Written By: Anton Sawyer
The Astroworld Tragedy; How Journalism Amplifies The Worst Of Situations For Self-Serving Results
It seems like a no-brainer.
Having reviewed the performances of over 300 different bands while doing music journalism in the 2010s, the tragedy at the Travis Scott Astroworld Concert on November 5th, 2021 was something I was unavoidably going to write. Wanting the waters of controversy to calm a little before diving in, it seems the time is now.
As with most other pieces I write, nothing is as it seems on the surface level, and this tragedy is no different. Outside of my prior writing experience, there is a much more personal reason as to why this piece is coming about today: I’ve experienced multiple deaths at a concert myself.
When watching the evidence unfold, along with journalistic slants coming from all directions, it seems that nothing much has changed in the 30 years since my experience. Today I’m going to look at the tragedy of Astroworld, compare it with my experience and the responses between then and now, and look at the players in this game who are ultimately going to end up doing more harm than good.
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The tragic news of the 10 deaths at the recent Travis Scott concert holds a particular sadness with which I am too familiar. On January 18th, 1991, I attended my first concert as a young lad: AC/DC at The Salt Palace during their "Razor's Edge Tour." An event that was also seen by over 13,000 others.
If you are unfamiliar with this concert, it too was filled with tragedy. Three teenagers were trampled to death during the opener, “Thunderstruck.” Fortunately, the seats I shared with my chaperone were in the upper bowl, so I wasn't in any kind of danger. Because it was my first concert and the seats weren't the best, we rented a pair of binoculars. This was both a blessing and a curse. Though it offered me the ability to see the band "up-close" as they finished their set, it also allowed me to see the mayhem below.
Vocalist Brian Johnson addressed the crowd as the band stopped playing and repeatedly told the crowd to step back. As he did so, I could see bodies being shoved all over the place in the first 10 rows on the floor. Thankfully, I didn't see people being carried out or the like. During the confusion, the atmosphere of the venue completely shifted. The violence brewing near the front of the stage between medical personnel and security fighting through a barrage of selfish drunkards who only cared about rocking out to "Who Made Who" above all else only added to the chaos, and greatly hindered those who needed help to get it.
It cost the lives of three teenagers, all of which were just beginning their journeys on this mortal coil. You would think that between this experience, and the one I had when I got home to my mother who was in tears (wondering if one of the kids killed at the concert was her son), would make me gun-shy towards future concerts. It absolutely didn’t.
If you look at the aftermath of the Travis Scott Astroworld tragedy and the events that took place years earlier in Salt Lake City, the similarities abound. The lawsuits. The finger-pointing at who the guilty party truly is (security, Scott himself, the venue, etc.). Most importantly, the media and their attempts to promote stupidity in the name of selling copy with salacious topics.
As a member of the media to some degree, I usually try not to comment too early on ongoing newsworthy events. Whether it’s the national budget or hot water that some pop culture icon has put themselves into, I’ve learned that jumping in with an opinion too early (i.e. before a majority of the facts come out), leads to inaccuracies—and makes me look like an idiot. The early responses to the Astroworld tragedy were of the sympathetic and retaliatory kind.
There was talk amongst all major promoters about upcoming events in arenas or stadiums seating in the tens of thousands and banning all general admission seating and requiring restrictions on attendance numbers. History is repeating itself as after the AC/DC tragedy, Salt Lake County banned all general admission seating for venues over a certain capacity—a ban which stands to this day.
Another element that has been tossed around is whether Scott should stop touring altogether for the rest of the year; an incredibly costly endeavor with which he has not made a statement for, or against. At the time of this publication, he’s already offered refunds to everyone who attended the event, along with covering other expenses like all of the funeral costs for the 10 who have passed since the tragedy occurred.
Having myself toured America previously doing public relations (though on a much smaller scale than Scott) and having built a lot of inter-personal relationships with tour managers, labels, and other personal that help an artist stay on the road when I was actively writing about music, I needed to make a note of what Scott has offered. Between my knowledge of venue rentals, door percentages, merchandise, guarantees, etc. Scott is putting up an obscene amount of money with just the two actions I’ve mentioned. I’m not trying to minimize the loss of life at all, and it is the least that could be done. But in most cases, the artist/label/touring company will fight tooth and nail before coughing up that kind of monetary compensation. So for Scott to offer it up out of the gate is impressive; I know of at least 100 different artists that would have been bankrupted by such an act.
After the initial media reactions, they will always then go for the salacious in an attempt to sell a copy. This is where we are today.
There’s been an article that has made the rounds that I think need to be called out. This article is a prime example when it comes to how utterly useless the media can be once most of the “real reporting” cycle is over. The “explosive” story by the New York Post about Canadian rapper Drake with the headline “Drake Apparently Spent $1M At Strip Club Night After Astroworld Tragedy.” It includes scantily clad women rolling around in big piles of money thanking Drake, all while bottles of alcohol dot the background landscape.
This may seem like a big “no duh” to anyone who has been involved in the music business on any level. The problem comes from the fact that this NY Post piece is not only going to paint the minds of the general (non-musical) population at large into thinking that Drake either doesn’t care or is a skeezy human being for spending so much at a strip club, but it’s also going to have a potentially huge impact on the lawsuits coming his way.
Since the November 5th tragedy, dozens of lawsuits have been filed and a criminal investigation opened after the deaths at the music festival. A few of them are against Drake and they center more specifically on what Drake might have known about the tragedy unfolding at the Astroworld concert in Houston before he took the stage. "The allegation about Drake is that he also should have been aware that people were being injured and hurt," said Meredith Duncan, a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center Faculty. "And by him taking the stage and performing that he was going to add to that situation."
As much as I would like to think that most people know that the viability of the New York Post is questionable at best, I also know that millions who only follow pop culture may confuse this publication with something like the New York Times or the like. Remember, there is a lowest common denominator out there for every group.
To be honest, if I were in Drake’s shoes, I would have done the same thing. The thought of the people who loved you as an artist are now dead and you could have potentially played a part in that … even with having Crohn’s disease and not having had a drink since 2016, I’d be getting a bottle of Wild Turkey 101 STAT.
Even after the AC/DC tragedy, former rhythm guitarist Malcolm Young (R.I.P.) REFUSED to comment on it and took his thoughts with him to his deathbed. It was a subject that he couldn’t handle for the entirety of his life. You may be asking “well, if it was so tragic, why did AC/DC finish the show?” Because in that emotionally charged moment, the venue and tour manager were worried that the “insane crowds” found in Utah in the early 90s would start a riot and tear the building asunder, thereby perpetuating a larger riot and more fan-deaths, and used this reason to push the band to play. CLASSY …
I always mention how my writing is doing nothing more than putting a giant mirror in front of America as a whole and asking “what’s the ugliest part of your body? I think it’s your mind.” It’s time I did the same for my profession. I’m not one of those people who are going to call the media at large something absurd like “drive-by media” or any other cute moniker devised by either the left-wing or right-wing parties of the nation, but our ilk needs to be held to the same account that we like to profess we keep others at; whether about national security or pop culture.
Sadly, this entire article shows it’s not likely to happen anytime soon.
Here’s to fighting the good fight …
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