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Festival fiasco: Poorly organized events are putting you at risk

In this post-Fyre reality, events walk a tightrope between ambition and oblivion

  • Ryan Baesemann
  • 5 June 2019

We, the fun-loving, summertime festival-goers are faced by an all-too-common foe; the overselling and understaffing of events.

This foe most commonly manifests as the stereotypical - I’m SO bummed we weren’t front row for Tycho... to this porto queue is longer than a bread line in purgatory! Surely it does. But these things are to be expected, understood, and are of little consequence. Also, you never need to be front row for Tycho.

My chief grievance relates to the increasingly frequent - Where is the nearest hospital, and do you by chance have any water?

Big name talent buying means diddly-squat if operations and infrastructure are underfunded, overworked, and haphazardly supported. Terrible things have happened under these conditions alone. Worse yet, certain production teams have risked the safety of patrons, staff and volunteers during climate disasters, for the potential of profit and prestige.

Cancelled acts, long lines, and torrential rainfall each have the power to mutate teenie-bopper rave bunnies into a destructive mob of entitlement. Combine all of these festival foes and ugly scenes occur rather quickly. If the festival staff is wholly untrained and ill-equipped to handle the fallout, the risks rise exponentially.

After witnessing various blunders over the years, from the apocalyptic dystopia of Fyre Fest, to treading water at TomorrowWorld’s mainstage, and the now-infamous nightmare of Bloc Weekender, the fact that these incidents continue to happen is unsettling, to say the least. It’s no longer Rock ‘n’ Roll, dungeon techno, or renegade-vibes when you’re being evacuated from a Day-Glo warzone, flooded out of your tent, or crushed by a barricade.

Since the prevalence of massive festivals isn’t going anywhere, it seems the event production industry has reached a necessary turning point.

The 2019 festival season has barely begun and there’s already some fresh examples of on-site tragedy. Just within the past couple weeks we’ve seen two fiascos, with panicked masses out for their own necks over the next person, seen during a stampede at We Are FSTVL along with riots at Governors Ball. Both of these incidents could, and should have been prevented, but the fact they weren’t is of little surprise.

We Are FSTVL caused dismay a couple weeks ago, when wait times to enter the event exceeded three hours. Patrons queued in extreme heat without access to shade or hydration stations. The cause of the delay? The box office reportedly didn’t have enough wristbands for the amount of tickets sold. They closed the entry-gate and waited for reinforcements.

So after baking for a few hours, the justifiably frustrated crowd inexcusably surged forward, toppling barricades while crushing attendees, as security staff was rendered ineffectual and listless. Several attendees had to be hospitalized from injuries resulting from the stampede.

Chloe Nichols, a 30-year-old casino dealer and long-time attendee of We Are FSTVL, suffered a deep gash in her left leg after being struck by a barricade and then trampled. Nichols waited nearly half-an-hour to be seen by medical staff, before then being hospitalized to receive stitches for the injury. In speaking with reporters at The Sun Online, Nichols said, “I was in so much pain, I thought I was going to die.”

So much for a joyous start to the summer months.

This is a textbook result of production failure. If they had enough wristbands, the queue presumably would have moved along swimmingly enough, and a stampede would have been averted. That said, this was also an infrastructural and staffing failure. Infrastructure failed to provide enough shaded queues, readily-available water, or immovable box office barricades. The staff didn’t have the skills or the support necessary to quell the apprehensive crowd.

The modest investment required to remedy these various ills equates to a sliver of the cost needed to book a single headliner. To put it bluntly, We Are FSTVL cared more about the optics at the top of their lineup than the patrons they wrangled like cattle to pay the bill.

Sunday’s shenanigans at Governors Ball 2019 could have been easily avoided as well, though admittedly at far greater cost. Weather warnings had been readily broadcast throughout the day, with the Governors Ball production team anticipating a high-likelihood for a catastrophic thunderstorm that afternoon, with a slimmer chance for another by the evening. They held the gates closed until darn-near sundown in light of these warnings, before deciding to risk it all at the buzzer.

The gates finally opened at around 6:30 p.m. A mandatory evacuation was issued by 9:35 p.m.

Unfortunately for the event producers, but more so for attendees, bedlam broke out after the event was cancelled, which compounded on itself in the face of an extreme weather pattern. Festival-goers were trapped on Randall’s Island, huddled together under an overpass braving a thunderstorm with 50 mile-per-hour gusts, as rampant teenagers destroyed art installations while chanting “FYRE FEST!”

In an AMA hosted by Reddit yesterday, the Governors Ball production executives addressed the many concerns of their constituents in an earnest and in-depth fashion. The most pointed criticism came of the security staff. Multiple attendees reported a disjointed message coming from security. The mainstage emergency exits were blocked off during the evacuation, which forced the crowd into a slow-moving bottleneck.

In response to this qualm, one of the production leads named Tom replied, “For the weather we were experiencing, the specific plan for a severe weather event does not call for emergency exits to be used, but rather to instruct people to leave through the main entry/exit gates.” This defeats the point of having emergency exits in the first place. Maybe they need to revisit what exactly they consider constitutes an emergency. Evacuating tens of thousands of people off an island during a thunderstorm seems like it’d fit the bill.

A Redditor dubbed footcramp95 wrote this cheeky message, “Maybe if GovBall was more of a music festival and less of a designated Instagram convention this would be less of a problem”.

The music industry landscape has become a fraught enterprise since the dawn of the internet, now being predominantly reliant on performances over record sales. As a result, many festivals have been forced to adopt a “do-or-die” mentality. If an event doesn’t sell-out, the necessary nest-egg to produce future events is oftentimes lost. If an event has to cancel dates and issue reimbursements, the same concern of viability has frequently prevented production companies from calling off an event, until it’s too late.

In a post-Fyre reality, nobody wants to end up with the backlash received by Ja-Rule and Billy McFarland. Even so, many production companies are forced to walk the same tightrope between ambition and oblivion that plagued countless events before them.

The answer seems simple enough - production teams need to place a greater priority (i.e. funding) on the integrity of their staff, the strength of their infrastructure, and the foresight of their disaster planning. This also means that artists need to accept a more proportional share of the proverbial pie. Asking for a multi-million dollar deal for a couple hours of their time is all well and good, insofar as the crowd paying the bill isn’t endangered by attendance.

Ensuring the infrastructure and operational staff is able to effectively support an event should always come before paying out a headlining act. It’s the responsibility of production teams to make that judgement, and in far too many cases they’ve neglected to do so.

In parallel, if a dangerous weather pattern is forecasted, the Fat Cats at the top need to cancel some dates and eat their losses. Simple. Event production is always a gamble, especially with outdoor venues and the rising threat of climate change. There are no guarantees with a fabled claim to “Rain or Shine”, and anyone asserting otherwise is selling U.S.D.A. Choice Bologna - (Read: a synthetic amalgam of bullshit posturing as sustenance).

In the words of George Hull, one of the founders of Bloc Weekender, “No one likes the idea that promoters are gambling with your money, but the alternative is that they’re run by very large, faceless organizations.” While this is true, producers aren’t only taking liberties with the money of patrons, but with the lives of attendees themselves.

At the same time, it’s curious to consider where the responsibility of the attendee comes into play, and what the scale of panic has to say about social cohesion. Festivals based on music appreciation, communal connection, and “love” have devolved into sadistic pits of squalor at the slightest inconvenience. The stampede at We Are FSTVL and the riots at Governors Ball are just the latest examples of this tendency. Of course, the patrons were provoked and justifiably frustrated, but not vindicated enough to perform atrocities.

We, the privileged few who frequent such events need to do a better job of looking out for one another, and understanding the factors of our environment. It’s true that expectations run high with soaring ticket costs and exorbitant production values, but is the sanctity of our weekend bender really worth vandalizing art installations, or maiming someone for life?

Mowing down a line of glitter-clad damsels because you’re too sweaty in your tank-top, or rioting because The Strokes aren’t going to perform isn’t a good look. It just makes you an asshole.

Ryan Baesemann is an Editorial Contributor to Mixmag. Follow him on Twitter.

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