Friday, June 22, 2012

growing safety in stages

You can read that title any way you like. This I think will be the most difficult post I've written on this forum,  and I'm intentionally going to be working on it every day this week until it posts on Friday. I think a few days of thought and digestion of the topic are crucial to have a conversation that's worthwhile. I also hope that this can be a podcast topic in the next week or two, as it's an important issue that shouldn't be ignored.

Yesterday (Saturday, 6 days ago when this posts) in Toronto, the stage collapsed that was set to host Radiohead for an outdoor show.  Their drum tech was killed in the accident, and I've seen conflicting reports on how many injured...3-5 is what I've been reading, none of them in grave danger. While this tragedy didn't have the "number of casualties" devastation of the Indiana State Fair collapse last year, it does indicate that things are wrong in live events at this point in the industry, and it needs to be addressed. This is something that happens more than we hear, especially over seas. 

I think the industry needs to address some issues that come with producing shows on temporary structures. I think I should clarify that I am in no way speaking as an "expert" in temporary structures, structural engineering, or even basic rigging.  I've been a mix engineer my whole career, and my experience flying anything is very limited. I'm not writing this claiming to have any answers,  and really I'm writing this more out of concern and frustration,  and looking for the people reading this who do have the experience in these matters to speak up,  and hopefully answer these questions that I humbly submit to our industry. 

The art of live shows, production, and artistic expression in music has changed drastically with the emergence of LED video elements in a live venue. I love live events for the music, but there is no way to deny the absolute genius that you can experience with the video and lighting elements that make the musical experience so much better. The impact it brings to a live show is profound. I'll never forget my first time seeing Radiohead, at the Blossom Music Center in Ohio, when they were touring on the Amnesiac album. The music was flawless, and even from the lawn seats, the lighting and video made such a lasting impression on me. The same holds true for U2, and Nine Inch Nails, who I revere as innovators in using video and lighting in new ways to hold an audience captive along with the music. 

The rigs are getting bigger and bigger. It doesn't take many page turns in an industry rag to see the magnitude of these systems. The audio systems are fractions of the weight of the lighting and video systems now. It looks beautiful. It makes an experience that inspires people like you and me.  When is it too much? I'm not talking artistically, but literally, too much.  Is there a common sense point where we need to start saying, "This will not work on a temporary structure."?

I realize that the artists rely on this technology and these elements to set them apart for the other acts that are out there. These elements help them express their vision more fully. Does the industry need to start stepping in, and having common sense be king over artistic expression?  

I realize that adding more red tape to doing temporary structures will make the cost for these events even more prohibitive,  and will cause many of them not to happen....or corruption will begin to set in (maybe more than it already is?) and people will start buying their way through the red tape to be able to put on their show.  Something needs to be done. There needs to be guidelines. I think structure height is a huge issue. These video, lighting points, and even line array lengths necessitate the structures being taller. I realize that a longer line array throws farther. At what point do we say the length of the array is too long, we need to keep the structure height lower, so go put out delay towers. I know there's extra labor, trucking, and all sorts of expense tied up into it. Don't we think it's worth it?  

At what point do the artists, or their management say, "You know what, we are going to plan to trim down our rigs for temporary structures.  We will still put on a great show, but we will do it in a way that is safe no matter what."? I know it's additional logistics. I know it's more programming for  everyone involved on the tour.  Isn't it worth it?  The extra week of prep and rehearsals, the extra few thousand dollars to make it happen is worth lives.

I know it's not as simple as I'm describing. I know an engineer signed off on this stage design. I know the company that put it up was reputable, and had guys working on it that were qualified, and professional...(maybe not, there's speculation about the company putting it up simply being a temp agency, and the 1st SE did not sign off, so the promoter found one that would...again only speculation). The problem is, the bigger we make these things, the slimmer the margin of error is in building them. We all make mistakes. I'm not talking about negligence, just honest mistakes. The human factor in all of this can't be ignored. I can accept that accidents happen, equipment fails, materials don't live up to expectations, or degrade faster than they were designed.  I don't think that we will eliminate accidents like this from happening. I do think that getting back to some common sense about how we approach these things will save lives. 

I honestly don't understand why promoters at this level insist on bringing these arena shows to the temporary situations. At some point, the promoter needs to look at what the act has, and make a good decision on where to put them. Attendance for the Radiohead show was expected to be around 40,000. There's not an ampitheatre in town that can hold that? something with a permanent structure?  I know a profit needs to be made, but where does common sense come in? 

The reality is, these shows happen all the time, without incident. These collapses, I have a hunch (without real facts) make up less than one percent of the temporary structure shows that happen in the US each year. However, I'd like to see some statistics on shows that meet certain criteria:  How many of the largest 10% of temporary stages have some sort of incident? I think that might shed some light on things.  It might even prove my hunch wrong...

I think my bottom line is this: Until we, the guys that are working on these shows get better educated on what is wrong and right, and are not afraid to speak up when things are done incorrectly, we won't see a change. I'm not necessarily a union advocate, but this is a major plus of the IATSE.  The unions are great at providing the training and education needed to make it's members the most qualified and aware of what is right and wrong, safe and not safe in our field. If you're in doubt of a structure you're working on, speak up. If you're a visiting engineer, band tech etc, get your TM involved to be sure you're in a safe environment. Ask what the plan is if the weather goes south, and you need to get a roof lowered in a hurry. Be aware of where you are.

Please, discuss, not for my ego's sake, but for the good of the community that reads this. Hopefully you can share expertise that I don't have. Let's learn, and make these tragedies that have been happening all too soon disappear. Have fun, be safe everyone.

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