Washington (Trends Wide) — Ten deaths. An avalanche of lawsuits. Many, many unanswered questions. The tragedy at last week’s Astroworld Music Festival in Houston has sparked a new debate over venue safety, artist accountability, and public etiquette.
Travis Scott has maintained that he did not know what was happening in the crowd during his set, disputing the version of city officials about his role in the death tide. But until the authorities finish investigating the tragedy, the definitive answers will not be long in coming.
To help understand the role politics plays in shaping events like Astroworld – and the role it could play in the future – Trends Wide turned to Gil Fried, a crowd management expert and professor at the University of West Florida. Our conversation, conducted over the phone and lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.
Trends Wide: As a starting point, could you tell me what planning an event the size of an Astroworld festival entails?
GF: I mean there are a lot of moving parts. If you look at the World Series or the Super Bowl, the planning takes a couple of years. For an event like this, it doesn’t take a couple of years, but several months. And it could take a year, I mean, just to finalize the date, make sure there are no major conflicts, things like that.
But the serious will take several months. One is to get all rights permissions. You have to have the staff. You have to get all the sponsors. You have to get all the marketing, ticket sales. I mean there are a lot of different variables and the most important thing, at least in this context, is that you have to bring all the right actors together to come together and address all the different issues.
And part of that is, in our industry, something called “Event Archive.” Typically you keep a file of past events and then you can look at it and say, “What went right? What went wrong? What can we do in the future to make sure the event is the best it can be?” Either for the marketing, because of the support of the fans or because of the violence, you have to have all that to be able to analyze it and judge it: “Well, what do we have to do in the future?”
We know that in this context, the artist has had problems in the past, either at Astroworld or other concerts, where he encouraged fans not to listen to security. If you knew that when you walked in, then you have to take more meaningful steps to try to minimize the potential for trouble.
Trends Wide: Can you talk about the laws that event organizers or artists have to comply with? Are there laws?
GF: I would love to say, “This is America, we are very advanced.” We are not even close to what it is mainly in England, but they also have it in Canada and Australia: there is a thing called the green guide, which really establishes from the federal government in those countries what the facilities have to do, how they have to manage their events, which is a safe event, because they have had some major tragedies in England and they use this guide to help them prepare and address any potential issues that may arise in the future.
And so we see that our industry has seen a series of very important steps, but it is also very behind. So we don’t have a national policy; Most states do not have a “This is how we will respond to X, Y, or Z” policy. We don’t have that.
So what do we have? We have a hodgepodge of industry best practices that are championed by different organizations and groups.
One of them, highly regarded, is that of the National Fire Protection Association, which says that you have to have a crowd manager made up of every 250 people present. So if you are going to attend 25,000 people, you have to have at least 100 crowd managers trained.
Trends Wide: It is quite surprising that there is nothing at the state or national level for something like this.
GF: Yeah, so often when something unfolds it’s after a tragedy. And I think that’s frustrating for a lot of people when there are no established national laws or something like that. But I think we also have to remember that the reason there are no national laws is that every place is different. In some places you cannot carry a firearm, in others you can.
So everything … always has to be balanced. And our industry usually does a good job. This case, I think it could be a different story. … The evidence was clear that it got out of control long before with the crash of the doors. Second, during the performance, there were visible signs of the presence of an ambulance and another presence with flashing lights in the middle of the crowd. And the artist did not stop. They didn’t turn on all the lights in the place, and from what I understand, there were efforts to try and stop it. And the Chief of Police was concerned about stopping the concert due to the possibility of a mob, but that could be dispelled very, very quickly by the artist.
And that is, I think, my great concern here. A few years ago I took on a case with Eminem where there was a rush of people at an Eminem concert in the South. And a number of people were injured, and he ended up making a game of it.
He said, “Well everyone, I’m going to start a new dance with you. Good. Two steps back, one step forward, two steps back, one step forward.” And he was trying to take the pressure off everyone who was pushed against the barricade by doing that. And an artist can do that. An artist may say, “Hey folks, I’m going to stop the concert for a couple of minutes because we have a problem here. You know what, I’ll make it up for you. I’ll sing an extra song at the end, but I need you to listen to me. Everyone, let’s turn on the lights. house lights. Let’s do X, let’s do Y “. Artists can do that and that is not going to set off a mob. People are going to be respectful and listen to you.
Trends Wide: Do you think some kind of new politics could emerge at some level from this tragedy?
GF: I hope so. And our industry has been very good at self-monitoring.
And I think the concern is that when the government does it, will it do a good job? If the government were to do it with the industry, and get the participation of a wide swath of the industry, maybe that could be a great benefit. But we don’t know enough about the facts to jump to conclusions, blame the industry, blame the gigs, point the finger. That is what everyone tries to do in these types of cases. And everyone tries to play quarterback on Monday morning and say, “If you had done X, it wouldn’t have happened.” I’ve been through quite a few of these cases where it’s usually not just one thing.
So I would like to work with governments, whether state or federal, but let’s do it smart and strategically, instead of someone at the top saying, “I think it’s a great mandate. You should do X,” without our input.
Trends Wide: I have to imagine that part of the challenge with an artist like Travis Scott is that part of the apparent appeal of his shows is an element of things getting out of hand. I mean, it’s a hard thing to discourage when it’s a feature and not a bug.
GF: People like confrontation sometimes. And our society is becoming more and more violent and you can see it in this situation. I understand the thing about … this was part of their game plan, so to speak, is that I’m going to get people excited and energetic and feel great and curse the rules.
Well, if people are more prone to and more interested in violence, this could be one way to help foster that. And that’s going to be very sad because if it’s going to happen here, why not in a movie theater? Why not in a restaurant?