On November 5th, 2021, Arturo Sanchez’s life was saved by a plastic disposable water bottle. He was attending Astroworld Festival at NRG Park in Houston, TX, eager to see Travis Scott perform for the first time since the pandemic. “I was a fan. Everyone’s there, singing along and I’m like ‘I’m here to live, to rage’,” he recalled over video call in February 2022, surrounded by trash bags Scott's merchandise.
Arturo wasn’t alone. The fifty-thousand person crowd at rapper Travis Scott’s show was packed shoulder-to-shoulder ready to rage. If they wanted to leave, they couldn’t––exits were too far away, there was no breathing room. Trapped in threatening physical conditions, the suspense was palpable; a crowd anticipating a release two years in the making.
Arturo went into cardiac arrest during Scott’s show. Ten people perished that evening and hundreds more were severely injured, the result of an astronomical crowd crush. Arturo was a diehard fan, a committed listener since 2014, but never intended to nearly die for the singer.
Live entertainment is a “community center” for subcultures. “Collective assembly has long been a part of the human experience,” wrote researcher Brene Brown. “[It] is more than just people coming together to distract themselves from life—instead it is an opportunity to feel connected to something bigger than oneself; it is an opportunity to feel joy, social connection, meaning, and peace.” (1) Entertainment helps us understand ourselves and the world around us more intimately. Sometimes it’s through joy, sadness, rage, and sometimes it’s ecstasy in its purest form.
What happens if today’s entertainment is redesigned for people rather than profit? Live entertainment as a catalyst for assembly is spiritual at its best; at worst, it can be deadly. Gathering can be hypnotic–heightening pleasure and release–influenced by a shared experience. These emotions make us vulnerable. Entertainment is a harbinger of anonymous intimacy, moments where we may not know those around us by name, but share a transformative experience. A feeling of being together, alone. (2) A spiritual wave of togetherness; a stasis imperative to society.
Prior to the shutdown entertainment was deeply transcendental but taken for granted, viewed as a frivolity unnecessary for the function of society. (3) In the midst of this ongoing pandemic, we’re all searching for a place to belong, to feel seen, to begin a process of restoration and healing. Our deep-seated resolve to gather has only strengthened. Today, people long for the bygone days of singing with strangers at Woodstock, twisting along to mediocre music in crusty bars, or dancing with abandon in an empty warehouse.
“Audiences don't want a story about the pandemic,” said Jenny Weinbloom, Head of Studio at Impact Museums. (4) “We're coming to this space to be awash in sensation. That sensation can be most powerful when it can involve touch, eye contact, and true intimacy. Being awash in sensation can also occur through light, through music, through spectacle. Right now, there's an audience craving connection, and craving the opportunity to open up and feel their feelings in communal space in a manner that is less like going to the theater and more like going to church.”
ASTROWORLD FESTIVAL, Houston TX.
October 26th, 2021.
Travis Scott, chart-topping rapper and singer, posts
a graphic to his Instagram; a poster for the
upcoming Astroworld Festival, managed by Live
Nation Entertainment. The image announces artists
in the festival lineup. Scott’s caption invited his
followers to attend with palpable enthusiasm.
“...PS THE SHOW IS SOLD OUT BUT I FINESSED A
BIT MORE FOR YALL LETS THE RAGGGGGEEEEEEEEERSS
FUCKING COMMENCE.” (5)
This post is a manipulative invitation. Luring fans to Astroworld Festival in an aggressive siren song, Travis Scott set expectations for the event. Though it had sold out months ago, this caption set a social precedent; “ragers commence”. How? Are more tickets available? The only clarity is in expectations–Scott asks for “ragers” and explosive behavior. This messaging, a first moment of many, led to the anticipation from prolonged isolation to combust.
Arturo Sanchez, cousin Karina, and their friend decide to attend the festival in early November. They purchase tickets for $350 each via OfferUp, drive the four hours from Dallas to Houston, Texas, and settle into a cheap hotel.
November 5th, 2021. Break-Ins.
The trio is waiting in the merchandise line. People without tickets, several hundred, storm through general admission. They run past security, leaping into lines and tearing apart barricades to blend in. “From that point, the whole day just felt off,” Arturo said. (6) Police are on horses near general admission, towering over the trespassers. Merely a scare tactic, they let hundreds into the festival without repercussions around 1:00pm and 4:00pm.
The lack of authority and consequences gives the players power. Unclear leadership and unspoken rules gave reward to the risk of illegal entry. “A great deal of pleasure…can be derived from subverting set interaction norms,” wrote Mary Flanagan. “Players will consistently explore what is permissible and what pushes at that boundary between rules and expectations, and a player’s own agency.” (7)
Karina, Arturo, and their friend grab some fried chicken, water, and one beer each from one of the many food trucks. (8) After eating, they separate and Arturo goes to the main stage. He finds space about a third of the way back to wait for Scott’s show among camped-out fans.
Prior to Travis Scott’s performance, no other musicians were scheduled to perform at this stage. (9) Arturo waited in the sun for hours and some even longer in the sixty-five degree heat. This wait is physically exhausting. It alters a person’s mental state, strengthening their resolve. Anticipating catharsis heightens players' potential for pleasure, but can quickly tip the scales. (10) Festival design here primed a culture of agitation and frustration with this wait; one where players will “do whatever it takes” to have the experience they’ve imagined for a year-and-a-half.
People are congregating rapidly. Travis Scott’s set isn’t scheduled until 9:00pm, but the excitement is ominous. Thousands are ready to rage.
Travis Scott is known for high-energy concerts. (11) Design continued to build excitement, already high after the pandemic; presumably what the designers wanted. (12)
To better understand the power (and volatility) of crowds, I spoke with Paul Wertheimer, a crowd safety expert who has been working in the field since The Who concert disaster in 1979. (13) I asked if he had seen evidence of a reinvigorated lust for life following pandemic isolation. “You could see this coming,” Paul sighed. “People need it. Inside, they're overzealous because they've been so pent up, but nobody seemed to be prepared for that.” (14)
There is currently no federal regulation for concert safety, allowing producers to prioritize capitalistic motives in the physical environment. Designed to pack in players, the venue had minimal exits, large sections, and lack of management that did not adhere to recommendations set by the 101 Life Safety Code. (15) An estimated fifty-thousand people attended the Travis Scott show at Astroworld; by this calculation a minimum of two-hundred crowd managers should have been present. Crowd managers are people “dealing with the crowd itself,” Paul said. They are to “understand impending difficulties before they take place.” This is preventative design. Roughly 1,200 security personnel were present. (16) While this meets the quantity, no one was dedicated to the players themselves.
The screen onstage goes black, and a giant countdown
clock appears: 30:00:00. (17) The clock clicks down for
thirty minutes. Growing anticipation. “People were moving
a lot. I was not in control of where I was standing,”
Arturo said, fated to flow with the crowd.
Karina and her friend make their way to the main stage.
By this time, the crowd is so full they are only able to
find space near the very back of the audience. In a vast
sea of people, she struggles to keep her footing and
breathing steady. “If I did not follow the crowd I would
fall over. I was so focused on where my feet were planted.
For a few seconds I would look up to see the concert,
get air, and then go back to my feet,” Karina said.
The countdown clock hits zero. The screen goes black.
Forty-two seconds go by. There's a hum in the air.
It’s quiet––as quiet as fifty-thousand people can be.
Synthesizers crescendo, teasing a bass drop. Players
fall victim to the rabid anticipation of the crowd. A few
start to grumble, others shush, and the world explodes.
“LET’S GOOOOOOO!” Travis Scott screams into an auto-tuned microphone, leaping onstage in a burst of flames, lasers, and light. Wearing a black shirt and jeans, he is collared by a silver chain with giant inset pearls. 50,000 players jump to the throbbing bass. He’s playing a single released this morning, ironically titled Escape Plan.
Arturo is a looming presence, standing about six feet tall and two hundred pounds.“Within the first ten seconds I was in distress.” Frantically searching for a way out, he walks toward the back of the crowd. Bodies knock him to the floor and pin him as they surge forward. “I started grabbing people's hands, trying to shake them to look at me, to save me, pinching people's thighs. I knew I was going to die. I took two or three big deep breaths. And I guess that's when my heart gave out on me.”
Travis Scott’s show began with a booming bass drop, crushing percussion, and literal balls of fire. He and his team designed this experience to build to peak excitement–a climax resulting in Arturo’s cardiac arrest, hundreds of injuries, and the loss of ten young lives. Sale-able effervescence as the catalyst for great tragedy.
Due to these oversights (and more) the event was primed to self-destruct: a lack of performers between stages, the countdown clock, posturing security, the list goes on. There are recommended mitigations, but none legally required. (18) In a statement to Forbes, Live Nation claims to engage in “detailed security planning in coordination with local stakeholders including law enforcement, fire and EMT professionals.” (19) Notably no crowd managers.
Astroworld is a blatant disregard for trauma-informed entertainment design, as evidenced by these selected moments. As one of the first music festivals to return following the onset of the pandemic, audiences were primed for ecstasy. People were hungry for an experience, ready to become players again; tickets sold out in under an hour six months prior to the festival, with no announced performers. (20) Players spent anywhere from $350 to over a thousand dollars to attend the two-day festival.
The designers and managers of Astroworld weren’t designing safe social, emotional, or physical environments. Their design merely prioritized ticket sales, packing in more bodies as capitalism preyed on pleasure above all else. As Paul Wertheimer scornfully said, “We need the hero that designs the event so well, there never is a catastrophe.” Live Nation, Scott, and the Astroworld team were not that hero.
After the show Arturo is unconscious. (21) An off-duty nurse attending
the concert finds his body with a faint pulse, and resuscitates him
using CPR and a plastic disposable water bottle. Arturo stabilizes,
and is rushed to a Houston-area hospital alone.
The next morning Arturo was told he had gone into cardiac arrest
in the crowd crush. His body was found in the middle of where
Axel Acosta, Ezra Blount, Madison Dubiski, Danish Baig, Jacob
Jurinek, John Hilgert, Brianna Rodriguez, Franco Patino, Rudy Peña,
and Bharti Shahani had lost their lives. (22) If design hadn’t primed a
culture of rebellion, these ten young lives wouldn’t have been lost.
In a private video shared via Instagram DM, Arturo pointed
something out––his legs, pinned under Axel Acosta’s sprawled
body as Axel lay motionless, his face slightly purple.
As of early February, Arturo regularly sees a psychologist,
cardiologist, and neurologist; extensive care for a
twenty-three-year-old who was before perfectly healthy. He
struggles with panic attacks and memory now, unable to remember
the players’ names for the kids soccer team he coaches.
“It was to the point where I didn't want to be alive,” he shared, in tears. It wasn’t until the Wednesday before we spoke, three months after the tragedy, that Arturo could confidently say he had a good day.
1 Brene Brown, “Why Experiencing Joy and Pain in a Group is So Powerful,” Greater Good Magazine, January 9, 2019. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_experiencing_joy_and_pain_in_a_group_is_so_powerful.
2 This physical stasis is perhaps the antithesis of Sherry Turkle’s definition of “alone together”, but the same still rings true. “Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own.
Sherry Turkle, ”The Flight From Conversation,” New York Times, April 12, 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/opinion/sunday/the-flight-from-conversation.html.
3 Live entertainment vanished overnight in spring of 2020, and has yet to return to its former glory.This stands as of publication in 2022. There are still some capacity restrictions, masks create a physical barrier, and the looming threat of infection places an ominous air over any large gathering. This is rapidly evolving, and may change by publication.
4 Jenny Weinbloom, interviewed via Zoom February 14, 2022.
5 Travis Scott’s brand as a musician is built around what he calls “raging”; physical expression of his music in the form of mosh pits, crowd-surfing, stage-diving, and more. This physicality, encouraged by the design of Scott’s performance, has brought him to court twice prior to this tragedy for inciting riots at his performances. It is a culture of anger and disregard for authority; even Scott. The line between shared catharsis and the explosive nature of young, angry crowds is a thin fuse.
6 Arturo Sanchez, Interview by author, Zoom recording, February 8, 2022.
7 Mary Flanagan, “Introduction,” Critical Play: Radical Game Design,13, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013.
8 Karina Z, Interview by author, Zoom recording, February 1, 2022.
9 Astroworld had two stages in operation during the festival. On November 5th, every performer aside from Travis Scott was delegated to the “Thrills Stage”; Scott’s show was the only one scheduled for the “Chills Stage” that day.
Joey Guerra, “Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival lineup revealed,” Preview Houston Chronicle, November 4, 2021. https://preview.houstonchronicle.com/music/travis-scott-s-astroworld-festival-day-1-lineup-16592735
10 psychneuro. “Music: The Anticipation is Killing Me.” On Psychology and Neuroscience, April 20, 2016. https://psych-neuro.com/2016/04/20/music-the-anticipation-is-killing-me
11 Scott has a long history of volatile concerts and crowds, resulting in hundreds of injuries, lawsuits, and Scott’s arrest. He has a reputation for stirring up his fan base, so much so that a riot at his show in May 2017 resulted in three misdemeanor charges and Scott’s arrest. “I just hate getting arrested, man. That s— is whack,” he said in a 2019 Netflix documentary titled “Look Mom I Can Fly”. In 2015 he pled guilty to two charges of reckless conduct after encouraging fans to climb over barricades at Lollapalooza, resulting in Scott under court supervision for a year. Kyle Green, a concert-goer, was left paralyzed following a Travis Scott show at Terminal 5 in New York City in April 2017 where he was pushed off an upper-deck balcony by fans after encouragement from Scott. The 2019 Astroworld Festival left three people hospitalized following a stampede over security barriers, one encouraged by an Instagram comment from Scott. This is an ongoing pattern of language and design that ultimately causes extensive harm.
August Brown, “For Travis Scott, a history of chaos at concerts, followed by a night of unspeakable tragedy,” Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2021. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2021-11-07/astroworld-travis-scott-festival-concert-history
12 Astroworld Festival is produced and managed by Live Nation Entertainment, an entertainment production company with a virtual monopoly over the production of live entertainment in the United States. While Scott and his creative team likely managed the content of the concert (set list, dialogue between songs, use of pyrotechnics, guest performers, etc.), Live Nation managed the operations and management of the festival, including designing aspects like audience flooring, number of spectator sections, security and crowd management, as well as technical equipment. The company, having been subject to hundreds of lawsuits pertaining to death and injury at their events since 2006, turns billions of dollars in revenue every quarter.
13 In 1979 in Cincinnati, Ohio, a crowd surge outside the entrance to the Riverfront Coliseum resulted in the deaths of 11 people. Paul Wertheimer was one of many on the citizen task force developed to understand the cause of the crush and create guidelines for Cincinnati so this would not happen again. This launched his career in crowd safety. Unfortunately, his recommendations and reports have yet to support the development of clear safety regulations in the concert industry.
14 Paul Wertheimer, Interview by author, Zoom recording, January 31, 2022.
15 Published by the National Fire Protection Association. Some of these recommendations include: Having at least one crowd manager for every 250 occupants at an event; In places larger than 10,000 square feet, the crowd density shouldn't exceed one person every seven square feet (about 2.6 feet by 2.6 feet); There must be adequate access to exits. In areas without well-defined exits, the exits can be distributed around the perimeter as long as they can accommodate the entire crowd; Life safety evaluations are required for events with more than 6,000 people. Those evaluations must detail safety measures in case of medical emergencies, natural disasters and other possible emergencies.
Kristin Bigda, “Strategies for Crowd Management Safety,” National Fire Protection Agency, May 20, 2021. https://www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Publications-and-media/Blogs-Landing-Page/NFPA-Today/Blog-Posts/2021/05/20/Strategies-for-Crowd-Management-Safety.
16 Anna Kapla, “Live Nation’s Role In Astroworld Festival Under Investigation From House Oversight Committee,” Forbes, December 22, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/annakaplan/2021/12/22/live-nations-role-in-astroworld-festival-under-investigation-from-house-oversight-committee/?sh=1ec08ed5fa61.
17 Travis Scott, Live from Utopia Mountain, Astroworld Festival, Houston, TX, Apple Music Livestream, November 5, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Q1AF00SqXE&t=124s.
18 Safety experts recommend the DIME-ICE model for crowd analysis and risk-management. DIME lays out the four ways a crowd can be influenced during an event; design of a space, information shared such as communicated safety, management of systems in case of emergency, and expectations from all stakeholders regarding how the event will play out. ICE looks at the trajectory of the event and crowd activity through ingress, circulation, and egress.
Entertainment Services & Technology Association and Event Safety Alliance. ANSI ES1.9-2020 Crowd Management, July 6, 2020.
19 Live Nation Entertainment’s statement to Forbes: “[Live Nation] will of course share information with the Committee as well… Safety is core to live events and Live Nation engages in detailed security planning in coordination with local stakeholders including law enforcement, fire and EMT professionals. We are heartbroken by the events at Astroworld and our deepest sympathies go out to the families and friends of the victims.”
Anna Kaplan, “Live Nation’s Role In Astroworld Festival Under Investigation From House Oversight Committee,” Forbes, December 22, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/annakaplan/2021/12/22/live-nations-role-in-astroworld-festival-under-investigation-from-house-oversight-committee/?sh=1ec08ed5fa61.
20 In May of 2021, according to Hypebeast and Astroworld Festival’s official Instagram, the festival sold out in under one hour despite no line up being announced. These ticket prices were also up from the last full festival in 2019, with tickets costing between $89 to $550 for a one-day festival. With an understanding that the festival was now longer in 2021, and people were itching to return to concerts, Live Nation was able to more than double the ticket prices. These prices do not include food, drink, attractions, or merchandise available within the festival.
Nicolaus Li, “Travis Scott's Astroworld Festival Sells out in under One Hour, Fans Complain about $300 USD Starting Price,” HYPEBEAST, May 6, 2021. https://hypebeast.com/2021/5/travis-scotts-astroworld-festival-sells-out-in-under-one-hour-fans-complain-about-300-usd-starting-price.
21 The next hour and twelve minutes surf a tsunami of chaos. About twenty-one minutes into the video livestream produced by Apple Music a woman distinctly screams “help, help, help, someone help us”. Moments after, Travis Scott says “Everybody put their middle finger up to the sky, cuz my boy ready to rage.. The one thing we know at this show, there are no bystanders at a motherfuckin’ show” and launches into his song No Bystanders. This is thematic; Drake makes a surprise appearance introduced by Scott saing “Houston, I wanna see the motherfuckin’ rage and I know what’s gonna do it” as they begin to play Knife Talk. “Houston, Texas, I love y’all. Please get home safe. Goodniiiiiiight!” ends the show with a literal bang, blasting fireworks off the top of the stage.
Travis Scott, Live from Utopia Mountain, Astroworld Festival, Houston, TX, Apple Music Livestream, November 5, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Q1AF00SqXE&t=124s.
22 The ten people who died at Astroworld and in the hospital a few days later were young, between nine and twenty-three years old. Cause of death was determined by the medical examiner to be compression asphyxia, which occurs when there is an external force limiting the lungs ability to expand to intake air. The subsequent lack of oxygen leads to organ failure and death in minutes.
Jon Blistein, “Astroworld Victims Died of ‘Compression Asphyxia,’ Medical Examiner Determines,” Rolling Stone, December 16, 2021. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/astroworld-victims-cause-of-death-1272930/.