The Side Barre: On AstroWorld and Music Festival Safety

This is Season 1 Episode 3 of the The Side Barre podcast, developed through Anchor and streamed on Spotify.

Listen now on Spotify and read on to follow the transcript.


On today’s episode I want to talk a bit about the recent Astroworld tragedy that continues to find itself at the top of headlines. As of writing this, a total of 10 people have died as a result of what’s been described as a crowd surge at the festival, put on by rapper Travis Scott and Live Nation in Houston, Texas. In total about 300 people were treated at the festival for injuries and 13 people were admitted to hospital. 

The reason I want to talk about this is because I’ve been following the story, like many of you, I’m sure, but more than the story itself I’ve been catching myself reading other peoples commentary on what happened and if it was preventable. 

I think we can all agree that it was an absolute tragedy that anyone, let alone 10 people including most recently a 9-year old boy, died while just trying to enjoy some live music, and as far as I can tell, nobody could have predicted this. 

I’ve been really troubled by watching a lot of the language people have been using to express their frustration about this, namely what people seem to be implying about Travis Scott himself, putting blame on him specifically for these deaths. 

As a performing artist myself and someone who has attended their fair share of concerts of a wide range of genres, I find this at bare minimum incredibly unfair to Travis. 

The Blame Game

I recently got into a bit of a row with somebody about this over Twitter, as I sometimes do, who was adamant that because Travis was on a raised stage with the, in her words, best view of the crowd, he should have known instinctively to stop the show when he noticed there was a problem. 

And this is not the only person I’ve seen express this, it seems to be a fairly popular viewpoint of the current Anti-Travis crowd, for lack of a better way of describing them. 

They went on to cite examples of other popular performing artists, Dave Grohl is always a big one in these conversations, and Phoebe Bridgers, amongst others, who have at their own shows stopped performing when a fight broke out or they noticed some sort of issue within the crowd.

By all accounts these are great moments to bring up and it’s commendable when artists are quick enough on their feet to do this, but I can’t think of a worse time to draw such comparisons. 

This started an undeniable trend over social media, a trend which in my viewpoint was only developed to further diminish Travis’ character, who, by the way, is not only completely working with the appropriate authorities to try and bring some sort of resolution to this and ensure safety at future shows, but also reimbursed every attendee; I’m not entirely sure what else the world expects him to do at this stage while the investigation is ongoing. 

The thing about injuries at concerts, small stages and large, is that they’re in no way uncommon.

I want to address the notion that he should have known to stop the show based on where he stood on the stage, because I really think this is ridiculous and a terrible and senseless precedent to set on any and all performers. 

The thing about being a performing artist is that you’re there first and foremost to do a job; perform. You’re focused on your show, your movements, your voice. Without even getting into the fact that so many performing artists suffer from performance anxiety making it that much more difficult for them to focus on just getting through their set without forgetting their lyrics or how to play their instrument, there are a lot of other technical considerations, too. 

There are bright lights that get in your eyes, sometimes blinding you, camera flashes, there might be smoke from a fog machine, bits of stage that come and go depending on how theatrical your stage set-up is, and you might be wearing in-ear monitoring to hear your band or cues from your stage manager who’s watching from the sidelines. 

All of those things I just mentioned mean that, just because a performing artist might be looking in your general direction or seem in some way transfixed by something in the crowd, they might not actually be looking there at all. In fact, I myself sometimes have         a habit of looking just above and over anyone in the crowd, because faces and movements can be that much more distracting on top of everything else. 

So to suggest even for a second that suddenly because you are on a raised stage that you are now also effectively a security guard for your own show is ridiculous. Imagine we set that same precedent for all performing artists? 

There were 50,000 people in attendance at the Astroworld Festival. Imagine suggesting that 1 person is responsible for not just noticing all 50,000 guests, but also to properly assess from their position whether or not those 50,000 people needed medical attention, to the point of stopping their show. 

Now also consider the fact that concert riots are not at all uncommon, and when are they most likely to break out? When a headlining performer either doesn’t show up, or removes themselves from the stage before the fans feel they’ve got their money’s worth. There are ample examples of this.

And you might be saying, “well I’m pretty sure if I saw a dead guy get lifted out of the crowd by multiple medics I’d be okay with them stopping the show.”

Yeah, but do you think all 50,000 guests saw or knew what was going on? 

13 people were admitted to hospital.

50,000 guests. 

I’ve had friends leave hardcore shows with bloody noses, broken legs, ankles, bruised and battered. The show didn’t stop because in these circles that’s sort of… expected to some degree. Nobody wants to get hurt, but have you seen hardcore kids dance? They thrash their arms and legs around like you wouldn’t believe. None of those people blame the bands or their music when it happens.

If the conversation is supposed to be about the safety and well-being of audience members, let’s not belittle it by putting that onus on performers who, in addition to all the other things I mentioned making it remarkably difficult for them to do so, are not in any way trained in emergency medical procedures unless they themselves are literally a former medic or something – and how many of them do you think that is? 

Now let’s also consider the fact that some performers might have certain disabilities; some of the most famous musicians in the world are blind. How can we put the onus on some performers to determine the crowd needs and not all of them? We shouldn’t have different safety protocols for some shows and not others; that’s confusing for staff, artists and guests alike. 

That person I got into it with on Twitter about this said it was unfair of me and “willfully ignorant” to make the comments that I put to you today, but is it? I’m genuinely asking. 

Again, 50,000 people. Surely there is a better way to address this.

They also implied that if Travis had been smart enough to stop the show (again suggesting that he was too stupid or ignorant to understand what was going on) there wouldn’t have been 10 fatalities. Easy enough to say, but how can anyone believe that’s in any way accurate? Who’s to say that if he had stopped the show, there wouldn’t have been 20, 30 deaths, instead, again, due to a potential for increased rioting when he presumably stops the music or leaves the stage? Something that might even be suggested by his own security, and not a choice necessarily of his own? Let’s not waste time with what-if’s like this, because again, they only serve to further denigrate Travis himself. He didn’t kill those people by choosing to put on a concert, the actions of other people did. 

Language 

The second part of all of this that has been frankly a little disturbing to see is the language that has been used surrounding this, Travis, and people who attended the show. 

Just today I caught some people in the comment sections suggesting that the 9-year old boy was holding up gang signs in photos from the event implying he and his family were part of some criminal organization, and others suggesting that CPS be called because he shouldn’t have been at such a dangerous event anyways. 

A dangerous event – a rap concert. A 9 year old posing for a photo at a festival determined to be influenced by gangs. People sure make a lot of assumptions real quick, don’t they?

I’m willing to bet those people don’t say that about 9 year old boys at Paul McCartney shows, even if they appeared to be flashing the same fingers or simply waving at the camera. 

And I’m not saying all these people are inherently racist but I am saying they’re certainly implying that there’s increased danger at rap and hip-hop shows specifically, and when they make comments like this and that in itself is problematic and doesn’t help the conversation. 

Satanism? At a Rap Show?

And then there’s the comments that spread like wildfire suggesting this was some sort of intentional satanic ritual. There’s a headline right now that describes the show as the “Gates of Hell” and suggests that the music itself performed by Travis turned the crowd into demons of some sort with a thirst for the blood of its own listeners. 

This isn’t uncommon in music generally speaking, and rock music fans have long supported this as a joke, but it’s been interesting to see the difference here. 

At a rock concert that’s accused of satanism, it’s because of the provocativeness and sexually-charged lyrics, coming for innocent women and girls purity; At Astroworld, it incited gang violence and murder. 

If you don’t see that there’s a significant distinction here, some might say you’re being willfully ignorant.

These comments not only serve to diminish Travis’s character, but the rap and hip hop community as a whole. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to the increased awareness of casual and systemic racism in society as a whole, but that’s an entire other conversation.

What Can Be Done

Let’s instead talk about measures that could have been taken by the festival itself to ensure the safety of all attendees, surge or no surge because simply, we cannot predict the behaviour of 50,000 people.

In July I attended a very popular music festival in Chicago, Illinois. It was my first time attending Lollapalooza and I was by all accounts excited to be there, but almost immediately I couldn’t help but notice a few things that I thought could lead to some issues as things got underway. 

I talked a little bit about this already on a blog post on crookedforest.ca titled Lolzafest 2021 if you’d like to read further into it, but I’ll reiterate the key points from that for you here.

Bag Policy

The night before the festival began the promoters sent out an e-mail blast with an updated bag policy. The e-mail went out at around 8PM, meaning they were making last minute changes on the fly for the 4-day event that started on July 29th. 

Most music festivals were off the grid for at least a full year due to COVID-19, and I know it’s been a challenging time for everyone but perhaps some of that time could have been allotted to sorting out policies like this one more than a day in advance.

The new bag policy was pretty specific. Your bag could only have 2 zippers if it wasn’t see-through. If it was see-through, it still could only have two zippers and they suggest it was made out of clear vinyl. If you didn’t have a bag per-say, a wallet-clutch or fanny-pack suffices (those have 1 zipper, for the record), or, you could bring in a hydration pack. 

I was visiting from out of town and my backpack foolishly had a total of 3 zippers. 

But I knew that I wasn’t going to be bringing in anything dangerous and given the length of the day and the volatility of the weather, I wanted to bring a sweatshirt for the evening. 

You also had to bring a few other things and as an out of towner, you had to pick up your tickets at will-call the day-of the event (which if you ask me led to unnecessary crowding spilling out onto the streets of Chicago), and for that you’d need your ID and credit card used to purchase your ticket.

You’d also need your COVID proof of vaccination, and of course your festival wristband. 

That might not seem like a lot of items to carry on your person, particularly if you’re a man with the luxury of many deep pockets, but women’s clothing often falls short in this department. 

Once you consider holding those items, plus your wallet (which, hopefully has a secure wristband that can actually tighten as well or else your hand will be full all day), and of course your phone which, if for no other reason, you want on hand in case of emergency (like say perhaps, if a serious medical emergency occurred) – well, without a backpack you’re suddenly juggling a lot of things aren’t you? And you’re hoping that they don’t fall out, or worse, get picked up by someone else when you finally sit down for a bite to eat and need that hand free to move that soggy burger from your hand to your mouth. Oh, and presumably at bare minimum you’re going to want to also drink some water on a scorching hot summer day where you’re outside from morning to midnight. 

Or whatever your preferred beverage choice is. 

So, I left for the festival earlier than I knew I needed to be there to see the acts I was interested in. And I brought my backpack, which is just like a perfectly normal school backpack where the 3rd pocket is a really small one that is basically useless but otherwise good for keys like – oh ya, since I was visiting from out of town I also had to ensure I had my hotel keys on me so that I could get back into my room once I got back. 

How many things can you hold in girls denim shorts? 

At the festival I made it through multiple security checkpoints with my backpack on, pulling it on and off as necessary to show the documents to the staff who requested it upon entry. 

At this same time I witnessed tons of other people with different bags, many of which also didn’t wholly comply with the bag policy. 

They were full of other important items like sunscreen, and I’m sure for many, necessary medicines they need to take for their own personal health reasons. 

And I noticed the hydration packs. Non-clear bags that look just like regular backpacks like mine except with a straw sticking out of it. 

For water, I‘m sure.

Many of these hydration packs were full and being used while guests were waiting in the long line-ups to get in. 

Gotta stay hydrated, I’d think to myself as I watched a young man stumble his way through will call, holding the railings with his eyes half closed and slurring his words. 

I walked to the final checkpoint casually and confidently as I had all the others. It was bag check. I watched several people before me go through the gates without any of the security guards opening their bags to see what was inside. 

When I approached, I was met with a firm, “you can’t bring that bag in here”. 

I was mildly confused. “How come?”

“It doesn’t meet the bag policy”

We got into a disagreement about the bag. I explained that I had nothing in it other than my wallet, sweater and required paperwork and since I was visiting from out of town it was the only bag I had available. 

That answer wasn’t good enough to this security guard who then called over a much larger security guard to further explain the policy to me by pulling it up on their cell-phone. 

I explained I knew the policy and had reached out to the festival about how late it came through and had tried to explain my situation, but received no response.

We went back and fourth about it for a while but these security guards wouldn’t budge about it, even when I pointed out that they could check my bag and opened it so they could take a look inside, which they did, and still demitted me. 

I told them it made no sense that they weren’t checking any of the bags that went in and that I’d seen loads of people with bags like mine, even as we stood there arguing about it. 

“Not here” they said. 

I asked them what I should do given my situation, and they explained I could buy a vinyl bag across the street at Trader Joes. 

“A clear vinyl bag to put my backpack in” I wondered. 

I told them that was ridiculous that I have to spend even more money than I had just to have somewhere to store my things when I already had a bag, and then suggested that if I was a mother they wouldn’t be hassling me about my backpack and bringing in things like feeding bottles and diapers, but they said, “well, you’re not a mother though, so”. They smiled at me like this was a “Gotcha” moment for them.

I told them it was nice to know that if I was though, this would be a mute point. 

Apparently if you want to bring a backpack into Lollapalooza to carry your sweater and ID, all you have to do is go through 9 months of carrying a child and popping them out first to be granted that courtesy. 

I ran back to my hotel and discarded everything I couldn’t carry on myself and ran back to the festival – the entry process took longer than I had been expecting, mostly because of the whole will-call thing, so I was running short on time. 

I went through the checkpoints with ease and immediately upon getting inside I noticed something.

So many people had regular backpacks, guys. Like, so many! I snapped a bunch of pictures on my phone just because I almost couldn’t believe how many other people weren’t subject to the same policy as I was, and I had to imagine they didn’t make quite as good of a case about theirs as I did. 

So that’s the first thing I want to point out about music festivals. If you want to ensure the safety of your guests, I really believe more focus needs to be on good policies that everyone is aware of and following. Because again, I went through multiple check points where my bag wasn’t mentioned at all, surely all staff had been advised of the sudden change made at 8PM before, right, since it was expected all guests were aware of the change, too? And surely it makes more sense to have security check those bags instead of just allowing them in on the basis of zippers?

Do you know how many security guards were working that bag check I walked through? At least 10. Most of them standing around doing nothing. 

And I’m not here to be a prude about it but it was pretty clear real fast how many people had brought in their own liquor, beers, drugs of whatever variety they preferred to enhance their Lollapalooza experience… and frankly on that note just from a festival perspective, it makes more sense to discourage people from bringing their own stuff in so that you can sell it to them at a premium as they do there anyways in their rows of beer tents that line every stage. 

But I’m not a business major so don’t take my advice, Lollapalooza.

Water, Please.

The next thing I noticed about Lollapalooza other than the fact that there was limited space under shade to escape the scorching sun and I, having abandoned my sunscreen in my hotel room due to lack of denim short space, the amount of water refill stations compared to beer tent stations was insane. I walked that whole festival and I’m pretty sure there were only two areas to refill your water bottle (assuming you had one, else you had to buy a branded Lollapalooza one), and at those stations there were something like 6 taps, and these line-ups were insanely long all day. 

Fortunately I noticed a sweet little normal park water fountain just a few feet from one of the hydration stations and nobody else was using it given its lack of branding and thankfully it was actually running – many cities have closed off their water fountains all over Canada claiming it’s to reduce the spread of COVID, so I was genuinely surprised this one was active. And I was really glad I didn’t have to wait in those lines. 

But imagine you’re suffering from severe dehydration from, if nothing else than the incredible summer humidity and you needed to get yourself some water fast – you’d be waiting in those line-ups for a cool 20 minutes at minimum. 

I genuinely don’t know why it was taking people so long to refill, it should be a pretty fast process to fill a bottle. I stood and watched for a while before I found the fountain and boy am I glad I did. The answer to the best of my assessment was because they were so, uh… well lets just say they’d probably been to the beer tents a few times already and were struggling with basic functioning.

You could get yourself up to the front of any beer line most of the day with no more than a 5 minute wait given how egregiously staffed they were and how many tils were allotted to the cause. At least 2 people per til, one to grab the drinks and the other to handle payment, and then extra runners, and people helping guide the crowd to each til to get them their drinks even faster. 

All that said, here’s my next recommendation. If you want to ensure health and safety for your guests, there should be an appropriate amount of water hydration stations or simple park fountains to ensure everyone has the appropriate access to fresh water at all times, especially when there’s, you know, children, like even some under 9 years old, in attendance.

I can’t speak too much on how many medics Lollapalooza had on hand because I was only there for one day and I only saw 1 person being carted away by them through the day, other than to say I genuinely didn’t see any medics other than during that time. Even when I walked around the “Medic” tent, there wasn’t a single one to be found. Guess they were busy. 

Anyone have a head count on how many people attended Lollapalooza Chicago this year? 

I just looked it up. 385,000 over the weekend.

Anyone know how many medics should be visibly on sight ensuring their well-being? 

Speaking a bit more on staffing. If we are going to now assume that we need careful eyes on a crowd of people for spontaneous medical emergencies like seizures or crowd surges, shouldn’t there be some level of security walking through big festivals during sets, particularly headline sets at the end of the night when people are most likely the be heavily inebriated and dehydrated? 

Or would that ruin the festival experience for you, the same way that it’s annoying to be in a theatre and someone gets up during the set, forcing you to have to awkwardly squish your legs as they squeeze past, missing that melodramatic scene you’d been waiting all night for, your view now obscured by their body. It’s the kind of thing that enrages some people. 

Another Recommendation

When I was waiting in line at Will Call watching that drunk dude I mentioned earlier, I remarked that it would be great if festivals had a temporary text line, like a crisis or emergency line, which would be given to concert-goers as they purchased their ticket. What I was thinking is that this line would be sent directly to a main line to be read by either security or the medical team (or both), so that if you did notice a problem, like someone who seemed completely out of it stumbling around by themselves, or young kids who had lost their parents and weren’t sure where to go, or someone getting beat up for some reason, you could simply text the line with as much information as you had on hand. They could then of course text back if they needed more information, like your location, or an update on the situation if you were still in the area while they dispatched the appropriate professionals (not a performing artist), to assist. 

This seems honestly so easy to me that I’m not at all sure why we’re not doing it already at all major music festivals. 

And imagine what a difference it might’ve made to the people who were in the crowd at Astroworld. I saw videos of people frantically yelling at staff, climbing their tiers where they were shooting video or directing lights, which is never recommended by the way, yelling at those staff members to stop the show. 

How many lighting and audio crew members do you think have a contact line like this on their phone during these festivals? How many of them do you think are told, if nothing else, “stay in your position, do your job.”

You can’t fault people working these events for not doing enough any more than you can fault Travis for not doing enough, any more than you can fault the people in the crowd for not knowing how to handle what they were witnessing. 

Nobody could have predicted this event, not even Satan himself. 

And it was a tragedy, yes, and hindsight is 20/20, yes, and I’m sure Travis Scott feels absolutely terrible that this has happened. 

But vilifying him and his character doesn’t help. Better policy’s help. Better health and safety training helps. More medics, more security, helps.

The fact of the matter is that there are a whole lot of people who run music festivals and shows purely for profit and without the well-being, safety, or experience of the attendee in mind. Decisions are made off of “how can we make another buck,” not, “is this a good idea, though? Does it enhance the experience for the audience, or does it only enhance our revenue stream?”

So let’s put the onus where it counts – the people truly running the show, like Live Nation; The people hiring staff, the people training those staff, the people determining if 50,000 people is a reasonable amount of people they can take care of that day, as a good host does. 

And I could get into a whole other thing about how paying staff at these events, which are mainly staffed by volunteers, would also greatly improve the overall morale of those staff ensuring they actually are following these procedures, but I think I’ll end here for now and we can get into that some other time. 

I’m curious to know what measures you as an audience member would like to see implemented more at shows, small scale and large. Like, should we put an end to hardcore dancing and mosh pits, too? Does that diminish the experience? Does it matter if it ensures less people are injured while watching a performance? Do we get rid of General Admission entirely and give everyone assigned seating? Just some thoughts.

Thanks for listening and see ya next time. 

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