Concerts can be a dangerous business
Editor's Note: Given the stage collapse prior to Radiohead's concert in Toronto on June 16, GRAMMY.com is republishing this feature, which originally ran in April 2010, outlining the dangers of live concert production. The incident in Toronto resulted in the death of Scott Johnson, Radiohead's drum technician, and the injuries of three other crew members.
For many performing musicians, a stage — whether in a club, an arena or at an outdoor festival — is like a second home, a place where they are at their happiest and most comfortable. But, given that the majority of serious accidents occur in homes, it's not so surprising that accidents resulting in serious injuries can happen on concert stages as well.
Heavy music gear, sound equipment, lighting rigs, and stage sets must be moved and placed precisely, and are often set up and broken down in a single night. Enormous amounts of electricity to power the gear must be wrangled and handled safely. Venue crews, road crews, musicians, managers, and promoters all have to be keenly aware of what's going to happen on a stage, and work together to pull off a well-run show.
When things go wrong, usually the fixes are fairly simple — feedback can be dialed down, a fried amp can be worked around, a bad mic can be replaced. But sometimes when things go really wrong, a performance venue can become a very dangerous place.
"You can get hurt in your own bathtub or walking out to get the morning paper in your driveway," says producer and manager Kim Fowley, whose longtime role as a pivotal figure on the Los Angeles rock scene was highlighted in the 2010 feature film The Runaways. "You can die at any moment, so if you're a performer that moment may be while you are onstage. Nobody wants to head out for a show thinking that way, but you're up against actuarial facts. Bad things can happen."
Stage falls have long been one of the most common occupational hazards for performers. Frank Zappa took a bad fall onstage in 1971 and suffered a broken leg, broken rib and crushed larynx, and Patti Smith suffered a split scalp after a stage fall in 1977. In March 2010 Brad Paisley was running down a stage ramp in South Carolina and fell hard enough to require a checkup at a hospital after the show. Most tragically, in September 2009 GRAMMY-winning producer Greg Ladanyi died after sustaining severe head trauma suffered in a fall from a stage during a performance by vocalist Anna Vissi.
Other potential dangers stem from the stage itself. In 1976 Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley was knocked unconscious and almost fatally electrocuted when he touched an ungrounded metal railing. At a 1992 Metallica concert, frontman James Hetfield's proximity to a pyrotechnic flash pot resulted in extensive second-degree burns. In 2009 two workers died and several others were seriously injured when a stage for a Madonna concert in France collapsed while being constructed. The remarkable Curtis Mayfield, who passed away in 1999, had his career cut horribly short in 1990 when a lighting rig at an outdoor New York show fell and struck him, leaving him paralyzed. And last August, a stage collapse prior to Sugarland's set at the Indiana State Fair caused seven deaths and more than 40 injuries.
Sometimes even the audience can be at risk, resulting in large-scale tragedies such as the 2003 nightclub fire at a Great White show in Rhode Island that killed 100 people.
Fowley, who has worked at events ranging from the Griffith Park Love-Ins of the '60s to more recent multiday rock festivals, has seen enough go wrong to have advice for those taking the stage. "Make sure you get there early enough to consult with venue technicians — they're going to make life easier and safer for you," he says. "If it's a [multiact concert], make sure your roadies bond with the other roadies. People get hurt when those guys are treating it like a competition rather than a show that you're all in together."
Of course, artist safety is often considered before an artist gets anywhere near a stage, and sometimes before that stage is even built. "Safety is absolutely part of the discussion right from the beginning of a production," says John Cossette, head of John Cossette Productions, who has executive produced the GRAMMY Awards show, the Latin GRAMMYs, a slate of performance-oriented BET specials, a variety of live concert events, and, most recently, the Broadway hit "Million Dollar Quartet." [Editor's Note: Cossette died in April 2011.]
"During the design process for any show, we discuss potential problems," says Cossette. "What could possibly go wrong with this setup? Then you try to cover every possibility. People want to see incredible things on a stage these days, but you do not want anybody getting hurt."
For the GRAMMY telecast, when a large number of performances by widely varying performers have to take place on a single stage before a live television audience, Cossette takes extra measures to keep everyone safe. "The biggest Broadway show you'll see has three stage managers," he says. "The GRAMMY show uses 26 stage managers. They're primarily concerned with talent safety — making sure that everybody knows where the cables are and where any holes in the floor are. We make sure a part of any rehearsal time is a walk-through of the stage so everybody can see where any dangers are. We take a great deal of pride in running that show safely."
Artists who make it to the GRAMMY stage may be in safe hands, but a life on the road is still one full of onstage perils. Glint singer/guitarist Jase Blankfort experienced a stage mishap when his phantom-powered microphone began giving him terrible electrical shocks on an early tour. "For a while I just had to embrace the shock because I wasn't going to let that problem take over the show," he says. "I tried to keep my lips on the mic and my hands on the guitar strings so the current would just run through me. But a tech guy on the road told me that was not a very good idea — the voltage really can kill you. I didn't want to complain every night, but it was a more dangerous situation than I knew. Now we've got our own engineer on the road, and we can work out any grounding issues that come up."
The perils of live performance are ever-present, and it's unlikely that a completely danger-free live performance can ever be designed. But for some artists, the rewards of performing live far outweigh the very real dangers around them.
"Once in England my guitar strap broke and the guitar swung up and smashed me in the face and gave me a bloody nose," recalls Blankfort. "But I just kept playing my solo. I think of music like sex in that way — if you're doing it, nothing else matters. I don't think of playing music as a life-threatening risk and I don't want to think of it that way, but the most romantic thing about a live show is that you really don't know what's going to happen. On a lot of levels, the risk is what it's all about."
(Chuck Crisafulli is an L.A.-based journalist and author whose most recent works include Go To Hell: A Heated History Of The Underworld and Elvis: My Best Man, and he plays drums in the country blues band the Mobile Homeboys.)