Also at the weekend, thousands of miles away on Randall’s Island in New York City, attendees of Electric Zoo Festival had to deal with their own unexpected challenges. Organizers canceled the first day of shows Friday because the main stage had not been built on time, and then they prevented some attendees with tickets from entering the festival grounds Sunday after reaching maximum capacity “earlier than anticipated.”
Burning Man, a week-long gathering centered on community, art and culture, and Electric Zoo, a three-day electronic-music festival, are the latest festivals to be heavily disrupted in recent years by factors including the uncontrollable — extreme weather — and the man-made, such as organizers’ poor planning and event management.
These repeated incidents have raised one central question: Why do festivals seem to keep going wrong?
Mark Norman, a freelance events-safety consultant based in the United Kingdom, said that while the festivals that go wrong often make headlines, hundreds of them go off without a hitch — and under the radar — each year.
Nonetheless, several factors make large festivals prone to disruptions, he added. It is logistically difficult to gather in one place thousands of people who need transportation, accommodation, bathrooms, food, water and other basic necessities. Arranging the layout of the event to avoid “pinch points,” or having to funnel large numbers of people through small spaces, is another challenge, Norman said.
Festivals in remote places, such as Black Rock City, the temporary town in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where Burning Man is held each year, are especially difficult to pull off because supplies and vendors must be brought in, Norman said “You’re in the middle of nowhere, and so you have to bring that [emergency] infrastructure to where the site is.”
Although it is impossible to anticipate every contingency, festival organizers should have extensive plans laying out how they would deal with emergencies, Norman said. That is particularly important as climate change makes extreme weather events more intense. Burning Man is not the only festival to be disrupted by changes in the weather: Last month, thousands of young people had to be evacuated from the World Scout Jamboree in Buan, South Korea, because of a heat wave that left many in need of medical treatment. The Washington Post found that South Korean officials had failed to prepare for extreme weather, although internal documents showed they had foreseen this possibility as early as 2016.
In the case of Burning Man, organizers said they responded to the heavy rain in myriad ways, including by moving sanitation trucks into Black Rock City and installing mobile cell trailers to help boost phone signals for those stuck at the festival. Burning Man Project chief executive Marian Goodell suggested to NBC News that the situation was manageable and that it was “kind of part of the challenge and the ritual to actually be in the middle of extreme weather and work our way out of it gracefully.”
Goodell said that ahead of the festival, organizers were “prepared for the whole spectrum” of weather scenarios.
But Norman said the challenges some festivalgoers faced in leaving the site showed that organizers’ plans “didn’t work, and they will need to revisit that and understand what they can learn from it.”
Festivals, like other industries, also have been affected by the cost-of-living crisis and by the supply-chain and labor-market disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. As people spend less on miscellaneous purchases, which can include festival tickets, and as the cost of construction material and labor goes up, planners are being squeezed “on both sides,” with some having “to cut costs,” Norman said.
Organizers of Electric Zoo blamed supply-chain problems for the disruptions at their event. In an Instagram post, they wrote that “unexpected delays” tied to “global supply chain disruptions” prevented them “from completing the construction of the main stage in time for Day 1.”
Aside from the logistical challenges that arise from planning large events, and the possibility of external emergencies, there also is the risk of festivals failing because of poor management — or even scams.
In 2017, thousands of people flew to a remote part of the Bahamas for what they thought would be a one-of-a-kind luxurious experience called Fyre Festival. They ended up stranded there, sleeping in tents and eating unappetizing sandwiches out of Styrofoam boxes. The driving force behind Fyre Festival, Billy McFarland, pleaded guilty to wire fraud in 2018 for his role in the festival and was sentenced to six years in prison.
McFarland was released last year, and, in a twist, apparently is planning a second Fyre Festival. The Post reported that the first 100 presale tickets quickly sold out, according to an email from organizers and McFarland’s social media, despite the event’s having no lineup of artists, exact date or location.
As a Vox reporter wrote in 2019, “the landscape is littered with the bones of poorly financed and poorly planned festivals.” Yet “the people who arranged them were not necessarily scammers but were just not very good at a business that is effectively Russian roulette with weather systems and bathroom lines.”
Many festivals are passion projects, said Norman, and the people who run them are often “driven by the arts or the music [but] are not necessarily business-savvy,” he said. This can lead to problems with obtaining the right permits, for example, or can cause festivals to run out of money.
“There’s often a misconception — and the Fyre Festival guys didn’t do anything to help this — that festival organizers afterward are rolling around in a bathtub of money,” he said. “The truth is, the majority of festivals are not massively profitable.”
Min Joo Kim, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Natalie B. Compton contributed to this report.
POST AUTHOR: Annabelle Timsit