Why Are Music Festivals So Chaotic This Year?

Leon Neal/Getty Images

Why Are Music Festivals So Chaotic This Year?

Leon Neal/Getty Images

This festival season was supposed to be a triumphant comeback. Instead, it’s a mess.

Fergal Kinney has been going to music festivals since he was a teenager. But when Kinney, a 29-year-old British music journalist, attended Primavera Sound in Barcelona this past June, it was the first time he had ever feared for his safety in a festival setting.

Kinney sensed that something was off soon after arriving at Primavera, which has long been renowned for its stellar lineups and beautiful setting⁠. The festival grounds were dangerously overcrowded; bottlenecks and cramming rendered it difficult to move from one stage to another. Water points were few and far between, with music fans struggling to stay hydrated. Lines for the bar tents were absurdly long — 45 minutes to an hour. And when one of Kinney’s friends felt unwell, the friend informed the bar staff, who simply told him to get in line for bottled water.

“I’ve been going to festivals for 12, 13 years. I’ve never witnessed overcrowding as worrying as that,” Kinney says. He describes one particularly grueling crowd crush coming out of Gorillaz’s set, during which he worried that fans might literally get pushed into the Mediterranean Sea. “When I say grueling crush, I mean spending easily half an hour not really moving, and you’re very densely packed in with people,” Kinney says. “The fact that nobody died was really down to the goodwill and moderation of the people who were there. It was extremely apparent on day one that something was not right.”

“It was all anyone was talking about,” says Daniel Dylan Wray, a freelance music journalist who has been attending Primavera since 2009 and tweeted that this was the worst organization he had ever seen. “Normally you’d be immersed in the music, and the communal talking point might be: ‘What have you seen tonight?’ But instead it was: ‘What a fucking nightmare it is to do anything.'”

“In some parts of it, you could barely move,” says Ally Chapman, a music fan from Bristol, England. “Everyone just kept saying, ‘Astroworld, Astroworld, Astroworld — remember Astroworld.’ It seemed like it was gonna be very similar to that. It was dangerous.”

Fortunately, Primavera unfolded without similar tragedy, and sources say conditions improved significantly after the first night, with standout performances by the National, Fontaines D.C., and a newly reunited Pavement. On June 3, the festival acknowledged and apologized for “problems in the bar services.” “We added three points where we were giving away water bottles for free, and we rearranged the bar staff so they could attend the most crowded areas,” says Marta Pallarès, the festival’s head of international press, in a statement. “After the first night, the rest of the days ran as usual.”

Yet the chaotic clusterfuck that was Primavera Day 1 feels like more than a momentary stumble. Rather, the frustrations that greeted fans there seem representative of a festival season widely marred by overcrowding, crowd chaos, and surprising organizational blunders by ostensibly seasoned organizers.

Few big festivals have been immune. At Revolve Fest, an unauthorized, Coachella-adjacent event aimed at influencers and fashion bloggers, would-be attendees complained of being stranded in the desert sun for hours without food or water. In June, Bonnaroo mostly ran smoothly, though its first day was hindered by reports of lengthy lines leading to a single GA entrance. Later that month, Pharrell Williams’ Something In The Water fest was described by USA Today as a “logistical nightmare” spoiled by “inexcusable delays.” (“Too many people fainted, too many wrong set times,” one fan tweeted.) In July, Rolling Loud Miami was derailed by a highly publicized incident in which Kid Cudi angrily left the stage mid-set after being pelted with items thrown by audience members; another attendee accused security of failing to help a woman passing out in the front row. And just last weekend, Lollapalooza was interrupted by an injury when rapper Lil Durk was hit in the face with a pyrotechnic.

There’s no doubt that large-scale live music is fully back after last year’s test run, but it hasn’t exactly been making a smooth return. Beyond festivals per se, recent headlines are full of tales of mega-sized concerts gone awry. There was the Rage Against The Machine stage intruder who led security to accidentally tackle Tom Morello; there were the Kid Rock fans who trashed a North Dakota state fair after his show was canceled. And at the Switzerland hip-hop festival Openair Frauenfeld, both Lil Baby and Roddy Ricch had their sets interrupted by stage crashers who were both violently ejected.

* * *

What’s going on? Why is everything so chaotic lately?

Eric Renner Brown, a senior editor at Billboard who previously reported on live music for the trade publication Pollstar, believes some of the crowd issues can be attributed to a collective post-lockdown “dusting off the cobwebs.”

“The audience is out of practice. Security is out of practice. Everybody is out of practice,” Brown says. “I’ve experienced that across the board at concerts — a lot of places also having to figure out how to implement vaccine or testing entry requirements, which were implemented with very differing efficiency.”

One might expect a newish festival, like Something In The Water, to be plagued by disorganization and overcrowding. At a veteran festival like Primavera, which has been running efficiently since 2001, it is more surprising. When Brown attended Primavera in June, after looking forward to it for two years, he found himself frustrated by the crowd issues.

“For Tame Impala, the crowd was so crazy that we ended up being separated from the friends we were with. And then weren’t able to reconnect for hours,” says Brown.

“My group that I was with, we were all first-timers at Primavera,” Brown adds. “We were like, ‘This is wild. These people have been doing this for two decades. It’s one of the most respected festivals in the world for music.’ That’s what made me think, is there a dimension here to do with getting back online post-COVID? Are they having trouble getting experienced folks to staff these stations? Were they a little bit rusty in understanding how many concession stands they need to have?”

Similarly, across the pond, some festivalgoers were taken aback by the hour-long lines to get into Bonnaroo in June — a surprising hitch for such an established festival. “For the first time in Bonnaroo’s 20-plus-year history, they essentially consolidated the entrance lines to a single point,” says the festival insider known as Festive Owl, who runs the @TheFestiveOwl Twitter account and prefers to remain pseudonymous. “It got kinda frustrating for attendees and people, especially when it’s 100 degrees.”

Although he says Bonnaroo was a great weekend overall, the single-entrance problem struck him as a wholly unnecessary frustration; the second entrance was still there but designated exit only. (Bonnaroo has not responded to a request for comment.)

“I think part of the issue is they probably try to pull back staffing at areas seeing lower attendance numbers,” says Festive Owl, who has been attending Bonnaroo since 2009. “It doesn’t matter if there’s 100,000 or 20,000 [people] — if you pay $500 for a ticket, there’s things that you are buying logistically and infrastructure-wise that you deserve to have as a fan.”

Indeed, Bonnaroo appeared to be understaffed this year. Festive Owl notes that Bonnaroo’s volunteer spaces typically fill up quickly; some years, they stop taking volunteer applications by mid-April. This year, the fest was still sending out blasts asking for volunteers a week or two before the event.

“I think it just speaks to a larger thing on festivals as a whole. There’s definitely been certain festivals where it just feels not fully there yet,” says Festive Owl. “They haven’t fully recovered yet, you know what I mean?”

He adds, “I think there’s a lack of people to help do things. For instance, there’s been reductions in vendors in some of these spots because they don’t have people to work. You take away four pizza vendors, all of a sudden that could be 40, 50 people who may have been eating pizza instead of crowding into this area. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it adds up when it extrapolates over 100,000 people.”

Experts say understaffing remains a significant problem in live music. “Ever since coming out of COVID, there’s been a lot of discussion in the live industry about labor shortages,” says Brown. For instance, many major tours have been struggling to find and hire qualified tour bus drivers.

When it comes to festivals, Festive Owl (who works in the music industry) believes the problem is twofold: not only are music festivals chronically understaffed, but many of the new staffers who’ve been hired to replace those who left the industry are essentially learning on the job.

“When the pandemic started, in the music industry and a lot of industries, there was a big brain drain,” says Festive Owl. “I know a dozen people who had worked in this industry, who had worked on these events for years — they get to a point where they’re laid off and they’re not making money. So these people are doing stuff like real estate and industries that have nothing to do with live events anymore. And now they’re there and they’re not coming back.

“There are people in the fold now — I think they’re doing a great job, they’re doing the best they can, but they’re still learning in a lot of ways, you know?” Festive Owl adds. “Some of these people may be working on their first festival. It’s been three years [since the last Bonnaroo]! And it’s gonna take a little while to get back in that groove of, ‘Here’s how you produce this year in and year out.’”

* * *

This season’s festival woes are, of course, unfolding in the aftermath of last year’s disaster at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival, during which 10 people were killed and many more injured as a result of a deadly crowd crush. Scott only recently returned to the stage, with a heightened sense of urgency around keeping his fans safe: When the rapper paused a set at Coney Island’s The Day Party on July 4 to tell fans to get down from a lighting rig, his attentiveness to safety concerns made headlines around the internet. Yet it’s unclear what larger lessons the industry has taken from Astroworld.

@jefemoshing This nigga @KEVTHESPIDEYVAMP a fucking different breed bruh #travisscott #fyp #concert #NY original sound

“There’s a lot of fear right now about being in a big crowd,” says Eric Renner Brown. “I think it’s incumbent on festival organizers to make things as seamless as possible. You’re in a crowd like that, and in addition to thinking about the obvious thing — the Astroworld crowd crush — people are still iffy about being jammed together because of COVID. And you think about all the gun violence and stuff.”

Add to that the fact that some attendees are fairly new to the world of live music, and it’s a recipe for chaos. A recent Paste article chronicled Gen Z’s chaotic introduction to the world of concerts after missing out on formative experiences in 2020. “So what happens when a bunch of teenagers are desperate to have in-person experiences … and have never been to a large-scale concert before? As you could expect, absolute chaos,” wrote Paste‘s Leila Jordan. “While faintings and medical emergencies have always been a possibility at concerts, the frequency has become alarming in recent months.”

Similarly, Marta Pallarès, the Primavera spokesperson, claims that one cause of crowd flow difficulties at Primavera was that up to 80% of the audience came to the festival for the first time. “Parc del Fòrum is a huge space and if you don’t know it, it can be difficult to navigate,” Pallarès says. There were structural issues as well: Days before the festival, the harbor authority told organizers they wouldn’t be able to use the bridge that typically connects the two biggest areas in the festival, which impeded normal flow between the various points.

Some Primavera attendees assumed that festival tickets had been oversold to compensate for pandemic losses. In reality, Pallarès says, the fest sold 80,000 tickets per day, well under the Parc del Fòrum’s total capacity of 95,000.

The problem likely had less to do with raw numbers and more with an uneven distribution of audiences. In Daniel Dylan Wray’s view, because the first announced headliner was Pavement, the fest attracted indie-rock fans who were more likely to crowd around Dinosaur Jr. and Yo La Tengo rather than the dance acts, so the crowds were not well dispersed.

For experienced organizers, counterprogramming — that is, multiple acts playing on different stages with overlapping set times — is a crucial tool to keep a festival audience from all crowding into the same place at the same time. Some Coachella attendees may have griped that Harry Styles and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard were playing at the same time, but such a conflict helped ensure that neither set was dangerously packed.

“One key factor at Astroworld was how poorly designed counterprogramming/staging led to a huge mass of people all going in one direction simultaneously,” Brown says. “I wouldn’t compare Primavera to Astroworld, but the most crowded set [at Primavera], in my experience, was Tame Impala, and my working theory is that that was because Massive Attack dropped out as headliner and they didn’t add a replacement headliner, so the only competing act was Rina Sawayama.”

That brings us to another major problem with festivals of late: dropouts. Festival lineups have never been more unstable, and COVID is largely to blame. To be a live music fan in 2022 is to be keenly aware that the show you’re looking forward to might be postponed or canceled because of a positive test. And it’s hard to counterprogram effectively when a headlining act is liable to drop out at the last minute.

In June, the Strokes dropped out days before a headlining set at Primavera due to a positive test (Massive Attack had already dropped out months earlier). Milwaukee’s lengthy Summerfest, a series of concerts at venues across town, has seen eight(!) headliners cancel this year, several due to COVID. Kanye West pulled out of scheduled appearances at both Coachella and Rolling Loud Miami, though that probably has more to do with Kanye being Kanye. He made a surprise appearance at Rolling Loud anyway to perform “Hot Shit” with Lil Durk, though festivalgoers still took out their frustrations on his replacement act/nemesis, Kid Cudi, by pelting Cudi with trash and chanting Kanye’s name. Cudi left the stage after being hit with a water bottle in one of the most depressing festival spectacles of 2022.

Meanwhile, despite the Chemical Brothers cancelling their DJ set due to COVID, festivalgoers say Glastonbury ran quite smoothly this year on every front. “I can’t really praise Glastonbury enough,” Kinney says. (Let this be your obligatory acknowledgment that not all festivals are a shitshow in 2022.)

Yet as the BA.5 variant continues to spread virtually unchecked, last-minute COVID cancellations remain a liability for festival season and for live music writ large. “I’ll be interested to see the medium-to-long-term effects of that on consumer confidence and interest in festivals,” Brown says. “How is that going to affect people deciding to go to these huge festivals if there’s this idea that the rug could be pulled out from under you because of COVID?”

This is, of course, the problem with planning a triumphant post-pandemic festival season (see: Coachella dropping all COVID-19 safety restrictions against the advice of health experts) when the pandemic is very much not in the past.

Despite these woes, Festive Owl is hopeful that festival organizers will get back into a normal groove of producing these events. “But it has been a little bit rougher coming out of this than I think some people imagined,” he concedes.

* * *

In late July, Splendour In The Grass unleashed a late-stage contender for messiest festival of the season — literally speaking.

Perhaps the annual Australian music festival was doomed before it began: On July 22, organizers canceled day one of the festival, which was set to feature Gorillaz and Kacey Musgraves, due to massive rainfall. Days two and three carried on despite the complications, though the festival site near Byron Bay proved so swamped that some attendees wished it had been called off.

Bad weather may have shared the blame, but as with other recent festival mishaps, poor planning clearly exacerbated the misery. In a harrowing account for The Guardian, writer Nathan Jolly chronicles the many indignities that festivalgoers endured for the sake of the Strokes and Tyler, The Creator: hours-long bus delays, music tents rendered inaccessible due to foul-smelling mega-puddles, public urination, and “a slippery blend of mud, vomit and piss” that fans were forced to wade through to get to the site.

While some attendees reveled in the mud and partied like it was Woodstock ’94, Jolly and his companions chose to abandon ship after catching just one set (Violent Soho). Exiting the festival proved to be its own challenge; Jolly reports that some fans were forced to wait five hours for buses to arrive. “Our bus back to Byron was like a war hospital,” he writes. “Bloodied, muddied, shell-shocked people, sitting in silence with thousand-yard stares, shaking their heads every now and then. Nobody was talking.” (Splendour In The Grass released a statement apologizing for the transportation delays.)

While the specter of Astroworld hangs heavy over the festival woes of 2022, the favored comparison here is instead Fyre Festival, the fraudulent 2017 fest that has become shorthand for any large event executed with gross incompetence and disregard for audience well-being.

Maybe Festive Owl is right and these large festivals will rebound from their COVID-era woes. Otherwise, your next festival might just be fodder for a straight-to-streaming documentary about what went wrong.

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