A stage constructed solely for Travis Scott’s performance, and the artist’s chosen set time, may have played a role in the crowd surge that left eight Astroworld Festival attendees dead on Friday night (Nov. 5).
The concert drew 50,000 people to Houston’s NRG Park, where performers included SZA, Lil Baby and Roddy Ricch, among others, but while billed as a two stage event, Astroworld veered from the usual festival protocol of staggering performances on opposite stages, as Scott (with a special appearance by Drake for their hit “Sicko Mode”) was the only headliner on the so-called “Chills” stage.
Sources tell Variety that the stage used by Scott, dubbed “Utopia Mountain,” was constructed at a cost of some $5 million and purportedly per the artist’s visual specifications. A one-time use construction that took three days to build, the mountain-like stage came complete with pyro, lasers, risers and a virtual tunnel. Its grandness was visible from virtually any area on the festival grounds, but that didn’t stop fans from parking themselves in front of the stage more than eight hours before Scott’s set was due to start, at 8:45 p.m. Those at the very front, pushed up against metal barriers, likely felt the surge thousands arriving en masse after SZA’s set ended at 8 p.m.
The fateful decision was in having Scott go on 45 minutes later, as opposed to overlapping slightly with SZA’s set or even beginning just as it ended at 8 p.m. It’s what live music professionals call “spreading the field,” and it’s a key facet of crowd control at a large-scale event like a music festival. For instance, at Bonnaroo, held in Tennessee in June, acts are spread out over four main stages — with names like What Stage and Which Stage — and multiple smaller tents. And while the headliner, which has included the likes of Paul McCartney, Phish, Pearl Jam, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bruce Springsteen, undoubtably draws the biggest crowd (100,000 attended in 2019), the act doesn’t go on as the only entertainment option for its slot, at least at the start.
Take San Francisco’s Outside Lands, for instance, held on Halloween weekend. On Friday night, the Strokes were on from 8:25 p.m. to 9:55 p.m. while simultaneously, Tyler the Creator performed from 8:25 p.m. to 9:40 p.m. On Saturday, Lizzo was the headliner and the much smaller indie band Lord Huron went on opposite, but still, that allowed some dispersal of crowds. At Coachella, there will typically be three other artists on at the same time as the final headliner, but they’ll often be more niche acts or EDM DJs so as to distribute the crowd and offer multiple options.
“That could be looked at as a fuck-up,” says one source of Scott’s solo set. This insider also points to the fact that Astroworld’s general-admission (GA) set up in a non-traditional venue and a countdown clock to Scott’s performance may have exacerbated the situation. “You have a big open space and these metal barriers that, when people run, you can’t climb over them. This was a young crowd, high fandom and a lot of intensity.”
The countdown clock caused much of that running, eyewitnesses report. “The crux of the problem likely happened as the clock got close to zero,” adds the source. “Now people are going to be asking: Who knew what was going on? Were they aware that there was an ambulance call on the floor? And why didn’t they stop the set?”
Another element that could have mitigated the tragedy? Having the festival take place in a venue with fixed seating. Even with a GA floor, assigned seating keeps the majority of ticket-holders in fixed positions. Recent upgrades to arenas have even done away with “concourse level” areas that make it easier to sneak into sections for which an attendee is not ticketed.
Such tragedies are rare but have been known to occur more often at open-field or GA shows. You could go back to Altamont in 1969, where 300,000 arrived at a race track outside of the Bay Area and one attendee was stabbed after the crowd turned violent. Acts like Radiohead and Sugarland have seen tragic stage collapses in recent years, as has Belgium’s Pukkelpop festival, during which five people died as a result of a severe thunderstorm.
Concert promoter Peter Shapiro, whose festival credits include Virginia’s Lockn’ Festival, sees such incidents as a deterrent for future events. “Because of the weather and climate change, as a guy putting on big festivals, I’m trying to actually get out of that and do more smaller, boutique shows. This year we did three smaller events instead of one big one.”
While Shapiro declined to comment on Astroworld specifically, he acknowledges that such situations are “scary,” adding: “I wonder if it is going to make it harder to do large scale events like this?”
Representatives for Scott and Live Nation, Astroworld’s promoter, declined to comment.
A 14-year-old and a 16-year-old were among the eight people who died, said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press conference held on Saturday (Nov. 5). “This incident is being thoroughly investigated and reviewed,” he said. “It is important for us to ascertain, from last night, what took place, what happened, where missteps may have occurred.”
Lina Hidalgo, the Harris County judge, added that the city and county had worked with Live Nation, the promoter, on a site and security plan prior to the event. “And so perhaps the plans were inadequate,” she said. “Perhaps the plans were good but they weren’t followed. Perhaps it was something else entirely.”
Night two of Astroworld was canceled in the wake of Friday’s deaths.
Scott is next scheduled to headline the Day N Vegas Festival on Saturday, Nov. 13, performing on the main stage from 10:45 to 11:45 p.m.
Reps for both Scott and Day N Vegas, which is being presented by AEG, had no immediate comment on what will happen with the scheduled appearance.
With additional reporting by Chris Willman
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