Festival Deaths on the Rise in the EDM World

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Drug-related deaths spike along with casualties of overheating, dehydration and accidental self-immolation -- is ecstasy to blame or is it just the cost of doing EDM business?

On July 18, a student was found dead of undetermined causes at Pemberton Music Festival in British Columbia. In June, two Glastonbury festivalgoers died, a 67-year-old of natural causes and another from a suspected reaction to the anesthetic ketamine. One more succumbed at Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival from drug-related causes, and reportedly six at Future Music Festival Asia. Perhaps the oddest of all, a man self-immolated at Utah’s Burning Man equivalent, Element 11. So far, a total of 15 people have died at music festivals around the world. What gives? And is EDM, which seems to see disproportionate numbers of deaths and serious injuries at its rave-like events, becoming the scapegoat genre?

Pemberton Music Festival: Police Investigating Death of Young Man

There is no question that the number of deaths attributable to controlled substances is on the rise, but dance music is hardly the only hub for excessive partying. Still, it’s worth noting that until 2013, when at least seven festival attendees died of drug-related causes, the majority of news-making festival fatalities were accidental: nine people were crushed to death during Pearl Jam’s set at Denmark’s Roskilde Festival in 2000, 11 trampled at Morocco’s Mawazine Festival nine years later, and 15 at 2010’s Love Parade in Germany (not to mention the hit-and-run tragedy at this year’s South by Southwest in Austin when a driver barreled into a crowd, killing four).

Many of today’s festival deaths came after revelers showed symptoms (dehydration, overheating) associated with taking MDMA, or Molly, the purest form of ecstasy commonly found at EDM events. In fact, while Ultra brought on additional police for its 2013 edition, the latest casualties prompted event organizers to review security concerns for 2015 and on, especially after city officials tried to ban the festival. Electric Zoo promoters followed suit for 2014, bringing in drug-sniffing dogs and requiring fans to watch an anti-drug PSA, and last June, the state of New York banned the sale of “bath salts,” a designer drug that has been linked to festival deaths.

No one died at Electric Zoo this year, but such preventive measures still may not be enough — especially as the EDM industry, valued at $6.2 billion, according to an Association for Electronic Music report ($1 billion from festivals), continues to rise in popularity. This year’s Electric Daisy Carnival alone drew 400,000 attendees over three days. “If you have 50,000 people for four days at an EDM festival dropping a lot of ecstasy, all weekend, in the sun, in the summer, you’re going to net out at the end with someone not surviving it,” says one concert industry insider. “That’s just math.”

Legal culpability, like the successful 2012 suit brought against Insomniac, Inc. and Los Angeles’ Coliseum Commission by the family of a 15-year-old girl who died from an ecstasy overdose at EDC 2010, seems to be of little deterrence. And preventative measures by promoters seem minimal too when you consider the unwieldy number of attendees. Pemberton’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, for example, “typically plan to have one police officer per 500 people,” says Staff Sgt. Steve LeClair, who is in charge of company operations. Otherwise, efforts to curb access to drugs at these events are practically nonexistent — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo being the rare exception. In most cases, it’s family members who voice their complaints, but rarely loud enough to drown out the pounding bass.   

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 2 issue of Billboard magazine.

Editor's note: This article originally stated that two people died at EDC in Las Vegas. Only one died at the festival, the other death was associated with it. The young man who was reported to have died in his car in the parking lot of Ultra was later found to have died from unrelated causes.