Open Thread: Astroworld, A Tragedy Waiting to Happen

There’s always a point, in hindsight, where a tragedy seems both predictable and preventable. Fifty thousand mostly under-30 participants, at a poorly structured general-admission venue, after almost two years of social isolation, with a headliner notorious for calling his fans ‘ragers’ and encouraging them to rush the stage… well, if it had only turned out to be a coronavirus superspreader event…

Keeping people in enormous venues safe is a combination of designing a space’s pedestrian flow and monitoring the crowd’s dynamics — priorities that may have been pushed aside in Astroworld’s planning. The biggest issue is keeping the crowd divided into sections and ensuring that each section allows enough space for people to stay on their feet, says Keith Still, a crowd-science expert who consults with organizers on large events. Still spent ten years working with the Saudi government to prevent fatalities during what might be the largest gathering on earth, the hajj, when 2 million pilgrims make their way to several sites across Mecca and Mina… Although the predictable paths of an annual pilgrimage seem somewhat easier to plan for than a raucous concert, the principles are similar, says Still, particularly when you are able to analyze the history of the performer and the venue: “You still need to match the design to an understanding of the size of the crowd and to accommodate demand, which inadvertently creates pressure points.”

That might require a deeper examination of the changing tastes of festival attendees. Music festivals have long marketed themselves as counterculture utopias, except now the allure comes not from TV coverage or documentaries but the images generated by the crowd itself, says Gina Arnold, a professor at the University of San Francisco and author of Half a Million Strong: Crowds and Power From Woodstock to Coachella. “Young people are still thinking of attending festivals as important,” she says. “Now, however, what they care about is not so much the music but showing that they were there.” Some experts have blamed the Astroworld tragedy on the yearning to return to public life after a year of pandemic lockdowns; the urge to get up close and get it all uploaded to TikTok. But festivals have always attracted a very particular crowd, says Arnold, as they’re generally attended by people who have already accepted a certain level of risk. “These are 50,000 people who are risk-takers,” she says. “You wouldn’t buy a ticket, especially during a pandemic, if you weren’t okay with risk.” To Astroworld’s attendees, Arnold says, the potential for chaos, behavior that Scott had encouraged in previous shows, is actually extremely good marketing. But the balance between spectacle and safety is also making festivals more precarious to produce, says Arnold…

… Texas is aiming to craft new statewide laws that may include creating a new live-events department, echoing the way European festival safety was dramatically overhauled after nine people were killed in 2000 at a Pearl Jam show during Denmark’s Roskilde Festival. As Danish concert safety expert Morten Thanning Vendelø tells Texas Monthly, large venues now hire an independent contractor that monitors crowd counts using video feeds and is authorized to end the show by pressing a button that cuts the amps and illuminates the house lights.

Every concert tragedy prompts contemplation within the industry, and some trigger widespread changes, says Eddie Williamson, a longtime production assistant who toured with Ozzfest for nearly a decade during its heyday. After the 2017 suicide bombing that killed 23 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, Williamson says there was a noticeable uptick in security measures at venues. What’s most likely to happen now, he suggests, is that certain acts or promoters with reputations for unsafe shows could stop receiving insurance underwriting and thus become unbookable. “I think there will be a different mindset,” he says, “and they might have second thoughts.” There’s already a petition to get promoter Goldenvoice to drop Scott from next year’s Coachella lineup.

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