The Challenge, Fear and Acceptance of The Unknown: Electronic Dance Music Festivals
© Written by Alan CROWTHER CCTP BA(Hons) Econ, Senior Consultant MSS
The term “Music Festival” by itself sounds like an innocent activity and in deed there are many music festivals that fit this description but when it is used more broadly and encompasses what people consider more extreme music such as Electronic Dance Music then innocence is the last thing that springs into people’s minds. More often than not drug taking, excessive drinking, anti-social behaviour, promiscuity and crime spring to mind and there is most probably a generational factor with older people frowning on such events while younger persons are far more receptive. The location for holding such events is also very important as most people don’t want such events on their back door step even if they are iconic like modern day Glastonbury or historically hailed as visionary like Woodstock in 1969 just ask those that live near such locations. That is the reason why most such events are held in relatively remote areas which no doubt is considered by promotors a positive point in terms of obtaining licensing.
In early October of that year when I was working at one of South East Asia’s largest concert and exhibition centers as Head of Event and Venue Security such an Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festival under the name of a UK event was announced would take place over two days in mid- December at the center that I was responsible for in terms of security. The decision to hold such an event at the venue immediately caused much consternation, negative comment and utter disgust from many quarters as the location was less than one kilometer from a major airport on an island which was run mainly by a single body apart from a couple of hotels and the venue I worked at. You could say there was an earthquake and that you could have hear a pin drop when it was further announced that the concert would attract up to 8000 patrons per night between the hours of 17:00 to 03:00hrs each day. The papers were full of it especially the tabloids that had done a google search for the UK event only to note the statistics on crime, drugs and fatalities all of which made what should have been a mole hill into a mountain to climb when it came to gaining acceptance for the event. One could almost smell the fear and as such it slowly dawned that this would be some extraordinary challenge that had to be undertaken professionally and tactfully if the event was to be successfully held and accepted.
The saving grace came in the form of a gentleman that worked for the now owners of the event a rugged man of Australian origin based in Singapore who had been in the trade of establishing concert venues and events all over the world be it at a dedicated venue or in the countryside in what people from Hong Kong would call a brown or green earth site. He was gregarious, confident and knew his stuff and once given a task he had the bit between the teeth and nothing come hell or high water would stop him from achieving what he had sat out to do. He was ably assisted by two colleagues one of which was from the UK who had been based in the Middle East and China and another colleague who had served his time at a major London venue and had dealt with many live events involving astronomical numbers when compared to the 8000 patrons that would attend the concerts in Hong Kong each night.
The task to holding the event was set about in earnest on many fronts be it choosing how the event would be configured in the venue, to meeting the local Police District for what role they would play in terms of policing, enforcement and licensing and event set up reference sponsors, payment systems, bars and merchandise. A definitely multi-fronted task and one I knew would have its trials to pass especially as there was only eight weeks to accomplish everything that had to be done if the event was to be held successfully with the tacit endorsement of all who were involved at the venue and the regulatory and licensing authorities.
The venue is about one kilometer long from end to end and very near a final approach flight path before landing at the nearby Airport. This caused the first bump in the planning process as the it was quite rightly insisted that no bright lights or lasers or other objects such as balloons would be used at the event that could endanger aircraft safety. This was easily dealt with by having such items placed on a prohibited list of items that grew by the day and including drugs, cigarette lighters, matches, flags and flag sticks, as well as offensive items such as bladed weapons, sharp edged objects and knuckle dusters. Jackets that had metal decorations like studs were also items that would not be allowed into the venue but rather be consigned to the concierge and all these items as well as carry in drinks would have to be searched for before entry to the EDM venue.
Next came the venue set up with all halls being checked that were not already occupied as one other event would be held during the time that the EDM Festival took place. This concentrated the search to the West end of the venue as this was near public car parks and a bus station not to mention those arriving by train could be directed to leave by the west exit while those patrons for the other event would use the east exit which would reduce the mingling of the two very different event crowd profiles. Entry to the event halls was initially suggested via a staircase at the West end of the central corridor however this had limited patron screening space and may to some extent obstruct patrons for the other event who arrived at the West entrance so a Hall in the North side was suggested which took a little convincing but there would certainly be enough patron screening and queuing space.
It became apparent that the EDM Festival halls would be two adjacent halls in the South west end of the venue as the combined capacity of these two halls was 8000 patrons however it soon became apparent that the promoter wanted the EDM Festival area to be self-contained so that people wouldn’t leave. This was because in other countries some EDM patrons would park their cars near the concert venue and nip out to get drink and drugs from their car especially traffickers with one of the conditions of sale that if you left you didn’t get back in to stop such practices. This would mean that a contraflow in respect of crowd movement would occur especially in the cross over between the Halls in the South West to the Hall in the North West. It was stated that the local police as well as some special drug undercover drug units may well be assigned to the EDM event so patrons could leave the end Hall in the South for a smoke in the smoking area which had cigarette lighters on tables that had been set up and then patrons wishing to re-enter could go via the North West Hall and undergo the screening process before entering the two South West halls used for the concert. This would be a one-way flow system without the complication of a contra-flow system. This was agreed and so we now had a designated festival area to populate in terms of bar areas, food areas, VIP areas and sponsor drink stands.
Now having established a venue area we could now approach the nearest Police District to discuss crowd control, crowd screening, liquor licensing, and transport matters all of which the police had indicated they wanted to be briefed on before deciding on the level and size of police coverage for the event as the timings of the event would cover two police shifts and so a bespoke police coverage would have to be drawn up. Meetings were held at the event venue both with the organisers of the EDM event and without as well as at the Local Police District Station. I became the unofficial secretary for recording what was said and then documenting it in the form of formal minutes of meeting so my secretarial skills improved immensely!
It soon became apparent that what needed to be heard were concrete ideas on safety and transport as all public transport to the venue ended at about midnight so for an event finishing at 03:00hrs there had to be a plausible transport plan. The organizer had foreseen this and had power pointed a transport plan that utilized up to 50 double deck buses leaving the concert venue from 02:00hrs until all EDM fans had left the site with the buses calling in at Mongkok and Central (Lan Kwai Fong) before returning back to the venue on the Airport Island. It soon became clear that if all fans had a way of leaving the venue the powers that be that ran the infrastructure on the Airport Island would have their fear reduced of drunk and drugged fans making their way to the airport terminal to sleep until public transport resumed which had visions of people relieving themselves or projectile vomiting on departing trains and buses also occupied by exiting sane and sober arriving passengers.
Next on the list was illicit items and more importantly how these could be screened out. It was stated that the venue would have drug sniffing dogs that all EDM patrons would have to walk passed and that all patrons would have their bags searched for contraband such as alcohol, cigarette lighters, sharp/edged items and drugs. Metal detector wand checks would also be carried out and random/suspicious patrons would be asked to undergo a drugs swob test which if they failed twice and refused to submit to a potential search by the police in a dedicated search area they would not be allowed entry. If the search produced a negative result the patron would be allowed entry.
Licensing especially liquor licensing became a thorny issue as the venue normally only had liquor served up to 23:00hrs and with a 03:00hrs finish this would mean 4hrs without alcohol. This would obviously affect income as the sale of alcohol was a big earner but more importantly it might affect the mood of patrons in a negative manner. Initially a liquor license was granted until 22:00hrs but the venue eventual pushed for a later cut off time which was granted until midnight to ensure patrons acted responsibly with three hours to sober up!
The next issue which easily got sorted out was the positioning of police and their drug search dogs as the organizer who was used to working in Western countries stated that other countries had amnesty bins which if fans were carrying drugs they could drop off in such bins without any police action being taken against them. It was explained that was not the case in Hong Kong and the organizer then stated that many an EDM patron had overdosed on drugs by swallowing them before police could take arrest action and he didn’t want that to happen. He was reassured that plain clothed police would intercept patrons suspected of carrying drugs and then drug dogs maybe used to assist the search rather than the possibility of “fishing” for a case taking place like what had been described earlier.
Finally it was decided that in order not to encourage all patrons to stay to the last minute to see the best DJ that the time slot allocated for that performance would end at about 01:00hrs.
It was also stated that a Police Tactical Unit Company would be turned out together with plain clothed CID and other specialist officers with the latter needing passes or patron wristbands in order to enter the venue. In terms of the closing of the bars strict adherence to the allotted liquor licensing hours would be enforced which the house stated they would undertake as the liquor license being used was that of the venue.
All the above had taken the course of up to 10 meetings over a four to eight week period and all that was required to do then was for me to compile an Operational Order. The police had asked for a plan of the EDM concert halls that they could use to pinpoint the exact location they needed to respond to which entailed the venue hall being split up into four areas North, South, East and West sections which were again sub-divided. Lastly both the venue and local police contacted the nearest hospital which agreed to have extra staff on duty with some having in depth knowledge of drug overdoses. The organizer also stated that they would have a medical team at the venue who could provide emergency treatment with doctor present and they also took up the referral by me of contacting a youth support group to provide wellness and hydration services during the concert after hearing of their work in respect of drunk and drugged school kids at a major rugby event.
The day of the concert arrived and everything that had been stated would be set up was set up and the venue contracted security provider had up to 20 premium suited guards on duty in addition to regular security guards. Passes and wrist bands were issued and final briefings held and a command post was set up which would have an input present from the venue, organizer and police that would meet every hour just in case anything needed to be sorted out or discussed. The fans started to arrive at about 16:00Hrs about an hour before the EDM concert commenced and the whole screening of walk by drug sniffing dog, archway metal detector, ticket check, wristband issue, bag search and metal detector wand check as well as cigarette lighter surrender point process worked like clockwork. Random people were selected to be drug swob tested some of whom tested positively and then underwent a second test which if positive resulted in them leaving if they refused to be referred to police for consideration of being searched.
The EDM concert area was advertised and sign posted as being a no smoking area other than the public area immediately outside the last south west hall which had a smoking area set up and in the main most people cooperated. This was especially useful as the Tobacco Control Officers turned up to carry out enforcement actions which had not been organized or planned and must have been arranged by those who still hadn’t accepted the holding of such an event.
Crowd movements were interesting because it was like an ocean tidal movement that when DJ’s came on for their set all patrons closed up and moved closer to the stage and the opposite happened when the DJ finished his set. This meant that those persons who hadn’t got the anti-smoking message could only be reminded when DJ’s were not performing their set because when a DJ was on all that could be done was to try and note the concert patron smoking with the location. This from the sides and rear of the packed patrons looked like a L.S. Lowry Victorian Mill landscape with smoke going skyward from human chimneys. Luckily this wasn’t prevalent. The VIP or high rollers areas were less accommodating when it came to smoking and constant reminders had to be given but these patrons who had paid anything up to $100,000HK for a table and drink package weren’t in the mood to be told what to do easily but with a persistent manner they nearly all complied. In this area there were scantily clad male and female waiters serving $10,000HK drink packages with finesse much like in Roman times.
In terms of the medical area the normal cuts and bruises as well as drunk patrons turned up. On occasion and more regularly as the night went on some patrons turned up with erratic or high rate heart beats and in other serious cases some patrons turned up unconscious or were in a world of their own continually doing the same actions and these were probably due to the taking of drugs especially the ones who had hallucinations. These sorts of cases were all referred to the nearest hospital as the venue and event organizer had a duty of care to ensure they were looked after. Protests were ignored and in one such case the friends of a female wanted to take her home as they didn’t want suspected drug intake recording as the reason for referral to hospital as they were concerned for the female’s employment. It was of note that all her friends seemed highly educated and very familiar with medical terms. On some occasions when I checked on the medical area or the youth support group area some persons were so not themselves that it was like a scene from the Aliens bar in Star Wars.
The closing of the bars had to be coordinated and on time despite some wanting to close 15 minutes before the actual closing time. It was a tense time but with patience the bars were closed on time under the keen and watchful eye of the local police. Some patrons got angry when finding out the bars had stopped serving alcohol as there were no cash refunds on site. My particular bar that I closed with the help of the 10 suited elite guards was about 50 meters long and faced the main EDM stage at the back of the hall albeit some 10 meters from the EDM patrons and I was glad that the DJ didn’t finish his set before I had closed the bar otherwise you could have hundreds of patrons wanting to buy a drink despite advice on bar closing being sign posted and passed verbally when patrons bought drinks. I was thankful that an incident didn’t arise during the closing and so where the suited elite guards!
Eventually 03:00hrs arrived and the departure phase of the operation kicked off with all EDM patrons leaving the site by 04:30hrs. The only thing to do was go home and rest before having to repeat the same for the second night of the two day EDM event.
The event was certainly an eye opener and stood the venue in good stead when the another such event Ultra came to the venue the following June which by comparison was only for one day and finished at 23:30hrs. Again this event which was being held in an air conditioned environment had many of the same characteristics as the earlier event and despite its move away from Kowloon went very smoothly unlike the year previously and this was no doubt down to a local company who set it up very professionally. This company is the same company who put on another annual music festival. The problem the year before resulting in hospitalisations was done to the ease with which patrons could enter the venue with illicit substances and more importantly the lack of a plentiful and strategically placed source of water for dehydrated concert patrons. This together with the high temperature and sunny climate added to the conditions that had caused persons to be admitted to hospital.
All rights reserved. December 2020. English version only.