The two deaths of concert goers at Sunset Music Festival in Tampa last weekend have been dominating headlines both around the Bay Area and on a national scale for the past week. Tragic, untimely, avoidable. That’s what they all say. That’s what they always say. The thing is, people will talk about how shocking these deaths are, how unfortunate, for about the next week. They will question the logic of attending an event where people routinely die. They will ask why security measures were not put in place to prevent such a horrible, preventable tragedy. And then they will forget, until the next pair or trio or clump of tragic, preventable deaths occurs at a music festival.
Festival-goers dying or being injured in the name of music is by no means a new phenomenon. My dad tells harrowing tales of the 1976 KISS concert in Lakeland where fans rushed the doors, breaking them off their hinges. Although no one died in that snafu, several were injured—a more accurate word would be trampled—caught up in the rush to get inside (this was the same concert where Ace Frehley electrocuted himself during Detroit Rock City, not so fun fact). Two people died at Woodstock—one from an overdose of heroin, the other run over while still in his sleeping bag.
Contemporary music festivals pose similar threats. Over 200 were sent to the hospital at Lollapalooza in 2015. Two teenagers died on the opening night of Hard Summer music festival in Pomona last year. Electric Daisy Carnival, Ultra, Coachella—nearly every major festival name in the books is associated with high numbers of hospitalizations, injuries, and death. Most of those deaths in the world of EDM are inexorably linked to drug overdose. Every statement public representation publishes regarding these deaths will describe them as the papers always do—heartbreaking, premature, preventable. But when you look at the numbers stacked against this categorization, skepticism sinks in. Tragic? Yes. Preventable? Maybe not so much.
When you think about it, there really is no feasible way to effectively and routinely prevent someone or even multiple someones from dying at a music festival by self-controlled means. All the security measures in the world—all the visual inspections, pat-downs, police patrolling the perimeter of the mosh pit—in the end amounts to what is essentially null. If people, especially young kids intent on partying and having a good time, want to bring drugs to a festival, they’re going to. Period. And there will inevitably be some plastic bags with suspicious contents and water bottles containing less than upstanding liquids that make it past the police firewall.
If you’ve been to a festival or concert in the past decade, you’ll know from firsthand experience that security measures are typically (some loveable small-time, traditionally grimy venues aside) fairly intense. The last time I went to an open-air EDM festival I waited in line for an hour and a half just to get to the front entrance where I was then summarily pat-down, had my purse prodded and scanned, and shepherded through a sinister looking metal detector. This kind of set up intimidates me, and would definitely make me think twice before trying any drug-related funny business at a festival if I was ever so inclined. Then again, I’m also the kind of person who will get nervous when a policeman tells me to have a nice day. I was the breed of child who was kept awake at night by the knowledge that my friends had figured out a way to rig the Neopets stock market, and I was pretty damn sure it violated the terms and conditions I agreed to before adopting my baby Uni. In other words, I’m probably not a great measure of how effective a security system for a festival will be from an intimidation standpoint or in actual practice—if a man can bring a gun into a hockey game (also in Tampa, what a wonderful state we live in) then an eighteen-year-old can almost certainly smuggle some shady pills in a bottle of Aleeve.
In light of the relative ease with which young people and concert goers in general can access drugs at music festivals regardless of security measures, deaths at music festivals have become a figurative bump in the road, an inconvenience we become aware of only when it is brought directly to our attention, then forget until the time our world is slightly shaken by tragic news. When it comes down to it, when death in the pursuit of recreation becomes a casual occurrence, an expected if not accepted phenomenon, the state of affairs starts to look less and less like a preventable tragedy and more and more like a pressing public health issue.