On Saturday at the Acura Stage, frequent overhead camera shots of the Acura stage flashed a picture on the wide video screens that many people on the ground knew to be true: There were far too many people there.
Crowds not only occupied the entire green space for Elton John’s set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, they then stretched onto the dirt track all the way to the back fence. Fest-goers complained that not only could they not see, but also they could not move, which concert safety experts say is often a symptom of a festival that oversells its permitted capacity.
“This can only occur when the promoter oversells an event and public safety officials fail to, or are incapable of, stopping the over crowding influx of people,” says Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies, a Los Angeles-based international crowd safety consulting service who says that festival seating represents “the most deadly and injurious crowd configuration in live entertainment.”
Bryan Smith of Atlanta says the experience at the John set ruined his ability to enjoy the music, despite showing up for John’s set hours earlier.
“Everything was choked, there were no arteries to move,” he said. He suggested that producers sell tickets assigned for particular days opposed to tickets that can be used for any of the seven days.
Portable chairs and blankets fest-goers use to mark their space represent a common problem in creating density. While producers have created a separate area for those with chairs, it is common for people to ignore the rules and set up camp in the wider standing area, or the track, which is commonly used for traffic flow between stages.
“They get in the way of people who want to enjoy themselves. It’s selfishness,” says Stanley Dubroca of New Orleans.
In a statement to the Advocate Sunday, festival producers said they did institute a standing-room-only policy on the track for Acura Stage performances this year, but “as with any new policy, it sometimes takes a couple of years to achieve full compliance.”
Producers said they plan “to maintain this policy moving forward” and they are “completely confident the new standing-room-only area will become the norm, as it is best for the overall Festival experience.”
That will take enforcement, of which to date, there has been very little by festival volunteers or staff, says John Hyman of New Orleans who has attended 40 Jazz Fests. At the Gentilly Stage last weekend, when crowds were growing thick before Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, he says he asked volunteers to ask people to fold up their chairs in the standing area and was told it was the job of local police. When he found police officers and asked them the same thing, they replied: “Not our job.”
“There’s no one who wants to take responsibility for enforcing it,” he says. “If they book somebody like Elton John, they know it’s going to happen but they won’t do anything about it.”
Wertheimer says not controlling the rules regarding individual space in a festival environment is “irresponsible.” “The Jazz Festival organizers have created a situation of mayhem that pits ticket holder against ticket holder and practically guarantees chaos and possible worse if it isn’t contained.” He warns that dense crowding in general admission environments can cause deaths or serious injuries by crushing and prevent emergency responders to locate and reach people who may be suffering from dangerous ailments like heat exhaustion or more.
Last year producers estimated that total attendance at the 2014 festival reached 435,000, a two percent increase from the 2013 total of 425,000 people. The highest peak since Hurricane Katrina is 450,000 people in 2012.
A common fan complaint is one voiced by Bruno Jubelin of Gentilly: “Cap the ticket sales.” “They know how impractical and impossible it is for us to get on the ground, so they need to cap it,” he says.