'This Is the New Reality': Artists & Concert Execs Weigh In on Security Challenges After Orlando

Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Family members wait for word from police after arriving down the street from a shooting involving multiple fatalities at Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Fla.

Until recently, instances of gun violence in the live-music business had generally been isolated incidents, ranging from "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott's murder at the hand of a deranged fan to rare outbursts of gunfire at concerts. But the November terrorist attack on the Bataclan Theatre in Paris, the shooting backstage at Irving Plaza in New York last month, and the horrific incidents in Orlando, Florida, this past weekend -- two separate shootings that killed 51 people, including 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie -- have left a nation stunned and the music industry confronting security challenges at a level it has never before faced.

The two incidents point out separate problems. The mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub -- which saw Omar Matteen, armed with an automatic weapon and a pistol, take 50 lives and wound 52, before being killed by police -- is a terrorist-level, hate-crime act similar to that of the Bataclan, and is the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. Grimmie's death -- in which she was shot and killed late Friday by a deranged fan at a meet-and-greet after her concert -- is more like the death of Abbott or even John Lennon, where an artist is specifically targeted by a fan.

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But along with the other concert-related shootings of the past months, they seem to indicate that things have changed and security at any large gathering needs to be taken more seriously than before.

(Billboard has examined this issue in depth several times since the fall, including a look at security changes post-Bataclan and post-Irving.)

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Not surprisingly, the tragedies have left many artists rattled. "[What happened] scares the shit out of me," Sam Harris of the X Ambassadors said Sunday (June 12) at the Bonnaroo festival. "We were literally just there three days ago, playing a venue the same size as the one that Christina Grimmie was shot at. We can’t be afraid to continue to come out, to see music, to dance, to perform. But so much needs to happen."

How these two tragedies could have been prevented, how they will impact venue security and artist behavior in the future and what can be done in a society where highly lethal assault rifles are available at the ready are vexing topics the music business will now have to carefully consider.

"For our business I believe this will help motivate people to take the appropriate steps to keep their patrons and guests safe," says Russ Simons, a security expert at Venue Solutions Group. "In my opinion, the results of last night's and this week's events will be the realization that this is not someone else’s problem. The threat exists, whether from terrorists, hate crime or someone who is mentally deranged -- it can happen anywhere people gather."

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True, but the question now is how much of the onus of security should be placed specifically on venues. "Unfortunately, with gun use and ownership so out of control, this is not a problem that is unique to the music industry or meet-and-greets in particular," says Dan Berkowitz of CID Entertainment, which specializes in VIP concert experiences and travel packages to fans. "These days we need to be careful and vigilant when going to the movies, attending a religious service, going out to a club, or simply walking down the street.  This is largely an American problem, not just a music-industry problem. That being said, our artists' and guests' safety and security are always our highest priority." 

While everyone can agree fan safety and security are paramount, the expense of installing metal detectors and additional security details to search patrons can be prohibitive, especially for low-margin businesses. "I understand that magnetometers are expensive, and nobody likes them," says music industry attorney Ed McPherson. "And I understand that hiring experienced security to pat everyone down is also expensive, and fans don't like it. But this is the new reality." 

"Events like the Pulse shooting continue to make the LGBT community aware of the extreme problems that exist in our country with hatred and homophobia," says Joe Granda, president/CEO of Granda Entertainment, a Miami-based promotion and marketing company that specializes in dance music and the LGBT circuit. "This event has triggered a stronger need for security, including search and metal detectors -- very much like are common in Colombia -- which up to now has not been implemented in the very calm, happy atmosphere at our LGBT venues in the U.S."

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Metal detectors at concert venues and nightclubs are already common and seem likely to become much more so. But incidents like Grimmie's death and the shooting at Irving Plaza can be more difficult to control, since people are often entering by ways other than the main entrance, where a metal detector is most likely to be placed.

An additional challenge lies in the fact that artists' interaction with fans -- at meet-and-greets, autograph signings, merch tables and in-store performances -- is at an all-time high, due to the shift in the business away from music sales and toward the live-music experience and the associated personal-interaction opportunities that often come with it. These have become a vital form of not just promotion and marketing, but also a ways to generate income for the artist. 

"It's become more important form of revenue as other streams of revenue have dried up," says Jordan Kurland, president of Zeitgeist Management, whose clients include Death Cab for Cutie, Best Coast and Bob Mould. "Certainly in this day and age, where it's very difficult to sell a record, going out front and standing behind a table and selling CDs and vinyl is a way that a people actually spend money on music." 

Indeed, access to artists has never been greater. Grimmie, who made her name as a YouTube star -- where her channel had a whopping 3.2 million subscribers and her Facebook page has nearly as many likes -- is the kind of artist who may have felt an obligation to meet face-to-face with loyal fans who helped make her career.

"There's been this fundamental shift from artists as deities in the sky to artists who are relatable and friends with you, or someone who is a contemporary of the fans," says Sam Hunt, an agent at the Windish Agency and whose clients include Diplo, Run the Jewels and Jamie xx. Hunt says some of his clients have faced security threats in the past. "There's been a handful of instances where there's been specific threats made. If you know who they are you can circulate a photo and say to be on alert for this person -- or if you know the name you can cancel the ticket out. But I think a lot of these are band-aid solutions, because if someone is mentally ill or unstable or determined to do something terrible like this -- chances are they will find a way."

Kurland says the question of accessibility can begin with the artist. "Something we do talk about with our clients all the time is how certain artists keep both a veil of privacy and allure out there," he says. "Giving total access via social media and in-person doesn't really benefit the artist as much, but it goes to the point of different types of artists having different types of fans. Bethany [Cosentino] from Best Coast is amazing on social media, she's really really active on Twitter and Instagram, but she doesn't make herself available at shows because she's just not comfortable with that. Other clients don't touch their social media. So it just depends on the artist."

Asked if he'll try to limit the amount of direct face time his clients will have, Hunt is circumspect. "Obviously it's something everyone is going to be thinking about where before they probably weren't," he says. "At the same time, John Lennon was killed by a fan who knew where he lived. Ultimately there is only so much you can do if someone is mentally ill and has access to buy a firearm and wants to shoot someone. Whether or not that artist is doing a meet and greet at a particular time and date is probably not going to be the barrier between that happening and not happening."

While the music industry carefully examines these issues, it is important to look at the bigger picture, says Kurland. "Obviously measures have to be taken so everyone feels more secure, but let's also keep in mind that there's thousands of shows that happen almost every night and these are still very isolated incidents," he says. "There doesn't have to be this huge wave of panic. Yes, we have to examine the way things are done and train staff on how to deal with these situations, that's the most important thing and then figure out what the right precautions are to take." 

--With reporting by Brooke Mazurek and Leila Cobo

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