On Tuesday night, before the Flaming Lips began their second sold-out show at Brooklyn Steel, frontman Wayne Coyne paused to address the audience. As the band tuned their instruments, Coyne reminded attendees that venue employees were there to help anyone feeling distressed or vulnerable. “Between every song, I always ask if you are doing alright. In lieu of things that have happened recently, we really do mean it,” he said onstage from within his signature plastic bubble. If the band needed to stop the show, whether for 10 minutes or half an hour, they would, no problem. “What matters is that you are safe and you feel great and you leave out of here feeling like you’ve had the best night of your life.”
It was an unusually somber note for a band that would shoot off confetti cannons just a few minutes later. But while Coyne did not mention the event by name, his mind was clearly preoccupied with the tragedy that occurred four days earlier at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival in Houston. As Scott took the stage last Friday evening, a surge of concertgoers pushed forward, creating an inescapable crush of bodies that sucked people to the ground, where they were then trampled. Those who remained upright were jammed together so tightly that people began suffocating and collapsing, unable to breathe within a crowd of nearly 50,000. Nine concertgoers, ranging from 14 to 27 years old, have died so far, and hundreds of young people were seriously injured.
As anyone who has attended a large festival can tell you, there is so much communal beauty to be found in listening to live music around thousands of other people. But in the same way that a gentle ocean can generate a rip current, there is always a possibility that a massive crowd can become dangerous, and at worst, life-threatening. History has reminded us of this time and time again. A 1979 arena show by the Who in Cincinnati ended in tragedy after fans heard the band’s soundcheck and stampeded into the venue to claim unassigned seats, causing 11 people to die from asphyxiation. When Pearl Jam performed at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in June 2000, nine people died after a crowd surge pushed concertgoers down to the pavement and caused a mass trampling. Astroworld feels eerily similar in some ways—crowds numbering in the tens of thousands and a frenzy created by the artist’s performance. But whereas documentation of those pre-social media events was limited to grainy footage or after-the-fact recollections, Astroworld catered specifically to a hyper-online generation. It’s one thing to read someone recall the experience of being crushed between hundreds of other humans. It’s another to watch a TikTok filmed from the bottom of a pile of desperate, terrified people. This will, and should, haunt us for years to come.
Astroworld was advertised as a festival where chaos was a promise, not a possibility. Scott has been arrested on charges of inciting riots at his shows in 2015 and 2017, and he was sued by a concertgoer who was partially paralyzed after being pushed from a third-floor balcony at his New York performance. A trailer for Astroworld 2021—which has since been removed from YouTube—featured footage of people knocking over metal barricades as they raced into the 2019 festival, a bum-rush that sent three people to the hospital. Gate-crashing was practically a guarantee. Two weeks earlier, at the same venue, NRG Park, fans of Playboi Carti easily toppled over metal detectors and barriers. Even with stronger fencing and increased security, fans still broke through the gates at Astroworld.
Scott has long asserted that his shows are a place where fans can let loose and rage through mosh pits, crowd-surfacing, stage-diving, and general mayhem. He is far from the only rapper to borrow specific elements from the punk or hardcore underground, but the Astroworld tragedy underlines how important it is that chaos coexist with an ethos of community and accountability. A mosh pit is a collective, physical release of energy and there is the understanding—unspoken or otherwise—that if someone falls, you pick them back up. This is not to suggest that concertgoers at Astroworld did not try to help those who were fighting to stay upright: people crowd-surfed unconscious bodies to safety even while the crush made it extremely difficult for anyone to lift their arms, and at least one attendee testimonial describes pleading with event staff to stop the show. But footage from the festival also suggests a pervasive “every-man-for-himself” mentality, from the fans who pushed others to the ground to get inside, to those who danced atop an ambulance as it inched through the crowd to help people who were literally dying. It can never be said enough: one person’s good time should never come at the expense of another’s safety.
These kinds of tragedies should lead to a re-evaluation of safety procedures in every venue, among every act—and in prominent examples, this has been the case. After the Who concert, Cincinnati banned general-admission concert seating for nearly 25 years. Following Roskilde, Pearl Jam took a six-year break from festivals and returned with strict, hands-on safety policies that included the right to “evaluate all operational and security policies in advance, such as design and configuration of barriers and security response procedures in relation to ensuring our fans’ safety,” as well as the ability to stop a show if needed. Roskilde itself implemented preventative crowd safety measures, including a barrier system that divides the audience into separate pens and more intensive training for security workers. This is the level of oversight we need before something horrific happens.
It’s too soon to say what, if any, concrete changes will come after the Astroworld tragedy. Live Nation, Travis Scott, and the city of Houston have been slow to admit any wrongdoing, and the extensive lawsuits will take years to work their way through the system. But if there has ever been a time to reimagine show safety and accessibility, this is it. With the festival and concert industry increasingly consolidated around Live Nation—a corporation linked to roughly 200 deaths and 750 injuries since 2006, reports the Houston Chronicle—promoters, venue owners, and yes, even artists must do everything they can to instill systemic safety measures that prioritize people over profit. Organizers might consider distributing clear information about how to behave in a crowd crush scenario at large-scale events, in the same way that public beaches feature signs saying what to do if you’re caught in a rip current. Maybe that seems paltry—a sign instead of a lifeguard, a safety pamphlet instead of a better layout and more staff—but it might just save someone’s life.