Thursday, May 07, 2015

"The most deadly and injurious crowd"

Stop flower

Okay so it's time for a new joke about the four seasons we have in New Orleans.

You know the one that goes, "Carnival, Festival, Hurricane, and Football" or "Shrimp, Crawfish, Crab, and Oyster" or "Caterpillar, Termite, Cockroach, and Mosquito" or... whatever the hell else. There's millions of these.

Anyway, here are the new ones. Feel free to print up some T-shirts or something.

1) Carnival Season
2) Kvetching About Crowd Behavior at Carnival Season
3) Jazzfest Season
4) Kvetching About Crowd Behavior at Jazzfest Season

We're squarely in the middle of the fourth one now.  
Many festgoers complained that they not only could not see but also could not move, which concert safety experts say is often a symptom of a festival that oversells its capacity.

“This can only occur when the promoter oversells an event and public safety officials fail to, or are incapable of, stopping the overcrowding influx of people,” said Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies, a Los Angeles-based international crowd safety consulting service.

Wertheimer said festival seating represents “the most deadly and injurious crowd configuration in live entertainment.”

About 460,000 people gathered at the Fair Grounds over the two weekends of Jazz Fest, which concluded Sunday night. That’s up about 6 percent from last year, when an estimated 435,000 attended the festival. This year’s attendance also represents the highest total since Hurricane Katrina. The previous peak was 450,000 people in 2012.
Quite a feat to set a record like that considering the difficult weather through most of the first weekend.  It suggests that the second Saturday crush was every bit as bad as reported by eyewitnesses.

Photo tent
Souvenir photo booth at the Fairgrounds

In a move somewhat reminiscent of the Carnival time battles against the "Krewe of Chad," festival organizers instituted a new minor tweak to the rules this year. But, as was also the case with the Carnvial rules, nobody knew about it. 
In a statement to The Advocate on 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.”

Did anybody know that? Doesn’t a change that significant seem like something that would have been news? Would compliance have been easier to get if people would have known the policy before they brought their chairs in? Wouldn’t it have made sense to remind people of this policy through the media after The Who’s set on the first weekend? No outlet, My Spilt Milk included, can get enough Jazz Fest stories while the festival is on, and television, print, and online media would all have run a story with the impact that banning chairs on the track would have. But I first heard of this change when I read the story this morning.  
It's probably not feasible to limit the use of chairs and blankets, in some cases air mattresses, around the Acura stage. But it would be nice if there were fewer. They inhibit movement and make for unfriendly and unsafe conditions when the crowd is heavy.

Acura Hell
Acura Stage Hell

When we went to see The Who during the first weekend we were lucky.  The rain had kept the crowd full but manageable. Even so we eventually made our way back to the track. There was more room to move around back there.

The sun came out

Lucky too since we also witnessed a medical emergency.  EMS workers had to carry a person suffering from what looked like a heat stroke out on a stretcher via the track.  This would have been considerably more difficult the following Saturday.
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.
As it was, Elton John day can't have been must have been tough for the people there for it. Alex Rawls argues that "Jazz Fest isn’t Jazz Fest with those numbers." 
Bouncing from stage to stage of Louisiana music before settling down for Elton John became impractical, nor could people enjoy Louisiana food. The activities that give Jazz Fest personality are prohibitively difficult when the crowds are at that level.
Some have suggested a cap on ticket sales.  I don't think that's the best solution, though. In fact, it's more likely to make the festival even more expensive and inaccessible to locals than it already is.

Which naturally brings us back to the often tiresome but still necessary question of who Jazzfest is even for anymore.   We had some fun with that question on the Parallel Internet last week over this Daily Beast article.  The author, Mark Hertsgard, is pretentious as hell in a way that makes you want to locate and punch him in the face some day. But he's not entirely wrong. 
Yet for all of Jazz Fest’s celebration of the music, food and culture of New Orleans, some locals complain that a central element is missing: the people. The daily ticket price of $70 is just too high in a city where many folks struggle to get by. In recent years, Jazz Fest’s crowds have become increasingly affluent, old, and white as the festival’s promoters, the AEG corporation, book acts such as The Eagles and this year The Who and Chicago that have precious little to do with the music of New Orleans.
That's about as close as the author comes to contributing a thought, unfortunately.  After that, he quickly falls into the lazy habit of conflating race with class.. and also race with a claim to authentic local New Orleans. And he throws in several embarrassing phrases about "the true spirit of New Orleans music" as if that means something besides whatever matches his own personal preconceptions.  Like so many upper-middle-class intellectuals who trek to New Orleans each year to offer similar commentary, he's actually the larger part of the problem he's trying to describe.

A crowd of amateur photographers huddles around the Uncle Lionel memorial second line at Jazzfest 2013

The problem with Jazzfest isn't that it's trying to be something that it isn't... or that it's been stolen or corrupted.  The problem is Jazzfest is actually pretty terrible. And by terrible, I mean it is like smoking or eating a lot of stuffed crust pizza. It's a fun thing we do sometimes that is also very bad for us.

Of course I still go for a day when I can afford to. And when I go, I still have a good time. I'm an old dude but I still like crowds.  I like to people watch. I like music.  But I'm always aware of how disgusting the thing is at the same time.  But I'm not the only person who notices. Hertsgard concludes his piece this way.
The corporate promoters of Jazz Fest may be greedy and exclusionary, but the magic of New Orleans abides for all with the wit to embrace it.
Replace "the wit to embrace it" with "the time and money to afford it" and you're a bit closer to the point but that's good enough.  The essential contradiction of the thing is, on the one hand it's awful; expensive, exploitive, reductive, pretentious, destructive. On the other hand if you go you're probably gonna have a good time.

But if we're being honest, Jazzfest has always been a bad idea. We spend a lot of time arguing about the "Disneyfication" of the city but the annual event at the Fairgrounds has been about as NOLA Disney as a thing can be for as long as I can remember.

If you've never worked in our local hospitality industry, you might not understand the true "spirit of the Jazzfest."  It is not to be found on any stage, or plate, or street corner nearby the Fairgrounds.  Rather, it is to be found in the sweaty reddened faces of the well-to-do middle aged professionals/academics who come down to New Orleans on some kind of authenticity hajj.

Years ago, I used to check these people in to their hotel rooms.  They were by a very wide stretch the most insufferable tourists to deal with every year; entitled, mean, snotty, superior. Jazzfest is their show. More than a concert getaway, it is a validation of their intellectual and cultural righteousness. They are not shy about telling you about how much it means to them, what is says about them that they can afford to appreciate it, and what it says about you if you do not.

VIP Tent

Over the years I've grown tired of fighting with people who don't get that you can both enjoy yourself and understand that the thing you're enjoying is troublesome so I try not to waste time explaining that anymore. This isn't about "hating" Jazzfest. It's more complicated than that.  Unease is not hate. If I hated it I wouldn't keep going every year.

In fact, Rawls, one of the city's most prominent music writers, published a three part examination of Jazzfest angst last month.  I'd recommend you read through all of that. It's very good. He reaches some conclusions I don't necessarily agree with. Like this, for example.
Those who want New Orleans and Jazz Fest to once again be their private concern are going to be disappointed. Neither is happening. I often wonder if the desire for the better days is also a manifestation of the baby boomers’ in Jazz Fest’s audience wanting to roll back their own clocks as well, or at least get back to a simpler time when they knew all the bands, were the cool kids, and had smaller crowds to be cool in.
Except whatever "simpler time" we're supposed to be pining for never really existed.  I'm pretty old now but I can't really remember a time when Jazzfest wasn't overly commercialized, overrun by tourists, too expensive.. all the things we're complaining about. In my memory it's always been like that. I've really only recently made a kind of peace with it. But I've never lamented some lost idea of a pure Jazzfest because there never was one. 

But if you're looking though those posts for someone to blame for the dangerously high crowds, Rawls does hit upon this.
Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis has quoted Mayor Mitch Landrieu on a number of occasions as having said after Katrina, “Not having Jazz Fest is not an option.” It’s unlikely Landrieu said that solely out of concern for the well-being of music lovers. New Orleans’ shift toward a tourism-based economy was already well underway, and the mayor knew how devastating it would be for one of the bedrock events of the city’s tourist trade to skip a year. Famously, money made during Jazz Fest helps clubs, restaurants, and businesses get through the summer. It would be interesting to see the degree to which that remains true, but it certainly was in 2006, and the degree to which that idea was believed means that civic leaders don’t see any problem with giving two or more hours over to the Boss or Rod Stewart or Fleetwood Mac. At least then there would be somebody they know out there. 
A few years ago, the city hired the Boston Consulting Group to help it set goals for expanding the number of annual visitors.  Already the city is under threat of being so overrun with tourists that on any given day one might be tempted to wonder if anyone actually lives here anymore.

The French Quarter is a Neighborhood

Nevertheless, the BCG strategy recommends planning for 13.5  million visitors by 2018. In 2008 that number was 7.8 million.  Last year that was up to about 9.5.  So they're on their way.  If you're looking to solve the Jazzfest overcrowding problem by imposing a cap, maybe look at the number of tourists we're trying to pack into town year after year rather than number tickets sold on any given day.

Also,  The Who was awesome.


Nolaresident said...

Stopped going to it years ago. Couldn't stand the crowds then so I know I'd hate 'em now. Plus, I have better ways to spend $70.

Nolaresident said...

in 86 it had all gone downhill, but there was a time...

Yes indeed. A few of us could take a couple of hours off from work, leave early and head over and have an enjoyable afternoon.

Kirsten Corby said...

It was better. When I moved here in the early 80s, tickets were 12-15 dollars and you could bring a cooler onto the fairgrounds. It still had the feel of a local music festival, not whatever behemoth it is now.

I didn't go this year, but I was really scared and freaked out by that article about the overcrowding. I felt it was claustrophobically crowded ten years ago. I fear that, like the ladder situation during Mardi Gras, nothing will be done until someone gets killed.