New Times,
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  1. The Staggers
6 June 2024

How the smartphone ruined live music

Nothing can trump the magic of a concert. Why do I insist on inhaling the Eras tour over social media?

By Sarah Manavis

When I arrive at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium on Friday 7 June for the first UK date of Taylor Swift’s global sell-out Eras tour, I will have seen every section, transition and poorly conceived dance move before the show begins. I will already be aware of what’s in the set and in what order it will be played. The only difference will be that, this time, I will actually be there rather than on my living room sofa watching it on a grainy, distorted live stream.

This reality is mortifying to admit, both as someone sceptical of Swift’s politics and who, in theory, is resistant to the idea of pre-watching a show I’ve paid more than £100 to attend. But I’m far from alone. Hundreds of thousands of fans across TikTok, YouTube and Instagram tune in every night – to every show – to watch videos of performances they have seen dozens of times. It goes beyond Swift. Whether it’s Beyoncé, Olivia Rodrigo or Harry Styles, every major show is streamed for thousands on social media and then reposted in clips for millions to dissect.

Some accounts exist for this sole purpose (the streamers I’ve watched even have special paid memberships); others are random individuals doing what is seen as fan service. Even if you want to avoid them, their popularity on all platforms – TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, even Facebook – means the algorithm serves these videos to almost anyone who is vaguely engaged with popular culture, whether or not they’ve ever indicated an interest in that particular artist. 

This might appear psychotic to outside observers. But within fan communities, obsessive consumption of this niche information is increasingly the norm. In-jokes are made about the stars’ mistakes – Beyoncé’s fans will know about the “Coco Canelle” misspeak (in Edinburgh); Rodrigo’s are aware about her top breaking in London; Swifties brand Taylor’s mishaps as “the Errors tour”.

You could argue that these clips serve fans who failed to get tickets for these concerts. However, among the people who pore over this media are those who will be going to the shows, often multiple times. And while there has historically been some resistance to “spoilers” at major gigs, the trend is towards microdosing the show countless times before even arriving at the venue. With Swift, the phenomenon is made even more extreme due to the fact that, before she had even gotten halfway through her tour, she released a film version of the concert, feeding the frenzy (and undoubtedly trying to capitalise on the appetite for live streams). Putting aside the obvious commercial motivations for this, it is also a direct response to the desperate, rabid demand to see as much of this tour as possible, as soon as possible, again and again.

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This didn’t come from nowhere: it aligns with the rise of extreme “stanning” which has bred a wider cultural impulse to consume vast amounts of information about beloved celebrities, no matter how mundane. You can find multiple accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers which live-tweet every single show, noting with outsized excitement subtle outfit changes from one shade of pink to another. Videos of a cleaning cart allegedly transporting Swift covertly to the stage goes viral after every performance. Posts and videos describing how many times Swift has worn certain coloured tops will garner thousands of likes and reshares.

The fan experience can – despite what the cynics say – be improved by this forensic pre-show analysis. It’s a chance to learn the setlist, even to strategically time bathroom breaks ahead of the event. In a show as long as Swift’s – nearly four hours, plus an opening act – knowing the running order can help some fans pace themselves, saving their energy for the moments they know they’ll enjoy most.

But it would be wrong to say that something isn’t lost by inhaling all of a show’s magic at home. Part of what makes going to these shows exceptional is the surprise in the renditions, the staging, the mash-ups, the production, the choreography. They are as much about theatre and spectacle as they are about the music itself. It’s a ceremony. Without even trying, every nook and cranny of the entire experience can easily be excavated online.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it through a screen, live music thrives because nothing can better the feeling of actually being there – and, particularly in the case of these artists, of seeing a global superstar in the flesh (after a lifetime of ridiculing people for it, I burst into tears at the sight of Beyoncé at her Renaissance show last summer). Turning these singular events into continuous, drip-fed experiences – habitually consumed months in advance, bleeding into something like routine – dulls moments that should be completely electrifying. For all our efforts to convince ourselves of the benefits of streaming big tours ahead of time, we will walk into that stadium and experience less.

[See also: The rise of the overlong album]

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