Is Jeff Mangum Exploiting Neutral Milk Hotel Fans’ Memories?

If a significant number of people love anything enough, there will be a backlash against it. Perhaps that’s always been true, but it’s especially true in 2014, when unpopular opinions are practically a currency unto themselves. And so the backlash has come for Jeff Mangum and his somewhat-recently-reunited Neutral Milk Hotel, perhaps the most beloved indie band of the late ’90s.

In his review of the final day of Merge Records’ 25th anniversary festival, which took place over the weekend in North Carolina, Grayson Currin calls NMH’s set “sloppy and messy and fine and nothing if not a memory tickler.” What bothered him more than the performance was the now-famous ban on photography that Mangum has enforced since returning to the stage as a solo act in 2011. Currin lists the various ways in which NMH made their no-photo policy known to concertgoers (signs, and also a somewhat lurid announcement by the festival’s emcee, Margaret Cho), and notes that they also cut the lights at the front of the stage, making it practically impossible for a rogue photographer to get a decent shot. While others have chalked up Mangum’s camera phobia to general skittishness or concern for the quality of the experience NMH are providing, Currin is more cynical:

Mangum is attempting to preserve the same legacy of an enigma that turned into a bankable career during his prolonged absence; in an age of instant information and updates, where what you had for breakfast becomes part of your digital identity, can you actually prove that you saw Neutral Milk Hotel without telling and showing your friends? That kind of self-advertising and personalized content creation can be an unsettling aspect of modern life, sure, but that’s not Mangum’s decision to make for people who waited a dozen years to see him — and paid a lot of money and withstood a lot of miserable heat and humidity to celebrate his relationship with Merge….

Mangum’s reluctance to be photographed seems less like a savior complex or a production concern than a brilliant financial ruse: If you can’t preserve this experience, then goddammit, you will have to pay for it again and again and again.

Now, as far as I’m concerned, Grayson Currin is a hero — for co-writing one of my favorite Pitchfork columns, “The Out Door,” and for trolling abortion clinic protesters with hilarious signs — but I disagree. There’s nothing wrong with a band restricting photography at its shows, and the idea that Mangum’s aversion to cameras is anything approaching “a brilliant financial ruse” seems far-fetched for even the most extreme NMH detractor.

Currin is bothered by Mangum’s demand that his fans enjoy Neutral Milk Hotel performances in a particular way. But musicians — the ones who are popular or renowned enough to wield a certain amount of power, at least — have always dictated plenty of things about how their audiences experience their shows. Fans flipped out last year when Low left the stage after one 27-minute song, but Lydia Lunch’s late-’70s no wave band Teenage Jesus and the Jerks gave fans masochistic thrills by packing two dozen songs into sets that topped out at 15 minutes. There are bands that play in total darkness (which, as Currin notes, basically amounts to an unspoken photography ban) or with their backs turned away from their audience. Some performers have even been known to take a shit onstage. The point isn’t that we should mindlessly applaud our favorite bands’ irritating schticks and preferences, but — with the exception of violence or hate speech or other things that threaten fans’ safety — we should expect their performances to happen on their own terms.

But wait a second: is banning photography an irritating schtick/preference? Should buying a ticket to a show guarantee you the right to unlimited shaky videos and goofy selfies with Jeff Mangum in the background? Is preventing photographers from covering Neutral Milk Hotel for legitimate publications a dick move? Or does what Currin sees as an at best paternalistic, at worst financially motivated policy actually benefit concertgoers? Personally, I can live with the professionals in the photo pit (although I certainly prefer shows that confine their flashes to the customary first three songs); I wouldn’t even deny someone next to me the opportunity to take a discreet cellphone photo or two.

These days, though, that’s kind of an ideal-world scenario. At most shows I’ve been to recently, especially the ones where the performers have a significant following, I’ve been practically surrounded by people who’ve had their phones out for the entirety of every set, constantly Instagramming and shooting videos and texting or Snapchatting all of it to their friends. I’m fully aware that you can’t criticize this shit in 2014 without seeming like an out-of-touch Luddite, but so be it. It’s a special kind of terrible to shell out money to see a band you love, only to realize you’ll be watching them through the iPad the guy in front you is holding over his head. I mean, is that dude’s right to spoil the show for me (and everyone else unlucky enough to stand behind him) more important than my right to a clear view of the performance I paid for?

Although I’d like to think I’d defend Mangum’s photo ban even if I didn’t love his music, this is the point where I come out as a Neutral Milk Hotel fan, and reveal that I’ve seen him perform twice solo and once with the band over the past three years. (I also spent a lovely evening in Prospect Park last week, sitting outside the gates of an outdoor NMH show and soaking in the music with the other freeloaders who didn’t pay for a ticket.) I mention this because, by now, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to observe what that strict no-photo policy does to a show. It creates a certain, rare calm in the room; it forces you into the moment. People who aren’t taking their phones out to snap photos are less likely to reach for them to text or check email during the performance. The appeal of seeing a band that doesn’t allow photography is similar to the appeal of watching a movie in a theater that has a zero-tolerance policy for cellphone use: you get to appreciate 90 minutes of art, free of the constant distractions of contemporary life.

Currin would probably say that I’m exactly the poor, duped fan he’s talking about — that I’ve fallen for Mangum’s “brilliant financial ruse.” I can’t produce photo documentation of Neutral Milk Hotel shows to prove to my friends that I’ve seen the band, so I just keep buying tickets. “If you can’t preserve this experience, then goddammit, you will have to pay for it again and again and again.”

I don’t think that logic holds up. If you’re the kind of person whose concert experience is made or broken by the ability to “preserve” it via Instagram, then what do you get out of repeatedly paying to see a band that will never, ever let you do that? If Mangum’s photo ban really were rooted in some master plan to exploit his fans’ memories, you’d hope he’d do a better job monetizing it. Where is the Neutral Milk Hotel Tour 2014 Official “Bootleg” Series? Where is the one band-affiliated photographer who will sell you his shots of each show, with a hefty percentage of the proceeds going right into Jeff Mangum’s pocket? Where are the dumb fan-exploitation schemes like this one?

The truth, I suspect, is that there are two reasons for the ban. Yes, photography distracts both the band and the audience, and Neutral Milk Hotel want to create an experience free of that, regardless of what their fans may prefer — but also, Mangum’s path back to the stage was by all accounts a genuinely difficult one. Years before he went back on the road, I saw him tentatively, shakily take the stage for guest vocals at Olivia Tremor Control shows and Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tours, with the gentle encouragement of his longtime friends in other bands. To me, it’s entirely believable that he finds the flashbulbs and cellphones and other tools of idol worship a bit difficult to take.

This may seem like precious, delicate boy-genius stuff, and perhaps it is; certainly, it’s not impressing everyone. There have been some rumblings recently, even among fans, that Mangum’s comeback has gone on for a bit too long without producing any new music. To some people, the whole thing is starting to feel like a cash-in. And it might be! Maybe there’s new music in the works, but hey, maybe Jeff Mangum’s endgame is to sock away enough money that soon he’ll never need to record or perform again. I can see why that might bother some people, but as long as the ticket prices aren’t exorbitant (believe me, NMH could be charging a lot more than $30ish a head) and the performances feel honest (which, in my experience, they have), I’m just going to continue feeling lucky that I’m finally getting the chance to see a band whose music has meant so much to me.