In the music industry, the business of live events should as much about the music itself as it is the safety for those that attend and work the shows. In a public gathering spot, charging entrance to an event or free; concerts, sporting event, fairs, theatres, clubs or bars bear the responsibility to ensure as safe of an environment for the fans and indeed anyone involved in the show, as possible at all times. Planning and execution of a live event, any live event, should be done with public and worker safety at the forefront. Since the start of the 2000s, there has been a record number of show attendee related injures and even deaths.
Starting with the most recent tragedy for nightclubs, in Brazil, the KISS nightclub, a local hotspot for teens and college students caught fire after the band’s pyrotechnics ignited the insulation foam over the stage, this toxic and quick burning fire quickly overtook the crowd, who in trying to escape had one exit, bouncers unaware of the emergency and no time to get out leaving 256 dead. Perm, Russia December 5, 2009, at a club known as the Lame Horse, again another incident of improper pyrotechnics used in a low clearance building, unsafe materials over the stage, causing the fire to ignite and spread at a rapid rate, while spewing highly toxic fumes. The patrons tried to flee, however 109 died in the fire and many others suffered injury due to the fact that the club’s only lit exit was the front door. Republica Cromnon nightclub in Buenos Aries, Argentina, December 30, 2004, 194 people killed after a firework ignited the foam ceiling, fire exits where chained shut, and no working fire extinguishers.
The one that left an indelible mark on the States is the tragic fire at The Station nightclub in West Warrick, RI on February 20, 2003. The 80s rock band, Great White was scheduled to perform as headliner at the club that Thursday night. As the band’s set started, their tour manager Daniel Bichele, ignited the band’s pyrotechnics with total disregard to the size of the building, type of acoustical and insulation foam that was over the stage and ignoring the possibility that these fireworks might be too much for the space. That night, 100 people lost their lives and another 200 were injured due to negligence, on the part of the band and their crew, those in charge of the venue that night, and also the club’s owners and city officials that allowed the building to stay open despite the fact it was in violation of multiple fire codes.
Disregard for human safety is the dark side of the music industry, one that must be brought into the light and held accountable. Criminal charges where filed in all cases with mixed results. For The Station tragedy, the band itself maintains their innocence, while Bichele plead guilty to all charges and served four years of a fifteen-year sentence. The club’s owners also served lightened sentences, or not at all, and not one member of Great White has claimed any responsibility to date. Also many civil suits followed with the list of named defendants lengthily, from the club owners, to the city and state governments, the makers of the foam, the ones that sold it, even against JBL for the foam in the speakers and the concert promoter, as the show was sponsored by the local radio station owned by broadcasting giant, Clear Channel.
Later years brought more tragedy in the form of staging and roofing collapses. August 1, 2009 tipped off the new wave of issues at the Big Valley Jamboree Festival in Alberta, Canada, leaving 40 injured, and one dead. July 17, 2011 at the Ottawa City Blues Fest, the band Cheap Trick was in the middle of their performance when a storm that had blown up took a turn for the worse. Literally seconds before the roofing of the stage was blown backwards, the band had decided mid-song to leave the stage, and as they did, it came crashing down on them. Taking the brunt of the initial hit was the band’s gear truck parked behind the stage that was crushed by but gave the band time to get free of the stage and allow the roadies just enough time to clamber up and grab equipment. Though the band and most of the crew escaped injury, a few did not including their truck driver and another stagehand. Then on June 16, 2012, a temporary roof and stage setup for a Radiohead concert in Toronto collapsed prior to show opening, killing drum tech, Scott Johnson for the opening band the BBC. There where no adverse weather conditions however in Toronto that day, and there is still no official ruling to date on the cause of the roof collapse.
Aug. 6, 2011, high winds toppled a lighting rig at an outdoor concert by the Flaming Lips in Tulsa, Oklahoma, followed by the tragedy at the IndianaState Fair when the roof blew off just prior to the band Sugarland taking the stage, killing 5 and injuring many more. Again, in each of these cases, a set list of things go wrong prior to the show start or to anyone getting on those stages. Safety checks and inspections on the structures for internal integrity were not performed or not up to standard, weather conditions where not taken into account and the calls were not made early enough to prevent injury, and also, the roofing was overloaded with lighting and audio, on truss not wind rated for the kind of poundage that was strapped to them, causing them to tip in high winds.
Through all of these, fingers have been pointed, some charges filed on many parties, and civil lawsuits abound. In some areas, the state and federal laws have been updated to include new safety measures for venues and other places of gathering, however, it’s not enough, indeed, some say it’s too little, too late. Advocates, such as Paul Wartheimer of Crowd Management Strategies published a list of 14 questions that he believes should be used as reference prior to starting any outdoor live event. He also sites many other lessons that are to be learned after any large crowd disaster, citing the state fair as the most recent, but applying to all, “A lack of comprehensive local, state and national safety laws and standards; an appalling lack of competent event management and staffing; a failure to enforce or comply to safety laws that do exist; and the failure to hold parties criminally responsible for preventable crowd disasters,” says Wartheimer in his follow-up article, The Indiana State Fair Tragedy One Year Later: What Happened And What To Do Now.
Going forward however, it is the responsibility of everyone involved in show production to be safety minded first, foremost and always. Communication with all staff connected to the event is vital, and must stay up to date. There is no room for pointing blame when lives are being lost, all in the name of a good time. Fans that thought they would get to see the show of their lives and instead gave their lives to the show. This cannot be allowed to continue, the days of “it’s not my job” are long gone, and the person that doesn’t speak up about potential problems is just as guilty as the person that ignored them.