Like other concerts that have ended in tragedy, Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival seemed to go wrong gradually – then suddenly. The event, which ended in eight confirmed deaths and hundreds of injuries, had the ingredients for chaos: A general-admission space in front of the stage, a young crowd that’s been stuck at home for much of the past year and a half, and a performer who amps up his audience so much that he’s previously faced legal issues as a result.
But it also proceeded with the kind of precautions that have become standard at music festivals, including approvals from city and county authorities who manage the park in which it took place, a 56-page document The Houston Chronicle described as an “event operations plan” that outlined emergency procedures, and so many police and private guards that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told The New York Times that “we had more security over there than we had at the World Series games.”
Even so, dozens of concertgoers, from young fans to music business professionals, noticed unsettling signs early in the day, from a sense that the event “did not have enough people there,” according to one fan’s impression, to a 2 p.m. local time breach at a VIP security entrance. By afternoon, the crowd in front of the stage for acts other than Scott was packed, and small fights and mosh pits only pushed people closer together. The crowding got worse after those acts finished and more attendees headed to Scott’s stage, with a countdown clock building anticipation for his performance. Even before Scott went on, fans began jumping over barriers to escape the crowd – a sign that should have alerted security that the situation was becoming dangerous.
Scott began his set at 9:06 p.m., and within 10 minutes the crowd began to compress toward Scott’s custom-built stage, which has a long orientation that offers plenty of prime viewing space but can also create a crowd that can be hard to get out of. That initial rush “caused some panic,” Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña told the Chronicle, “and it started causing some injuries.” Over the next 15 minutes, audience members began having trouble breathing, according to multiple interviews and other accounts, as the crowd packed in even more. By 9:30 p.m., an ambulance was moving through the crowd. Scott paused his performance at least twice.
Between then and 9:38 p.m., when Houston police declared a “mass casualty incident,” the crowd seems to have surged forward toward the stage. A number of people collapsed. One concertgoer told Billboard she fainted into a mass of bodies. “Suddenly we had several people down on the ground, experiencing some type of cardiac arrest or some type of medical episode,” Houston Police executive assistant chief Larry Satterwhite told the Chronicle.
Satterwhite spoke to promoters about stopping the show, and he told the Chronicle that “they agreed to end early in the interest of public safety.” The show went on, however — officials and promoters later explained that they thought it was safer to continue than to stop and risk a riot — and Scott performed for another 37 minutes. At 10 p.m., when Drake took the stage as a guest, the crowd surged forward yet again.
It will take some time before authorities can piece together exactly what happened — no cause of death has yet been established for any of the deceased, though police have said there were cases of cardiac arrest. Local officials, promoters and Scott himself will all face questions as to whether festivals security measures were adequate – and why the show went on so long after police realized the extent of the problems. Two lawsuits have already been filed, with more certain to follow, with the possibility of up to hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and perhaps even personal liability for Scott.
The last fatal crowd crush at a concert came in 2010, when 21 people died in an entry tunnel to the Love Parade festival in Duisburg, Germany. Ten years prior to that, nine audience members died during Pearl Jam’s performance at the Roskilde festival in Denmark. There hasn’t been a disaster like this in the U.S. since 1979, when 11 fans died outside the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio, where The Who were scheduled to play. That show had festival seating, so fans gathered outside the venue’s doors surged forward when they mistakenly thought the band had begun playing. By all accounts, the members of both Pearl Jam and The Who were devastated by the deaths. “I’m still traumatized by it,” Who guitarist Pete Townshend said in 2019. Scott addressed the tragedy in a video the night after the show: “I just want to send out prayers to the ones that was lost last night,” he said in the clip. “I could just never imagine the severity of the situation.”
The tragedy in Cincinnati led to both soul-searching and some security reforms in the concert business, as well as a clampdown on festival seating, especially at arena concerts, that lasted decades. By the time festivals became popular in the U.S., more than two decades later, the concert business had become far more professional – and learned some lessons from the chaos at Woodstock ’99. And given the size and complexity of modern music festivals, most proceed remarkably smoothly.
The fact that problems are so unusual will focus even more attention on what went wrong at Astroworld — including on Scott himself, a compelling live performer who encourages his audience to express their aggression as energetically as he does. “I always want to make it feel like it’s the WWF or some shit,” Scott told GQ in 2015. This isn’t the first time a show of his has gotten out of hand. Scott was arrested in 2015 in Chicago for disorderly conduct after he encouraged fans to jump over security barriers during his Lollapalooza set and in 2017 in Rogers, Ark., on several charges, including inciting a riot, after encouraging fans to rush the stage. (Scott pled guilty to reckless conduct for his conduct in Chicago and to disorderly conduct for the Arkansas charge.)
After Friday’s tragedy, some of Scott’s past statements also sound foreboding. In 2017, after Scott encouraged a man at a New York show to jump from a concert venue balcony, another man was pushed off and partially paralyzed. In May, after Astroworld tickets sold out, Scott tweeted that “we still sneaking the wild ones in.” This may have been just bravado, but the tweet has since been deleted.
Fairly or not, Scott’s reputation might also be used against him in court. Already two lawsuits have been filed against several entities behind the festival, including Scott, festival organizer ScoreMore, the concert promotion giant Live Nation (which purchased ScoreMore in 2018) and in one case even Drake. One charges that “this kind of behavior has long been encouraged by the festival’s founder and main performer.” Additional lawsuits are expected, and litigation – some of which could concern which entities can be held legally responsible – could last for years. Scott could be asked to testify – and it’s possible that he could be held personally responsible. That could potentially chill the trend of acts organizing their own festivals.
Lawsuits and investigations will also bring attention to the decision to let the show go on after police declared a “mass casualty incident.” Like most festivals, Astroworld had a plan that clarified who had the authority to stop the show in the event of an emergency, after which the ranking officer on the scene would take over as “incident commander,” with the power to use the speaker system to tell the audience to leave. That didn’t happen; at a press conference the day after the tragedy, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said they were concerned about inciting a riot among the event’s young crowd. It’s also unclear why Scott wasn’t asked to pause the show to relieve at least some of the crush – and why the crowd squeeze before he started performing didn’t provide a red flag that something was wrong.
Questions will also be asked about Astroworld’s crowd management, as well as potentially festival crowd management in general. Some experts believe that general admission events are inherently dangerous, both because of the resulting crowd density and the potential for chaos. They can also complicate security: Astroworld had more than enough space for ticketholders, just not for so many of them to go to one stage at the same time.
In the short term, some of this attention will focus on Day N Vegas, a Nov. 12-14 event at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds that was to be headlined by Scott, Kendrick Lamar, and Tyler, the Creator. By Monday (Nov. 8) morning, when Variety reported that Scott pulled out, petitions had already appeared online calling for him to be removed from the lineup, as well as that of Coachella, where Scott is expected to headline in April.
Whenever Scott does return to performing live, he’ll be under considerable pressure to tone down his act – or at least to discourage his audience from raging so hard. This could be complicated, though, since both his manic energy and his ability to amp up his audience are so important to his appeal. As emergency vehicles worked their way through the crowd at Scott’s Astroworld performance, at least a few concertgoers climbed on top of them to dance – disturbing behavior that Scott can’t directly be blamed for.
Additional reporting by Dave Brooks, Bill Donahue, Mark Elibert, Carl Lamarre, Taylor Mims, Dan Rys and Colin Stutz.