This Friday, December 3, is the 42nd anniversary of the first great deadly stampede at a rock concert. On December 3, 1979, eleven people were crushed to death outside a concert that The Who was going to offer at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati. In fact, it was celebrated because no one informed the group of what happened.
It’s been more than four decades since that, but even the most recent and tragic news is soon buried by new ones. It seems that the Astroworld festival happened a long time ago. But not a month ago. Ten people were crushed to death during a performance by rapper Travis Scott on November 5, 2021. In its day, the information made headlines around the world. Today is past water. Like so many other massacres that took place in musical macro-events. However, the American press has reopened the debate: are these massacres inevitable? Are macro festivals safe?
A New Yorker report published in 2011 already I posed the question long ago in the form of a question: Is there a way to ensure the safety of the public in large gatherings? And, to answer, they cited the only reliable source on that date. Published by the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness of the University of Cambridge in December 2009, the study Epidemiological Characteristics of Human Stampedes stated that, Between 1980 and 2007, 215 human stampedes had been reported in the world and that these had caused 7,069 deaths and 14,078 injuries. The study specified that, while in developing countries stampedes occurred mainly in religious gatherings, in developed countries it was more common to locate them at sporting or musical events. And there was another even more relevant data: between 2000 and 2007 the number of deadly stampedes in massive events had more than doubled compared to previous decades.
Hours after the Astroworld event, the Houston Chronicle rushed to account, revealing that Live Nation has been involved in organizing macro events since 2006. in which 200 people have died and another 750 have been injured. It cannot be otherwise if, as the Los Angeles Times stated a year ago, the American developer controlled 60% of the global market in 2019. But it should be noted that the number of victims was not limited to deaths due to human stampedes, but included mass shootings such as the one that caused 60 victims at a country music festival in Las Vegas or the suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.
Then US public radio NPR and the New York Times each published reviews of musical tragedies dating back to the fateful 1969 Altamont Festival: a teenage girl crushed during a David Cassidy concert in 1974, three boys at an AC concert. / DC in Salt Lake City, nine more at the 2000 edition of the Danish Roskilde festival during a Pearl Jam performance, to 21 at the 2010 Love Parade electronic music parade, seven victims at a concert by the country duo Sugarland in Indianapolis … And they still forgot several more: two fans crushed at a Guns N’Roses concert at the Monsters of Rock festival in 1988, another two at another festival in Arad (Israel), three at a concert by the Mexican group RBD in São Paulo in 2006, five at another concert by the rapper Soolking in Algiers two years ago … They are very specific cases, yes, but recurring.
Many of the reports published by both the US press and television networks have had a common testimony, that of Paul Wertheimer. This expert on stampedes and large crowds worked on the security team for The Who’s concert in Cincinnati in 1979. Since then, he has not stopped studying human behavior in these types of situations. And to alert about the responsibility that the organizers of the events have. “Unfortunately, after 42 years, the industry has not changed much in terms of safety and it will not do so unless it is forced to. There are only two ways to do it: for legislators to pass laws and regulations for festivals of this type or for the organizers and other parties involved are criminally charged with gross negligence, “he declared these days in the US digital Business Insider. “If the security protocols are not changed, there will be more disasters,” insists Wertheimer at 72.
The entertainment industry could easily replicate these words. The security of the big festivals has evolved a lot in the last two decades. In the same way that after the tragedies of Heysel (39 died in a football stadium in Belgium in 1985) and Hillsborough (another 97 in another in Sheffield in 1989) seats were placed in all stadiums and the public was prohibited from standing , thus reducing the capacity. The Roskilde tragedy also led to the implementation of new public control measures such as the well-known anti-avalanche fences. (Last week, Eddie Vedder acknowledged in an interview that after that incident Pearl Jam valued the possibility of never acting again.) After what happened at Astroworld, the organizers of the Coachella festival have already announced that they will strengthen their protocols. Of course: Travis Scott and Live Nation already face at least 140 lawsuits and nearly 300 plaintiffs who together claim $ 750 million.
In Spain there has never been a stampede with fatalities in a macro festival, although there have been several wake-up calls. The Benicàssim storm during the 1997 FIB only caused material damage because the stage fell at an hour when there were hardly any public in the venue. That same year, Daft Punk’s visit to Sónar caused tremendous collapses in the corridors of the Marbella Pavilion. The crowds in various parts of Poble Espanyol the year that PJ Harvey, Pixies and Wilco coincided were decisive for Primavera Sound to move to the Parc del Fòrum in 2005. The 2017 Tomorrowland festival stage fire was resolved with the immediate evacuation of its 20,000 attendees. The only victim in a Spanish macro-festival has been acrobat Pedro Aunión during his performance at the 2017 Mad Cool festival. But do not forget what happened in November 2012 at the Madrid Arena venue: Five young people were suffocated to death during a macro-party starring DJ Steve Aoki.
All these events, and those registered in other countries, have forced the respective administrations to react and have made the professionals of the sector redesign the protocols. However, the Cambridge University article lamented that “human stampedes were a relatively unique typology of disaster that has never been systematically studied.” A great mistake, says Wertheimer, when it comes to a phenomenon closely related to large agglomerations, which are increasingly common in our societies. Studying them would allow us to discover common patterns of behavior. For example, stampedes often do not occur because the audience is fleeing from something they fear but because they are trying to get closer to something that fascinates them. It is not a matter of panic, but of interest. And that means you have to stop blaming the public and fix it on the organizers.
The audience at that 1979 Who concert was not escaping anything: they were just trying to enter the venue. Fans who have been crushed to death at the concerts of AC / DC, Guns N’Roses, Pearl Jam and Travis Scott were pushed and finally crushed by a mass of people who were not insane at all; he was just trying to get closer to the admired artist. Wertheimer’s argument is simple: if you create an irrepressible desire for something, you must be able to protect the integrity of people who want to get what you promised them. And when something fails, those responsible will not be the people who have come to that call, but those who have generated the call: the event organizers, the owners of the venue, the designers of the advertising campaigns, all the security companies involved in the event and, of course, the governments that legislate the regulations for this type of act.
In 1979, the shock of the Who concert tragedy prompted the Cincinnati City Council to enact a law banning large concerts without assigned seats. The law remained in effect until 2004. It was repealed just as the US macro-festivals business was booming, inspired by the format’s proven success in Europe. And although it is true that security measures have improved, it is no less true that the size of the macro festivals has grown without any brake. An obvious proposal to avoid risks is to reduce the density of public gatherings. It is something that macro-festivals are already working on, but with a logic to say the least perverse: the organizers seek to attract the maximum number of spectators by hiring the highest number of stars of the season, but then they plan the schedules so that the spectators are dispersed in different scenarios. The public buys the subscription under the claim of a batch of artists that they will not be able to enjoy in its entirety because they will be scheduled at the same time in order to avoid crowds that put the safety of the public at risk.
“As little as you know about concert and festival disasters, it is obvious what happened because it is a recurring theme in these types of tragedies: surge of crowds, crushing of crowds, collapse of crowds, death. Simple as that. Ask the survivors and they will tell you, “sums up Wertheimer. The solution seems obvious: avoid the first point, the surge of crowds. But the crowd is the raw material of a macro festival, the only fuel that makes it economically viable. Its popularity and its profitability, its very existence, depends on the number of people who are willing to pay to crowd in front of its stages. The question is increasingly urgent: who wants to see their favorite group surrounded by 80,000 people? Or rather: who needs you to see your favorite bands in these crowded environments?
Doubts about safety at macro-festivals will continue to appear intermittently every time dramatic situations such as Astroworld are repeated, but what should be questioned as soon as possible is the macro-festival model itself. That the best groups of the moment gather in a single venue for three days. That the most desired groups on the planet only perform two nights a year. Let three or five companies handle the agendas of the most coveted artists. That the public have to travel hundreds of kilometers because the groups only play in three cities on the continent. That the musical circuit is concentrated in fewer and fewer places and fewer dates. That the world calendar is managed by fewer and fewer companies. And that for the business to be profitable, it is necessary to gather huge amounts of public in these events that can only be conceived on a macro scale.
It is concentration capitalism applied to the entertainment world. With the discomforts, anxieties and risks that all this implies. And even more so, in a global context totally disrupted by the pandemic.