How safe are your kids at concerts?

by Alison Bonaguro

Special to the Tribune

Published January 30, 2009


Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. It has always been sage advice, and even more so for concertgoers all over Chicagoland.

Do a YouTube search for "concert fight," and you'll see why. Granted, those videos only show the worst-case scenarios, and most troubles are minor. But one spilled beer down a fan's back or a hard shove, and mayhem could ensue. Who, for example, thought that by buying a Lollapalooza ticket for the 2008 edition, you'd be signing up to be bum rushed by Rage Against the Machine fans?

Whether you're heading to a general admission show at the House of Blues or Park West, or paid big for a front-row seat at the United Center or an amphitheater, you need to be ready for anything.

No ticket guarantees you 100 percent safety, but with the right mind-set (think Boy Scout preparedness), you can still have an excellent and safe time.

Every music venue is staffed with security guards. You know them by their crossed arms and austere faces. Many are good at their jobs, but according to Billboard magazine, the entertainment industry doesn't pay well for event security. And budgets are getting cut every day. Paul Wertheimer—the president of Crowd Management Strategies, an international crowd safety consulting service—says that some venues and promoters have taken on a less-is-more approach. The approach is a way to legitimize security staff reductions to increase profits.

But Wertheimer (and anyone who has experienced a difficult situation) knows that while bands come and go, disasters are forever. "Your original intent may have been to watch a show," he says. "And now you have cracked vertebrae from a crowd crush."

Unruly crowds are to be expected at big festivals and some heavy metal shows. But chaos often reigns at what would seem to be more civilized shows, too. A recent amateur video taken at a Tim McGraw concert in Seattle shows McGraw pulling a disorderly fan up on stage because the crowd was too dense for security to get to him. And at McGraw's show at Tinley Park's First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in May, security guard Dave Sefpon saw a similar situation.

"When people come here for country shows, they expect advantages. Even the ones in the 10th row want to come down in front," Sefpon says. "And they won't take no for an answer." Sefpon had to escort one McGraw fan outside after she repeatedly hit fans who were up against the stage.

Having worked the front of the stage at First Midwest for six years, Sefpon says he knows why concerts can get perilous. No respect. People assume that because they paid a lot of money, they can do whatever they want.

"I've seen guys wailing on a young girl because she pissed them off," he says. His advice? "If you want to be up close, sit off to the side. You'll be close, but not involved in any violence if it comes to that. And whatever you do, don't body surf. I've seen women get their clothes ripped off."

So, what is going on with this organized mayhem? While venues may have one set of rules, it's the artist's tour rider (a contract between the venue and artist that spells out the specific needs for each show) that directs security. And if the band wants the fans up close, that's what the staff gives it.

"Bands like Anti-Flag have stood up on stage and said things like, 'Make an aisle down the center and then run into each other,' " Sefpon says. He's even been on the job when the venue needed to be cleared of fans, such as when a riot broke out during a Ghostface Killah concert at Joe's Bar in 2005.

Jerry Mickelson, co-owner of Jam Productions, agrees that what goes on at concerts often depends on the artist. "A James Taylor crowd is different than a Linkin Park crowd," he says. "And sometimes security relaxes a bit at the end so people can move into the aisles and dance."

Security guards can be too quick to surrender to the fans, some say. "Their job is not hard. They stand behind a barrier that protects them from the crowd," Wertheimer says. What they need to do instead, he argues, is be less reactive and more proactive.

But Sefpon maintains that even when security guards look as though they aren't working hard, they are. "We are trained to watch for trouble. And when we see it, we shine our high beams on the crowd as a signal to other guards to go check it out."

Still, it makes sense for concertgoers to keep an eye out for trouble and take safety into their own hands. If things get dicey, it's time to get out.


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