Music

Six months on, as music festivals begin again, it’s like the Astroworld disaster never happened

Everyone already seems to have scrolled past Astroworld, says Malcolm Jack. Profit and celebrity always speak louder than tragedy

Ten people died at the Astroworld Festival in 2021, but have any lessons been learned? Photo: © Lynn Pennington/ZUMA Press Wire/Alamy

On and just after the night of November 5, 2021, 10 people between nine and 27 years of age died because of a crowd crush at US rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival in Houston, Texas. Twenty-five people were hospitalised, and more than 300 were treated for injuries on site.

As the nightmare unfolded, Scott played on to the end of his set, encouraging his fans to stage dive, make the ground shake and stick their middle fingers in the air, even as ambulances crept through the dense sea of humanity extracting lifeless young bodies from the fray. 

Less than six months later in late April 2022, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival took place in the California desert, welcoming around 750,000 people over two consecutive weekends to an event which took place in more or less exactly the same shape as it would have had the Astroworld disaster never happened (save for Scott being dropped from the bill, though he made a point of appearing at one of the festival’s unofficial afterparties). No serious crowd problems were reported, everything went well. And yet – what if?  

The legal fallout from last year’s Astroworld has been enormous, with all sorts of litigation reportedly collectively worth billions of dollars flying around in the search for justice for the victims, and for answers as to who, if anyone, was to blame.

Some point the finger at organisers, authorities, and festival security. Some wrongly say it was the fault of rap music and rap culture itself. Many blame Scott. Both as Astroworld’s founder (the festival is named after one of his albums), and as the headline performer on that fateful night, who for whatever reason plainly failed to respond as young fans died at his feet. Scott for his part denies any culpability, has sought to have lawsuits against him dismissed and has shown only seemingly token remorse.  

But more fundamentally, why hasn’t there been serious pause to make a forensic determination as to all the things which went so terribly wrong that night, such that 10 innocent young people never went home, and in order that such a tragedy will hopefully never again be repeated? Instead, festivals across the United States – and across the UK and Europe – are back with a bang for their first fully Covid restrictions-free summer in three years, as if Astroworld never even happened.

By contrast, it’s worth looking back 22 years to the last comparable mass casualty to take place at a major international music festival, and the very different response that followed. On the night of June 30, 2000, nine people died and 26 people were injured, three of them seriously, because of a crowd crush at US rock band Pearl Jam’s performance at the Roskilde festival in Denmark.

As soon as the band were informed that there was trouble, they ended their set and urged the crowd to move back, frontman Eddie Vedder dropping to his knees in tears as limp bodies were dragged over the barriers. The loss of life may have been much worse if the band hadn’t acted as they did. While the crush was found to be no one’s fault – police, public and civil trials all ruled it to have been accidental – Pearl Jam members speak of still carrying grief and trauma to this day and admit it nearly caused the band to quit. 

Afterwards, a raft of new safety measures were implemented at Roskilde and other festivals around the world – from extra emergency exits to more spacing and separation between audience sections. 

In part because of the Roskilde tragedy, the Glastonbury Festival in England was cancelled in 2001 to implement specific additional safety measures of its own – including extra lighting, CCTV cameras and erecting a huge fence around the site to keep crowd numbers under control. As crowd surfing was deemed to have been among the precipitating factors of the Roskilde crowd surge, it was subsequently forbidden at many festivals in Europe (crowd surfing remains much less commonplace than it once was, perhaps as a lasting legacy).  

Both Roskilde’s and Glastonbury’s safety records, like the vast majority of festivals I hasten to emphasise, have been excellent ever since – and indeed were even before events of June 30, 2000. But as music festivals grow, evolve, and change from one decade to the next, for better and for worse, nothing ought to be taken for granted. Because there’s too much at stake. Astroworld proves it.  

Roskilde cast a dark shadow over the music world for many years. More than two decades on, in the increasing “timeline-ification” of our everyday lives, everyone already seems to have scrolled past Astroworld. Profit and celebrity always speak louder than tragedy.  

Ten young people will never go to a music festival ever again because of what happened that night in Texas, their lives cut heartbreakingly short. But Travis Scott will soon be back playing festivals again. He headlines Primavera Sound in Sao Paulo, Brazil on November 6. As fate would have it, a year and a day after Astroworld. 

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