Astroworld: The Anatomy of Crowd Disaster
It’s every festival-goer’s worst nightmare. You are standing in a field, surrounded by an endless sea of bodies. The music is blaring and as the energy builds up people crowd closer and closer until you can’t move, arms stuck to your sides, legs precariously balanced. as you try to stand amid the increasing pressure.
That’s what it felt like in the crowd during Travis Scott’s set at the Astroworld Festival in Houston on Friday night. The sold-out event brought together over 50,000 enthusiastic fans at NRG Park in Houston, eight of whom would never come out of this deadly crowd. As soon as Scott posted the time he would take the stage on the large monitors, participants began to walk towards the front of the crowd, squeezing the rows of people closer as the mass of people crowded together. Almost as soon as he picked up the mic, the climb got stronger, pushing fans against the barricade and against each other, until their ribs had no room to dilate, choking them on square. This suffocation is called compressive asphyxia. Images and statements by participants depict people falling to the ground, overwhelmed by the suffocation and physical strain of the crowd. The push was too strong and fans watched in horror as these people were trampled before their eyes.
All the while, some attendees called out the team members in desperation, begging them to stop the show. Videos show their pleas met with apathy and confusion, with overwhelming footage of Scott himself watching the lifeless bodies being executed as he continues to drive up the crowds. ICU nurse Madeline Eskins took to social media to describe her experience that fateful night, writing: “I tried to jump as much as possible for some fresh air. I couldn’t breathe. I just felt it. I knew it was going to happen. “As some fans tried to get help from the team, you can hear others in the footage of the disaster mocking their pleas, dancing on vehicles of emergency and keep pushing and pushing.
When I woke up on Saturday morning to these shocking headlines, I felt a wave of bitterness wash over me. Since local and state restrictions were relaxed, I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few festivals and shows, looking forward to returning to my pre-pandemic joy of live music. While none of these events resulted in the massive casualties we saw at Astroworld, I felt a distinct change in my festival experience. The crowd felt more hostile, more agitated as people entered, and I left almost any set or show I went to early, blaming pandemic anxiety for my discomfort. But I have had this nagging question in my head since I came back to these events; was it really always like this?
It has been a difficult year and a half for artists and organizers of live events. Festivals have grown into a billion dollar industry, raising millions of dollars after each three day event, and in the age of streaming, touring has become the only profitable business for artists. With all of this revenue lost for over a year, event planners and performers are desperate to bring the live music experience back to life. This can lead to tickets being oversold, room capacity maximized, and a lack of infrastructure needed for the festival, which can be a deadly combination.
As music lovers, many of us also feel desperate to reconnect with our favorite artists live on stage. After a year of limited social interactions, we yearn for the days when we lose ourselves in the ecstasy of a crowd of festival-goers. As vaccinations have greatly reduced the spread of COVID, medically preparing us for a return to normalcy, I wonder if we are psychologically ready to return. In the old days, or at least before the pandemic, we would go to music festivals with largely reasonable expectations: those who wait are rewarded with better views, some A-holes might overtake you, you might not get the best view of the world. stage among thousands of other GA attendees, and it’s more fun when you try not to piss off those around you. After nearly two years without large-scale social contact, we feel hungry and deprived, desperate to make up for lost time. With every festival I’ve been to I’ve felt this tension, like we’re all lining up for our ration of pleasure at the end of a long, cold winter. The crowds are more aggressive, anxiety permeates the festival grounds. Could the tragedy of Astroworld be the culmination of our shared psychological situation as we re-enter the world we once knew?
Much criticism was leveled at festival organizers, team members and Travis Scott himself over the weekend. There are steps the organizers could have taken to strengthen the security infrastructure, and much of the blame for the tragedy definitely falls on their shoulders. But apathetic responses from crew members and Scott on Friday night offer further intriguing glimpses into our post-pandemic lives. As the participants begged a cameraman to send help, we can see his face, confused and uncertain. This man was probably independently hired by the festival, and his sole purpose is to capture every second of the performance. He does not have the power to make the call to mute the music, so he is faced with a choice. He can either risk losing his pay for the weekend or try to help members of the crowd in any way he can, even though, in the midst of the chaos, his actions can always be in vain. When chaos erupts so quickly, we turn to authority for protection, and without clear authority in sight, people shift responsibility. It really is a classic case study in the Bystander effect. What we forget in criticizing these crew members is that many of them have little power in this situation, they don’t know what to do and fear the economic consequences of crying wolf. Even Travis Scott himself was probably expecting the “man in charge” to step in if things got really out of hand.
This is not the first time that an event involving a massive crowd has occurred. The infamous Woodstock ’99 revival was a similar disaster, dubbed ‘the day music died’, with high temperatures and inadequate infrastructure stirring crowds until mass violence and huge fires broke out. . In 1989, at Hillsborough Football Stadium in England, a surge in crowds caused by a combination of inadequate space, crowd behavior and faulty architecture killed more than 100 fans. When two crowds collided during the 2015 hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, more than 2,400 people were killed. In the aftermath of each of these disasters, investigators were able to identify strategies to reduce the risk of deadly crowd influxes and deadly events, including appropriate staff training, emergency response systems, and best practices. responsible ticketing and the creation of travel lanes. There is also a certain responsibility on the performers, who need to be aware of the dynamics of a live performance. I fell in love with live music because of its ability to sweep you up in the energy of performance, but this alluring quality makes these events dangerous as well. Travis Scott is known for begging his audiences to “show up,” creating insane energy during his shows that initially put him on the map. With the combination of poor infrastructure, crowd psychology, and the nature of its setting, it looks like a disaster like this was bound to happen. For the future of live music, we must examine the causes of tragedies such as what happened at Astroworld, and determine whether it is an individual’s fault or the convergence of several collective forces. We cannot bear to have another “music dead day”.