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Cincinnati Curbs Festival Seating in Wake of Who Disaster

Promoters foresee tighter controls

February 7, 1980

As a result of the eleven deaths at the Who's show in Cincinnati in early December, U.S. concert promoters are expecting higher insurance rates, increased security requirements and tighter restrictions on rock events in general. In addition, the tragedy may bring about an end to "festival seating," a general-admission seating policy that many promoters feel was at least in part responsible for the deaths.

"We're all going to get hurt," said Ron Delsner, a major promoter in the New York City area. "I think the whole music business took a real smack in the face, and it's going to take awhile to settle down. The unfortunate thing is that groups such as the Who, who had nothing to do with the damn thing, will suffer. Insurance rates and security bills will go up, and even smaller halls will retaliate. They'll say, 'Look, if you want to play here, we're going to double the rent on you."'

Rock and Roll Tragedy: Why Eleven Died at The Who's Cincinnati Concert

"People will overreact for a while," added Barry Fey, head of the Denver-based Feyline Presents. "We're doing a Willie Nelson-Kris Kristofferson tour that was to be general admission, and now a lot of people are worried about that."

The eleven Who fans were trampled to death in a crush outside the doors of Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum. Of the 18,348 tickets sold for that December 3rd concert, 14,770 were for festival seating – a practice in which chairs are usually removed from the floor.

Larry Magid, whose Electric Factory Concerts of Philadelphia promoted the Who's Cincinnati show, is still debating the future of festival seating at his concerts. "We're just going to take a look at the whole policy whenever we have a show," Magid said. "And, of course, we'll adhere to whatever policy the building we're using has."

In Cincinnati, at least, that means promoters probably will not be able to use festival seating any longer. Two days after Christmas, the Cincinnati City Council passed two pieces of emergency legislation, both of which took effect immediately. One of them banned festival seating at any public gathering in the city except for religious events and high-school athletic events.

The other piece of legislation gave the police department more authority at such events. "It was a compromise between giving police total authority and giving them no control at all," said Howard Wolkoff, an assistant to City Councilman Jerry Springer, who had spoken out against festival seating as early as 1976. "At the Who show, the officer in charge felt he had no authority. This law enables the police to make decisions – like opening the doors – that would alleviate crowd conditions. But it doesn't give them the authority to cancel the show."

The next concert scheduled for Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum is ZZ Top on January 25th. Though Magid, who is presenting the show, indicated it may have to be rescheduled because of changes in the group's tour plans, the city of Cincinnati has already begun exerting its authority, dictating the number of doors that must be opened and the size of the security force. As for the type of seating, Magid said, "If we present ZZ Top, it'll be reserved seating."

Though none of the promoters interviewed by Rolling Stone was willing to place the blame for the Cincinnati incident on any particular person or practice, some, including Delsner and Fey, did say they frown on festival seating.

"I very rarely run general-admission seating," Delsner said. "In fact, the only place we do use general admission is in Central Park, and there we still have chairs. However, Cincinnati has been running general admission for a long time. It's just a matter of time before it catches up with you, and I guess it caught up with them."

Some promoters and hall owners believe festival seating is more profitable. One pointed out that more fans can be squeezed into space normally taken up by chairs and aisles; more tickets can be sold because each is theoretically as good as the next; and, without aisles, fewer ushers are needed. He estimated that in a hall with a capacity of 18,000, general admission can increase gross revenues by $30,000 over reserved seating.

Barry Bell of Premier Talent, the company that books the Who, said that at Riverfront Coliseum, festival seating provides exactly the same number of seats as reserved. "But," added Bell, "tickets sell better that way, because when a kid is told the only thing available is in row forty, he just doesn't buy them. This way, at least he's got a chance."

Danny Scher, head of production for San Francisco-based Bill Graham Presents, said that general admission can actually cut into a promoter's profits. Scher cited the facts that extra security is needed because crowds form earlier in the day and that cleanup costs after the show are usually greater.

Graham is one promoter who frequently uses festival seating at his concerts. "I'm not going to sit here and say that in sixteen years we never had any incident." Graham said. "But we never came remotely close to losing a life, not even close. I think the reason for that is that we never lose sight of the fact that it could happen.

"Young people come early because it's a first-come, first-serve basis, and they want to get close to the stage. Groups like Led Zeppelin, the Who, McCartney, Pink Floyd, these are monster bands with tremendous followings. Added to that is the fact that they only come around once in a while, and when they do come, there's a subconscious feeling that they may never come back again. So you have to contend with that every couple of years. You say. 'Let's put someone out there at eight in the morning and open the gates to let kids into the parking lot. And let's give everybody balloons or something.' I think at times there's a call to spend more money than you have to.

"Most important of all," Graham said, "is that until the doors are open to the public, the producer and his assigned personnel should never take their minds off the fact that they have people outside their facility who are very anxious to come in. You can never lose sight of that fact."

This story is from the February 7th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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