Op-Ed: If Skrillex and Diplo Can't Get Us Off Our Phones, Who Can?

Chelsea Lauren/WireImage
Skrillex and Diplo of Jack U perform at the HARD summer music festival at Whittier Narrows Recreation Area on Aug. 2, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. 

We’re all responsible for keeping our culture of capturing memories from killing the moment.

Thursday night, Skrillex and Diplo released their debut Jack U album by playing an 18-hour set for an L.A. crowd that seemed to value the idea of its presence more than actually being present.

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It got ugly at one point. One of the year's most anticipated dance albums had just dropped, and the atmosphere should have been electric. But instead of dancing, many guests had their smartphones held high, presumably recording and broadcasting their enviable status at an exclusive party to the social-media masses. After Skrillex tried in vain to convince attendees to stop, drop and dance, Diplo vented his frustration.

"Skrillex is too nice," he said. "What he's trying to say is you all look like jackasses with your phones in the air."

While the situation was surprising, what happened next was even more so. People didn't listen. For every phone lowered sheepishly, another popped up shortly thereafter. Eventually Diplo cut out the music in disgust.

"No, for real, put your phones away because you look like an idiot," he ranted. "Really, you're gonna give me that 'What's up?' face? Like for real, you look like an idiot. If you want to enjoy this party, make some noise right now. If you want to be on Snapchat all night, make some noise. OK, you're a dickhead."

It was strange to see such big stars appear so powerless. Skrillex and Diplo are two of the most popular and influential dance acts of our time. They can headline Madison Square Garden and work with the likes of Justin Bieber and Missy Elliott. They can turn their release party into the world's top Twitter trend on a whim. But if they can't get us off our phones, who can?

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Thousands of diehard fans tuned in to watch the livestream, many of whom would likely have taken a vow of cellular celibacy to be there. The Twitter reactions spoke volumes.

To be fair, Jack U's dance floor noticeably improved as the night wore on. Perhaps the serial recorders just had to get it out of their system before they could get down. Or maybe after exhausting each application, they were happy to simply head home and bask in the social affirmation of their accumulated likes.

Our culture of capturing moments at the expense of living them extends far beyond private parties or any particular genre. But dance music is particularly prone to it. A recent Eventbrite study found that dance fans tweet about events 30 percent more than other music fans, with one in four posts occurring during a live event. Since a bad crowd can kill a party in spite of good music, it's understandable why artists like Diplo would object to dance floors full of phones.

But they're benefiting from them too. The Twitter buzz coming from the event helped catapult Jack U's collaboration with Justin Bieber, "Where Are U Now," to the top of Billboard's Trending 140, and lifted "To U," featuring AlunaGeorge, to No. 3. Plus, after instructing his fans to use their phones to buy Jack U's album, it's a bit hypocritical for Diplo to get upset when they turn their cameras back on him.

Remember when Richie Hawtin shoved a monitor into a fan who wouldn't get her phone out of his face at Time Warp US? His apology referenced "continual cameras and glaring iPhone lights" and claimed he only meant to nudge the monitor in her direction "for her to understand that perhaps she had filmed enough." While his actions were indefensible, #SpeakerGate is a cautionary tale of what relentless recording can do to artists.

When James Blake played at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last December, he twice pleaded with the crowd to put down their phones and stop filming his show. Some attendees continued recording even after Blake's polite and perfectly reasonable explanation for wanting to keep his unreleased finale offline.

When fans disrespect artists' desires, they're also hurting themselves. From Hardwell to Jon Hopkins, many artists have admitted to being reluctant to play unreleased songs live, because the low quality rips that will inevitably spread on YouTube may hurt their eventual release. Not only does this result in more predictable sets and deprive fans of a chance to hear new material, it prevents artists from road-testing it. Prior to the smartphone era, Radiohead played In Rainbows out for years ahead of its 2007 release, tweaking arrangements and allowing songs to evolve via live litmus tests. Many acts feel they lack the same luxury these days.

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It's indicative of a greater cultural shift whose discussion is nothing new. In a thoughtful New York Times piece last year, Alex Williams describes the choice between living and recording a moment as "a defining dilemma of the iPhone age." This op-ed's purpose isn't to criticize those who consistently choose the latter, but to explore constructive solutions for music-industry actors to create their ideal live experiences.

This issue can be addressed through better methods than microphone rants and monitor rampages. While fans should be empathetic, the onus shouldn't rest only on them. Artists, venues and promoters can protect their experiences if they're willing to invest in them and sacrifice some low-hanging marketing fruits. Consider ZHU's Nightday Experience shows, where all attendees had to lock their phones in magnetically sealed pouches that could only be unlocked for use in designated areas.

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For a cheaper solution, look to the stickers that Berlin's notorious Berghain nightclub now places over smartphone lenses upon entry. The stickers are mostly symbolic. They're easy to remove, but most visitors don't. Even at most Berlin clubs without explicit bans, it's still an unspoken rule that your phone belongs in your pocket when you're inside. While Berlin's laissez faire and sexually liberated climate plays a role, the clubs have cultivated a culture in which an action acceptable elsewhere will cost you peer approval there. It's like answering your phone at an opera.

That culture didn't develop overnight, but it has slowly started taking root in the States. Venues like Brooklyn's Output and Washington DC's U Street Music Hall have achieved relatively successful photo bans based on mutual respect. It's a two-way street. Fans have a responsibility to be respectful, but no one likes to be scolded for something that isn't against the rules. Instead of lashing out, artists like Diplo should work with organizers ahead of time to create an environment that keeps phones off dancefloors. Otherwise everyone ends up looking like "dickheads."