The Chaos of Astroworld: Rethinking Festival Culture

The annual music festival Astroworld in Houston ended in tragedy, chaos, and confusion, leaving eight people dead including three minors. Footage from attendees shows that during the concert, several individuals pleaded with concert employees to stop the show. Headlining-rapper and founder of the festival, Travis Scott, somewhat-paused to allow for medical attention to one individual. However, the concert continued despite panicked fans in the crowd. 

In addition to the eight deaths, many attendees reported feeling suffocated at the concert and over 300 people received medical attention. However, it remains unclear why this particular concert was notably more dangerous than other concerts that have had similar excitement. Surging toward the stage when the main act begins is not a unique phenomenon at a concert, and it certainly does not typically become fatal. In previous years at Astroworld, individuals have been injured, but eight deaths is unprecedented and certainly suspicious.

In response to the tragedy, Travis Scott has received tremendous criticism from fans online who are disappointed in his lack of concern for the disturbing activity that occurred in the crowd. While some artists regularly pause their performance when there is apparent chaos in the crowd, Travis Scott did not do much to reign in the overexcited fans. In fact, he is known for promoting recklessness at his performances, even encouraging violence against a fan that tried to steal his shoe in 2015. However, blaming him for the deaths at Astroworld seems unfair given the circumstances were beyond his control. Unless the rapper was receiving notifications that several people were actually dying, he should not be blamed for continuing the show. It is unlikely that he could hear what those beneath him were chanting, and rowdiness at his performances is nothing new. 

Rather than the performing artist, Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s largest event organizing company that hosted Astroworld, should be investigated for its possible oversight and lack of communication regarding the evident dangers during the event. The event organizer is responsible for ensuring adequate resources, such as safety and medical care, are available for attendees. Live Nation staff should have called off the show as soon as the city declared it a mass casualty event. Instead, the concert was not stopped for another thirty minutes.

Several speculations exist regarding the cause of death of these eight individuals and the hospitalization of several others. The initial response was to blame crowds pushing and surging, leaving little room to breathe and move in the crowd. However, the crowd alone, which was 50,000 attendees, does not seem to make sense based on the number of large concerts and festivals that occur almost every weekend without eight fatalities. One could argue that part of the issue might be the culture of a festival; dehydration, over-consumption of alcohol, and use of illicit substances are a trifecta for poor decision-making and health problems. The use of illicit substances is often associated with music festivals like Astroworld and could be relevant to the cause of death of many of these individuals, though this is unknown at this point. 

The environment of music festivals as a whole lends itself to dangerous outcomes, as there is an inherent risk that comes with being surrounded by intoxicated concert-goers with impaired decision-making abilities. One of the top rules of event safety is providing sufficient exits, something the event organizer, Live Nation, would have been responsible for implementing. 

However, in the middle of a tightly-packed cluster of 50,000 people, getting out in the event of an emergency can feel nearly impossible. Screaming for help in a loud crowd will likely go unheard and unnoticed. Even staying in a group with friends can be difficult as individuals are separated during surges toward the stage. Perhaps rethinking the structure of concerts to add clear lanes throughout the general admission area in order to divide up the crowds into smaller groups while maintaining the freedom of a pit section could help individuals seek help as needed. Having sufficient exits should apply not only to exiting the venue as a whole, but also to exiting the general admission area safely.

At the Astroworld festival, concert-goers were even seen dancing on top of an emergency vehicle headed into the crowd, indicative of the type of illogical and disrespectful behavior that can occur in the concert culture. Imagine a friend is lying on the ground unconscious, and the ambulance is slowed due to someone dancing on the hood. Such childishness is despicable at best. Minutes can make a huge difference when it comes to cardiac arrest and other health problems.

However, while the festival culture might not be the most safe, typically this risk is mostly harmless and involves dealing with riff-raff and slurred speech. Thus, the abnormality of the situation has raised a suspicion of malintent in an individual possibly injecting people with an illegal substance, which if found to be true, is a huge health and safety concern to consider for future large events. If an individual was injecting people with a narcotic, there is a health concern with both the needle use and the unsolicited illegal narcotic use. 

One security officer received Narcan and suffered from an overdose after feeling a “prick on his neck” verified by a visible needle mark. While the circumstances surrounding this incident are not yet verifiable, it certainly seems like a plausible scenario that raises some red flags about what could occur in these situations when medical teams and security officers are vastly outnumbered by attendees. The strange circumstances of this event in particular beg the question of whether further action and regulation should be taken during these large events to prevent some individuals from using the unsupervised environment of festival culture for outright evil and potentially even killing another person. 

Only time will tell what the medical reports amount to in terms of the cause of death of these individuals. While the issue of festival culture might not be easy to change, the staff supporting the event could be improved to prevent future tragedies. However, as the president of the Austin EMS Association points out, staffing large festivals and events is more challenging with recent labor shortages that can compromise the volume and quality of care and training of staff, which she claims affected the number of personnel at ACL this year. The security at Astroworld included 1,283 police and security officers, making approximately one security officer for approximately every 39 attendees. 755 members of the safety staff were security guards provided by Live Nation.

Some attendees report that medical staff at the event were under trained in the most basic form of medical care: cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Being unable to properly check for breathing and a pulse and perform CPR appropriately is indicative of needing immediate retraining for any medical professional whether he is an EMT or a physician. In the case of cardiac arrest, being able to respond effectively and efficiently is critical to saving a patient’s life. Whether this fault comes into play in this tragedy is still being investigated. 

This tragedy might seem distant for those who are not frequent concert-goers, but the event serves as a reminder of the chaos that occurs when the voices of a few pleading for help get drowned out in the masses. In the aftermath of such chaos, the damage done is disturbing. Shifting the culture of music festivals might be the best preventable measure to prevent future tragedies. Balancing mitigating risks and having fun is important, and Astroworld leaned too far to the latter this year. While all risk cannot be mitigated, certainly eight deaths should not be considered a satisfactory health and safety threshold. 

The individuals in the crowd play a critical role in promoting safety. Increasing the sense of compassion and advocacy among attendees can promote a safer culture at future events. However, improving the number and quality of training of safety officers and medical teams on site is an important step toward preventing another tragedy like Astroworld. Large event organizers like Live Nation need to reevaluate their current safety protocols to improve accessibility of resources and restructure event crowd control measures in order to ensure any event-goer in need of safety or medical attention can receive it in a timely manner.

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