John Legend at CTIA: Mobile, social are mixed blessings for performers in the digital age

John Legend at last year's Billboard Music Awards. Source: Flickr user Disney / ABC Television Group

LAS VEGAS – Like many performing artists in the digital age, John Legend actively participates in social media, using phones and other platforms to stay in touch with fans and give them a glimpse of his personal life.

And like others, the singer/songwriter/sometimes actor views mobile phones as a bit of a double-edged sword.

“Mobile has become an interesting part of the concert experience now because everybody’s recording or taking pictures,” Legend said during a keynote speech kicking off the final day of CTIA Super Mobility 2016. “I have kind of a love/hate relationship with that.”

Recording live content and even streaming it to friends can be effective marketing, he said, perhaps even converting people into fans who buy music and concert tickets. But performing for fans watching a performance through their phones isn’t exactly inspiring for artists, he suggested, and can interfere with the experience of others.

“It’s hard to decide what’s the right balance,” Legend continued. “Just because you can do it doesn’t mean that you should.”

And celebrities struggle to find the right balance in social media, too, in an era in which the lines between public personas and personal lives are increasingly blurred. Legend said Twitter and other outlets allow him and his family to manage how they present themselves directly to their fans without a third party to act as a filter. Social platforms can be used to publish marketing content, of course, but also are a channel to broadcast content such as family photos or political views.

“We like to control our story as much as we can,” he told attendees. “We feel that mobile technology has given us the ability to do that – to be our own publisher, to be our own editor.”

And smartphones and other digital channels have been a mixed blessing for music as well, Legend continued. Legend was a member of an a cappella group in college that maintained a simple HTML website through which people could order CDs that the band would then package and ship themselves. But while phones have become a massive channel for music, they’ve also been devastating for much of the music industry.

“I think music is listened to more than ever, so in that sense music is ubiquitous,” he said, but the $20 that once bought a CD can now buy a month of unlimited access to a nearly infinite library from Spotify or another streaming music service. Artists can make up lost money with increased performances and other activities, but others in the industry have suffered as music has become easier to access almost anytime, anywhere.

“There’s been a lot of jobs lost" in the music business, Legend said. “There’s less money in the pot.”

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