by Kevin Erickson, Communications Associate
An overdose death or a major security incident is any concert promoter’s nightmare, marring what should be a joyous communal event. But one major festival is choosing an unusual way to respond to tragedy: essentially blaming teenagers for their security issues and banning anyone under 18 from attending their event.
About 60,000 people annually attend each day of the Ultra Music Festival in downtown Miami every March; at this year’s event a security guard was trampled by gatecrashers, and a 21-year old man died of an accidental overdose, the second such incident in the event’s 16 year history. Organizers announced this week that no one under 18 would be allowed at the 2015 festival, saying in a statement “This decision has been made to reinforce and promote the safety of all Ultra Music Festival fans and to ensure the overall enjoyment of all future attendees.”
In fact, no existing research shows that teenage concertgoers are more likely to cause security concerns at live music events than older patrons. Past fatal overdoses at the Ultra Music Festival have only ever involved concertgoers over 18. And even as EDM has surged in popularity among young people, MDMA use has actually declined among high school students from 2001-2013, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control study.
That’s not to say a problem doesn’t exist. This year, apparent overdose deaths have happened at Toronto’s Veld festival, Malaysia’s Future Music Festival, and the Maryland stop of Diplo’s Mad Decent Block Party festival tour. But these problems aren’t limited to EDM festivals. Tennessee’s eclectic Bonnaroo festival has seen 11 deaths in its 13 years of existence (though this year’s festival was without major incident). And as the Washington Post points out, there’s been a recent rash of problems at country music concerts as well.
As Ultra Festival has grown, its relationship with civic authorities hasn’t been exactly been cozy. After this year’s incident, Mayor Tomas Regalado called for the event to leave downtown Miami. In response, Ultra organizers hired retiring Miami Beach police chief Raymond Martinez to direct security. Citing its economic benefits, city commissioners ultimately voted to allow the festival to continue, provided that organizers improve security procedures.
Speaking to the Miami Herald, Mayor Regalodo praised the policy change: “I think that it’s the best decision they could have ever made…That was one of the main issues, the concern for minors.” But some critics have pointed out that banning minors is a puzzling response to problems with gatecrashers, as it means that gatecrashing is now the only way minors can get into the festival.
While it’s unlikely that keeping teenagers out will actually result in a safer event, the move will likely help Ultra’s bottom line. In the wake of high profile security incidents, Ultra is undoubtedly faced with higher liability insurance premiums; that increase in cost can be mitigated by keeping minors out, as live music promoters typically pay more for insurance policies when people under 18 are allowed inside the event.
Happily, the rest of the industry seems to be looking for more serious ways of tackling issues of patron safety at concerts. Last month, the Washington Post reported that the Association for Electronic Music, an industry group representing a wide variety of EDM stakeholders, will soon release a set of best practices for electronic music promoters, focusing on patron education and risk prevention as well as incident response and treatment. Meanwhile, other groups focus on harm reduction strategies such as on-site pill testing.
Of course, when shut out of live music, young people often endeavor to build their own all-ages alternatives. But that task is made much more difficult when even well-intentioned public officials or promoters continue to unfairly stigmatize young music fans, either as potential hooligans who will cause problems if allowed to occupy public spaces, or as helpless children incapable of making responsible choices that must be protected against the corrupting influence of live music. For example, just down the road from Ultra, south Florida’s most long-running all-ages live music venue The Talent Farm was forced to close its doors this May after 9 years of operation.
Ultra’s misguided move unquestionably contributes to that stigma. It might be the right call for Ultra’s short term bottom line and help appease civic officials in Miami. But it’s the wrong call in terms of safety and public health, and it endangers young people’s rights to cultural participation.
Interested in learning more about electronic music and live music policy? The Future of Music Policy Summit on October 27-28 will feature a panel on EDM and Live Event Innovation. Register before Oct 1 for big discounts!
Photo: 2011 Ultra Festival by Adam Jackson, used with permission via CC license.