Since the COVID-19 pandemic began to ease, people long denied the safe haven of festivals have been returning in droves. Festivals represent a forum of human expression, where those who wish to share in revelry can escape mundane reality and channel the deeper, more imaginative spirit of the human essence. However, the transition back to the new normal of festivals has been anything but normal. There is no doubt that the vitality of festival goers still exists. The festivals themselves, however, appear to, more often than not, be crumbling around us. This is for reasons beyond and within their control, swirling into the perfect storm that threatens these sanctuaries of free expression.
In terms of post-COVID festivals that concluded in disasters of their own greed, the 2021 Astroworld Festival immediately comes to mind. ScoreMore Shows, a subsidiary of entertainment giant Live Nation, managed security by delegating a chain of contractors, a move that undoubtedly saved the multibillion dollar company money while sacrificing proper planning and guest safety. The emergency management plan for the event did not include plans for crowd crushes, leaving them wholly unprepared for the tragedy in which 10 people suffocated to death in a packed crowd. Security lost control of entry gates, medics were untrained in CPR and the show continued to its finish due to a lack of chain in command to end the festival.
Memories of this tragedy still run deep in the minds of promoters, forever changing how security is managed at large-scale festivals, right? Wrong. The recent Electric Zoo festival in New York City proved that money still reigns supreme and echoed flashes of the Astroworld tragedy. After the first day of the festival was canceled (ostensibly due to supply chain issues, but actually for a lack of preparedness or permits,) the second day started delayed and the third day was both understaffed, underprepared and oversold, causing frustrated fans to storm the entry gates and risk another crush. The organizers of Electric Zoo now face a class action lawsuit.
Not every festival organizer is alike, however. Festivals that are well prepared and organized are still being held, but face challenges of their own due to the circumstances of the world around us. The 2023 Burning Man festival stands a clear example of this. The latest edition of the firebrand arts festival in the Black Rock Desert was hampered by a sudden deluge of rain that turned the expansive playa into an inhospitable muddy terrain that trapped attendees. Though organizers had an emergency management plan for rainfall, those at Burning Man were trapped unless they could manage the multi-mile walk out through calf-deep mud. One fatality was reported.
Even Rhode Island is not exempt from these forces of chaos. PVDFest, an annual arts festival in Providence, was beset with struggle from the start. Changes led by Mayor Brett Smiley were beset in controversy with the mayor looking to transition from a more energized “block party” feel to a smaller arts-focused festival. Perhaps the mayor thought this could improve safety and streamline operations for the organizers, but perhaps the mayor should have considered our changing climate. A sudden storm on the festival’s last day resulted in an early cancellation, and lost capital for artists and food truck operators who already struggled with sales due to the festival’s unpopular location change.
Managing finances and logistics for a festival is no small task. Yet the circumstances of recent festivals make it all the more clear that significant reform is needed. Too often is management of these festivals relegated to massive entities that kick responsibility to subcontractors, with no proper planning for emergencies, weather issues, or even day-to-day running of the event. Unless these organizers relinquish power to those with a passion for free expression instead of a passion for capital, we will continue to see not only these citadels of creativity falter, but more lives risked.