News that Prince’s label NPG Records has been sending DMCA takedown notices to Twitter for videos posted using its Vine app shouldn’t be a surprise.
Prince has form when it comes to getting grumpy about user-generated content, after all. Back in 2007 he was hiring anti-piracy outfits to file similar takedown notices to YouTube, while alsotargeting fan sites and getting involved in a spat with Radioheadafter forcing YouTube to block footage of his live cover of Creep.
(Thom York’s memorable quote at the time: Really? He’s blocked it? Surely we should block it. Hang on a moment. Well, tell him to unblock it. It’s our song!”)
Prince is clearly hot on perceived copyright infringement of any kind, but he’s not the only musician to be unhappy about the proliferation of cameraphone-clutching fans at gigs shooting videos and photos to share online.
Witness this blog post from Kid Rock earlier in the year which appeared to be simultaneously requesting that fans didn’t shoot and share videos during his gigs, while admitting that the inability of some to resist may be a good thing for fans who couldn’t make it to the shows.
Or witness The Lumineers’ polite request to fans during a gig in March to “put away cameras and recording devices and just be human with us for a while”.
Or there’s Jack White saying this last year: “The worst thing is to watch a young kid watching a show on their camera screen, instead of watching it on stage. You just want to take it out of his hand and go, ‘Come on man, that’s not what this is about’.”
Or there’s Beyoncé falling down some stairs at a gig and then asking fans “Please don’t put that on YouTube!”. An appeal you can see – along with the fall itself – in many, many YouTube videos.
The way I see it, there are three main reasons some musicians aren’t enjoying the sea of screens being held up at gigs: Embarrassment; copyright fears; and the belief that if people are fiddling about with phones they’re not lost in the music and aren’t paying attention.
Embarrassment? Well, a big pop star falling off a stage is A News Event, whatever that says about our modern culture (although I daresay a Beatles wardrobe malfunction at Shea Stadium or Bowie tumbling into the photo-pit in his Ziggy Stardust days would have been just as newsworthy, albeit documented by professionals rather than fans).
You can ask fans politely not to share their footage, as Beyoncé did, but realistically, don’t expect them all to agree. It’s better to laugh (well, grimace depending on the pain level) and take the mishap with good grace.
Copyright infringement? To the average bystander, there’s clear water between different kinds of sharing: an Instagram pic to a six-second Vine clip to a full song posted to YouTube to pro bootleggers recording and then selling the whole thing.
Lawyers can scrap over what constitutes fair use versus piracy – and hosts like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook can decide on their response to takedown requests – but it will largely come down to individual artists and labels to decide whether to go after these clips or embrace them.
It’s the third objection to photo and video-sharing at gigs – the ‘fans aren’t lost in the music’ argument – that’s most interesting. It often rests on the assumption that you must be distracted if you’re using a smartphone during a concert, and that you’re not giving the band – who are hopefully pulling out all the stops on-stage – your full attention.
A note of sympathy: this behaviour is far less socially acceptable for other musical artforms. Few people would risk whipping out their smartphone during a ballet or a classical music concert. And I also see the Lumineers’ point about a sea of happy faces being more human than a sea of glinting smartphones.
And yet… What if the audiences in the latter case are simply being “human”? What if wanting to post photos, videos and status updates from a gig is a sign of heightened enjoyment, not lazy distraction? What if fans are pulling their phones out because they love you, not because they don’t care about you?
Last weekend, I saw the Black Crowes twice. They were marvellous, playing for well over two hours both nights, varying the set considerably.
I’d guess that I spent 98% of each gig watching, and dancing, and singing (and occasionally fending off the really drunk elbows-waving guy in front of me), but the other 2% I spent posting photos to Instagram, video clips to Vine, and boring the arse off Twitter and Facebook with how good it was.
The more artists realise that fans sharing on phones is a good thing, the more they can benefit from it. Even simple things, like suggesting a hashtag to fans on their way into the venue and then gathering up those photos and videos on their website, has promotional benefit. “Look at these people being excited at our gig! Come to one of our future gigs and be excited too!”
App startups like Vyclone and 45Sound are trying to work with bands to encourage fans to film footage at their gigs, and then turn the results into high-quality videos. See this case study of Ed Sheeran’s Vyclone experiment to see how it can work. It’s also worth noting that plenty of artists have been encouraging fans to share at gigs for a long time – The Shins back in 2006, for example.
There’s a lot more potential in this kind of stuff, and thinking about digital souvenirs. The Black Crowes don’t worry about bootleggers (in fact, they have a long history of encouraging them to record gigs, in jam-band tradition). Nowadays, they have a partnership with Nugs.net to sell soundboard recordings of every show after the event. I paid $9.95 for one of the London nights without a second thought.
But just to stress again, I’m 35. There’s a whole generation below me (two generations, if I’m honest) who are much more share-everything-all-the-time than me and my peers. It seems more sensible for artists to try to understand and embrace this behaviour and figure out how to help fans share the magic musical moments they capture during your gigs.
Oh, and also try to avoid falling off the stage, if you can help it. Especially if you’re Prince.