The house lights had just come on when the chaos began. At 10:33 p.m., moments after Ariana Grande finished her final song at the United Kingdom’s Manchester Arena, a suicide bomber detonated an improvised explosive device in the foyer of the 21,000-capacity venue, just as fans were flooding toward the exits. Twenty-two people died, including an 8-year-old girl, and 59 were injured, in what the city’s chief constable, Ian Hopkins, called “the most horrific incident we have had to face in Greater Manchester.”
Grande, who escaped the blast unharmed along with her touring team, wrote on Twitter that she was “broken.” Two days later, the singer’s management canceled her upcoming shows in London, Belgium, Poland, Germany and Switzerland and also suspended the remainder of her Dangerous Woman Tour, which had already grossed $24.5 million in North America over 30 nearly sold-out dates, according to Billboard Boxscore.
The May 22 bombing was the second terrorist attack on a major music venue in a European city in less than two years. On Nov. 13, 2015, terrorists stormed Le Bataclan theater in Paris during an Eagles of Death Metal concert, killing 89 people in an attack that also involved multiple locations around the city.
“Once again, we try to make sense of a senseless act of violence,” wrote Lucian Grainge, Universal Music Group chairman/CEO, in a memo to his staff on May 23. (Grande is signed to UMG through Republic; a UMG executive died in the Bataclan attack.) “The fact that such an unspeakable act can be committed at a place where innocent people — including so many young people — come together peacefully to enjoy music reflects a level of evil beyond comprehension.”
For some, the Manchester bombing seemed to hit closer to home than the attack in Paris, or even the June 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, perhaps because so many people could imagine themselves or their children in the audience.
Grande, a 23-year-old former Nickelodeon star, appeals to a young demographic, and many attendees in Manchester had been dropped off or accompanied by parents. That reality fueled extensive TV coverage of the tragedy, with networks replaying heartbreaking interviews with parents who came to pick up their children, only to be met with confusion and turmoil. The three major U.S. cable news stations that covered the aftermath of the attack live — CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — averaged between 6 million and 7 million viewers between 7 p.m. and midnight EST, according to Nielsen data.
“It’s an isolated incident in another part of the world,” says Steve Kirsner, vp booking at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif., which hosted Grande’s March 27 show. “But it’s one of those things that keeps you up at night.”
The Manchester Arena, run by SMG Europe, is the second-highest-grossing venue in the United Kingdom and the fourth-highest in the world, and it is highly regarded within the touring industry. “SMG is a very good company; this isn’t like a bunch of kids putting on a show in their backyard,” says Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. But experts say the venue’s sheer size and location, connected to the city’s Victoria train station, made it an attractive target.
Just 18 months ago, the Bataclan attack resulted in widespread calls for increased security at concerts, and many venues introduced metal detectors and other measures. But the Manchester explosion occurred in an atrium that housed a box office and was outside the gate, and thus the metal detectors.
“We’ve learned how important perimeter protection is,” says Lou Marciani, director of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. “Now, they aren’t going into the stadium but [rather] attacking the areas around them. And that puts pressure on everyone.”
“No one can say that venue security wasn’t sufficient,” says Randy Phillips, former AEG Live CEO and current president/CEO of the festival company LiveStyle. “[The bomber] didn’t get inside.”
To security experts, the fact that the attack happened outside the gate underscores the challenge of protecting not only venues themselves, but also entrances and exits, both before and after events. Security measures have gotten demonstrably better in recent years, say several experts, but there is a limit to their effectiveness. “The expansion of security measures pushes softer target areas further away from the secured location, but they cannot entirely eliminate vulnerabilities,” warned a U.S. State Department memo released the night of May 23, a copy of which was obtained by Billboard.
“The bomb was in a public area; the correct analogy for Manchester is not Le Bataclan, it’s not a nightclub, it’s the [April 2013] Boston Marathon bombing,” says Adelman. “People are following this because it’s horrific to see bleeding young people. [But] it could have been a sporting event or a political rally — it could have been a chili cook-off for all the difference it makes.”
Although experts maintain that terrorist attacks remain exceedingly rare, the prominence of the news coverage could lead to an exaggerated sense of insecurity among concertgoers, and especially their parents, says Phillips. “Where this affects us isn’t adults — adults aren’t not going to go to a concert. It’s the younger generation, kids who are 8 to 12 and like to do things that their older siblings do but need their parents’ permission. When I did the last Katy Perry concert [at AEG], there were young kids. So the concert promoters, in a situation like that, have to make those parents feel secure.”
So far AEG, which still oversees tours by Perry, as well as Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber, hasn’t seen ticket sales soften for concerts that appeal to young female fans like Grande’s. But the prospect “makes me very nervous,” says a senior executive at the company. “We haven’t been flooded with refund requests, but everyone is paying special attention right now.”
Several major arenas are heightening their security measures. The Madison Square Garden Company committed to “greater on-site police presence” and “increased diligence in screening” in an internal memo sent on May 23, and other U.S. arena executives emphasized that they maintain close contacts with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to assess potential threats. “We all know we’re soft targets, just like shopping malls, movie theaters and restaurants,” says Lee Zeidman, president of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. “We learn from every event we put on and we make sure our security team is well-trained and highly visible.”
Any additional security is likely to create additional costs, a fact that seems insignificant in the wake of this tragedy but could weigh on the minds of venue owners, particularly independent ones, as months pass. “You’re going to have to spend more and do more in terms of security, and that’s going to be passed on to the consumer,” Adelman says. Phillips expects that the security costs for at least some festivals, including insurance, could double to about 20 percent of the overall budget.
And even the most thorough precautions have limits, especially when it comes to the areas outside venues. “There is no level of security that will always prevent every attack; if I have an outdoor stadium, I secure it as best I can, but I can’t control the airspace,” says one security consultant, who requested anonymity. “But if I can control 99 percent of what happens, I can focus on what else it is I can’t control.”
Inevitably, the concert business will return to normal, or at least what now passes for it. “Shootings happen at movie theaters and shopping malls, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from going shopping or to see a movie,” says one venue executive. “Unfortunately this has become part of our daily life, and we simply adapt to it.”
Additional reporting by Robert Levine and Dave Brooks.