Picture credit: Flashpop/Getty
Artillery Row

There is nothing wrong with rules

People can put down their phones for the duration of concert

More bad behaviour from classical-music audiences. The esteemed tenor Ian Bostridge halted a concert at Birmingham Symphony Hall last Wednesday night after being disturbed by light from phones, as audience members filmed his performance. Stories abound these days of actors and musicians having to pause performances or reprimand audiences for distracting behaviour. But now there is a new twist in the tale, as such behaviour is increasingly smiled rather than frowned upon by the very people organising artistic events.

For we learn, according to the Birmingham Mail, that Emma Stenning, the new CEO of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) has issued guidance stating that the Orchestra is “very happy” for people to photograph or film performances. The new guidelines ask that audience members refrain from recording an entire concert but affirm that “We are very happy for you to take photographs and short video clips at our concerts”, and a spokesman, when interviewed, emphasised that “The CBSO remains supportive of audiences being able to use their phones at appropriate moments during our concerts”.

An “appropriate moment”, we could probably all agree, might be during the curtain calls, but the audience members on Wednesday night had evidently been given an inch and taken a mile. Bostridge broke off his performance not at the end of a piece but between movements of Britten’s Les Illuminations. Since a song cycle is designed as a sequence of songs with a connecting thread, rather than simply a set of detached numbers, it requires intense concentration on the singer’s, and ideally also the audience’s, part across a sustained period of time.

Then things got even worse. A Twitter/X user shared a photograph of a CBSO poster actively encouraging audience members to video themselves during concerts. Listeners were invited to put clips on social media, with the opportunity to feature in an official season trailer. There is a privacy consideration here. When an arts organisation wants to make an official video, it informs the audience filming is taking place, allowing people to opt out of their image being used. What happens where the filming is private but the footage ends up in an official video?

Why has the CBSO taken this line? There is a lot of handwringing at the moment about how “traditional” concert or theatrical behaviours are somehow stuffy and off-putting to the hypothetical new audiences arts organisations are so desperate to attract. It is hard to believe that anyone would attend a concert only on condition they were allowed to make a video — either they are keen to listen to the music or they aren’t — but this is what arts administrators genuinely seem to believe.

With “edgy” cultural commentators ever keener to “disrupt” traditional ways of doing things, we are now told sneeringly that questioning antisocial or even unruly behaviour at plays or concerts is a manifestation of our own middle-class snobbery. Arifa Akbar, The Guardian’s chief theatre critic, for example, writes, with regard to complaints about mobile phones, “What is this criticism saying? That there are some who don’t follow the right protocols, presumably learned at finishing school?”

This sort of crude, sixth-form debating-society put-down ignores the fact that allowing the use of phones during musical or theatrical performances is bad for everyone. It’s bad for the performer, who is distracted by a sea of bright lights, or by the blaring of ring tones, and struggles to get into the zone or into character. A live classical concert, what’s more, is not a recording session, and comes with an element of risk for the musician involved. The singer lays bare his or her soul, and in doing so relies upon a certain amount of implied contractual trust — the understanding that people aren’t going to stick that fluffed top note on YouTube.

Phone use is also bad for other audience members, for whom this concert or play may be a long-saved-up-for treat, and who should have a reasonable expectation to be able to concentrate. Akbar says that bright phone lights in the theatre don’t bother her, but a majority would surely disagree. You certainly don’t have to be a finishing-school graduate to be irked by a thoughtless neighbour who gives a damn about no-one but themselves.

And maybe phone use is bad even for the person doing the filming. Live life through your phone camera, always trying to get the perfect shot, and you’re never really there, witnessing what’s going on in front of you. What do you do, in any case, with that five-minute clip of phone footage, with its tinny sound, distant blurry faces and views of the backs of people’s heads, when you get home? You’ll probably delete it and to be honest you may as well have paid attention when you were actually there. As for the arts organisation itself, encouraging audience members to breach copyright law — as would apply to many works of later twentieth-century music — may not be the wisest course of action. 

… the more phone use, eating and talking are “authorised”, the more they will happen

Enable behaviours and you encourage them. Audiences have historically accepted quiet listening without demur, but the more phone use, eating and talking are “authorised”, the more they will happen. To cite another example, I was recently in the so-called “silent room” of a library that had, inexplicably, allowed eating – something most libraries would never permit, because of the risk to books from greasy fingers and potential crumb-guzzling pests. I spent an agonising couple of hours trying and failing to focus as other readers slowly, brazenly, crunched and rustled their way through what can only have been family-sized multipacks of crisps. There was no reason to allow eating there in the first place (there is a café right outside) but now it has been allowed, readers indulge their right to do so, and the institution is too nervous to backtrack.

All this is just another manifestation of society’s increasing prioritisation of the purported “rights” of a thoughtless minority to do whatever they may please over the collective experience. When a musical institution has given its blessing to such behaviours, other audience members no longer have the power to object. But a concert promoter surely has a duty to make sure that the majority of patrons are provided with conditions in which they can focus on the performance for which they have paid — it makes no commercial sense to do otherwise — as well as to look after the performer. So come on arts organisations, summon up the courage to set some polite ground rules: nobody is going to think the worse of you.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover