A year after Travis Scott's Astroworld disaster left 10 dead, are crowded concerts any safer?

A year after Travis Scott's Astroworld disaster left 10 dead, are crowded concerts any safer?

A year ago, death came to Astroworld. 

It was Nov. 5, 2021, and an overflow crowd of 50,000 people descended on the Houston event run by rapper Travis Scott. Fences were overrun, security was overwhelmed. As Scott began his evening set, some crushed fans had already died. Shouted pleas to stop the show went unheard or ignored.

In all, 10 concertgoers lost their lives, succumbing to asphyxiation, while 25 were hospitalized and 300 others were treated for injuries at the site. Astroworld is no more, and Scott, along with concert promotor Live Nation, faces myriad lawsuits.

But the question looms as to whether anything fundamental has changed since that horrific night, one echoed in the deadly crowd surge that took place Halloween weekend in downtown Seoul, South Korea, where more than 150 young people lost their lives when a street became choked with revelers.

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Many concert security and legal experts worry other disasters could be in the offing because safety measures remain largely haphazard after Astroworld, despite event deaths.

“Nothing has changed because the industry powers that be don’t have to make changes and are not interested in making changes, and Houston is the latest terrible example,” says Paul Wertheimer, founder of crowd safety consulting service Crowd Management Strategies. “People are making too much money from live entertainment, so they look the other way on safety.”

That downbeat view is not shared by all.

“I’m generally optimistic,” despite past tragedies, says lawyer Steven Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, an event-industry advocacy group.  

“There is evidence of a learning curve,” he adds. “It’s not always a straight line and it doesn’t always go up as fast or as steeply as we would like, but it’s better than making the same stupid mistakes over and over.”

The most obvious behavioral shift in the wake of Astroworld is that artists are quick to pause their performances at the first sign of trouble. Examples abound.

Scott halted his July 4 show in New York after fans climbed a lighting tower, insisting they get down before he’d return to the microphone.

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Last February, Billie Eilish stopped her show in Atlanta to ensure that a fan who was having trouble breathing got the help she needed, and John Mayer paused his Los Angeles gig to allow medics to tend to an ailing fan.

In March, Doja Cat left the stage of Lollapalooza Argentina after urging fans to watch out for one another. “There’s a lot of people, and people get crushed. It’s a lot,” she said. “Don’t get, you know, sad or upset. I’ll be back. I will. I will, I promise.” She left so medical personnel could provide assistance, and later resumed the concert. 

During Harry Styles’ May concert at a packed arena on Long Island, New York, the heartthrob implored the venue to raise the houselights when he saw a cluster of fans surrounding someone who appeared to have collapsed. Styles stopped the music until he received a thumbs-up from attending security.

And last July, Adele stopped her Hyde Park show in London a number of times when it appeared fans were in distress. 

Those are examples of what industry experts call “show-stop authority.” That’s the good news.

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But the reality is that such gestures of concern aside, there have been no wholesale changes to the live concert industry since last fall – despite calls by safety advocates for more rigorous protocols that would ensure fan safety isn’t in the hands of a performer who happens to notice and care.

Measures that could greatly reduce the risk of another Astroworld include increased oversight of venues and their ability to handle large crowds and gate crashers; more rigorously trained and vetted security and medical personnel; and a better system of communication between security officers in and around the crowd and stage personnel, who can alert a performer of the need to stop a show.

And, of course, reducing if not eliminating a no-seat general admission zone, which at its worst can become a dangerous sea of bodies. But don’t count on it, says Wertheimer.

“The cash cow of the industry is festival seating and overcrowding, and crowd safety and security is considered overhead,” he says, noting the desire for every business to recoup its pandemic-era losses. “Overcrowding is the original sin of live entertainment.”

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Fans have become aware of the caution that must prevail in scenarios of packed crowds and music-fueled adrenaline.

One tweeted this week about the recent Good Vibes Weekender festival in Malaysia and described the worrisome sights of security trying to reach an unconscious fan amid blocked paths and squabbling concertgoers.

“We were stepping on each other’s feet, hitting each other in the ribs, shoving each other aside. Now looking back, the situation could’ve totally taken a turn for the worse,” Arisha Rozaidee wrote.

Other fans have educated themselves about how best to react in a crowd surge (go with the flow rather than against it) and the benefit of crowd surfing when unable to breathe. 

Awareness is up after Astroworld, but financial considerations often take precedence

Experts tell USA TODAY that despite the greater awareness among artists and promoters of the dangers inherent in large gatherings, there remains a financially driven push and pull that keeps such concerts inherently risky.

General admission entry, or “festival seating,” is “where the money is in the live event industry,” says Adelman. “The old model for making a living” – album sales – “doesn’t exist anymore.”

But Adelman sees progress with the advent of what he calls a “put life safety first” culture. He dismisses the notion that promoters and performers only care about money and are cavalier about safety. “If shows go well, we keep working – if not, we’re out of work.” 

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Experts caution concertgoers that no matter what the safety measures, vigilance and common sense are required. “There’s no guarantee of zero risk,” says Mark Herrera, director of safety and security for the International Association of Venue Managers, which often provides venue personnel with training on crowd management.

Herrera says the best way for a performer and promoter to avoid catastrophe is to ensure a “unified command presence” at the event. In other words, a clear chain of command that allows any observed trouble to make its way through the group and eventually to the performer, who has the most power – via the microphone – to stop the show and get help to the scene.

Reports from Astroworld suggest that although many fans tried to alert Scott and his stage personnel that fans were in trouble, those pleas went unanswered as Scott performed for an hour.

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Herrera will not offer a dissection of what happened in Houston, given ongoing litigation, but says training on-site security teams how to handle crowd surges or individual fan health issues goes a long way to avoiding chaos and worse. And there never should be hesitation to pull the plug.

“ ‘The show must go on’ is no longer the mantra,” he says. “If you wait too long so that (a crisis) gets to the point you can’t control it, then you have to stop the show.”

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Tragedies at concerts often end in litigation but no safety changes

Melvin Brooks, managing partner at The Cochran Firm in Chicago, represented plaintiffs in the 2003 E2 nightclub stampede in which 21 people died. In that instance, many years of ignored club code violations and inadequately trained security personnel contributed to the tragedy.

Adequate security measures should be of paramount importance to those staging big shows today, says Brooks. “If you have security based on expected crowd size, it needs to be at an adequate level to institute crowd control. You can’t just say, ‘These things happen.’ ”

While promoters may have good intentions, the logistical reality of some large shows can test even the best-laid plans, says Adelman of Event Safety Alliance.

“It’s the same issue that most often goes wrong at any kind of event: failure of communication. It’s a constant struggle,” he says.

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Wertheimer of Crowd Management Strategies says ultimately it’s up to artists to put their foot down. Otherwise, “doing anything that will cut off the lucrative allure of standing-room-only admission (won’t happen).”

He adds that if anything has changed in recent years, it’s the new “community of litigators who sue” on behalf of plaintiff victims of live entertainment tragedies. Such actions often result in monetary awards – such as the one reached last month with the family of 21-year-old Axel Acosta, the first known Astroworld casualty settlement – but no changes that would prevent future deaths.

Wertheimer notes that unless a government agency steps in to mandate change or a trial sheds light on crowd control flaws, neither of which appear imminent, those filing into big events will largely be taking their lives in their own hands.

“But you can’t give up,” he says. “Because if you do, all is lost.”

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