Updated at 9:35 a.m. ET on Thursday, November 11, 2021
Early in the summer, when so many people felt giddy about getting back together, I was jolted with dread for the gatherings to come. The cause was an HBO documentary about the Woodstock ’99 music festival, which resulted in destructive infernos, reported sexual assaults, and three deaths. The film portrayed that catastrophe as both a product of its times—the dreams of the ’90s gone rotten—and an example of industry figures skimping on safety for a profit. After more than a year without many huge concerts, the history lesson felt like a warning of what might happen when they returned in earnest: that many people might act especially recklessly, and many organizers especially opportunistically.
What took place at the Astroworld festival in Houston last Friday is, nevertheless, shocking. Eight attendees died and hundreds more were injured after the crowd surged during a nighttime set by the rapper Travis Scott, the founder and face of the festival. As the audience pressed together, people experienced heart attacks, breathing difficulties, suspected drug overdoses, and trampling. Videos appear to show crowd members screaming out requests to stop the show, which kept going even as an ambulance pushed through the throng. Scott has expressed horror and remorse, law enforcement is investigating what happened, and multiple lawsuits have been filed in the aftermath.
Concerts have occasionally turned deadly over the decades, but seeing a gruesome one occur just as mass gatherings make a comeback feels particularly ominous. Some observers might even view the Astroworld tragedy as a reminder of how leaving the house and joining up with thousands of other people always carries risks. But talking about concert catastrophes as if they’re a grim tradition, or some inevitable side effect of the impulse to gather, only distracts from the reality that safety is often something within our control. Now is the moment for the entertainment industry to reckon with the way that large events can dehumanize their participants—with deadly results.
“You become one with the crowd,” one Astroworld attendee told The New York Times, referring to the physical reality that a tightly packed audience can severely constrict movement. A variety of factors can create the conditions for such crushes. Astroworld’s “festival-style” layout, with no assigned seating, is understood to be a potentially dangerous configuration even though it has become popular because it accommodates more attendees. Earlier in the day, hundreds of people broke through the gates, likely contributing to a head count exceeding the 50,000 tickets sold and creating a greater density than expected.
Successfully managing such circumstances requires forethought, resources, and vigilance. Before the event, the organizers’ medical vendor had put together a 22-page planning document for how to handle emergencies. But the festival’s doctors and nurses were quickly overwhelmed as hundreds of people became injured or sick. Attendees have also reported being unable to flag down security guards for help. “Perhaps the plans were inadequate,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a press conference. “Perhaps the plans were good but they weren’t followed. Perhaps it was something else entirely.” Investigations will bring more light to those questions.
In the meantime, public attention has focused on the role played by Scott, who is notorious for goading his followers into risky rowdiness at shows. He has pleaded guilty to reckless or disorderly conduct twice—after instructing Lollapalooza attendees to climb over barricades in 2015, and after police said he tried to incite a riot at a show in 2017—and he once infamously encouraged a concertgoer to jump from a theater balcony. The 2019 Astroworld festival saw some injuries from trampling, but Scott wasn’t exactly preaching caution when hyping its sequel: On Instagram, he wrote about craving chaos after being cooped up for so long. When the concert sold out in May, he posted, “IM PUTTING A PLAN TOGETHER NOW TO GET SOME MORE OF THE WILD ONES IN. EVEN IF I GOTTA SNEAK THEM IN.”
A sense of mayhem is part of the fun of so much live music, but even the loudest musicians have been known to quiet things down when their followers get out of control. The history of rambunctious concerts is partly a history of artists setting norms and intervening—even Woodstock ’99 featured The Offspring’s Dexter Holland telling men to stop groping female crowd surfers. On Friday, Scott stopped the show momentarily when he spotted someone who needed assistance and when he noticed an ambulance in the crowd. But he quickly resumed both times, and kept performing for nearly 40 minutes after city officials declared a “mass casualty event.”
It is, to be sure, impossible to say exactly how much of a difference Scott’s actions made or could have made. Some security experts have said that suddenly ending such a packed show might have caused a riot, but Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña told the Times that Scott should have taken a “tactical pause.” Scott’s girlfriend, Kylie Jenner, has said they didn’t know of any deaths until after the show, and Scott posted an Instagram video saying, “I could just never imagine the severity of the situation.” In any case, the clips of the rapper performing feet away from incapacitated fans don’t suggest that Scott proactively fostered an atmosphere of watchfulness or care for the people who had come to see him. In the Houston Chronicle, Basil Mirza Baig—whose brother, Danish Baig, was trampled to death—recalled how it felt for the music to keep playing as mayhem unfolded: “Travis Scott just kept telling people to rage. We were nobodies to them.”
It is common to view crowds in that manner—as a big “nobody,” all undifferentiated bodies swaying as one. But the truth is that live-music audiences are temporary communities that are shaped by their circumstances and composed of people with free will. In the wrenching videos that have emerged from the ground at Astroworld, you see some heedless concertgoers climbing up on ambulances. You also see people helping the injured, pleading with concert staffers, and generally trying to raise alarm. In each case, individuals acted against the supposed single mind of the crowd.
To read through the biographies of the victims is to be reminded in another way of how a crowd is just a collection of humans with their own stories, their own loved ones, and their own desires. Two minors, a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old, are among those dead, and the oldest of the eight fatalities was just 27. Their numbers include an athlete and an artist and a husband-to-be, and a fear of death likely wasn’t on their mind when they went out to one of the first major music festivals held in more than a year. Promoters, performers, and organizers are the ones who should be thinking about the conditions they create and profit from—so that the mass communion that so many people have been longing for doesn’t become a nightmare.
This article initially stated that Travis Scott said, “Who asked me to stop?” during his Astroworld performance. He did not.