The night 9-year-old Ezra Blount became the latest fatality from a stampede of music fans at the Astroworld Festival in Houston, I received a text: “This is so insane.” The note came from a veteran concert promoter and included a picture of the smiling boy, who spent much of Nov. 5th watching the show from the shoulders of his dad until a deadly crowd surge. A moment later my phone rang.
“Everyone is so sad. There is nothing worse than this,” the promoter told me of his colleagues in the live music industry, asking to remain anonymous to discuss a tragedy that had now killed 10, with others still hospitalized. He was audibly upset and frustrated, the death of this child clearly pushing the disaster into a new category for him. “Where was the fire department? Where was Live Nation?”
And how could headliner Travis Scott continue performing for nearly 40 minutes before ending the concert while first responders worked to rescue the injured and dying? The delay was inexplicable. Promoters should be prepared to quickly stop a concert during an emergency: A calm announcement from the stage, or the lights go up with a forceful statement on the PA from “the voice of God” to stand back.
That didn’t happen at Astroworld, now destined to be remembered as Gen Z’s own version of Altamont, the notorious 1969 free concert outside San Francisco headlined by the Rolling Stones (and policed by the Hell’s Angels) that resulted in four deaths, multiple assaults and countless drug casualties. List of Crimes That Was CompiledThe number of victims is more like the Who’s tragic 1979 tour stop in Cincinnati, Ohio, when a stampede of general admission concert-goers rushed into an arena and 11 were crushed to death. Likewise, Astroworld will haunt fans, artists and promoters for years as they again confront issues of safety and general admission policies at concerts designed to be both enjoyable and at times wildly intense live experiences.
In Astroworld’s immediate aftermath, horrified news anchors showed overhead footage of the sold-out crowd of 50,000. But the numbers were unremarkable compared to the larger U.S. festivals Coachella, Outside Lands and Lollapalooza, which unfold every year without serious incident. The size isn’t what matters, most concert professionals agree. “Sometimes 60,000 is harder to handle than 100,000,” says one longtime music manager. “It depends on the artist and key personnel being in the right place at the right time.”
The difference between the vast majority of safe, successful events and those marked by incompetence or profiteering can be felt immediately by experienced music fans. Beyond creating an awesome talent lineup, producing a large festival can be a complicated balance of comfort, security, disaster preparedness, backstage logistics and crowd control. Decisions from the layout of a venue to the price of water can make all the difference. “We can always improve, but at least 95% or more of these do a really good job,” says concert promoter Kevin Lyman, founder of the punk-themed Vans Warped Tour and now a fulltime professor at the USC Thornton School of Music. “We have hundreds of festivals in the United States now.”
There’s always the threat of another chaotic Woodstock, the historic festival brand that has enjoyed legendary status despite a wildly uneven record of safety that hit bottom in 1999 with a meltdown of fire and rape. With that history, its failure to return for its 50th anniversary in 2019 may have been the best possible outcome, succeeding only in posting dozens of T-shirt designs for sale before a venue was fully secured.
The reasons behind the Astroworld disaster are under investigation and being debated among alarmed concert professionals. Whatever happened, it’s a serious blow to a live music world now under a microscope just as it was willing itself back to life after nearly 18 months of inaction during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Expertise matters at all live events, and Lyman says that many top people in concert production left the industry because of the pandemic and “a compression down on the salaries for qualified people.”
There is disagreement even among experts: Seats or no seats. Abruptly stop a show during an emergency or avoid further injury by playing on. Have multiple festival stages running at once, or allow the headliner to close the night alone. The real answer is about execution.
Mistakes can come from all sides, including law enforcement. Two decades ago, a free outdoor concert steps away from Hollywood Boulevard by the alt-metal act System of a Down erupted into a riot after the fire marshal shut it down before it began. I was right up front, and a tall redheaded dude with a baby mustache tried to grab my camera and took a swing at me. He was soon shot in the face with a cop’s rubber bullet. Further back, at the long-defunct Los Angeles Street Scene fest on the streets around City Hall, police on horseback trampled through a crowd waiting for the pop-metal band Poison in 1985 after some fans became unruly. LAPD Chief Daryl Gates blamed “punk rockers.”
The most experienced promoters will act long before police or fire departments get involved. The truth is I’ve seen more violence at baseball games than at music festivals. Step on the lush fields at Outside Lands in San Francisco or Coachella in Indio, and there’s no sense of physical danger ever. (A wave of counterfeit tickets contributed to an uncomfortable 2010 crowd surge at Coachella, which was fixed the next year.) Warped’s most successful year was 2005, when the bill included My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy as they hit peak MTV saturation, attracting an additional 200,000 kids – many with zero concert experience – over that summer. “They’re not drinking water. They’re not eating,” recalled Lyman, who responded by creating a triage of cooling stations and other measures to protect young fans. “We had security trained to pull people out. Every day it felt like we were just hanging on.”
The rule of the mosh pit applies everywhere: If someone falls, you help that person up. That’s well understood within the culture, and you might have been among the generations of thrash-metal lifers pressed together up front at the 2019 farewell shows by Slayer at the Forum in Inglewood and never once felt in any danger. To the uninitiated, a mosh pit looks terrifying and insane, but the chaos is controlled. Fans die when things veer out of control, as seen at Astroworld.
Onstage, Travis Scott thrives on intensity, not unlike many heroes of hip-hop and hard rock, and he’s often pushed his crowd energy upward. This time it went sideways. Now facing millions in lawsuits, and possible damage to his soaring career, Scott has re-learned the lesson that being reckless with 50,000 people can be a dangerous and tragic game.
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