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Jeff Miers: Astroworld Festival tragedy is a reckoning for music industry, fans

Jeff Miers: Astroworld Festival tragedy is a reckoning for music industry, fans

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Security staffing at Travis Scott show unclear, chief says

Visitors cast shadows at a memorial to the victims of the Astroworld concert in Houston on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021.

It’s every concertgoer’s worst fear, and every promoter’s worst nightmare. 

On Nov. 5, shortly after 9:30 p.m., a surge in the crowd at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival in Houston’s NRG Park pushed attendees toward the front of the stage and trapped them there. Chaos ensued, and many fell and were trampled.

Nine people died – including a 14-year-old boy – and dozens more had been injured. One attendee, aged 9, sustained severe injuries and was in a medically induced coma at the time of this writing.

Those who have lived long enough can remember similar catastrophes, among them, the Who’s 1979 concert at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, where 11 people died in the crush created when the venue failed to open enough doors for the general admission crowd to enter safely, and the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark, when a crowd surge at the general admission event during Pearl Jam’s headlining set resulting in the deaths of nine people. We scratch our heads and wonder why the concert industry seems to have learned nothing from this senseless loss of life.

Many of us who are seasoned concertgoers have witnessed the type of behavior that precipitated the Astroworld tragedy. I am still alarmed when I recollect how quickly a handful of people shoving a penned-in crowd forward can escalate toward chaos. I felt it at Woodstock ’99, when a portion of the crowd appeared hell-bent on turning a musical celebration into a mindless riot. (They largely succeeded.) I felt it again five years later, at a Rush concert at Darien Lake PAC when a bottleneck at the admission gate devolved into a potentially dangerous scenario as a few disgruntled attendees began pushing forward, and several people fell. Happily, injuries were averted that day. Narrowly. We all think, “It can’t happen here,” until it does.

Concertgoers have already filed lawsuits against the Astroworld performer after 8 people died at his Houston concert on November 6.

Though placing blame will not bring back the lives lost, the concert industry is once again facing a reckoning, one that it has failed to deal with in any lasting way in the past. But it is not alone as concertgoers are facing a reckoning of their own.

Who is to blame for what happened at Astroworld?

Is it Scott who failed to stop his performance as chaos erupted and who has faced criminal charges in the past for inciting riotous behavior at his shows? (According to the LA Times, “Scott faced three misdemeanor charges of inciting a riot, disorderly conduct and endangering the welfare of a minor after he invited fans to overpower security and rush the stage” during a 2017 performance in Rogers, Ark.) 

Is it concert promotion behemoth Live Nation, who, according to the Houston Chronicle, has promoted events where “750 injuries and 200 deaths” have occurred since 2006?

Is it lack of sufficient security? Since returning to full activity after the pandemic forced shutdowns, the live music industry has been struggling with a shortage of skilled, seasoned workers. Fear has been expressed in some quarters that these shortages could lead to safety problems in the long-term. During a press conference, however, Houston officials reported that there were 528 police officers and 755 private security officers from Live Nation at the festival.

Is it the abhorrent behavior of rowdy factions within the crowd?

Jennifer Brazill, owner and co-founder of the Borderland Music and Arts Festival, said that the safety of the fans and crew always comes first.

"If you sense that the vibe of the crowd is escalating or shifting toward mayhem, you have to jump in immediately and steer it in another direction and make sure there is a police or security presence visible," she said.

CNN’s reports suggest that Scott continued performing for 40 minutes after first responders received reports of injuries in the crowd. That would seem to be enough time for promoters and the production team to communicate to the headline performer that something was seriously amiss. Kylie Jenner, Scott’s partner and the mother of their 3-year-old daughter, said that neither she nor Scott were aware of the severity of the situation until after the performance. ("I want to make it clear we weren't aware of any fatalities until the news came out after the show and in no world would have continued filming or performing," Jenner said in an Instagram post.)

Though it’s likely that all of the above can share in the blame for what happened, the main culprit may have been the general admission policy and the lack of sufficient partitioning that allowed the 50,000-strong crowd to surge toward the stage and trap the victims there.

“There should be outlets for egress with a crowd of that size, to create a flow and some sort of control,” Brazill said. “The show should be stopped immediately if something goes wrong, even if that means interrupting the artist in the middle of a song.”

We’re never likely to know the names of those who so selfishly and recklessly either began or urged along the surge that ended up killing nine people. But if blame is to be shared, a healthy portion of it must be sent their way. One hopes the guilt weighs heavily on their consciences.

It’s hard to make sense of what happened at Scott’s festival. But one lesson is clear – it’s up to concert attendees to exhibit some sense of decency, respect and concern for their fellow attendees.

That feels like a tall order in this country these days. And that itself is another tragedy.

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