How The Live Industry Must and Will Respond To The Astroworld Tragedy

Brandon Bell / Getty Images

A makeshift memorial at the Astroworld Festival site outside of NRG Stadium in Houston.

Our industry is again reeling from tragedy. The loss of nine young lives and scores more injured at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival in Houston is senseless and unfathomable. It is especially so for an industry that prides itself on its unwavering commitment to health, safety and the well-being of fans, artists, crew and staff alike.  

Witness these past 20 months as the live business rose to meet what at times seemed an impossible challenge battling an all but invisible virus that insidiously devastated our industry and much of society at large.  
Incredibly, there are once again successful large live events which seemed impossible earlier this year: stadium tours by The Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses, Green Day/Weezer/Fall Out Boy, Billy Joel and Garth Brooks; festivals including Austin City Limits, Firefly, Rolling Loud, Electric Daisy Carnival and others; plus the return of sports and legions of shed, arena, theatre and club dates that all thankfully went off without a hitch. 
This makes this past weekend’s events at Houston’s NRG Park all the more difficult to process. Much of the reporting spoke of gaps in security, safety and communications including a breached perimeter allowing un-ticketed crowds to pour in; a lack of interior barriers to separate fans and prevent surges; not “spreading the field” with set times so an entire festival wouldn’t show up en masse to one stage; the decision not to de-escalate for some 37 minutes after the fest was deemed a “mass casualty event;” and a possible lack of staffing, amongst other potential contributing factors. All of these reported missteps, especially in comparison to what this industry’s faced during a global pandemic, would seem easily rectifiable.
Hindsight, of course, is 20-20. This was Astroworld’s third iteration and its previous shows were considered successes. For this year’s event, extensive security plans were drawn up with the participation of experienced promoters and safety personnel. Some posited that ending the show early could have resulted in rioting and more loss of life. Investigations are currently under way and they will shed light on exactly where the failures and responsibilities lie, which will do little for those lives lost. 
The industry last felt this degree of anguish four years ago when an active shooter opened fire at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest festival, killing 60 and wounding hundreds. In the wake of that national tragedy, the worst mass shooting in our history, the live industry did what it does best: formulated new strategies and best practices to ensure fan safety against this new kind of threat. This meant implementing active shooter drills, metal detectors, drones, 3-D mapping, beefing-up police presence, identifying elevated points and securing rooftop access at adjacent sites as part of an overall safety assessment.
This time, however, the threat of crowd surges is nothing new. It’s been seen repeatedly at mass gatherings in and outside the live industry: The Who’s 1979 show at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati; the Roskilde Festival in 2000 during Pearl Jam’s headlining set; 2010’s Love Parade in Duisburg, Germany, immediately come to mind. And it’s not just live music events where crowd control is an issue. 1989’s Hillsborough Stadium disaster in England that left 97 people dead is one of many sports-related crowd management disasters. In 1990, 1,426 pilgrims died in blocked pedestrian tunnel exits leading out from Mecca during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia.
Thankfully, many of the solutions to crowd control are known and this industry has organizations to help inform, standardize and promote best live event practices. In an interview with Pollstar, Event Safety Alliance Vice President Steve Adelman pointed to American National Standards Institute document ES1.9-2020, in which crowd management standards are continually reviewed and updated by ESA, Entertainment Services and Technology Association, the IAVM and other live industry professionals. 
ScoreMore, Live Nation and NRG Park are fully cooperating with investigators. Much will be learned from these investigations and the live business will adapt, update and implement new safety protocols accordingly and emerge the stronger for it, much as our industry has done continuously in the face of tragedy. We must and will do better.