Thoughts about Collective Memories and Cameraphones at Gigs for Supersonic

Tomorrow, Saturday 31st May, I’m appearing on a panel at the Supersonic Festival called Collective Memory, run by Birmingham Loves Photographers, about how over the last decade the audience has documented music events in ways that used to be done by those with backstage passes. This blog post serves to get my thoughts in order and to promote the event which takes place at Alfie Birds (the new name for what us old people call the Med Bar) in the Custard Factory at 1pm. I particularly want people there who think I’m talking utter rubbish because I know a lot of these ideas need a good critique. The talk is free to all, whether you have a festival pass or not.

An audience member videoing Mono on their flip-phone in 2009.

In 2007 I started a blog called Created in Birmingham, which is now in the hands of people much younger than I like to think about. Ostensibly it covered the creative and artistic communities of Birmingham but it’s secret agenda was to highlight and monitor how new online communication tools (soon to be gathered under the label “social media”) were being used and to promote the idea of artists and creative businesses taking control of their comms using the Internet. Nowadays that might seem a bit quaint but for that short window it was quite the innovative thing.

One of the creative businesses I was particularly interested in was Capsule because they promoted many of the gigs I went to and put on the excellent, life-changing Supersonic Festival. Capsule struck me as the perfect sort of business to use blogs and such. They were niche with a fairly nerdy audience covering the sorts of subjects that DIY publishing, from zines to blogs, thrived on.

These days, given the relatively intimate size of Birmingham’s arty scene, I know the Capsule people fairly well, but in 2007 I don’t think I was particularly on their radar. At least not until I posted the first Supersonic Collective Memory on July 15th.

It was a pretty simple thing, really. Every day during and after the festival I searched for mentions on blogs, Flickr, YouTube and elsewhere. When I found one I put a link to it on the blog post.

My memory is hazy but I think 2007 was around the time people started regularly carrying devices on them that could take pictures and shoot video, the sort of things we do all the time now with our smartphones. What this meant was that the crowd-eye view of the event was suddenly being broadcast to a potentially wide audience, on a level playing field with the “professional” content being made by the photographers, journalists and filmmakers with the press passes.

A lot of it was noise, not intended for a wide audience, but some of it was perfect. Take this short video of David Yow asking if anyone has his passport.

It’s not a formal interview, it’s not slickly edited into a broader narrative – it’s raw footage from the middle of the floor and it feels raw and personal. This is closer to what it was like to be there. It’s “real”.

Th blog posts were also a revelation. Journalists, for better or worse, write to a general formula and for a broad audience. Someone writing on their personal blog is writing for themselves and their small readership of friends and acquaintances. As such the writing, while influenced my mainstream norms, is different. It looks at the edges, the curious bits, the personal stuff that you only see when you’re in the audience. Take this, from a Sunn0))) fan.

During the late evening, at about 11pm, while I was waiting for a Norwegian band called Jazkamer to start their set, by chance I wandered alone into a cinema that they had in the festival. The above movie was playing and it was really beautiful and trippy looking, a black and white Japanese style movie filmed in split screen. I don’t know what it is called. There was nobody else in there, seems that everyone was away watching the band Om playing their set on a different stage. So I thought to myself “You know, I think that I’ll stick a bit of that on my blog”. So let it be written, so let it be done.

As my relationship with Capsule developed over the years my experience of the Supersonic Festival changed. I got a photo pass, which meant I could bypass the crowds and sit in the photographers pit. I got involved with various projects and even did a bit of DJing one year which meant for a while I didn’t even pay for entry. While I was never part of the team I was definitely on the periphery of backstage, and that was a bit strange. One year I decided I’d had enough. I turned down the opportunity to get involved in return for a free ticket and decided to pay my way like a normal punter. My wristband was standard and gave my no special access. I had to queue with the rest of them and, for the first time in years, I experienced Supersonic from the middle of the crowd.

It was so much better.

The cult of the “back stage pass” in the music biz has created something of a hierarchy at these sort of events with the fans being at the bottom, milling around like cattle in some warehouse where cattle were probably slaughtered once upon a time, but the audience is the most important part of a festival. Without the audience you just have a bunch of pretentious wankers on a stage. With an audience you have heroes and gods and universes exploding. What happens in the middle of that crowd is magic. What happens backstage is admin. Where would you rather be?

From “the google” – artist unknown

Back when I started the Collective Memory photos were still mostly being taken with “proper” cameras but in recent years the mobile phone being held up at gigs has become a cliche, some say a curse. In the old days, when your parents were cool, people would wave their lighters in the air. Now they wave their phones. Watching a gig with a sea of tiny glowing screens in the way can be pretty annoying, especially if you know none of those photos are going to come out well. So why do people do it?

I’ve been thinking about this question for a while now and I have a theory. People take photos or shoot video at events of note because they want to creatively engage with that moment. Being in an audience at a rock-style gig is a creative act. You dance, you sing along, you cheer – all of this adds to the performance that is happening around you. Even if you just nod and stroke your beard like a good Supersonic attendee you’re participating is what we could call a Work of Art. The euphoria of being at a concert doesn’t just come from witnessing it – it comes from being part of it. A collective creation of a moment that will never happen again.

Following this logic, if you regularly create photographic works for your Instagram stream or Facebook profile then it might feel perfectly natural to use that creativity in this sort of environment. To take that raw energy and your place in it to make something special, something that you made and you own. This is what the professionals do all the time, turning the raw materials of experience into coherent works. Why shouldn’t those in the crowd also do this?

After a great gig what do you do? You take your experience and you craft stories about it. Those stories become part of the story of you and your place in the world. Photographs, I’d argue, are no different and just as important.

That doesn’t stop people who take photos at gigs from being really annoying idiots, but gigs aren’t short of really annoying idiots who spoil it for the “real” fans. The obnoxious tall people who push their way to the front and then have a conversation are arguably worse than someone who insists on filming the entire gig. At least the filming guy will share it later. And at least he’s engaged with what’s going on.

In my brief period as a Live Music Photographer (Amateur) I realised that the best way to get great photos of a band on stage was to really watch them. Don’t hold the shutter down and take 500 photos in the hope that one of them is great. Put the camera down and watch how they move, the patterns of their performance. Learn to predict their movements and how they relate to the music. Set up your shot and wait for that moment you predicted to occur. Then, and only then, take your photo.

When I take pictures on bands on stage I believe I am more involved “in the moment” than when I’m in the crowd simply watching, because I’m using the creative parts of my brain to tune in on an artistic level. I don’t for one minute think that everyone who waves a cameraphone at a stage is tuned in on an artistic level, but I do think there’s something going on in their brains related to that.

I see art. I want to relate to that art. I have art-making tools in my pocket. Click.