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James Ehnes

Smartphones in the Concert Hall

August 24, 2013 at 10:25 AM

At a recent concert where I played the Brahms concerto, a young man in the second row filmed my entire performance on his smartphone. When I first noticed him, my reaction was one of surprise and mild annoyance. This sort of thing is prohibited, as a rule, in most if not all traditional concert halls. I stared at him with my best, "seriously?" look, but he didn't seem fazed by that at all. So I just tried to ignore it as best I could. I'm guessing he had no idea that I might find his filming objectionable. He applauded enthusiastically and smiled at me at the end.

This got me thinking about the pros and cons of recording a performance in this way, both for the musician and for the potential audience for such a recording. I admit to feeling a bit conflicted about the issue.

First of all, it's flattering that he would want to have a recording of the performance, and it's very nice to imagine that he might find it helpful or inspiring in some way if he is a musician himself. I have no idea what he plans to do with it, but I'd like to think that it will bring pleasure to him, and to those with whom he chooses to share it. I can appreciate in theory that a bootlegged, live performance on YouTube (or the sharing of it in other ways) might have a certain PR value. And as someone who didn't grow up in London or New York, I understand very well that recordings -- bootleg or commercial -- reach people and places that live performances never can (that is one of the main reasons I have devoted so much time and energy to my recording career).

But I have more than a few problems with it as well. For one thing, this is how I make my living, and recording a performance changes the economics. When someone buys a ticket to a performance, they are paying to hear that performance once. One could say that it's a rental, not a purchase. And they are paying for themselves to hear it, not for their friends, families or internet followers. There are those who might accuse me of being miserly, feeling that it is my duty and privilege to share the art of music, but consider the parallel: if I pay someone to mow my lawn, that doesn't mean that at the push of a button they should mow my lawn again for free, or mow the lawns of my neighbors and friends. A job is a job, and bills are bills. A one-time mow doesn't cost the same as a weekly lawn service.

When performances are recorded for broadcast, audio or video, it is standard for a supplementary fee to be negotiated, as well as terms for exactly how many times the performance will be made available, where and for how long. Often, broadcast is subject to artist approval. An enormous number of people (ask yourself if you've ever done this) turn to YouTube to listen to a piece of music or a performer for free, rather than purchasing a CD, going through a paid subscription service (or even a free service that pays royalties with money earned from advertising) or buying a ticket to hear the piece or performer in person. Whenever that YouTube clip is an unauthorized, bootlegged live performance or an illegally copied CD, doing this arguably has a small, but cumulative, negative effect on the livelihood of the musician.

On the other hand, if someone discovers a performer through unauthorized or illegally shared recordings posted on YouTube, then becomes a devoted fan (or even plays a role in furthering that performer's career), does it become a net gain? Careers have been made through internet popularity. But there have also been stories of CD labels rejecting artists, telling them that they are unprofitable because so many of their performances are available for free on YouTube. It's a complicated issue.

When I record a CD, I understand that a certain amount of "sharing" is inevitable. I've heard estimates that for every classical CD sold, two pirated copies are made. But there will always be people who want the real thing, and will happily pay to have the booklet, liner notes and packaging. Also -- and this is important -- the musician has control over the final product with a CD. There are some live performances I would have no problem with people hearing time and time again. Others, I'd prefer they vanish into memory, as music was traditionally meant to do. This doesn't necessarily mean that I consider them to be less successful performances. But some performances stand up better to repeated listening than others.

We live in a world where the lines between live and edited music are blurry, to say the least. "Live" CD's can contain dozens of edits, if not more, and "live" TV broadcasts are often the result of several performances carefully cobbled together. This isn't because artists are trying to fool their audience into thinking they play better than they do! It's because music is experienced differently upon repeated listening. And it is a sad reality that if a classical musician plays an out of tune note or fudges a passage in a performance that ends up on YouTube, there's a strong chance that some sad, anonymous person sitting behind a computer screen will feel the need to point this out with a snarky comment or a "thumbs down." It's part of the reason that broadcast fees are paid -- if musicians are going to subject themselves to repeated scrutiny of a performance made under uncontrolled circumstances, then a premium must be paid. The question must be raised: how much beauty is lost when performers feel forced by the presence of a microphone, authorized or not, to value precision and consistency over technical risk and momentary inspiration?

I can't help but feel that the need to "document" one's life in every detail is a mania that can subtract from one's enjoyment of the moment, and, more emphatically, one's memory of a special event. I can't know the mind of the young man who filmed my recent performance, but I can say without hesitation that I am glad that the most treasured concerts of my memory were not recorded. Memories can be perfect; live performances never are. As desperately as I might want to relive a certain concert experience, I know that with the second listen, or the third, or the 20th, it would become something different to me. Little infelicities, inconsequential at the time, would become distracting, or even irritating. The linear mystery of the live performance would be lost, as I knew better and better what was coming next. The temptation to "spot listen" to favorite passages would lead to the destruction of the line of the narrative.

As the documenting of our lives becomes easier and easier, this question of the recording of live performances will continue to evolve. There are no simple answers.

From Dimitri Musafia
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 2:45 PM
My first reaction to your experience was: what a distraction for a soloist!! And my second was, I can't see how a smartphone can produce a decent recording in any circumstance (I admit mine is almost a year old, so maybe things have gone ahead, but...).

I remember assisting years ago at a performance of Zuckerman who, before playing, started pointing at people with cameras and telling them in a loud voice to put them away. And lately Kristian Zimerman did the same, singleing out those recording the performance with their smartphones.

The issue is tricky indeed, because all stars benefit by publicity, but I'm not sure that a cellphone recording can (yet) be of sufficient quality to constitute economic damage for the artist.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 2:57 PM
Great thought-provoking article! Thanks so much for sharing your words and thoughts with the community.
From Roy Sonne
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 2:54 PM
Thank you James. I have admired your work for years, since you first played with us in Pittsburgh -- it was the Vieuxtemps 5 with Dutoit. It is great to read this blog post, and to know that you are also a thoughtful and articulate spokesman, knowing that there are no simple answers and empathizing with both sides.
From Karen Rile
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 3:38 PM
I reposted the HuffPo version of this blog (which I happened to see first) on Facebook and someone sent me Patti Lupone's hilarious response to unwanted filming:

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 3:45 PM
So I was venting to my daughter, 16, about this, and she said, "What's the big deal, Mom? Everybody was recording at The Killers concert I went to. It's just to show off to your friends that you were there, it's not like it's a good recording. And why would you put it on Youtube? No one would want to see your bad recording, when there are actual good recordings of the same band. If you want a good recording you can download one."

I still don't like the idea, for all the reasons you've listed here, James! But I was interested in her reaction, just because I think it shows that younger people are coming from a really different perspective with this. Even though she was talking about a rock concert, I think this illustrates how people start accepting it as okay.

It's still obnoxious! And how weird, I'm trying to imagine this rock concert, where the band is playing not for a bunch of faces, but for a sea of upheld cell phones!

From Scott Cole
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 3:58 PM

From Gene Wie
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 6:01 PM
Would you be willing to bet that someone like this, who probably paid for a ticket to sit close enough to actually see and hear the music you are interpreting, actually has genuine interest in you as an artist? Meaning that after the concert, they show off their video to friends and say "check this musician out, he's awesome! You have to come to the next performance!" As Laurie pointed out, this is how they communicate their experiences to their peers. I think we just need to see the technology to the point where if they do record part of your performance, when they share it, links to your concert calendar, and online store to purchase the full video/audio recordings come up. This is already happening for many sites...

> Who wants to watch a concert with low-quality sound and shaky video?
From the above poster, this to me is why I don't believe that there is any malicious intent here. Not every kid has been introduced to concert etiquette before, and when my wife and I bring our students to classical concerts for the first time (because many of their families have no experience with it at all), find ourselves reminding them to not wave their phones everywhere because they're usually so excited to hear live music they want to let their peers know.

And from a technology perspective: the sales of physical CD media are dropping because it will inevitably be replaced by digital transmission. I have purchased thousands of CD's, but at the moment they are for the most part imported into my computer's media library, and the physical discs are locked away in storage. For the past six or seven years at least, I've not purchased music in any physical format...but continue to support the artists I like by obtaining their recordings if they exist as a digital download. My current computer doesn't even have an optical disk drive!

From Rizky Ramadhan
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 5:54 PM
Hi Mr.Ehnes. I'm so glad to see your post again. I'm a fan of you from Indonesia :)

but my mind was a bit shaking..seeing your post..
I've ever acquainted to a professional cellist, whose recordings I previously got. The recordings are mp3 files which I got from other friend. I realize that those files are most probably pirated stuffs from internet. And I found out that this cellist didn't get much from the CD selling.
I'm totally feeling guilty.
but in the other side, I'm feeling grateful. In my city, I would feel like the luckiest person on earth if I could find some classical music CDs in local store. I know there are bunches of online store selling original mp3s but I still don't have access to buy them because I don't have credit card.
sorry I don't mean to talk about my personal problems.
But now I'm accustoming myself to buy original mp3s by using my friend's card then I paid him cash. however still, I need to save up a lot for them.

If I were at your Brahms concert, I would be the MOST PROBABLY man doing that..sorry to say that.
I only had ever attended ONE real classical music concert (by professional musicians. Local school recitals are not counted, I think I don't need their recordings..). It was a French orchestra concert. They came to my country, but not in my city (NEVER in my city), so I had to take plane to go there and I saved up for months before, I even had to owe some money from a friend, for the plane and concert tickets. When I was in the concert, I did the same criminal thing. I recorded the first-half of the concert, also using my phone. I didn't show so obviously that I was recording, I hid it.
the thing about the man recorded you is he's too obvious doing that. his hands or showing his phone, might disturb the audience behind him, and yes, distracting your concentration.

I was aware with the rule but what made me doing it is just simply because I want to keep this, for myself, as a memory, my very first experience with a real orchestra. And this probably only happened once in my life or If I'd be lucky, once until next years. Besides, I NEVER have any intention to sell it or get financial benefits from recording I captured.

I know every viewing angle would be different, Mr.Ehnes. I realize one shall conserve the traditional rules in concert halls, maybe If I were you I would think the same. However I also hope that somehow you would understand that several people, like me, who don't have much access to enjoy beautiful music like what you present us, still 'forced' to do those little criminal stuffs. Apologize me for those.

best regards.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 6:56 PM
Rizky, thank you for sharing your perspective, it's not always easy to know what kinds of barriers people are dealing with in various parts of the world.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 8:26 PM
Rizky, I found your story so touching and honest, and it's great to get a different perspective on the situation. ((Am I allowed to say this w/o getting my hand slapped? "I don't blame you, and glad you did this for YOU".))
From tarpie walsh
Posted on August 24, 2013 at 10:20 PM
I hate being the designated recorder even at family events. I don't think you can be fully present while concentrating on recording. You can not fully appreciate and enjoy a performance if you are trying to capture it on a smartphone and the joy of a live performance is getting completely lost in the experience.
From marjory lange
Posted on August 25, 2013 at 12:48 AM
I think it's reprehensible to record without someone's permission (whatever the venue, concert, or personal object) least it's less likely the cell phone will bleep, right?
From J Ray
Posted on August 25, 2013 at 12:43 AM
Mr Ehnes,

Some of the pieces that you've played are probably not the composers' best. Composer might have in later years wished that they had never written them, that they were never again associated with themselves. Composers might not even have published the pieces completely willingly -- doing so only out of the immediate need for money, or perhaps even that was denied as the piece was published after death.

And many if not most performance might not be as the composer had wished.

Are we as a society willing to lose the accumulated general benefit from compositions of music because they cannot be sufficiently controlled in the manner desired by the composer?

The availability of video recording is a general good from the point of view of the interested viewer -- the student of music, the aspirant, the historically curious looking back. For others, and especially the type of music lover who collects audio recordings, amateur videos of classical music performance are of next to no interest, and do not affect consumption.

A more troubling question would be about widely available professional recordings. It's not just a question of equipment or the projected increase in quality of equipment. Good enough equipment can be bought by interested amateurs, but their proper usage and set-up would raise flags in concerts and generally be prevented.

I'd like there to be more professional videos. As a student, I can learn by studying them; seeing the performer's technique in more detail than generally is possible even live. That may also be of potential historical value. I can see a movie with actors pretending to play some of Beethoven's op 131, but I can't see most of the real ones.

Do professional video recordings cross over and replace professional audio recordings, even downloads? For some, the answer is certainly yes, as a matter of preference for the visual over the purely auditory. But music videos aren't commonly bought, because music is usually not consumed in that form, and because the pricing is generally excessive considering the lack of value in repeated viewing for most. Purely classical music is also visually dull in comparison at least with the alternatives. But if there was a comparable plethora of choice for affordable video purchase, by download, subscription, or ad-funded services, populated first of course by a comparable plethora of existing videos, I think the producers would be generally benefited, not harmed, from that additional revenue stream, notwithstanding the additional production costs though.

But videos will never replace audio alone. If it was otherwise, then music videos would have long ago killed off CDs and audio downloads of pop music.

I have tickets to one of your upcoming concerts this year. Whether or not I saw your performance in a dozen videos would have made no difference to the decision to buy the tickets. I'm going there for the music, the experience, to share that experience with someone (my son), and to gain what we might from the choices we won't make during the concert -- what else to listen to, what else to do, when to stop listening and do something else before the pieces end; in short for the focus and other aspects which arrive with the act of attending a live event, which no recording can replace. Oh, and if I'm really absorbed by the music, odds are that my eyes will be closed.

From Kevin Keating
Posted on August 25, 2013 at 1:52 AM
My son upgraded his phone a while back and hadn't put any music on it yet. Like an idiot I said, "so you have to repurchase all your music when you upgrade your phone?"
He said, "no I just haven't downloaded it from my iTunes."
I said, "Oh."
Then he says, "Who pays for music anyways?"

That comment irked me a lot. It's as if the value of music as an art form has been diminished to the point where it's not worth paying for. Bands, at least in my area, used to get paid a lot to play a bar. And the bands invested in their equipment and stage show to make it worth the cover charge. You could have a 5 piece band, split the $ and be happy that it was worth all the work and set-up. Nowadays, even a solo artist can't get paid a fraction of what was paid in the past.

Technology has had a lot to do with it. Any kid with an ipod, a laptop and a couple speakers can be a DJ. Cell phones also give people a license, in a way, to be rude. I wouldn't care about being recorded on an iPhone in a bar or restaurant where there's some level of noise anyway. But at a classical concert where the audience isn't allowed to sniff, sneeze, cough, fart or even clap during the performance, shouldn't cell phones with all the little bleeps and chirps they make be banned?

From Rizky Ramadhan
Posted on August 25, 2013 at 5:35 AM
Hello everyone!
I'm kinda aroused seeing so many perspectives.
and Thanks a lot dear Laurie and Terez.

Perhaps you might think I won't understand this because you could say I'm in audience's side not in performer's side.
I'm sorry if my previous reply mostly suggested about financial barriers of some people like me in somewhere in the earth.
But I just want to say I'm quite aware with this issue. There's a local piano teacher who's so strict in recitals. This is actually very good because local people here would have some awareness to those accustomed rules that have been applied worldwide.

When I attended the French orchestra concert, when hearing the first notes they played together (as I said it was my very first experience seeing a real orchestra), I was really amazed that they sounded totally DIFFERENT with digital stereo recordings that I always listen to. The first thing came to my mind was this kind of feeling will not ever be replaced by anything, including those clean perfect recordings. The natural sounds; the dynamics, intonations, etc. that appeared directly from the instruments to our ears even made me forget that I was recording. Yep what I'm pointing out here is I was not paying attention to my recording. "is it steady already, is it capturing the good view of the stage,etc" I never had those things in my mind when I'm listening to. So not every time when you recorded some event you must only pay attention to the recording.. unless your primary job is doing recordings and that's your own 'risk' if you're not enjoying the real event.., sorry to say.

And about young people with their treasured gadgets, (I'm still considering myself as a young person too actually..haha) I always feel shame about them, honestly. They had those things but never really know what is that for. They put things they call "music" in those gadgets mostly just for showing off, or drowning to popular trend that they might not realize they do not really like. Seeing perspective of young people could be frustrating actually. If you're parents, you would understand that they did such other things not only in case of owning "pirated" or "irresponsible" video-audio stuffs but also in many things in their "phase" of life. I also had ever been that kind of teenager, and not so many thing we can do to avoid that. But yup, we still can do it with rules, in this case in attending classical music concerts. but actually no worries.. you can count young people, who have real interest in classical music, with your fingers.

I just hope audiences and performers would respect each other in any good ways, especially the audience actually because they only have known a few about what performers are struggling with. A general example, when watching a movie people can only judge it's good one or bad one, they won't notice how hard the people who involved in the movie-making worked, how much energy, time, and money spent, how much dedication and commitment applied. But on the other side, they're just audience, most are just "ordinary" people. We cannot hope they "perform" for us the best since they are not "performers".
Do my replies sound kinda confusing?
In which side is actually i am?
In conclusion, It's so relative. I'm not trying to defend one side. I'm also an audience within process of learning.

best regards

From Jim Hastings
Posted on August 25, 2013 at 8:31 PM
Actually, there is a simple answer:

"... shouldn't cell phones with all the little bleeps and chirps they make be banned?"

Yes. This would -- or should -- put a big dent in the problem. Management ought to make it standard practice to have a verbal announcement before the concert: "Please turn off all cell phones, beepers, cameras, and recording devices." And they should print this in the program. Some already do.

At present, the demands of my schedule keep me away from the concert hall; so I greatly value high-quality radiocasts, CDs, and Internet renderings. As we know, the concert hall and recital room have nowhere near the market share they once did; but in these venues, shouldn't it be for performing artists and management to arrange for designated video and audio technicians to preserve live performances for digital media?

And I emphasize the word designated. When we come across two YouTube performances of the same 30-minute work -- 1) shaky video, cheap audio, audience members constantly cutting off the view; 2) unobstructed views, no shake, high-quality stereo sound -- which one are we going to sit through?

I'm not in the music business, but I thoroughly appreciate a performing artist's desire -- and need -- to have a fair shake in all this. Beyond that, some patrons' behaviors, with or without electronic gadgets, coarsen the atmosphere and cheapen the concert hall experience.

From Brian Kelly
Posted on August 26, 2013 at 5:28 AM
I am surprised that the people sitting near him did not say anything. People should turn off ALL mobile phones when attending concerts. Where was security or the people who run the venue ? They should have stepped in.

There is really no excuse for this bad behaviour. I do not care what the attitude of many young people is still unacceptable.

From David Sanderson
Posted on August 26, 2013 at 2:17 PM
Interesting discussion. In the first place, if there is a "no recording" rule then it should be posted, or printed on tickets, or something, along with the reasons for it, and staff should do appropriate checks during the performance. Have clear rule, and make it stick, courteously.

Secondly, the recording quality on these "telephones" is lousy. The ability to take pictures and record audio has been made popular, so people use the things, educated to accept mediocre results - they may have never heard good recordings on good equipment, given what's generally sold for the purpose. So why bother to see it on a tiny screen with crippled sound, except as a kind of out-of-focus memento?

Now ask how many people in an audience would purchase a recording of the event they've just attended. If there's enough of a market to break even, then get a professional to record the event, and sell the recordings instantly, as the audience leaves - let them download it then and there, from the unedited original, or let them prepay for CD's. Now they've got a memento of the event that they can listen to on the way home, of satisfactory quality.

Check out the Grateful Dead's history of allowing recording, and look at the number of hours of concerts available on the Internet that would otherwise never be heard.

Get contact information from everyone who buys the concert; now you've got the start of an email list you can use to promote future concerts and sell recordings. For a while, at least, you'll be the only one doing this, a marketing tool surely.

It's really a courtesy - if someone cares enough about your performance to wish to record it, then you support his interest by doing a decent recording for him, one that you know is fit to listen to and/or watch.

From Amber Rogers
Posted on August 26, 2013 at 2:29 PM
The 'pro' of smartphone recordings of concerts and uploading to social media (FB, IG, YT, etc) is the publicity, accessibility and the wide reach. Videos and audio recordings on sites of that nature are (I think) a necessary part of how one should go about marketing themselves these days.

However, illegal recordings and uploads by the smartphone toting audience aren't appropriate. There are 'official' YT releases of copyrighted works approved by composers/performers/publishers, etc. and that's the (though the details need to be worked out) way to go about it.

As many of you have pointed out, performance licenses aren't the same as mechanical licenses; it's unfair to the performer, composer, venue/supporting organization, etc. Not just for the reason of getting paid, but for the control over the 'product'.

Generally speaking, (I'm leaving legal live recordings of concerts out of this as they're the exception) performing and recording are very different arts, the expectations are different, and they require different things of a musician. Typically one doesn't simply wander into a session and play the same way they would on stage. The product is a carefully thought through thing involving a host of people and their work. Double the thought and work involved if you're recording a 'new work' as you'll have composers leaning over your shoulder.

Recently my trio did an interview with NPR. After broadcast, on the archival page, they linked to a YT video. An unauthorized smartphone video taken by an audience member of a performance we did ages ago (and with a guest player, so a quartet!). We didn't purchase mechanical rights (because why would we), the venue was totally inappropriate for recording (way too live), the audio quality is horrendous, and it really wasn't a great performance. It's totally unrepresentative of what we do. And there it is. Damage done.

From Kevin Keating
Posted on August 27, 2013 at 1:16 AM

Check out this video of Gene Simmons of Kiss and his take on the music industry. He talks about a lot more than just iPhones and he's very blunt, but he makes a lot of great points. How they apply to the classical world I'm not sure, but it's definitely a reality check.

Warning: adult language.

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