The moment Capriesha Robinson reported for security duty at NRG Park in Houston on the morning of Nov. 5, 2021, she could feel that something was off.
“It was very chaotic,” Robinson tells Billboard. “Everybody was everywhere, all over the parking lot. Nobody knew who was in charge.”
That wasn’t the first red flag for the 25-year-old Dallas resident, who posted an account of her Astroworld experience on TikTok shortly after a crowd surge killed 10 people and injured hundreds of others during Travis Scott’s headlining performance. Robinson came across the opportunity after spotting a friend’s “help wanted” post on Instagram; after reaching out, she was put in touch with her friend’s father, who was recruiting security personnel for the festival. Initially asking about the job for her husband, she was shocked when the recruiter gauged her interest in coming out as well. “I was laughing, because I was like, ‘Me?’” she says of being approached for the job. Ultimately, Robinson, her husband, her nephew and a friend — none of whom had worked security before — were hired by text and told to report for duty at NRG Park at 7 a.m. on Nov. 5. None were asked to submit to a background check — or even to provide identification. “All they wanted to know was basically my height, weight, and my age and my email,” Robinson says.
It didn’t take long for Robinson, who was paid $15 an hour for the work and provided with no equipment other than a vest, to realize she was ill-equipped for the situation at hand. Early in the day, she watched helplessly as a swarm of people rushed the VIP entrance and knocked over metal detectors to get inside. Her husband, Charles Robinson, initially tried chasing some of the intruders down, but the couple soon decided it was too dangerous. “I was like, ‘You know what? … I don’t want you to get hurt,’” she recalls telling her husband. “Because these people … we don’t know what they’re capable of.”
As the day progressed, the audience only grew rowdier, with large groups routinely rushing the stage when they heard “a lit song,” Robinson says. By the time Roddy Ricch started performing at around 5:30 that evening, she watched as concertgoers danced atop the festival’s porta potties. Shortly before Scott’s scheduled performance, she and her husband approached their supervisor and said they were leaving early, fearing that the night into even greater chaos once he took the stage.
“I knew he was last,” Robinson says, “and I knew I didn’t want to be there for that.”
Robinson is one of many Astroworld security workers hired by third-party contractors who have now spoken out about the festival’s slipshod recruiting practices in the wake of the tragedy. Two of them, Samuel and Jackson Bush, are now suing AJ Melino & Associates – one of the security firms responsible for security staffing at the event – for failing to adequately train them or to provide a safe working environment. (Samuel Bush claims that he suffered broken bones in his hand while attempting to halt a stampeding group of fans who rushed the entrance gates.)
The tragedy at Astroworld came a pivotal time for the concert business: While headline tours have had a rocky restart after pandemic shutdowns, plagued by high no-show rates where fans buy tickets but then don’t attend the concerts, festivals have proven to be a bright spot for the touring industry, with high demand and attendance to match. (Astroworld sold out 50,000 two-day passes in less than an hour.) At the same time, however, sources say a labor shortage in the U.S. and overseas has left live event promoters and contractors around the world scrambling to fill low-wage security positions on the festival circuit.
“There’s a labor shortage and it is squarely affecting the event security industry, just like every other field, which is largely populated by part-time, low hourly wage workers,” says Steven Adelman, the head of Adelman Law Group and vp at the Event Safety Alliance, which last year partnered with the Event Services and Technology Association (ESTA) to publish a national crowd safety standard for live events in the U.S.
With the concert industry’s comeback set to pick up in the new year, experts expect security staffing shortages to get worse. “There’s not enough people that are interested in doing that kind of work,” says Stephen Sternschein, managing partner at the Austin-based event promotion, production and marketing company Heard Presents. “And the people who have been willing to do it, a lot of them have tried it and realized how much it sucks and now they don’t want to do it anymore…. [It’s] harder to see the impact of this kind of staffing shortage when events are only half the time happening. But when everything actually does come back, now it’s really obvious.”
Bruno Marx, an event safety consultant whose Cyprus-based company EventKnowHow has worked on large-scale live events in Europe and the U.S., says that while the staffing shortage for low-wage workers has been an issue for years, the problem is escalating. “It’s getting worse,” says Marx. “Plain and simply for the reason that price pressure is just getting higher and higher, and somewhere you’ve gotta save money. You always have companies popping up saying they’ll do it better for a lower price. And where does that lead to?”
While sources say security contractors at Astroworld — a festival where fans have a history of breaking down security barriers and causing stampedes — failed to hire staff that was qualified and trained to handle the emergency that unfolded, Marx notes that event organizers Live Nation and ScoreMore should have accounted for this in their event planning. “I try to mitigate everything I can by having a physical layout that will work without anybody interacting,” he says. “It’ll keep people safe without me having to have security people there that actually know what they’re doing.” Instead, as Billboard previously reported, even with 700 security staffers and 500 police officers, the festival design lent itself to disaster without barriers effectively set up to handle a raucous crowd and allow for escape when the crowd surges became severe.
Also important, Marx adds, is having a solid show-stop procedure in place – preferably one that has been rehearsed – in the event of an emergency. “You [have to] have already talked to either the artist themselves or their representative and made it very clear as to what’s going to happen if a situation turns up,” he says. “That again reduces the necessity to have trained people on the ground.”
Still, with events like Astroworld, where a performer has a reputation for encouraging rowdy behavior and, in Scott’s case, has twice been arrested for doing so, it’s especially critical to ensure your security staff is equipped and qualified to deal with any chaos that may erupt, says a security expert for live events who asked to remain anonymous, citing professional considerations. “Now you say, ‘Okay, so we need to communicate with people, let them know what the rules are, and we need to make sure the gates are staffed properly,’” he says. “We have to train folks, [and] we have to be prepared to jump on any kind of disorder right away.”
Though the 56-page Astroworld 2021 security plan reviewed by Billboard states that “The Festival employs experienced, licensed event security to assist with crowd management and security at the scene of an incident,” those employees’ accounts suggest otherwise. Not only did the hiring practices of Astroworld’s security contractors – also including Contemporary Services Corporation (CSC), which has been named in several lawsuits related to the tragedy – not adhere to that promise, they raise serious questions under Texas state law. According to the Texas Occupations Code, guards employed by security services contractor must be individually licensed by the state.
Marx, who serves on the ESTA’s event safety working group, is an advocate for instituting stricter safety standards across the global live events industry. In his native Germany, he notes, nationwide regulations around hiring security staff are more closely adhered to for the simple fact that venue operators have “total responsibility” for what happens on the premises, both civilly and criminally.
The independent security consultant believes that the mosaic of state and municipal laws governing security hiring practices in the U.S. need to be governed by a federal standard, which does not currently exist. “I think there are obviously holes in our system because of the patchwork way in which this is done across the country,” he says.
But when it comes to solving the staffing problem, there are no easy answers. While Sternschein is generally in favor of additional regulation, he also fears that additional government oversight could have a “chilling effect” on the festival industry – in part by increasing the price of security staff – which would hit independent promoters the hardest. “Maybe it would be better if there were less festivals,” he says. “I think what’ll end up happening is all the independents will get f—ed and Live Nation and AEG will keep on trucking.”
Marx agrees that additional regulation will almost inevitably lead to higher security price tags but poses it as a necessary tradeoff for safer events. “If you try to implement something like [what we see in Germany], it would be painful for a while,” he admits. “But eventually, everybody just sort of gets into the swing and pays more…then we have better qualified people in the arena.”
Additional reporting by Taylor Mims