Over this last weekend, a concert in Houston ended in tragedy. At an outdoor show at Houston’s Astroworld Festival featuring rappers Drake and Travis Scott, two of the most popular performers in the world, the 85,000-person strong crowd became so enamored with the performances that they surged towards the stage. Unfortunately, the front of the stage is an unyielding barricade, resulting in eight people being immediately killed by crushing against that barrier and more than 300 were injured.
There is no doubt that this is a tragic situation. Any loss of life when people are gathered to enjoy something – whether it is a concert, a race, a festival of any sort – should not occur. But there is one thing that we should not be doing with the Houston tragedy, and that is trying to make it like it is the first time that it’s happened and that something needs to be done about it.
The list of concert tragedies is a long one and it is not limited to a particular genre of music or its fanbase. It is one borne of several different stimuli – the excitement of the fans, whether adolescents or chemically-altered adults, promoters and venues looking to maximize the revenues for the performance, and artists whose entire purpose is to entertain the audience that has gathered to see them. All one needs to do is to look back over the annals of music history to find similar issues have happened.
One of the most famous incidences that could be compared to Houston was the Cincinnati Massacre. On December 4, 1979, a throng of fans waited in the cold Ohio night for the doors to open to a concert from The Who at Riverfront Stadium. Inside, The Who did a soundcheck to prepare for the show and, spurred by hearing the guitars roar to life, the crowd in the back surged towards the door to get the best seats available – then called “festival seating,” or basically standing to watch the show. Eleven people were killed in the stampede and the promoters, scared shitless by the potential of having to cancel the show and lose a ton of money, did not inform The Who of what occurred and allowed them to take the stage for their entire show.
This isn’t just a “70s thing” or a “States of America” thing, either. On June 30, 2000, in Roskilde, Denmark, the band Pearl Jam took the stage during a major festival. The adoring crowd of Europeans rushed the stage, resulting in the crushing of nine men against the barricades encircling the stage. Pearl Jam, for their part, stopped playing as soon as they were alerted to the problems at the front of the stage and encouraged the fans to back up, but it was too late by that point for it to save those who perished.
In Rabat, Morocco, on May 23,2009, a concert was held to promote the “modern lifestyle” of the Moroccan nation. The Mawazine Festival, featuring the legendary Stevie Wonder and Kylie Minogue, was so popular that police began to close exits to try to control who could enter the festival. The fans, noticing the police closing some of the exits, panicked and the 70,000 people in attendance surged towards the exits that were still open. Eleven people, including two children, were killed in the resulting stampede, with 40 official injuries counted.
In 1991, AC/DC was struck by tragedy in, of all places, Salt Lake City, Utah. 4000 fans packed into a theater for a show from the Aussie legends flooded towards the front of the stage…three teens were crushed to death. Altamont, Woodstock ’99…they also deserve noting. But arguably the worst of all these situations came not because of crowd behavior, but because of a myriad of mistakes that were made.
On February 20, 2003, the 80s hair metal band Great White took to the stage of a small nightclub called The Station in Rhode Island. Great White was supporting arguably what was their last popular album, Desert Moon, and the promoters made sure to pack the club with adoring fans, in fact exceeding the limits that the fire marshals had placed on people being in the club. That was just the first of the problems that occurred that night.
The band used pyrotechnics for their stage show that fateful night, and it is a huge question as to whether they had permission to do this or they did it on their own (promoters blamed Great White for using the fireworks, stating they did not have permission; the band states they did). Regardless of this fact, the pyrotechnics set off caught the soundproofing materials ablaze around the stage in the dimly lit, tiny venue. The resulting fire and stampede killed 100 people and injured another 230, with another 132 people able to get out without injury.
As you can see, there is no rhyme or reason to such tragedies. But let us try to set some new rules.
First off, you cannot blame a particular genre of music nor their fandom. As we noted in recounting these cases, rock music, rap, and country (the Mandalay Bay mass shooting), it is not the music that is making people do these types of things. You also cannot blame the fans, who are all trying, through the rules that have been set at the venue they are in, to get to the best seat that is available. But there are things that can be done as far as the promoters and the venues themselves, but it is going to drive up the cost of concerts and, as a result, concert tickets.
I cannot believe I still have to say this, but there should never be another concert held that has “festival seating.” If you cannot provide seats for the fans to sit in – whether it is an indoor show or an outdoor event – then you do not need to have your concert. It is a simple act to allow people to enjoy a show without having to jostle amongst their fellow concertgoers, first off. Secondly, it makes sure that there are not huge throngs of people that can “bum rush” a stage and potentially cause the problems that occurred in Houston.
“But what about the mosh pit?” I hear many asking. To be honest, my mosh pit days ended long ago, but the mosh pit always had a “code of conduct,” surprisingly, that was adhered to. You did not “blind side” anyone, if someone fell you helped them up, and you didn’t constantly target the same person. I’m not saying that this has to end, but there has got to be some people who inform the “new generation” about the etiquette of moshing around the stage.
There has been another cry from promoters about having to put seats out for the people in attendance. “Well, the fans will use the chairs as a weapon!” If this is what is concerning you about putting seats in a field and the concertgoers then using those chairs against each other, you have bigger problems with your concert than festival seating.
If there is not “festival” or “open” seating, that takes care of many of the problems. Cutting down on alcohol sales (there are way too many miracles of modern chemistry around a concert, especially from the “older set” that wants to relive their youth), setting a MAXIMUM number of people who can be in a certain area of the concert arena or field at a given moment (or for the concert overall – outdoor shows that probably should be 50,000 people have been known to jam in another 25,000, potentially causing problems), and increasing security at these venues that are not only there to protect the artists but also the fans would be excellent additions (this is difficult because getting qualified security in the first place is extremely difficult). These changes, however, would also place a larger burden on promoters.
Already barely making a profit from these events, promoters would have to ensure that insurance (which would most likely go up) for these concerts is able to cover every potential instance. They would have to absorb the costs of more security, maybe even the extended training that they would require…these things would not be given for free. As a result, the base costs of a concert ticket, which are already high, would go even higher. And if the promoters and ticket sellers (ahem, Live Nation…your voice is necessary here too) are not making any money from the deal, then they aren’t going to put on the concerts.
The Houston tragedy could have been avoided, but it is not like it hasn’t happened before. It is going to take a concentrated effort by all parties involved to try to ensure that this does not occur again. But you know what? It will – whenever you have a massive throng of people entranced with the entertainment of their favorite bands or artists, there is always a potential for catastrophe. You can try to ensure that all your bases are covered, but there is never anything that ensures total safety in anything in life.