AUSTIN (KXAN) — After the deadly stampede that rocked the Astroworld music festival in Houston Nov. 5, Austin musicians are taking a hard look at safety precautions at local shows and festivals.
Fans attending the Houston event surged toward the stage during a performance by rapper Travis Scott. Nine people were killed and several others hurt, authorities said.
Patrick Buchta, executive director of Austin Texas Musicians, says the tragedy has left artists and industry professionals across the Texas music scene reeling. “Everybody is really feeling this at a deeply personal level, because any of them could have been on that stage or in that crowd,” he explains. “You have to ask yourself in that situation, ‘Who’s responsible? When do you pull the plug on something like this?’”
Buchta adds that the tragedy raises questions about staffing, security, capacity and even actions on behalf of the artist. As a local singer and songwriter himself, he said he’s had to call out crowd behavior from the stage before. “People are looking up to you on that stage, and ultimately you’re responsible,” he says. “Really, when you’re up there on stage, you may be one of the only people who has a perspective of what’s going on in the crowd.”
In 2014, artist Tyler the Creator was arrested for starting a riot after encouraging fans to push past the gates of an event at Scoot Inn that hit maximum capacity during the SXSW festival. According to coverage at the time of the incident, the performer yelled, “All y’all outside the gates, y’all push through.” Police on scene working security said the crowd began pushing past employees and making their way inside. One employee reported he was punched in the face by someone in the crowd.
The same year, a driver sped down a crowded street during SXSW, killing four people and injuring many others.
The city of Austin released an event evaluation report on the 2014 festival. In the report, they noted that more needed to be done — despite previous changes. They’d already implemented a Unified Command Center to respond to incidents, started staggering event cut-off times to avoid crowds, had begun allowing for earlier deadlines for permit reviews, and were staffing more Public Assembly Code Enforcement (PACE) personnel at events. “Despite these efforts,,” the report noted, “the city finds itself at a critical point, where public safety could be compromised if policies aren’t put in place for SXSW and the non-sanctioned events surrounding it.”
At the time, the report said officials would increase coordination with venues on capacity and focus more on traffic and crowd management. The report also recommended increasing funding for PACE personnel. Buchta said he remembers a marked difference in safety protocols after those events.
Grace Rowland, frontwoman of the Austin-based band the Deer, says this kind of organization and proactive planning could mean the difference between a safe event and a dangerous one.
“There’s a huge, moving machine with so many parts: volunteers, paid staff, festival organizers,” she says, adding that it’s more important than ever that the “machine” is working since more people are beginning to feel comfortable attending events and crowds at these events grow.
“Being locked out of it for so long, people are really excited to return,” she says. “I think venues are seeing possibilities for selling overcapacity — like, ‘How much can we fudge? What can we do to get people in?’”
Houston officials confirmed more police officers and security had been hired at this year’s Astroworld festival than in years past, and that the event was under the allotted capacity.
Buchta said he wants artists and fans to know they’re part of that machine, too — and everyone has to be on the same wavelength. “When you go to a show — I hate to sound like an old hippie — check in with your buddy next to you,” he says, “and make sure everybody around you is okay.”