Behind the Music: How Music Festival Organizers Manage the Risks of Burning Man, Lollapalooza, Coachella and More

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In December 1969, thousands of music lovers converged at Northern California's Altamont Speedway for a free festival that marked the end of the Rolling Stones' successful American tour. On the bill were Santana, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Stones themselves. With this genre of music, it seemed like nothing more than peaceful setting for the 300,000 in attendance at what was expected to be the Woodstock of the West. Instead, what started as a musical expression of peace turned into a deadly combination of events.

In what some have called a critical mistake, the Rolling Stones' management hired the Hells Angels as security for the festival, with the Angels reportedly accepting $500 worth of beer as payment. With a drug-fueled crowd and intoxicated security, the atmosphere quickly turned to violence.

As the Rolling Stones played "Under My Thumb," 18-year-old, Meredith Hunter, high on methamphetamines at the time, rushed the stage brandishing a gun. The man was quickly accosted by the Angels, who stabbed and stomped him several times before leaving him for dead. Three others also perished at Altamont, one fan who drowned in a drainage ditch and two people in sleeping bags who were accidentally run over by a vehicle.

The ensuing firestorm of controversy surrounding what Rolling Stone magazine called "Rock & Roll's Worst Day" not only marked the end of the hippie-vibe and Woodstock generation--it launched a new era of festival risk management.

Ben Stern is no stranger to large, high-risk events. As vice president of the California-based Heffernan Insurance Brokers, he insures the Electric Daisy Carnival, a three-day, West Coast rave notorious for illicit drug use, underage drinking and a record number of attendee hospitalizations. Here, as with most other music festivals, the number-one risk organizers face is keeping the crowd safe.

"A lot of times they're inebriated or not making decisions with a clear mind so you have to be cognizant of that," said Stern. "When you're dealing with someone under the circumstances, you have to do so very carefully."

Such concerns are magnified at multi-day festivals that allow overnight camping--a feature of some festivals that presents numerous problems. "Not only are people drinking for 10 to 12 hours during the shows, but they're going back to the campsite and continuing," said Stern. "You've got a 24-hour exposure. You can't control what they're doing in their tents--drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse."

The three-day Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is one of the more popular multi-day music gatherings in the United States, attracting more than 50,000 music lovers to Indio, California, each year. But bigger did not equal better in this case.

Last year, gate-crashers used bolt cutters along the perimeter of the grounds to gain free entrance. To make matters worse, hundreds of guests gained admission using counterfeit tickets. Combined, this allowed for 15,000 entrants beyond permitted capacity and led to what festival security called "a borderline riot situation."

Risks can be even more pronounced if you're dealing with a seven-day festival involving 50,000 individuals and a towering bonfire, as is the case with Burning Man. One of the larger festivals on the West Coast, Burning Man brings together tens of thousands of people for a week-long celebration of radical self-expression and self-reliance in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. The event culminates on its final night each year with a ritual burning of a wooden effigy, bringing the masses together in one central location for an awe-inspiring night of fire and metaphors. But where there's fire, there's risk.

Last summer, an attendee claimed he was pushed into the fire due to poor crowd control. When the case went to court, however, the judge had little sympathy. "The words of the judge were roughly, 'the person had not taken due course in protecting himself at an event called Burning Man, where they clearly state on the ticket the dangers inherent in attending such an event,'" said Amy Vitarelli, vice president of Heffernan Insurance. …