remembered memories, inevitably peeling away at the corners to time. Gigs are fantastic. They’re live, untamed animals let loose on a loving crowd. They’re unpredictable, chaotic and mysterious.

Protect the mayhem in live music. And leave all that other bollocks at the door.