By J. DeVoy
In 1990, the world was a different place. Gas was cheap, mini-vans were coming into vogue, and Iraq was a country where our dealings were mostly sub rosa arrangements between Donald Rumsfeld, the CIA and Saddam, rather than another costly foothold in the American empire. Additionally, Aghanistan was more of the soon-to-be-defunct USSR’s problem than America’s (and it wasn’t producing as much dope). Most importantly, the year 1990 was a time of trust.
Back then, bands and venues, however small, allowed fans to push themselves right up to the stage and be in the thick of the performers’ action. This contributed to the stage diving meme of the early and mid-1990s, but it had a certain egalitarianism to it, as if the fans and talent were on the same level despite what was likely a yawning gap in talent – after all, this was before ProTools, too.
Nothing too bad came of this. During aggressive shows, patrons right up against the stage might have gone home with odd lateral bruises across their chests, but it wasn’t a big deal. But a few lawsuits and screaming parents instigated changes.
Today, even the crappiest of venues have barriers like those seen above, normally with bouncers standing between them and the stage. This prevents stage diving and wacko fans from getting a little too close to the bands they adore, but is a costly solution to a relatively minor problem. In addition, it spurred new problems of its own. First, crowd surfing – picking up and carrying a random crowd member – was encouraged because audience members could no longer dive off the stage, be caught, and placed on the ground. Second, this added a new hazard to mosh pits, an artifact of the 1980s hardcore punk scene that bubbled up into mainstream culture. While always aggressive and a little dangerous, they were now bounded by metal barriers instead of people.
As seen in this video, yet another remedy was adopted – dividing the crowd. Normally this is a deep ravine running up the middle of the floor from the stage to the sound booth, often used at large outdoor festivals. While it does not stop crowd surfing or mosh pits, it theoretically contains such activities and makes their consequences less significant. On the other side of this argument, it would be easier to taser troublemakers located in one mosh pit rather than hunting them down across several locations, though this assumes that only one pit would form without those barriers – admittedly, a potentially faulty assumption.
The effects of these actions don’t seem to have made crowds safer in any meaningful way. They haven’t made performers any safer, either. As the 2004 death of Dimebag Darrel and four others shows, a lunatic with a gun is not going to be affected by such restraints, whether his targets are on stage or in the crowd.
Just as regulations put forth by the TSA don’t materially affect traveler safety, neither do any of these gradual restrictions on crowd movement. A motivated terrorist is not going to be deterred by a liquids ban, and nor will an assailant hoping to do harm to concertgoers be stopped by dissuaded from his attack by a barrier running from the stage to a sound booth; in fact, this could create a choke point for someone armed with an automatic weapon to inflict substantially more casualties than would otherwise be possible. In light of this, the safety gains from these restrictions seem minor at best, arguably destroy the concert experience – or at least degrade it from what it was 20 years ago – and may increase the injury that others are capable of inflicting.
By favoring smaller venues and smaller crowds, the need for these excessive restraints can be reduced, and a more organic experience is available. But one shouldn’t be relegated to the underground, or dingy corners in an industrial-zoned part of town, just to indulge in nostalgia and see a concert where the bouncer:attendee ratio isn’t approaching 1. Instead, these kinds of measures should be discontinued because they aren’t serving anyone, yet destroying the live music experience.