Festival Disasters: Burning Man 2023 and the Worst Festivals in History

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worst festival disasters in history

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Photo Credit: “Clusterf**k: Woodstock ‘99” / Netflix

Poor security, overcrowding, water shortages, incompetence, fraud, and terrible weather have spelled disaster for many music festivals over the years. Here’s a look at ten of the worst.

The 2023 festival season is winding down, with summer in the rearview mirror — overall a massively successful summer for the music festival industry, with fans eager to get to events following the COVID-induced shutdowns and cancellations in 2020 and 2021. But for all the wins, there have been some irrefutable losses, like this year’s edition of Burning Man and Virginia’s Blue Ridge Rock Festival.

Still, those events don’t hold a candle to the disastrous festivals that have taken place in years past; November marks the second anniversary of the Astroworld crowd crush event that proved fatal in Houston, Texas. Poor security, overcrowding, water shortages, and terrible weather have spelled disaster for many music festivals over the years. Here’s a look at ten of the worst.

Altamont Speedway Free Music Festival (1969) – Tracy, California

Festival organizers at the Altamont Speedway hired worldwide motorcycle club Hells Angels to handle security for the event, which they quickly came to regret. Bikers “handled” security by beating the crowd back with sawed-off pool cues and whipping them with chains, resulting in countless injuries and the deaths of four people.

The Who Concert Disaster (1979) – Cincinnati, Ohio

During the US leg of their 1979 world tour, The Who played to a sold-out crowd at Riverfront Coliseum (now known as Heritage Bank Center) in Cincinnati on December 3. A swell of would-be concertgoers outside the venue’s entry doors, only two of which were open early, resulted in crowd crush that killed 11 people, several of whom were teenagers, and injured at least 26 others. The following night, news anchor Walter Cronkite led a lengthy segment on the CBS Evening News about violence at rock concerts.

Glastonbury Festival (1990) – Glastonbury, England

A festival with a near-20-year history of successful incident-free Glastonbury Festival’s 1990 edition was going as planned until the end. A group of hippie-adjacent counterculturists called the New Age Travellers, who had permission to set up camp in an adjacent field, quickly clashed with Glastonbury Festival security, leading to tens of thousands of dollars in damage and 235 arrests. The event came to be known as The Battle of Yeoman’s Bridge and led to the festival being cancelled in 1991. It returned in 1992 to brilliant success, with heightened security measures.

Woodstock (1999) – Rome, New York

The original Woodstock festival in 1969 has long been a pinnacle of music festivals, legendary for its powerful message of peace and unity that hundreds of festivals after it have aimed to replicate. For its 30th anniversary, the now-infamous Woodstock ‘99 had an enviable lineup of performances, but that’s about where the similarities between it and the original festival start and end.

Over the four days of the festival, sweltering weather combined with the tarmac at the former military airfield at which the festival was held, leading to a shortage of water for attendees. The available water was subsequently overpriced, and combined with poor sanitation and excessive alcohol and drug use, resulted in many hundreds of angry people. Unsurprisingly, rioting, vandalism, and violence broke out; multiple reports of sexual harassment and rape surfaced and three people lost their lives. Over 250 more required hospitalization.

Roskilde Festival (2000) – Roskilde, Denmark

Long considered a relatively “safe” festival since its debut in the ‘70s, Denmark’s Roskilde Festival took a dark turn in 2000 when a mosh pit near the front of the stage led to people being knocked down and crushed by the crowd. It took festival organizers too long to realize there was a problem, and despite pausing the performance to move the crowd, nine people lost their lives.

Love Parade (2010) – Duisburg, Germany

A massive crowd of approximately 1.4 million people showed up for the highly anticipated festival, many of whom were denied entry to prevent overcrowding. Some would-be festivalgoers sought entry through a tunnel, which caused a crowd crush resulting in the deaths of 21 and at least 650 more injuries. Festival organizers and city officials faced trial for “negligent manslaughter and bodily harm” for the incident in 2017. However, because of Germany’s statute of limitations, the trial was discontinued in 2020, with no one held accountable.

Electric Daisy Carnival (2010) – Los Angeles, California

Electric Daisy Carnival has received criticism for years due to the high levels of drug use in the crowd, but the 2010 edition was egregious due to lacking security and negligent ID-checking. Hundreds of minors were admitted into the main area, and multiple injuries were reported due to overcrowding. A 15-year-old lost her life, resulting in several lawsuits and heavier scrutiny on festival organizers to crack down on drug use and the admission of minors.

Indiana State Fair (2011) – Indianapolis, Indiana

When high winds threatened the 2011 Indiana State Fair, organizers decided the show must go on since multiple acts were ready to perform. Just minutes before country duo Sugarland was scheduled to hit the stage, severe winds collapsed the roof of the outdoor stage, crushing spectators and resulting in seven deaths. Multiple lawsuits followed, at least one of which was settled in 2014.

Fyre Festival (2017) – Great Exuma, The Bahamas

Advertised by con artist Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule as a luxury music festival in the Bahamas, Fyre Festival’s tickets went for $13,000 on average. To say the site was unprepared is an understatement: many of the announced acts failed to show up, rain soaked the (extremely basic) tents and mattresses available for attendees to sleep on, there was no running water, and an insufficient number of porta potties. Promptly realizing they were scammed, attendees rushed to catch a plane back home, leading to a lack of flights and hotel rooms..

Billy McFarland was sentenced to six years in prison (he only served four years) and ordered to pay $26 million in restitution — the funding for which he miraculously seems to be raising by selling tickets to Fyre Festival II. At least eight other lawsuits were filed against McFarland and his company. Meanwhile, Ja Rule, who co-founded the festival alongside McFarland, received no charges.

Astroworld (2021) – Houston, Texas

One of the most recent and tragic festival disasters in the last 20 years, Travis Scott’s 2021 Astroworld concert was cancelled after the first night following a crowd crush that killed 10 while 25 others required hospitalization, with many more treated for minor injuries on-site.

A police investigation after the fact uncovered multiple logistics issues with the festival’s planning and security, and at least 275 civil lawsuits have been filed against Travis Scott or festival organizers, with only a handful settled thus far. Scott was cleared of possible criminal charges at the end of June 2023 when a grand jury chose not to indict him.