Something Must Change After Astroworld

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The Houston tragedy is not the first deadly crowd crush. Where does festival safety go from here?

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A memorial site outside NRG Park, the site of Astroworld. Photo by Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images.

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.

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