Festival expert reflects on Astroworld tragedy and ‘sacred duty’ to protect young concertgoers

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In 2013, the final day of the New York City electronic music festival Electric Zoo was canceled after two attendees died from hyperthermia and an MDMA (Ecstasy) overdose and four others became ill. A year later, festival director Morgan Deane, who had been on board for Electric Zoo’s first two years in 2009 and 2010, returned to work with the city to ensure that such tragedies would never happen at the festival again. Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume following the tragic events at Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival in Houston this past weekend — when eight people between the ages of 14 and 27 died and children as young as 9 and 10 years old were critically injured — Deane solemnly describes the jobs of festival organizers and promoters as a “sacred duty.”

“I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. I’ve been the director of Electric Zoo, in 2014, the year after we had a really tragic series of incidents there. I’ve had experiences at other events where we’ve come really close to realizing how important this job is,” says Deane, who heads up 508 Operations’ event business and has produced large-scale events for the Imagine Music Festival, Dave Chappelle, Zedd, Post Malone, Tiesto, DJ Khaled and many others. “You know, people give us their children, right? On a Friday night, a parent is dropping their kid off at the front door of your venue, and they’re trusting you. They believe that you know what you’re doing and that you’re going to return their kid to them in two days or three days or 12 hours, and that when they show up to pick their kid up in 12 hours, their kid’s going to be there safe and sound, having been cared for by you while they were at your event. I don’t think there’s any event producer on the face of the planet who doesn’t understand that and take that really seriously. There isn’t anything more important than remembering that everybody is somebody’s baby, that everybody belongs to somebody and you have to give people their kids back.”

A memorial outside of the canceled Astroworld festival A memorial outside of the canceled Astroworld festival

A memorial outside of the canceled Astroworld festival at NRG Park in Houston. (Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

Deane stresses that she cannot speculate about what exactly happened at Astroworld or place blame, since the investigation is ongoing and she and 508 were not involved. “It’s tricky here with Astroworld, because we all want to have an opinion. We all want to say that we think we know what happened, but without a full analysis of what happened, without a report — we don’t even have official causes of death yet, as declared by the medical examiner — this is all conjecture,” she notes. “It’s difficult to say, ‘How do we prevent this from happening?’ Because we don’t really even know what this isyet. We know that it’s never acceptable for there to be a mass casualty event or mass casualty incident like this. That’s troubling. But it’s difficult to speak to the prevention of this particular issue, because I don’t think it’s clear yet what happened. We know there was a crowd surge, and many things can cause a crowd surge. I think there are questions that need to be asked about the organization of the event — and those aren’t accusatory questions, more sort of fact-finding questions.”

One such question for Travis Scott and event promoter Live Nation could be why the 56-page event operations plan for Astroworld included protocols for such possible perilous situations as an active shooter, a terrorist threat, and severe weather, but did not include information on what to do in the event of a crowd surge. (Additionally, the plan oddly instructed staff to “notify Event Control of a suspected deceased victim utilizing the code ‘Smurf’” and “never use the term ‘dead’ or ‘deceased’ over the radio.”) But with her extensive experience producing hundreds of live events with audiences as large as 100,000, Deane certainly has some insight into how to prevent crowd-surging at a concert like Astroworld, which was attended by 50,000 people.

“The best ways to mitigate crowd waves, generally speaking, have a lot to do with the way that your front of house is set up, like inserting a crowd thrust. There was a crowd thrust inserted [at the Astroworld festival], if you look at the site layout,” says Deane. “That’s sort of a moat of mojo barrier that usually runs from your front-of-house position to your main stage. And oftentimes if you’re just standing at a concert, you see photographers in there, sometimes security personnel. And then of course you also have a moat between the front of the barriers and the front of the stage, which prevent people from crushing directly onto the stage. And that usually runs sort of perpendicular to the stage, that main thrust. And then, obviously, there’s a moat directly in front of the stage. In this case, it also appears as if there was some sort of a moat or thrust running parallel to the [Astroworld] stage as well, which creates a bifurcation sort of in the middle of the crowd. The purpose of all of those is basically you’re creating a breaker, so you can’t have your crowd collapse in the middle or collapse from the sides, because there aren’t enough people en masse in one place to surge. And we call that a ‘crowd wave’ or a ‘crowd surge.’ Those things seemed to be in place at this event.”

However, as for the other “fact-finding questions” that Deane feels need to be asked in this case, she says, “I think there are questions about the nature of the training of all of the security staff, for however much security staff you have. There should be some personnel who are familiar with basically reading the crowd and how to mitigate crowd surges, what to look for — and a lot of that is just following your gut, like, ‘We’re getting a little compressed here. This feels weird’ — sort of being able to identify that stuff earlier. Were there people on the security team who were trained to do that? You know, this is an extremely professional production team. My expectation is that these things were in place. So, that’s one thing.

“But you know, a lot of it has to do, frankly — and I go on about this all the time — with what sort of environment was created in the venue by the quality of sound, by the behavior and the nature of staff, the way they interacted with patrons, what patrons’ ticket-buying experience was like, what their ingress [entry process] experience was like,” Deane continues. “Was there chaos in the ingress? It may seem like was. … We just have this video of this door bust [i.e., fans crashing the gates when the festival opened Friday afternoon]. But where did that happen? It’s not completely clear. Those are the sorts of questions I would ask.”

Deane says she would also “ask questions about the nature of addresses made from stage. Was there appropriate interaction between the crowd and stage? Does the artist understand how their audience behaves? I would say indications are that absolutely everybody knows that a Travis Scott crowd is going to rage — as they should! That’s their vibe.” (Although Deane declines to comment on Scott’s reputation for encouraging chaotic behavior at his gigs, the rapper does have a long history of inciting crowds. He was arrested for incidents in Chicago in 2015 and Arkansas in 2017 that left a security guard and concertgoers injured, and arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after dozens of fans stormed his Lollapalooza 2015 before the show was shut down. Furthermore, one of his New York concerts became so rowdy in 2017 that a fan named Kyle Green fell off a balcony and was left paralyzed, according to Green’s lawsuit.)

The above-mentioned aggression at Astroworld specifically might give some music fans Woodstock ‘99 déjà vu — specifically to when Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst was accused of egging on a crowd that was already grumpy due to that disastrous festival’s overcrowding, overheating, overpriced food and water, and understaffed security. “I actually think it’s really crucial that when we think about an event, elements of an event are extremely important and should be examined in sort of a singular moment. It’s important to think of an event for a patron as being one experience that they’re having,” says Deane when speaking about other preventative festival measures. “Patrons don’t know about the intricacies of ingress. All of these things that aren’t things that patients think about — and nor should they. It’s our job to think about how to create seamless experiences for people, so that they feel safe; so that they’re able to access resources; so that they’re not frustrated or confused or lost; so that the sound isn’t so crummy that they feel really aggressive or really uncomfortable in a venue; that there’s enough signage and access to staff; and that staff are appropriately identified. I always say this is an art, not science. It’s really about the sort of experience you’re creating for a patron. A lot of that informs how patrons behave and the way interactions happen on site.”

Deane says that “going forward, we have to do an even better job of having these conversations,” noting that “there are industry standards” and “Events Safety Alliance has a really fantastic, comprehensive, 30-page guide to sort of basic fundamental standards for event operation; most events are using those. I would encourage everybody to use them.” She recalls how when she returned to Electric Zoo “after the tragedies in 2013,” her team “worked really closely with the city and the state, and our medical teams and our security teams, to figure out what sorts of changes we were making on site — like making sure there was more water, making sure the signage for water was better, introducing peer ambassadors into the crowd who could interact with patrons [to] basically make sure that the people were OK. That was very common in Europe at the time, but it was not super-common in United States; it is very common now at events.

“So, after a tragedy, the thing that you have to do is sit down and dissect every single thing that happens, every single piece of patron feedback, every single bit of analysis, and engage with the people that you hired to be experts. If you’re not happy with their expertise, find other experts, and really, really unpack it. You have to break everything down and build from scratch, because you can’t lose people’s kids at your shows. You can’t.”

The above interview has been edited for length and clarity is taken from Morgan Deane’s appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available via the SiriusXM app.

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