Five Things I Know: Tracey Wall, Safety In Numbers

Tracey Wall is a Victoria-based veteran of event safety and risk management, having worked on mega fests of the 2000s like Big Day Out and Soundwave to contemporary tentpole events like Laneway and Melbourne Music Week. Drawing on over 30 years of experience, she talks to NME about lessons learned from the Astroworld tragedy, ‘festival feng shui’, wrangling with insurance and how punters need to look after their friends and mates

1. Getting safety basics right is essential

I don’t know whether we’ve got a lot to learn from Astroworld other than how it reinforced the importance of all the essential basics of crowd safety, such as good planning, good site layout, proper emergency management, and good security being in place. The Astroworld tragedy to me highlighted the critical role that artists play in establishing the vibe, whether that’s positive or negative, and how absolutely important the artist is in terms of setting the tone in relationship to safety and care.

Typically when something catastrophic happens, like at Astroworld, that results in multiple fatalities, it’s usually not just one safety element that has failed but a failure of the safety system in place at the event as a whole.

2. Site design and scheduling are crucial to ‘festival feng shui’

Not that I studied it, but I often talk about event or ‘festival feng shui’, which is the energy flow through a festival site. It’s really important that you get right where you place the bars, toilets, drinking water, the direction the stages face, and how they play off each other. It sounds a little bit touchy-feely, but when you get it right, it’s the difference between a site punters and artists love versus just another OK or clunky site.

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Promoters have strategies in place when programming multi-stage festival line-ups and deciding where and when they schedule bands. One of the things they look at is the crossovers between stages. Often punters go ‘I don’t understand why these two headline acts are on at the same time’ or ‘why don’t all the stages finish at the same time, you always end up missing the start of the next set’. This is deliberate so you get crowds moving through the site in different directions at different times. This way you avoid a stampede effect with everyone rushing from one stage to another during a band changeover in the same 10 minutes.

I am really interested in the use and application of machine learning (artificial intelligence and use of data) in regard to crowd dynamics at large festivals: basically using advanced technology to analyse patron movement such as crowd density, flow and mood to assist decision-making and better manage crowds in real time. The technology is already in use at international transport hubs and major street events overseas. There are some Australian companies doing pioneering work and great things in this area which is really exciting.

“Astroworld highlighted how important the artist is when setting the tone in relationship to safety and care”

3. There’s a shortage of experienced festival frontliners

In the music and the festival industry, most people are self-employed. There are very few people that are employed 52 weeks a year by one employer. Operators that are well-established will be OK, but it’s very challenging to attract younger people or skilled people who have a passion for music to forgo a more secure career in another industry with better pay and conditions to work in our industry. Often there’s no guarantee of work or income. You have to generate your own work job to job.

So that means the pool of available talent and experience isn’t being replenished or growing, and we are at risk of not keeping up with demand or continuously improving our safety standards. In event and crowd safety in Australia we rely heavily on the security industry for both resources and expertise. There are now fewer security companies operating in the music industry than before the pandemic, and many experienced security managers and crowd controllers have left the industry for something more financially secure.

What this means is there will be fewer experienced guards that have worked a barrier, that can look into a crowd and go ‘Yeah, that’s moshing, that’s normal’ or ‘That’s not moshing, that’s not OK’ – or can recognise a young woman who’s surrounded by five big burly bodies in the pit and is not having fun. The frontline is where we will feel the impact and it’s where we need to focus our attention and efforts.

Listen Out Festival
Credit: Marc Grimwade/WireImage

4. Insurers are becoming more risk-averse

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Typically an insurance company will offset some or all of their risk exposure through underwriters, who in turn rely on insurance actuaries to analyse and determine the financial risk to the insurance company. What happened with event and festival insurance in the pandemic is some of the really big international underwriters removed themselves from the market, and as a result the insurance brokers, which are pretty much the retail link, just don’t have that many doors to knock on. Many insurers are also trying to exclude from policies high risk activities which have the potential to generate massive insurance claims against them (for example, there has been a US$750million civil action lawsuit lodged in relation to the Astroworld tragedy).

In Australia we have well-established promoters such as TEG, Live Nation, Mushroom/Frontier and Secret Sounds delivering big festivals and events. These companies will be able to source good insurance even if it’s expensive. Other smaller and newer operators and promoters of less mainstream events will find it difficult to get good insurance that affordably covers all their activities. That said, there are still good brokers in Australia, and they’ve managed to tap, internationally, into some underwriters that are prepared to operate in the industry.

I’ve found more recently that my clients’ insurers are asking for copies of the event risk management plan, when maybe two years ago, they got their insurance without being asked for that. I think insurance companies are being more proactive because they want an assurance that you don’t need insurance. Sometimes inexperienced promoters don’t fully understand the importance risk management plays in planning and delivering the event. They think ‘I’ve got insurance so if someone falls over, that’s covered by insurance’. Good risk management aims to prevent the fall, not to pay out on the fall.

5. A festival rookie? Look out for your friends

For many young people going to a local hotel or venue to see their favourite band is where they experience music, crowds and alcohol for the first time. It’s where they work out what the go is for them: where to stand, how much to drink, what to wear, gig etiquette, how to get home. There are young people turning 18 or 19 who didn’t have that sort of opportunity to become gig fit or ready because of the pandemic, and could find themselves at festivals in large crowds. For some that will be intense and quite overwhelming.

I think that Australian promoters are aware of that. I’m a really big fan of peer support at festivals – in Victoria we’ve got some state-funded peer support agencies like DanceWize. I think they’re great: they’re affordable, efficient and just give you eyes and ears all around the site and they’ve got a different mindset to security: they see different things and respond differently. Whatever patrons partake of at festivals, whether it’s a few beers or whatever, peer support and friendship groups are something we really want to encourage.

With big bands, live music or EDM, you do hope that that the ‘look after your mate’ mantra comes through: that’s young men crowd surfing without kicking other punters in the head, or attending an EDM event with friends and checking in over the day that everyone is pacing themselves, drinking water, chilling and having a good time. So if there was going to be a public campaign, I’d hope it’d be about friendship groups and looking after each other. Music festivals are something best enjoyed with friends (new or old) or in a group. My fondest festival memories are of dancing to my favourite music, with my new best friends for the day, sharing that journey that you can only experience in a festival environment. It’s what makes music festivals so special.

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