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The heat is on: extreme weather and live music

How the industry can best cope with the increasing number of extreme weather events impacting festivals and open-air events was a major topic of conversation during this month’s ILMC in London.

Presented by GEI, The Heat Is On: Extreme Weather & Live Music session was chaired by veteran tour and production manager Jamal Chalabi of A Greener Future and included a presentation from Met Office meteorologist Prof Richard Betts on changing climate patterns.

The debate also featured May Ling of Australia’s Chugg Entertainment and freelance festival security and safety consultant Alexandra Von Samson, as well as Wacken Open Air co-founder Thomas Jensen.

“I do find it quite amazing in this industry that we still think we have a choice to deal with climate change, we clearly don’t have a choice,” said Chalabi, who gave a sample of events around the globe to have been hit by the elements over the past 12 months.

The list included Primavera Sound Madrid, Awakenings in the Netherlands, Slovenia’s MetalDays, the UK’s Kaleidoscope, shows by Louis Tomlinson show and Ed Sheeran in the US, Burning Man, Taylor Swift in Brazil, Elton John in New Zealand and Wacken Open Air in Germany.

“We’d had bad weather in the past, but last year was kind of different”

Jensen recalled Wacken’s near-catastrophic weather-related struggles last summer, which saw the festival proceed at reduced capacity after the site was hit by rain and thunderstorms in the days leading up to it, leaving the camping areas “impassable”.

“We’d had bad weather in the past, but last year was kind of different,” said Jensen. “There was a long dry period, leading up to the festival from mid June until early July, right when we started to set up the production. And then it started to rain, up to when the fans were arriving.

“The whole traffic system basically collapsed. It got really dramatic. Everything got stuck.”

Around 30,000 ticket-holders were subsequently denied entry after organisers allowed no further admission due to the adverse conditions.

“In over 30 years, it was the hardest decision I ever had to make,” said Jensen. “We’re in the music industry and timing is is crucial, and so we made the decision to have an ingress stop, which was very hard. At the end of the day, it’s debatable: could we have let a couple of more people in or not? Had we been strict enough? But I think, in principle, it was the right decision.”

“Thirty years ago, it was mostly the rain, but it’s now changed to raining one second and being 35 or 40°C suddenly after that”

He added: “We always say the ones that stayed home made the festival possible, at the end of the day, and they saved the insurance companies a lot of money. They made it possible for the other two-thirds to have a party. That’s why we’re extremely grateful.”

The Diplomat reported last week that more than 40 Australian music festivals have been cancelled, postponed, or evacuated due to heat, fires, rain or floods over the past decade, with more than 20 such incidents occurring in 2022 alone, amid record rainfall in the eastern states.

Ling told the session that extreme weather “has always been a part of what we have to deal with” in the region.

“Thirty years ago, it was mostly the rain, but it’s now changed to raining one second and being 35 or 40°C suddenly after that,” she said. “Even if we prepare for everything, you still can’t really control that.

“One thing we always did was have a meteorologist on site at our big outdoor shows. We also had the fire department in extreme heat conditions, and would have them hose the front of the crowd because those kids couldn’t get out to get water. You can give away as much free water as as you want, but those kids are not losing their spot before Guns N’ Roses comes on stage.”

“A 100% safe event is not existing in this world”

She continued: “Another huge safety concern that people forget about and it’s that everybody at the front of the stage can get electrocuted if a flash flood happens, and  you have to know when to pull the plug basically so that all these kids don’t get electrocuted.”

Von Samson recommended the business should learn from each other, adding that communication is crucial at all levels.

“It’s great if you have your plans, but it’s not so great if not everyone knows about them – and I’m including audience in that as well,” she said. “Make them aware they are part of the festival. I strongly believe in informing them as much as much as you can to keep them self-aware and empowered.

“You don’t want to be the festival or the promoter where something really bad happens. No one wants that, so you have to set up risk assessments. A 100% safe event is not existing in this world.”

Offering her final thoughts, Ling said battling the increasingly unpredictable conditions was a fact of life as an outdoor event organiser – but employing the right people behind the scenes is still paramount.

“We’re all about adaption – that’s why this industry can adapt quickly to this situation and be a leading light to change”

“As best you can prepare, when when an emergency happens, you just have to have good people that are safety conscious, know what they’re doing and act quickly, and they keep the crowd and the bands safe. Weather is a thing that is not going away, no matter what extremes it goes to. And as an outdoor event person, you have to deal with it.”

Betts called upon the music industry to lead the way in taking steps to help combat the climate crisis.

“The live music sector can play a really important role in setting an example about how to live with the weather we’ve made more extreme, but also stopping it getting more extreme, and stopping climate change by being more sustainable in the industry,” he said.

Chalabi brought proceedings to a close on a similarly positive note.

“Our community in the music industry, we’re the best,” he said. “We’re all about adaption – that’s why this industry can adapt quickly to this situation and be a leading light to change.”


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