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July 06, 2016

The simple tech approach to making tonight’s Dave Chappelle show a 'phone-free' event

Locked phone pouches have implications for concerts, comedy shows and classrooms

The first time I realized concerts had become unsustainable was at a show in Austin, where — despite pleas for “no photography” before and during the short set by the band She & Him — Zooey Deschanel’s face was bombarded by the strobe light flashing of a thousand iPhones. This was six years ago, pre-“New Girl” but post-“Elf” and “500 Days of Summer,” so she was already a pretty big star. Beneath a wide-brimmed hat and oversized sunglasses, she powered through like a hamster staring down a thunderstorm.

Phones have been hindering the live concert experience for awhile now, and it’s become obvious the audience is not so good at policing itself. When Neutral Milk Hotel, and notoriously limelight-shy singer Jeff Mangum, came out of retirement a few years ago, they implored his fans not to take pictures. I was surprised to see most of the crowd appeared to comply. But as the sun went down, the scattered flicker of handheld screens stood out in the darkness. A recent Courtney Barnett show at the Electric Factory was plagued by tall dudes with smartphones. Their attempts to record videos of entire songs seriously hindered the viewing experiences of the shorter people around them. That their videos were likely of poor sound quality is beside the point.

And while a live recording of Hannibal Buress’ comedy show at the Trocadero became a tipping point in helping Bill Cosby’s victims seek justice, it’s worth noting that — as Wyatt Cenac noted recently on Slate's "The Gist" — Buress had no agency in the matter. He was recorded against his wishes and his material was released without his permission. For comedians, this kind of thing is usually not a net positive for them or society. Generally speaking, it limits their ability to work out new material and surprise new audiences.

But what are venues supposed to do? Collect everybody’s $400 iPhones before the show?

A company out of New York called Yondr, founded three and a half years ago, thinks it has the solution. The idea is pretty simple: a locked little pouch you put your phone in before the show. That’s it. So far, it hasn’t been seen much in Philly, but Alicia Keys and The Lumineers and a number of other high-profile artists are on board. Dave Chappelle — who plays two sold-out phone-free shows tonight at the new Punchline comedy club on Columbus Boulevard — was an early adopter.

I talked to Yondr’s founder Graham Dugoni last week about how it works and why he thinks it’s part of a larger movement.

Is Yondr mostly catching on in the music and comedy worlds?

We work in all different areas, really. I mean, we're in a lot of venues obviously, work with a lot of different artists, but we also work with a lot of schools, individual homes, manufacturing plants, all different places.

Is Yondr a permanent fixture in a venue? Do you install it?

We usually hear from an artist or their manager or tour manager. They say, 'Hey, we'd love to have a phone-free show,' and I say, 'OK, great, just tell us when, where and how many cases you need.' So they'll give us the contact information for a venue. We have warehouses all over the country and it will ship out [and] show up the day before the show or the day of the show. It comes out of the box with a quick starter guide so the venue staff can use it. So it's not a permanent fixture. They use it to set up a phone-free show. It goes back in the box, we pick it up, ships out the next day.

I have a teacher friend who’s looking to have it installed at her school.

For schools, it is a little different, it is a permanent fixture. … Most schools where they're using it is the unlocking mechanism will sit on the teacher's desk. Students walk in. Cases are right next to the door. Every student's phone goes into a case. It locks. And at the end of the day, or end of class, they walk out by the teacher's desk and unlock it. Other schools will have it at the front entrance.

Why do artists like the service?

It varies, but the common thread, I think, for most artists when we talk to them is the experience. It's a very bizarre experience for them, as artists, to be up on stage performing and look out at a bunch of screens. I think they feel the difference. And everyone in the crowd does. And that is the ethos behind the company and what we're doing. It has all this different utility for different people in different ways, whether it's copyright or things like that. Protection. Privacy. But ultimately, it is about creating a space where people can be swept up into a show's mood. Which is what people go to live music for. That's what the artist, I think, feels. That's what everyone in the room feels. That's all we do is make that easier.

“Ultimately, it is about creating a space where people can be swept up into a show's mood,” says Graham Dugoni.

Have any artists in particular shown an affinity for the product?

The person I've talked to the most about it, and [who] kind of understands it at the deepest level, is probably [Dave] Chappelle. He's just a very smart guy. ... Different artists I've had different conversations with, but he's probably the one I've had the most conversations with about it. And he's kind of been an early evangelist for us.

For a comedian, I imagine this is kind of a way to keep the material from getting out.

That is something for them, to be able to go to a show and work out new material and have it not leak. But it also … People maybe are just starting to realize that things like Snapchat and all this livestreaming, you know, and the constant documenting — if you don't have the ability for social interaction to exist and not be accountable for everything you do in the public sphere, it kind of makes social interaction impossible. If you're afraid of dancing and showing up as a grainy YouTube video and being a joke at the water cooler, you can't really be uninhibited.

What does the pouch look like?

It is formfitting, a slight gray and neon green. It's soft material, primarily neoprene. There are different models that are made of different materials.

And this way, the venue isn't responsible for holding onto people's expensive phones.

Yeah, people keep their phones on them at all times. If they need to use it for, you know, the baby sitter's home with the kids or something happens, they can always step out [into] the lobby and they can use it. They don't even have to leave the venue, they can just go to the designated phone-use area at the front and use it. Which is super important for people, to have that comfort.

Is it a clear pouch?

No, it's not clear. You can't see through it. You can feel your phone vibrate so if your phone is vibrating, you're being called a bunch of times in a row and you want to check it, you can go do that. I thought about that, about making it clear, but I think eventually it would defeat the purpose because every time you felt the phone vibrate, you'd be looking at it. Then we're back to square one.

When people go into a venue, would they be wanded or would they have to voluntarily produce their phones?

It's a little bit different [at] every show, but the way it generally works is people know ahead of time that it's going to be a phone-free show, which is really important. There's usually an email or a posting on the website that says, 'Hey, this is a phone-free show,' so nobody's surprised. Then … the venue staff will walk the line and let people know again, 'Hey, it's a phone-free show. If you have your phone on you, you get to keep it, it just goes in one of these cases.'

What about emergencies?

You can unlock it at every exit. Venue staff also has the ability to have their phones on them and then there's always an unlocking mechanism inside the venue. They're all common-sense procedures. I think it's all reasonable.

And you see Yondr as a small part of a larger social movement?

The movement is something people have been feeling for a long time. It's something about [how] living life mediated through screens feels odd. ... You can choose. People can choose to go to a phone-free show or not. No one's forcing you. But when people do go, they feel the difference. I think it's what people are picking up on, it just kind of captures the zeitgeist.