Travis Scott’s Houston festival tragedy is a warning to concert promoters the world over.
Security had been stepped up. Medics were at hand. It wasn’t oversold. Water and food was readily available. Limp Bizkit weren’t playing. By all accounts, every possible measure had been taken to ensure a safe event was under way at Travis Scott’s music festival Astroworld, the headlining rapper’s hometown event held in Houston over the weekend.
That didn’t stop a tragedy from unfolding: during Scott’s Friday night set, livestreamed through Apple Music around the world – including being beamed into my lounge in Te Atatū, Tāmaki Makaurau, on Saturday afternoon – eight people died during a crowd crush, including a 14 and a 17-year-old, and hundreds more were injured. A criminal investigation is underway. Houston Police’s homicide division is involved.
I watched that stream with a horrible feeling in my stomach. When cameras cut to the crowd, heaving moshpits could be seen surging across the venue. Something just felt wrong, so I turned it off early. I didn’t know how bad things had become until I woke up the following morning and read the shocking stories. ‘No way out’: A sudden life-and-death struggle was the first headline I came across, and they got worse as updates flowed throughout the day.
No one should die in a mosh pit. For many music fans, like me, it’s as close as we get to heaven. So, with all those precautions, how could it become so hellish? According to Astroworld festival-goers, the energy at this event, the second of Scott’s festivals after its debut two years ago, was different to previous ones. “It was crazier than in 2019,” one punter told the New York Times. “Imagine listening to Travis Scott and people screaming for their lives at the same time,” another told CNN.
The descriptions of what happened in the crowd that night are truly horrifying. One compared the crowd crush to a sinkhole. “Person after person was sucked down … I saw terror in every eye that I met,” wrote one concert-goer on Instagram. “Never have I seen people disregarding unconscious bodies to fend for themselves,” someone else told the Times.
Footage shows punters jumping on ambulances forcing their way through crowds to get to the injured. Other videos show fans trying and failing to stop the show, warning of injuries and fatalities. It recalls images of Woodstock ‘99, a now-infamous event headlined by Limp Bizkit that ended ablaze, in a riot, and was recently turned into an HBO documentary.
I’ve been in plenty of rowdy mosh pits before, and once broke my nose at the front of a Shihad show. I’ve seen a tonne of bad behaviour too, including a full-on fist fight at a Schoolboy Q show. But I’ve also had some of the best times of my life in them. You’ll never find happier people than a group of heavy metal fans at a rock show. The stranger who put his arm around my shoulder and sang ‘Vicarious’ with me at Tool’s Spark Arena show, pre-pandemic, is proof of that.
I’ve also seen Scott, an incendiary performer who encourages fans to “rage” with him, at a 2016 concert in Sydney. His notorious stage anger was on full display that September night: he attacked a security guard, pushed fans off his stage, then crowd-surfed across the venue to perform ‘Pick up the Phone’ in the middle of the crowd.
It was a head-rush of a show, one of the more aggressive performances I’ve seen. Fans reacted in kind, and the crowd crush there was real. But if you wanted to escape, the exit to Sydney’s Metro Theatre was just a few steps away. It’s a small venue that holds around 2000 people, a very different experience to seeing a headliner perform after a whole day spent in the heat of a music festival in a stadium alongside 50,000 rabid fans.
Scott’s popularity, boosted by his romance with Kylie Jenner and the constant hyping of his fans – called “Ragers” – through Instagram means he performs exclusively in large-scale stadiums now. There, he has a history of stepping right up to the edge. At Lollapalooza in 2015, he was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after a five-minute performance ended when fans rushed the stage.
In 2017, he was charged again after encouraging fans to do the same thing during a Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion performance. Scott was also sued by a fan who was paralysed after alleging he was pushed off a balcony following a New York City show that same year.
What happened in Houston is different, a “mass casualty” event that will have promoters around the world watching in horror, and scratching their heads. It will almost certainly change how festivals are run. After the death of Jessica Michalik during a Limp Bizkit performance at the 2001 Big Day Out in Sydney, D-shaped barricades were introduced to protect moshers from themselves. It’s likely even more mosh pit precautions become mandatory after this.
But there’s another factor at play that all the safety measures in the world may struggle to resolve. Thanks to Covid-19 precautions, concerts and festivals have been on hold for the better part of two years. Bottled-up emotions over that time are ready to come out. The freedom of a music festival allows punters to do just that. “I just think after Covid, after quarantine, everyone just wanted to like, you know what I mean …” one Scott festival fan stammered to the New York Times.
That, right there, is a warning, one every promoter in New Zealand needs to hear. After the last three months, stuck at home, bored and missing their friends, teens, 20-somethings, and probably literally everyone else are ready to cut loose. A summer of music is planned: Bay Dreams might be cancelled, but Rhythm & Vines, Northern Bass and plenty of other events, including nationwide tours by Lorde and Six60, are all confirmed for the coming months, lockdown restrictions permitting.
As Astroworld has shown, a concoction of over-excitement, heat, excessive alcohol use and drug abuse, soundtracked by a potent performer, all exaggerated by months of lockdown boredom, can quickly turn into chaos. Promoters need to be extra cautious. No safety precaution is too small, too insignificant. Take all of the steps, and then some.
Perhaps that safety warning needs to be printed in big block letters on all future tickets: no one should die in a mosh pit. If you can’t promise that, you shouldn’t be promoting shows.