Will Drones Become a Hazard at Concerts -- and What Can Artists Do to Protect Themselves?

drones at concerts
Illustration by James Yamazaki

During a tour stop in Tijuana, Mexico on May 30, Enrique Iglesias raised his hand for a choreographed moment he had performed nearly nightly since the South and Central American leg of the Sex and Love Tour kicked off in Paraguay a month earlier.

Reaching up to grab a drone flying above the crowd at Plaza de Toros de Playas, where it was used for overhead shots of fans cheering, the 40-year-old Latin star sliced his right hand, ­resulting in a serious injury that required a skin graft and reconstructive surgery for a fractured middle finger. While the tour will resume in July, it remains to be seen whether his finger will recover full sensitivity.

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“Something went wrong and he had an accident,” Iglesias’ label, Republic Records, explained in a statement the following morning. The company later updated that Iglesias’ recovery will take several weeks -- bringing to light significant safety issues that had, until then, largely gone unnoticed in the music world.

Courtesy of Lativvasion
Enrique Iglesias after his injury onstage in Tijuana on May 31, 2015.

Small drones like the $2,900 DJI Inspire 1, a 6.5-pound flying contraption with four 13-inch propeller blades -- the same model used at Coachella in April to capture aerial shots of performances -- have crashed on the White House lawn, flown dangerously close to airports, hovered above a professional baseball game in Philadelphia and spotted whales off the California coast. Their sales are soaring, with venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers estimating that global shipments will increase 167 percent to 4.3 million units in 2015. Naturally, with the demand for instant access, it’s just a matter of time before drones offering a digital bird’s eye view are buzzing over many live-music events.

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That potential nuisance instantly turned into a possible danger with Iglesias’ injury (despite the open gash, the singer finished his set, drawing the shape of a heart with his own blood on his T-shirt) bringing into focus issues of liability and responsibility. It also raises a looming question: What if a drone seriously injures a fan?

Peter Tempkins of Insurance Brokerage HUB International, calls any such harm “a checkbook," referring to the likelihood the liable party will pay damages should an injured attendee choose to sue. For touring artists, general liability insurance and workers’ compensation (covering injuries to artists or crew) is standard practice; many artists also carry property insurance, some form of business auto insurance, umbrella insurance and cancelation insurance, while artists, promoters and venues carry insurance that covers accidents and damage at events. 

But these policies, individually or combined, don’t necessarily include aircraft -- which is what drones are considered. Granted, blimps and small planes carrying advertising have been on the live industry’s radar for several decades, but drones present the need for a new policy to fill the aviation gap that exists in most standard liability contract. A commercial drone operator hired for an event is likely to have the requisite insurance, but more and more, industry professionals have been pushing artists, promoters and venues to obtain additional coverage in the event of an accident.

“It’s not expensive,” says Adam Siegel of American Agents & Brokers, Inc., which handles insurance for a slew of music artists and events. Tempkins concurs, offering a hypothetical scenario where a promoter might pay a per-head rate of 15 cents. An event expecting 15,000 attendees would thus pay $2,250, although the rate would be flat or adjustable if the promoter has umbrella insurance. Underwriters also consider a range of factors when assessing the operator's risk: top speed, weight, minimum altitude, the number of potential attendees and the operator's hours of flight time. Is Testing Delivery by Drones

Of course, another option is simply to ban drones. One business manager boasts that he’s way ahead of the pack. "I have updated concert riders to exclude their use," says Tom Rashford, pointing to drones' absence from general liability insurance. Tempkins says the festivals HUB works with "have very specific no-drone rules." The CMA Music Festival prohibits drones and follows guidelines in use at LP Field in Nashville and other NFL stadiums, according to the CMA's Wendy Pearl.

Indeed, staring down a barrel of headaches and potential lawsuits if a flight path were to go awry, it’s better to be safe than sorry. "The insurance industry is being rightfully cautious as safety and training is key,” says Siegel, adding that, "the implications for the entertainment insurance industry will be interesting to watch. It’s definitely a hot topic because it’s essentially a new technology that is blending into mainstream industry and culture.”

An edited version of this article first appeared in the June 13th issue of Billboard.