If Ja Rule’s ill-fated Fyre Festival has taught us anything, it’s that throwing a concert is way harder than it looks and requires a team of experts who must consider above all else accommodations, cleanliness and people’s safety.
While many like 50 Cent and Seth Rogen have poked fun at the festival which was defined by a Lord of the Flies-esque experience featuring disaster relief tents and feral dogs — despite people paying upwards of $1,000 USD to attend — the Bahamian experience is not the only festival to be marred by controversy.
Often a mixture of poor weather, ill-timed musings, financial failures, drugs and violence, here are 10 other music festival controversies you should know more about.
Held on December 6, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California, the festival has the dubious distinction of being dubbed “The Day Music Died” after violence erupted and left four people dead (one fatal stabbing, three accidental deaths).
More than 300,000 people had gathered at the speedway — with Esquire reporting it was “the largest gathering of people in modern California history — to see a lineup featuring Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead (who would never perform due to the growing violence).
The festival was a perfect storm of mismanagement. The venue was secured last minute after officials had denied their request at Golden Gate Park and Sears Point Raceway.
Spencer Dryden of the Jefferson Airplane said, “It was just a horrible, pink-sky Hieronymus Bosch dustbin, not a tree in sight, just a hellhole. It was the beginning of the end. No, not the beginning, it was the end. It was not a happy place.”
The festival was also free — which drew more people than security officials could handle.
Finally still, security itself were active members of the outlaw motorcycle club, Hells Angels, whose payment came in the form of $500 USD worth of beer as a “gratuity” and who were supposedly hopped up on red wine laced with acid.
“Look, I ain’t no cop,” said the President of the Bay Area chapter of the Hells Angels, Ralph “Sonny” Barger. “I ain’t never going to ever pretend to be a cop. I didn’t go there to police nothing. They told me if I could sit on the edge of the stage so nobody would climb over me, I could drink beer until the show was over. That’s what I went there to do… I’m no peace creep, by any sense of the word, and if a cat don’t want to fight with me, don’t want to hassle with me, I want to be his friend. If he don’t want to be my friend, then out of sight, don’t even talk to me. But if he don’t want to be my friend and he’s gonna get in my face, I’m gonna hurt him, or he’s gonna hurt me. And you know what? It doesn’t really matter if he hurts me, because I’ve been hurt before. And I’ve been hurt by experts. Over the years, though, I’ve learned how to get up and do it again.”
Ultimately, the latter were responsible for Jefferson Airplane singer, Marty Balin, being knocked unconscious during the band’s performance. Then, a 21-year-old Hells Angel, Alan Passaro, stabbed a gun-wielding 18-year-old, Meredith Hunter, to death during The Rolling Stones’s headlining performance.
Since the scene had been so chaotic up until that point, the band didn’t realize what had happened and finished their entire set as Hunter bled out.
Passaro was ultimately tried for murder but pleaded self-defense and was acquitted.
In Rolling Stone’s coverage of the events, it read more like a war report or an intimate view of a seance held by cannibals, writing, “Flickering silhouettes of people trying to find warmth around the blazing track reminded one of the medieval paintings of tortured souls in the Dance of Death.”
Steve Wozniak’s name will probably be etched into the history books for his involvement alongside Steve Jobs as co-founders of Apple.
In 1983 — while Jobs was working tirelessly to bring the Apple Lisa desktop computer to the marketplace — Wozniak had another pet project: the US Festival.
The music event had taken his attention after he went on temporary leave from the upstart tech company after surviving a plane crash two years earlier (and just months after Apple’s IPO netter him $116 million USD).
He spent 18 months preparing for the event at the Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California and landed commitments from a variety of acts like INXS, David Bowie, U2, Los Lobos, Stevie Nicks, The Clash, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, Judas Priest, Van Halen, Hank Williams, Jr. and Willie Nelson in the hopes that he could unite people from all walks of life thanks to the varied lineup.
Before a single ticket was sold, Wozniak had spent $13 million USD of his own money building the infrastructure and paying the bands.
One-hundred sixty-five thousand people showed up for the first day and doubled and exceeded planned capacity for day two.
Not surprisingly, the influx of people came with violence.
According to the Orange County Register, “One Pomona man was beaten to death with a tire iron by a 22-year-old from Stanton, apparently over a drug deal gone bad in the parking lot. Injuries doubled, arrests tripled. San Bernardino Sheriff Floyd Tidwell told the Register at the time that the scene was ‘an absolute zoo … everything you can eat, smoke, snort or poke in your arm is out there.’”
In the end, Wozniak lost a reported $10 million USD throwing the concert.
The intentions for revisiting Woodstock was to celebrate the “peace, love and happiness” that had represented the festival 30 years prior to the revival in Rome, New York — a small town — that would become the third most populated city in the state after an influx of 220,000 music enthusiasts.
Headlined by acts like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice Cube, Megadeth, Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Dave Matthews Band, Limp Bizkit, The Chemical Brothers, The Offspring and The Roots, festival goers immediately realized that organizers of the event were much more concerned with turning a profit that cultivating a pleasant experience.
Since Woodstock ’99 was held on the tarmac of the Griffiss Air Force Base, the 80-degree temperatures felt much warmer, and those looking to cool off with bottles of water were forced to pay $4 USD — although concession stands quickly began running out on the first day.
According to The Baltimore Sun, halfway through the weekend, “More than 700 had been treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration.”
Adding further chaos to the scene was the lack of accommodations. Organizers had arranged the festival on the same weekend as festivities at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. In turn, hundreds of thousands had come and had no place to stay.
As frustrations mounted, people began pelting performers with bottles, miles of trash piled up. sexual assaults began occurring, and fires were lit after the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered Jimi Hendrix’s “Lit.”
MTV’s Kurt Loder remarked of the scene, “It was dangerous to be around. The whole scene was scary. There were just waves of hatred bouncing around the place. It was clear we had to get out of there…. It was like a concentration camp. To get in, you get frisked to make sure you’re not bringing in any water or food that would prevent you from buying from their outrageously priced booths. You wallow around in garbage and human waste. There was a palpable mood of anger.
Prior to the announcement of Jay Z’s headlining performance at Glastonbury (the first rapper to headline in the event’s 38-year history), the festival had been predominantly known as a showcase of the who’s who in the world of rock ‘n’ roll and electronic music — ranging from David Bowie in 1971 to The Chemical Brothers in 2000.
While most viewed the emcee’s booking as a positive, others thought it jeopardized the festival’s commitment to the other genres of music.
Most notably, Oasis frontman, Noel Gallagher, told the BBC, “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong,” while adding, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. If you start to break it then people aren’t going to go. I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance.”
Even fellow hip-hop artist, Dizzee Rascal shared similar “anti Jay Z” sentiments as Gallagher, stating, “I don’t know if Jay-Z has got that cross over element. Kanye West or Eminem, they’ve both got that. Jay-Z is a bit of a funny one.”
Speaking to Tim Westwood on BBC Radio 1, Jay Z said of the controversy, “It’s ridiculous, if we don’t embrace what is new, then how do we progress? I’ve never actually experienced anything like that before. It’s 2008, what is that about? That’s such old school thinking, that’s not even how the world thinks anymore. So I was really taken aback. I think that hip-hop is music and an art form, it’s poetry and it should be accepted and respected like any other art form. It’s just coming from a different perspective.”
Ultimately, Jay Z performed to what The Guardian described as “an adoring crowd” and managed to provide both visual and audible jabs at Gallagher by projecting his comments on the big screen before launching into a cover version of Oasis’s “Wonderwall” and segueing into “99 Problems” from The Black Album.
This “anti-hip-hop” crusade at Glastonbury would once again come to a head in 2015 when a petition was started to prevent Kanye West from performing. Over 136,000 signed, but it failed to reach its stated goal of 150,000 signatures.
When the press release was blasted out to promote the 2008 lineup at Bonnaroo — which counted Kanye West, Pearl Jam and Metallica as headliners — it also featured New York’s all-femme Zep tribute band, Lez Zeppelin.
With the close resemblance to the name of the band that they covered, press outlets like AP and the Chicago Sun-Times reported that it was actually Led Zeppelin performing despite having only played a handful of shows together since the death of drummer, John Bonham, in 1980.
For many people, this seemed at least plausible as a year earlier the legendary band had reunited to play a 16-song set at London’s O2 Arena.
Not surprisingly, retractions from both press entities came within hours.
“It’s an extraordinary case of wishful thinking on behalf of some young writer at The Associated Press,” said Lez Zeppelin guitarist Steph Paynes. “How could somebody conjure, from a single sentence that is not even at the beginning of a press release, that Led Zeppelin was playing Bonnaroo? I don’t think they would have ‘Led Zeppelin confirmed’ three paragraphs in. I think this is just what people are hungry for, and what they really desire. I hope the avid music lovers who come to Bonnaroo will come with their minds and ears open. I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Electric Daisy Carnival
From the very outset of the 2010 Electric Daisy Carnival festivities outside of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, it was clear that 185,000 people were adamant about getting inside to see the likes of Deadmau5, Armin van Buuren, BT, Kaskade, Dirty South, Swedish House Mafia, Fedde le Grand, Avicii, Wolfgang Gartner, Gareth Emery, will.i.am, Sean Tyas, Afro Jack and Benny Benussi perform — regardless if they were underage or if they had tickets.
This led to a deluge of injuries and an overall sense of chaos which the LAPD addressed afterwards, stating, “Some kids breached the outside to get in. Some were without tickets and some with tickets were doing it just for sport.”
One such person who managed to get inside was 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez.
Although she was a year too young to attend, security wasn’t diligently checking IDs.
Rodriguez would later be rushed to a nearby hospital for acute drug intoxication and later died as a result.
“She came in as an emergency patient from the rave,” said a hospital spokesperson. “She was in respiratory arrest when she got here, and she never recovered.”
Following Rodriguez’s death, the festival moved to a number of different locations including Las Vegas, Orlando, Mexico, London and Chicago.
The family ultimately received $190,000 USD after filing suit against EDC’s organizers.
Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight in the English Channel has a population of about 140,000. Thus, when an influx of 55,000 concertgoers flocked to the coast of Hampshire, it was a jump of over a third of the overall population.
Headlined by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band and Crystal Castles, torrential rain over a two-day period turned the concert into a certifiable mud bath.
Since the roads were overcome with debris, it led to a seven mile long stretch of gridlocked traffic for those waiting to get to the festival grounds. Eventually, many of the motorists were forced to sleep in their cars when it became clear that no one was moving.
Even residents were impacted. According to The Guardian, there were “reports of children having to walk up to four miles home from school, cancelled funerals and commuters unable to get to work.”
Held in the sleepy and quiet town on Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, TomorrowWorld drew a lineup in 2015 that included Kaskade, Bassnectar, Porter Robinson, David Guetta, Tiësto, Martin Garrix and Hardwell.
Although the festival was impacted by soggy conditions, Hardwell’s final performance of Sunday’s lineup went off without incident.
However, when it came time for guests to shuttle, cab and Uber back to their accommodations, organizers couldn’t get any transportation to the drenched 8,000-acre farmland.
Thus, over 40,000 people were left stranded with nowhere to stay.
People took to social media to document the experience which had the decided look and feel of a scene out of both The Walking Dead and Titanic — with bodies splayed on the ground, cars abandoned and people laying down in front of buses that had managed to make it so more people could board.
TomorrowWorld organizers took to social media to apologize, and ended up limiting the remaining shows to only those who had physically made it to the venue out of fear that if the 190,000 people they expected to attend actually showed up, the scene would only worsen.
Hard Summer Music Festival
The Hard Summer Music Festival was moved from the Los Angeles County fairgrounds in Pomona to the Auto Club Speedway near Fontana after two college students died of drug overdoses.
Unfortunately, the change of venue wouldn’t eliminate the festival-related deaths associated with the concert event.
In 2015, three more attendees died as of a result of “acute MDMA toxicity” — marking the 28th drug-related death nationwide since 2006 among people who went to raves organized by Los Angeles-area companies.
In the wake of President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration ban, many couldn’t have anticipated that the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas would use that same rhetoric to bully music acts to comply to their rules and possibly alert immigration authorities if they didn’t.
Felix Walworth, who fronts the New York City indie-rock group Told Slant, tweeted a screenshot of the contract which stated that “SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities to the above actions.”
In a statement, SXSW CEO and co-founder Roland Swenson refuted the accusations that his policies aligned with the current administration, citing a “misunderstanding of our policies regarding international artists.”
“Language governing SXSW’s ability to protect a showcase has been in the artist performance agreement for many years,” Swenson said. “It is, and always was intended to be, a safeguard to provide SXSW with a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues.”
Other artists like Sheer Mag, Screaming Females, Talib Kweli, and Zach de la Rocha shared Walworth’s concerns and signed an open letter condemning the contract’s language.
Eventually, SXSW softened on their policies, stating, “Safety is a primary concern for SXSW, and we report any safety issues to local authorities. It is not SXSW’s duty or authority to escalate a matter beyond local authorities,” adding, “In this political climate, especially as it relates to immigration, we recognize the heightened importance of standing together against injustice. We would like to again apologize for the language in our agreements. We care deeply about the community we serve, and our event is a welcome and safe space for all people.”
- Featured/Main Image: Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect