Friday, December 3, 1999

Concert industry learned from Who tragedy


Safety taken more seriously after 11 died in 1979

BY LARRY NAGER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Bodies of concertgoers lie on the Coliseum plaza.
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        When fans file into the Firstar Center on Friday evening, it will be 20 years to the day 11 people were killed outside that building in the crush before a concert by the Who.

        It remains the deadliest concert disaster in American history. But the enormous changes seen by the local and national concert industry since Dec. 3, 1979 should ensure that Friday's Phish show will go on without incident.

        Far greater emphasis on pre-show planning and more communication among venues, promoters and artists have helped make concerts safer. Some of those developments have been cultural, as attitudes toward arena concerts and the people attending them have changed.

        Other changes have been legislative, as laws passed in Cincinnati after those deaths remain in effect, inclusing a ban on general-admission seating for events drawing more than 3,000 people.

        "Festival seating," in which the first people through the door get closest to the stage, is thought to have contributed to the dangerous conditions at the Who concert. When doors failed to open on time, the impatient crowd repeatedly surged forward.

        When the Phish Phanatics arrive at the Firstar Center for the first show of the band's two-night stand, every ticket will be a reserved seat, as they are for every show there.

        Show times and other important information are printed on tickets. Promoters, police and areas security staff members all will have been briefed on how crowds at other shows on the tour have acted.

        "There's no doubt that the building manager today are much more profesional than they were 20 years ago,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of PollStar, a concert business trade magazine. “Building managers today realize that crowd control starts outside the building, not just inside. Today, there's crowd control for when they put tickets on sale.”

        “There's just a lot more planning,” explains Firstar Center manager Mike Smith. “You set and publish and publicize door times, show times. You have standard procedures for welcoming the crowd, people being positioned at doors and at gates, specifically at the arena. You have regular and lengthy and extensive contact with the show in advance of the date. You have much greater access to information regarding the shows in other cities.

        “And you're not only planning on the inside but from the outside in....What kind of crowd are you expecting? ... When had the crowd arrived at other venues for similar or the same attraction? You just have greater access to information regarding the tour.”

        In 1979, the idea of rock concerts in sports arenas was still fairly new. Riverfront Coliseum was barely 4 years old, built for sports tenants, such as the Cincinnati Stingers hockey team.

        “When the Who went into Riverfront, it was probably more of a rarity than the common occurrence that it is today for large rock 'n' roll shows,” Mr. Bongiovanni says.

        “Building managers were still trying to figure out how to deal with it. And many of them really looked on rock concerts as necessary evils, something they didn't want to do but were being forced into doing.

        “They were there to handle their sports tenants and that was it. And they hated the idea that these hippies would come into their buildings. Obviously, that attitude has changed now.”

        Some of those concert-going “hippies” are today's arena managers and police officers. Firstar's Mr. Smith, 41, has been working at concerts since his teens. He thinks his long experience and that of others in the business means safer, smoother shows.

        “People have instincts now as to what to expect at these events,” he says.

        Mr. Smith has seen a change at venues in the general attitudes of both management and concert-goers.

        “Go back a certain number of years — there was always this "us against them' mentality. Even if you were security at that time, you were taught or trained that, "We have to defend the fortress against the patrons.' And that has changed to allying yourself with the patrons.”

        Mr. Smith says security personnel at Firstar and Riverbend Music Center, which he also manages, are instructed “to make contact with the people around them prior to the show starting. Create a bond with the patrons so that as the evening goes on you're not a stranger, not one of "them,' not one of the bad guys.”

        The Internet has increased communication among venues, promoters and law enforcement officials. And magazines such as PollStar, which began publishing in 1982, regularly cover security issues at concerts.

        The consolidation of the national concert industry under mega-corporation SFX, whose local arm, under Mr. Smith's direction, runs Riverbend, Firstar Center, Bogart's and the Taft Theatre, has meant an even greater sharing of information among venues hosting the same tour.

        Despite organization and planning, dangers still exist. A few weeks ago, Keith Phillips of Remington, paralyzed in a crowd-surfing incident at a 1994 Metallica concert at Riverbend, settled his case against the band and the venue.

        The injuries at the 1999 Woodstock Festival are more proof of the potential dangers of large rock shows, says Paul Wertheimer, head of Crowd Management Strategies, a Chicago-based concert industry watchdog group.

        “Concerts are not safer today than they were in 1979. That's what my database tells me,” he says.

        “I predict there will be in the United States another tragedy like the Who concert tragedy,” adds Mr. Wertheimer, who was Cincinnati's public safety director the night of the Who concert.

        But because of the festival seating ban and other local laws, he says, “I don't think it's likely it's going to happen in Cincinnati.”

Concert goers still feel the dangers today



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