If you’ve been to a gig of a certain size in the last few years, you’ve almost certainly witnessed a band deploying their very own “Instagram moment” at some point in their set. You’ll know it when it happens because, all of a sudden, the entire crowd is lit up by phone screens and flashlights, everyone filming for posterity and to share on their social media accounts. They can be flashy – think Travis Scott riding around venues in his very own Astroworld rollercoaster – or simple, like Billie Eilish taking a break from bouncing around the stage to perform ‘I Love You’ from a floating bed. If you’re someone like The 1975, then your entire set is one big challenge not to whip out your phone and film away.
Designing stage production to look good on social media is by no means a new thing, but last week (September 3) British R&B star Mabel took things a step further by performing on a vertical stage made specifically with how it would look on Snapchat and Instagram stories in mind. The show fittingly took place at Samsung’s London space and saw the singer play from a three-tiered structure whose dimensions mirrored a phone screen. In photos and videos, it looks pretty cool, all lit up in neon pinks and blues, a band on one level, a DJ on another, and Mabel and her backing dancers sandwiched in the middle. But images of the night also show something else – a crowd of people with their necks craned, not to get a good look at what’s going on in front of them but to make sure it’s all being captured on their phones.
The use of phones at gigs is, of course, a hotly debated topic, but I’m not here to suggest we ban people from capturing a clip of their favourite song or filming some stage trickery. I’d be lying if I said my camera roll wasn’t littered with videos of Jungkook flying around the stadium during ‘Euphoria’ at BTS’ last US tour and Lil Nas X doing ‘Old Town Road’ at Glastonbury, or that I wasn’t majorly pissed at having to lock my phone in some impenetrable pouch when I saw Paul McCartney do an impossibly tiny secret show at Grand Central Station. People should be free to document their lives how they want but do we really have to encourage the urge to spend half our night watching through our screens more than we already do?
Building stages and shows specifically to look good on Insta stories is a logical next step in terms of the intersect between social media and live experience, but it’s only going to benefit the people viewing it from the comfort of their own homes, or sat on the bus, or sneakily catching up on their mates’ shenanigans from last night under their desk the next morning. For the people actually in the room, it just means increasing the likelihood of having a ton of glowing rectangles blocking your line of sight, showing you what’s happening in front of you in grainy miniature – aka one of the most infuriating and annoying things that can happen at a gig, and one that makes you question why you bothered going out when you could have much the same view (albeit with much worse sound) from home.
You couldn’t even really be angry at people for succumbing to this unspoken push to get everything filmed on our phones. Social media has done such a hard reset on our brains to the point where reaching for our devices is as natural a reflex as pulling your hand away when you touch something hot. It’s harder than ever to be “in the moment” because the constant lure of our phones has made us permanently distracted, locked in a battle for our attention with our apps’ endless scrolls. Imagine how much harder that will be if we let the shape of the stages our favourite acts perform on subliminally coax us into filming even more of their sets.
Hopefully, Mabel’s Insta story-compatible stage is a one-off and not the future of live music. I’m all for pushing things forward and bringing new ideas into the music world but innovation isn’t always necessarily a good thing. If artists want to put on a show with a headline-grabbing novelty factor, their best bet in 2019 might be to strip away the Instagram aesthetics entirely, not double down on them.