Many music and comedy venue attendees know exactly what is meant when they hear the word “Yondr.” For some, the grey-and-green smartphone pouch with a magnetic lock is the pain-in-the-ass bag keeping them from their phones (and social accounts and recording apps) until after a live gig is over. Others recognize the Yondr pouch as the best way for an artist to maintain control over their music or jokes without fear of bootlegging or having their punchlines exposed and leaked to the web — and are happy to watch a singer or a stand-up comedian without interference from a neighbor’s incessant phone use.
With the announcement of the Over Yondr Festival in bucolic Greene County, New York June 24-26, the company that Graham Dugoni founded in 2014 has grown beyond its bag. It’s a three-day camping and concert event with !!! and Sheer Mag where, as you might guess, audiences will be unable to use their phones for the entirety of the weekend. (As always at Yondr-aided gigs, phone-use spaces are available for unlockings, away from the performances.)
Yondr’s first big test run was a baker’s dozen of shows in Chicago in 2015 with comedian Dave Chappelle and promoter Live Nation (at the under-1,000 capacity Thalia Hall). It’s come a long way: Dugoni says that, in April 2022, “Yondr will take care of about a million customers this month.”
Dugoni starts his conversation about the creation of Yondr by saying that if you look around at people “not just in entertainment but education, and in day-to-day life, there is a sense that life is speeding up, and we’re running on the treadmill faster just to stay in the same place. To me, that comes down to the prominence of technology…. and cheapening the value of things that matter.”
Yondr and Dugoni’s goal is to power the ideal of phone-free spaces and help entertainment and educational companies achieve that end, but he says that doesn’t mean rolling back time or pretending state-of-the-art cell phones and hyper-reactive social media doesn’t exist. “It is a progressive move forward, by showing people that you can enter certain spaces and experience them in ways that are not mediated by a screen or social media,” he says. “People can see a thing for themselves, live, and decide for themselves whether they like it or not.”
Speaking to that focus and the reliance on one’s own eyes and opinions, the Yondr website offers testimonials from stand-up comedians such as Chappelle (“People actually watch the show; they’re in the moment and they’re vastly more fun to speak to”) and Michael Che (“The focus and the crowds are so much better and so much more attentive. It’s different. It’s night and day”).
“The key moment for us is when I met Dave and his team,” says Dugoni of Chappelle. “At that time, I was going door-to-door, to schools and venues out of my car, when, out of the blue, Chappelle’s team called me. He was the first artist who instantly understood what it is we were trying to do and what it meant to them… Same with Jack White on the music side. His deciding that he wanted to use Yondr for his shows, for that experience and the feel of the event, was equally important.”
Are artists such as Chappelle or White coming to Dugoni strictly looking for focused, rapt attention from a crowd, or are they looking not to have their live shows bootlegged or YouTube-d, therefore lessening sales of their official recorded output or revealing key elements of their shows?
“It really depends on the artist, and what their perspective is, but I can say that in the last eight years, the number one reason from what we hear from artists, and why they wish to use our product, is to maintain the atmosphere and the experience of the show,” says Dugoni. “The nature of coming into a room without phones – and where everyone is on the same page about that – is a fundamentally different experience than when the audience is worried about how they’re going to document this or let friends know they’re there. It’s just a clearer picture. Now, there’s no doubt that in some of the shows that we do that privacy is an important component, as is protecting their material. I also know that there are artists who want privacy for their fans — that they be can be assured that after drinking too many beers, they’re not going to show up on YouTube.”
Going back to how many artists or venues Yondr covers, Dugoni doesn’t give specific numbers, but states he has relationships with “every major venue in the country. Yondr can accommodate 17,000-seat arenas such as Los Angeles’ Crypto.com Arena space, Chicago’s Thalia Hall (which seats around 800) and Philadelphia’s Tower Theater at around 3,200 seated audience members.
“I can also say that in this month, April 2022, we’re doing more shows and more seats than we’ve ever done,” says Dugoni. “We’ll do a million seats this month, and it’s growing very quickly. We’re still trying to figure whether or not this is people coming back out from the pandemic, or maybe there are more shows than usual, but either way, we’re hearing, separately, from artists and venues who want to use Yondr full-time. And that is growing as well.”
The pouches are also in use with the film industry, mostly at advance industry screenings. To go with the growth in entertainment-biz users, there is Yondr’s stretch into schools and curriculums: “Truly, that is the other half of our business, teachers and parents becoming more aware of what staring in front of a screen will do to students.”
And there’s the move into Yondr making itself into an event presenter, which is where its phone-free music festival, Over Yondr, comes in.
The idea of keeping what will probably be a millennium-age-and-under crowd there to see the raging punk of Sheer Mag, the murky metal of Kississippi or the brittle funk of !!! away from their phones for the better part of three days in a rural setting is daunting. That, however, is the point that Dugoni is hoping to make. “We’ve been planning this for a while and we’re going to plan for this again going forward, partly because it is fun for us and our team – creating the type of space we would enjoy – and it resonates with younger people,” he says.
“I think that these audiences are aware that three days of camping and listening to music without phones is a lot of fun. We’re already planning on doing more of our own shows, separate to the festival ideal too, because it is something we believe in. It is a way to create an entire Yondr experience for people.”
When asked how long Dugoni could go without a phone, Yondr’s founder states that he hasn’t had a smartphone for over six years, and that going without immediate phone connection is no big deal. “It’s truly not very difficult for me,” he says. “You get used to it. And when you do, life’s experiences open up so much more.”