David James Swanson

Jack White is a mega-talented musician with an indisputable gift for songwriting and guitar-playing. He’s also got a reputation for being a teensy bit insufferable; among my favorite White head-scratchers are his devotion to the lie that his ex-wife/bandmate Meg White was actually his sister, and the great guacamole controversy of 2015, when he provided an incredibly specific guacamole recipe in his rider for a gig at the University of Oklahoma, but later insisted it was a joke.

Like him or not, White is a cultural icon—he’s fronted the Raconteurs and beloved indie duo the White Stripes, played with the Kills’ Alison Mosshart in the Dead Weather, and released three studio albums of varying quality on his own (Blunderbuss rules, Lazaretto drools, sorry). He founded Third Man Records in 2001, and now operates the independent label, record store, and performance space from its headquarters (and his current home) in Nashville. He’s even collaborated with legends like country queen Loretta Lynn (specifically on the 2004 album Van Lear Rose, which includes an ode to Portland) and Beyoncé (White co-wrote and -produced the Lemonade track “Don’t Hurt Yourself”).

David James Swanson

White released his third solo album Boarding House Reach earlier this year, and for his current tour, he decided to try something new. Inspired by a Chris Rock stand-up set at Third Man where audience members’ phones were locked in pouches provided by Yondr, White decided to employ the San Francisco-based company’s services at his own shows. Other big-name comedians and musicians like Dave Chappelle, the Lumineers, Alicia Keys, and Childish Gambino have all used Yondr, but White is the first to impose the phone ban on an entire tour.

“I want people to live in the moment,” White told the Toronto Sun in March before the tour launch. “It’s funny that the easiest way to rebel is to tell people to turn off their phones. If your phone is that important to you that you can’t live without it for two hours then I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to see a therapist.”

White’s reasoning is that he doesn’t have a set list and decides what songs to perform based on the crowd’s reactionary energy. But if they’re distracted, he won’t know what to play. In another recent interview, this one with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, White even went so far as to call the phone ban an “art experiment.” White’s distaste for phones at his shows is nothing new; at several concerts on his 2014 tour, his tour manager went onstage before his set to ask the audience not to use them.

“It is difficult to ask people to put away their phone for an entire show if they’re used to pulling it out constantly and it’s buzzing in their pocket. Basically, it’s designed to distract you,” Yondr founder and CEO Graham Dugoni—who is originally from Portland—told USA Today in April. “But we wanted to create a space for artists to do what they do and express themselves, and for audiences to be swept up in a shared community.” 

When the Mercury reached out to inquire about the motivation behind using Yondr, Lalo Medina from White’s team explained, “We understand that people are dependent on their devices now more than ever, and they may not be used to putting them away for a little while, but Jack’s asking people to join him in his objective to create the best possible concert experience for everyone.  To be clear, people will still have access to their phones during the show; Jack’s just asking them to use their devices in a designated area in the lobby so not to interfere with their fellow audience members.”

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Like White’s persona, the phone ban debate contains multitudes: From one perspective, these are simply the megalomaniac tendencies of a millionaire rock star who wants all eyeballs on him, please. But anyone who’s been to a show knows the frustration of having your view blocked by a phone and being forced to watch the performance through somebody else’s screen. And, as proven by the kid who took a painfully awkward selfie with Justin Timberlake during his Super Bowl performance, our culture’s obsession with preserving memories (and sharing them with our “followers”) has probably gone too far.

It’s too soon to tell how this will impact the audience experience, but one thing’s for sure: If other touring musicians with the resources to impose phone bans choose to follow White’s lead, it could change the face of amateur concert photography forever.

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