Was the deadly tragedy at Travis Scott’s ill-fated Astroworld Festival at Houston’s NRG Park on Nov. 5 an aberration in a concert industry with a mostly admirable safety record, or a horrific wake-up call about flaws in planning and execution that could have led to disaster much sooner?
With eight dead and more than 300 injured as the crowd stampeded before and during Scott’s set, most industry sources declined to comment, saying investigations — and a rapidly growing number of lawsuits — will reveal the causes. But the general public and lawyers representing the victims are pointing to countless videos posted online that show the concert continuing, and Scott riling up an already unruly crowd, well after the festival had been declared a “mass casualty” event.
Many are placing the blame primarily on Scott, whose shows have a history of being rowdy; he has been charged with incitement to riot and disorderly conduct at two of his past concerts. One of the initial lawsuits against him — and against promoters Live Nation and Scoremore Shows, the venue and Scott’s climactic guest, Drake, among others — cites a tweet from the rapper promising that, despite Astroworld’s early sellout, “we still sneaking the wild ones in,” a vow that seemed to be borne out when people without tickets successfully broke down entrance gates earlier in the day. His song “Stargazing” contains a lyric Scott’s lawyers may wish he could redact: “It ain’t a mosh pit if ain’t no injuries.”
One top concert-security veteran with decades in the business tells Variety: “I have never been more frightened than at the Travis Scott shows I’ve worked. His concerts are infamous [for unruly crowds] — they’re young, aggressive and already riled up when they get there — and he does nothing to lessen it. I’ve worked with other rappers who’ve said, ‘I’m not going to dial back my show, but I watch the crowd and if something’s happening, I’ll deal with it.’ But the vibe from [Scott] is, ‘It’s my show.’ This was a ticking time bomb.” Representatives for Scott did not respond to requests for comment.
Kevin Lyman, founder of the long-running punk-rock Warped Tour and now an associate professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music, points to a broader issue. While declining to comment specifically on Astroworld, he notes that hip-hop’s enormous popularity has brought in many fans who aren’t experienced festival-goers.
“The 2005 Warped Tour, when we had pop fans coming to see My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, was scary every day. Those kids would run to the front of the stage when the doors opened. They didn’t eat or drink water or realize that by the time the [artist] went on, there were thousands of people behind them, and they’d pass out. We had to develop a lot of techniques, like a kind of triage center where we had water and wet towels, to keep the crowd safe.”
But the central question remains: Should Scott have stopped the show in an effort to calm down the crowd? It was unclear at the time of this article’s publication whether the rapper, who is seen in video footage shooing away staffers attempting to talk to him during the set, had been made sufficiently aware of the extent of the disaster.
He claimed in an Instagram video on Nov. 6 that he “could never imagine anything like this happening,” although he did pause the show briefly a couple of times, as the live feed showed an ambulance making its way through the 50,000-plus crowd — certainly a sign of something amiss. But then he fired up the next number and said he wanted to “hear the ground shake.”
Even top city officials disagreed over what Scott should have done. Houston police chief Troy Finner said a riot might have ensued if the show had been abruptly halted. But Fire Chief Samuel Peña told the New York Times that someone in Scott’s position has “that bully pulpit and … a responsibility. If somebody would have said, ‘Hey, shut this thing down and turn on the lights until it gets corrected’ — and that coming from the person with the mic — I think could have been very helpful.”
Lyman agrees with that take. “Once you’re behind a microphone, you have a lot of power no matter who you are,” he says. “Someone has to have the ear of the artist, who can communicate to them that they need to [pause] the show.”
However, another top live-event exec says, “Maybe [staffers] told him, maybe they were scared to tell him, and to be fair, it is hard to tell what’s going on in a crowd from the stage. But he’s gotta look at why he didn’t work harder to stop the show and calm things down.”
The buck is already being passed, in front of and behind the scenes. A source close to Astroworld tells Variety that their contention is that only two parties held the power to stop the show — the police department and fire department — and neither ever passed word to the stage that Scott should halt the proceedings.
But on Wednesday, Finner held a press conference and claimed that it was not the Houston PD’s call to make on whether to stop the show. ““The ultimate authority to end a show is with production and with the entertainer, and that should be through communication with public safety officials,” Finner said.
For his part, Scott has canceled two upcoming concert appearances: one at the Day N Vegas festival this weekend and, sources tell Variety, a $5.5 million one-off show in Saudi Arabia scheduled for later this month. Still on the agenda, for now anyway: Scott’s planned performances at Coachella over two weekends this coming April.
But with two major Scott-free hip-hop festivals coming over the next months — Day N Vegas, and Rolling Loud California in San Bernardino from Dec. 10-12 — what can fans expect? “I am sure the knee-jerk reaction will be an overcorrection to 95% of the events that are out there,” Lyman says, “instead of digging into the 5% that draw this crossover aggressive and pop crowd. But it’s ultimately management of the crowds through barricades and close communication with the artist. Beyond a certain point, more security doesn’t necessarily help. If a larger crowd gets out of control, they can overwhelm it — it’s just the laws of physics.”
The first concert-security veteran adds, “You need infrastructure — you can’t just throw more bodies in and say you’ve got more security. A lot of these guys are making $22 an hour; they’re not soldiers or cops.”
Actually, some of them are off-duty cops, who’ve been drafted to fill in for a dearth of trained concert security personnel that, like many lower-income workers, didn’t return to their jobs after the pandemic. That’s one factor that differentiates the live entertainment industry of 2021 from the business of 2019. So while the Houston authorities said the Astroworld show had more security than the World Series, attention will be paid in the ongoing investigations as to who’s filling those roles now.
Producers staffing those gigs are “still trying to catch up from there being 20 months of no concerts,” says Steven Adelman, VP of the Event Safety Alliance, an organization that literally wrote the book followed by many in the concert business regarding safety.
“There’s a labor shortage at the bottom of the pay scale that has affected event security. That gap sometimes gets filled in with off-duty police officers, which is great. But one must recognize that event security is a particular skill — and no disrespect to any law enforcement professional, but their training is somewhat different. So the realities of our current labor market shouldn’t be completely ignored.”
Adelman cautions against a rush to judgment by the media or public while investigations play out, pointing to evidence to be examined beyond the world of Twitter and Instagram video. “It would be my expectation that there would be recordings, not only from closed-circuit TV cameras throughout NRG Park, but also a running tally of incidents. I’m guessing that there was some means of recording, if not the actual audio [that went out over headsets], then at least the gist of it.”
He adds that the final investigation may well show multiple failures in the chain that shouldn’t necessarily have proven fatal on their own. “In any significant calamity involving a crowd, it’s almost universally true that a number of things went slightly wrong that otherwise would be innocuous errors… until finally something happens that sets everything in motion.”
Although many in the concert industry were quick to note that dozens of festivals have been staged this year without major incident — including two headlined by Scott — a reckoning is taking place. “I don’t want to condemn anybody, and maybe [the organizers] did everything right,” the veteran says. “We, as an industry, failed here. But if anybody could have seen this coming, it’s Travis Scott.”