Why Are Concerts So Dangerous (and Deadly) All of a Sudden?

Stage collapses, fallen lighting rigs...fans attending outdoor concerts seem to be facing more danger than ever before

By Leslie Gornstein Aug 20, 2011 6:04 PMTags
Pukkelpop Festival, Eminem, Jared LetoTijs Vanderstappen/Belga/ZUMAPRESS.com; PacificCoastnews.com; Theo Wargo/WireImage

I have a concert coming up and am almost afraid to go. I am scared that a stage will collapse on me like the one at the Sugarland concert, or the Cheap Trick show. Why are they all happening now?
—Yosemite Sam, via the inbox

As paranoid as many of us may be following this rash of concert deaths, rock stars are not out to kill us all.

However, if you are considering heading to a big show, particularly one that's outside, there is something you should know:

Music fans may not be getting the level of protection they deserve.

In Brussels, five people have died and 75 people have been injured after a fierce storm trashed three stage tents at the Pukkelpop music fest.

Last month saw two similar accidents: Another stage collapsed in Canada while the band Cheap Trick was playing, and a lighting rig fell just before a Flaming Lips concert in Oklahoma. Finally, five were killed at the Indiana State Fair just a few days ago. This was yet another stage collapse, right before the band Sugarland was set to take the mic.

So what's going on? Apparently, when it comes to concert safety, not enough.

Concerts are getting bigger and flashier—closer to elaborate Broadway shows than your traditional band stand. Performances have been evolving this way since forever, but one flashpoint was Madonna's elaborate Blond Ambition World Tour in 1990. It was bigger and fancier than most concertgoers had ever experienced.

As choreographer Vincent Patterson later put it, "the biggest thing we tried to do was change the shape of concerts. Instead of just presenting songs, we wanted to combine fashion, Broadway, and performance art."

Such developments have boosted fan demand for more lights, more special effects, more video, more set pieces—each element of which is a potential accident in the making.

For one, we're talking more equipment, and heavier equipment—say, 40,000 pounds of lights for a typical big-budget concert. And as the shows have gotten bigger, industry experts say, safety regulations haven't kept up.

In fact, there is no single government agency that oversees or sets rules for outdoor concerts. In the city of Chicago, there are very strict codes for such shows. But at other venues, no one even inspects the stages before concertgoers arrive.

So who might be responsible for all these injuries and deaths? That's a shifty issue, too.

"It would depend on who is taking responsibility for construction of the stage," says Jason Feldman, attorney with Feldman and Wallach. "Sometimes the performers just show up, and the concert is really being put on by someone else entirely."

And sometimes, under the right circumstances, concert goers could even lose their lives, and no one would face the consequences.

"If it's a true act of God, where there is no warning, it's an unusual weather pattern, and these people did everything up to code, and there was no chance to warn people, then no one may be liable," Feldman says.

So does that mean you should avoid your favorite outdoor show? Of course not. But it might be worth a phone call to the venue to find out what, if any, safety regulations have been put in place.