Smartphones in the Concert Hall

At a recent concert where I played, a young man in the second row filmed my entire performance on his smartphone. I stared at him with my best, "seriously?" look. This is how I make my living, and recording a performance changes the economics.
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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.

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