In the wake of the Astroworld tragedy, should festivals and concerts have a single person charged with the power of stopping a show if conditions grow dangerous? What greater demands will insurers be making since that Texas festival pointed up how an entertainment event can turn deadly? And where does responsibility start, or the buck end, if things go terribly wrong at a show?
These were some of the issues discussed at a panel titled “How the Next Era Of Music Festivals Will Be Safe, Sustainable and Sold Out,” presented at the Pollstar Live conference for concert pros at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Either the second or third S-topic in that series could have supported a panel in itself, but the focus of the final part of the discussion among industry professionals inevitably focused on “safe.” And while much of the overall conference otherwise took on a post-quarantine “we’re back, baby!” tone, this one took on an elephant that has very much not left the room, even if Travis Scott headlines have receded while batteries of lawyers prepare their cases.
“In Europe, I understand that they have people who don’t have a financial interest in the show who can stop a show in case something happens,” said David Beame, VP of global events & experiences for Global Citizen, the philanthropic organization that has put on all-star shows in Central Park and around the world. “If that’s the case, what does that look like in the U.S.?” Beame said that Global Citizen has “a very robust plan that’s like, ‘in case of this,’ we identify the few people who can make that call. And we integrate our lighting, video and sound all together, and it can stop immediately if we need it to with the push of a button — and we have them in front of house, backstage and side-of-stage. I think that exploring the show-stop procedure is going to be in the forefront of our industry in the wake of Astroworld.”
Agreed Cory Meredith, an industry veteran and president of Allied Universal Event Services, a top security consulting firm: “The big question is, how do you make a decision to stop the show? Not cancel it, just stop the show.” It’s his contention that, if a situation is becoming potentially dangerous, the artist may need to cede the stage to someone who is trained in managing such a situation — someone in contact with “who controls the lights, who controls the sound… a professional on stage who can calm the crowd down to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got an issue right here, so you can move it back a little’… That’s easier said than done, because the artist wants to stand up there and take care of the crowd. But it’s not (necessarily) a mosh pit problem. You don’t know where the problem is — it could be in the back.”
After Astroworld, many noted that the rampant gate-crashing could have been seen as a portent of what was to come. “It’s definitely an issue with fencing,” Meredith said. “In fact, Coachella spent a lot of money to put a gigantic, really solid fence with cement underground, because it was becoming an issue and a problem. I remember back in the Grateful Dead days in the ‘80s — we couldn’t play L.A. because of the gate-crashers. It was a problem to where it was too dangerous, and Bill Graham said, ‘It’s not safe.’ He made the right choice. We had to go find, in Vegas, a fence lined up with a moat that could keep those people out that are trying to come in. Because once people sneak in, they’re going to the stage. It’s not just getting in. Once they feel invincible, they’re going down there. And when you have 10% of your crowd sneaking in, and it’s not a couple of people, it can be a domino effect, if you don’t stop ‘em from the beginning.”
Said Adam Bauer, a partner at Madison House, “I also think it’s really the artist. If you’re an artist like Travis Scott and you engage in risky behavior within your show, you may want to have a more active interest in how you’re securing your shows and how you’re dealing with the crowds. If you’re Jackson Browne, you may not give a shit! A lot of artists wouldn’t care about security, because generally their audiences are safer than a lot of others. Where you might have somebody have a cardiac event at a Jackson Browne show before they would get mauled in the moshpit.”
Meredith suggested that he believes the artist community will move in the direction of a more thoughtful approach to crowd management — if not motivated by ethics, than by their wallets, given the current scrutiny. “Artists say, ‘Come on down to the stage,’ then say, ‘That’s not our fault. That’s security’s fault. It’s the building’s problem. They didn’t have the right aisles.’ ‘Look, if you didn’t call ‘em down, no one would get hurt.’ ‘Well, it’s still not my fault. I’m an artist. It’s part of my show.’ Artists think they can do anything. Someone’s got to control the room. At the end of the day, it’s a business, and if something like this (the Astroworld tragedy) happens, they change. In this business day to day, you’re going to change your antics because it’s business and it’s money for everyone (on the team), not just them.”
“You’re one lawsuit away from changing your antics,” added Bauer. But, he noted, however much inciting a performer might do, “The promoter is always going to be more on the hook than the artist, because they’re the ones in charge of the site overall. It’s the promoter, at the end of the day.”
Beame spoke to the congressional subcommittee investigation that is expected to have Live Nation and others answering questions about the Astroworld tragedy specifically and concert safety generally. “With the congressional hearings that will be coming up soon, what will come out of that, we’ll have to wait and see,” he said. (A House Oversight Committee spokesperson tells Variety that no hearings have actually yet been set: “The Oversight Committee has been working on a bipartisan basis to obtain answers from Live Nation regarding this tragedy and how to prevent it from reoccurring. This investigation is ongoing, and at this point no hearing has been announced.”)
“But,” continued Beame, “I do think that at a certain point, first and foremost, it is going to be driven by our insurance brokers, who are going to say they need to see a certain level of expectation from the security companies. With those security companies, there is likely to eventually be some sort of national standard that will have to be adopted… or at a state level, at a minimum… and then potentially a bond, and of course licensed (companies). I think that’s going to be something that will really even at the initial phase make it a bit more difficult for all of us, because insurance companies are going to require that. We’re going to need to be able to absorb these costs, and also be able to show that we’ve actually ticked all those boxes off.”
“I 1000% agree,” said Morgan Margolis, CEO/president of Knitting Factory Entertainment. “And I would add that I think it’s important for all of you that, if you have venues or festivals, you meet with your insurance company and you actually go through your planning stages, because they can lay out what’s most important as well. The front-end planning is number one: evac, active shooter, medical.” He said the loss of employees that many companies are seeing has also hit the concert business hard. “I saw this year where we’re running out of people. We don’t have enough people at different entrances and egresses. We don’t have enough medical going. We’re having to fill holes in those positions. And we have to make hard choices on how we want to do it. But the number one hard choice is not to cut your security down.”
Margolis also emphasized the importance of preparedness plans and even going through the motions of different emergencies. “Nobody wants to tell your staff you’re going to run an active shooter drill, but it’s reality now,” he said. “I mean, I hate to say it, but when I come into a place like this, with my New York (background), I’m always worried about everything. I’m always looking at the back gates. I’m always looking at my exits…”
But the more prevalent danger than active shooters is always just going to be a very active fan base. And, without directly referencing the criticism that some have made of the Astroworld set times, where there was no competition for Scott as a headliner when the second stage’s performances came to an end, the movement of fans between stages came up for discussion as a previously unheralded point of possible danger.
“The problem we have right now with the migration of people, whether it be the entrance or at the perimeter, that’s also in timing the bands,” said Meredith. “What demographic do you have on this stage, and at the main stage here? How long does it take for people to migrate over safely and get in their position? If you don’t time that properly… it’s an art, and it’s something that we’re finding out more about, how to understanding your audience’s dynamics, and how they migrate, and safely, before you start the next act.”
Margolis said that sometimes it’s only when things go wrong in a new and wholly unexpected way that promoters learn what to prepare for in the future. “You learn from example, and we’ve got some rough times at festivals,” he said. “I can say that in 2018, with Desert Daze,” a California festival, “I don’t want to relive it. But Tame Impala onstage, a massive storm blows out, you pull everybody off stage, there’s lightning, and you have to make a decision with the promoter to do an evac. And then you realize in your evac plan that you do not have enough lighting. I mean, these are the things we all learn from and change and shift. You look at Astroworld and you start to sit back and go, okay, what do my barricades look like? What do I really look at, at the front?” But, he added, “I don’t want more incidents” — not even as valuable teachable moments.
The unfortunate irony is that the need for heightened security comes at a time when maintaining even prior staffing levels seems close to impossible, given the so-called Great Resignation.
“Labor is a major problem, and it’s going to cost a lot more to get that labor,” said Meredith. ” With the labor, it seems like we’re starting over, and now we have to train all those people. That’s a lot of money if you want to train them properly and all the things that security needs to understand and be professional and make sure it’s a safe environment. For instance, I think they did a great job at Outside Lands in San Francisco — but it took 10 security companies. They needed a thousand staff, and they had to hire 1300,” because of possible no-shows. “We’re in a different world, and promoters have to understand that it costs a lot more money now.” That partly is down to the remote locations where many festivals take place: “All these hospitals are in the middle of nowhere, so now you have to camp people out, you got to put them up in hotel rooms, you’ve got to feed them three meals. These are the people that are dealing with the public, dealing with your guests. And it just seems like (festival owners) don’t want to really know what it costs to get professional staff — not just in crowd management, but all the staff — to handle these festivals. It’s going to be challenging in the future, and we, the industry, have got to figure it out. Luckily we do a lot of festivals with great, professional companies that know how to do it right and have learned over the years. But some of these younger companies try to cut corners. Unless you have deep pockets, you do it right the first time out, or you’re not gonna have a second one.”
“If this was easy, everyone would be doing it, right?” said Beame. “But it’s on us to create these safe environments, and to create a generation of sustainable events that can actually have lasting effects, not only for our own brands and our partners, but also for everyone that’s attending for generations to come.”
Concluded Bauer: “When we’re talking about Travis Scott, we’re talking about the Fyre Festival, there’s always going to be a shit-show every couple of years in this business, because it’s all about the Benjamins. But by and large, a lot of the festival producers in this room… work incredibly hard to keep people safe. And we can’t let the Travis Scott incidents or Fyre or any number of the bad festivals out there dampen the light that a lot of you guys bring to the world with what you do.”