Saturday, August 17, 2013

An open letter to Norma Jean frontman Cory Brandan Putman

Dear Mr. Putman:

Thanks at least partially to Randy Blythe's prosecution (and, thankfully, ultimate acquittal) for the death of a fan in concert, metal musicians and fans have started having a conversation about everyone's responsibilities at shows. Randy himself wrote an eloquent and moving blog post about this idea:
Perhaps one day I will be able to express what I felt when I finally learned I was to remain free, but right now I am still trying to understand it. Relief, certainly, but there was a greater part welling up in me, something like disbelief saturated with a deep sadness. A fan of my band was dead, and a family had been shattered...
If you are in a band... make sure that security is adequate and that barricades are properly placed. A dead fan of my band would still be alive today if those two things had been in place in Prague that night in 2010. I never saw that stage before I set foot on it, and I wish I could go back in time, inspect that nightmare set up, let the people in charge know...
This is our community, and we should take care of each other. A show is a place we are supposed to be together, having a good time, supporting one another. The real world will beat you down enough -- we don’t need to get stomped on at a show.
I encourage you to go read the whole thing; but before you click away from here, I want to talk about your reckless and irresponsible set last night.

A bit of background for readers not present: Norma Jean and nine other bands played an installment of the Summer Slaughter tour last night at the Ogden Theatre in Denver. NJ were seventh on the bill -- they have been putting in the hard work of writing, recording, and touring for years, have built up a base among the fans and respect among their peers in the business.[1]

I'd never been to a show at the Ogden before last night, so I have no idea whether the floor layout was unusual for that venue. (Even if it was, what I have to say doesn't change; see Randy above on the responsibility for the band to inspect the setup.) It was certainly unlike any other venue where I've seen shows before: instead of one flat GA section, the main floor was divided into three or four flat levels about 15 feet deep, at elevations staggered by maybe a foot, with steel barrier between each section (navel-high to those behind, shoulder-high to those in front). On the face of it, this is kind of a cool idea: many more of the fans on the floor will have a good line of sight to the show, a place to hold on to, etc.

But if you've ever been to a metal show, a moment's thought suffices to paint a picture of how strange the audience dynamics on this floor will be. On a floor without these barriers and level changes, some fans will press forward to the front rail; the main pit will form behind them, ringed by a wall of people enforcing the boundary of the mosh. This is for everyone's safety: I'm frequently in this boundary, taking the impact of guys (and girls) propelled by themselves or others at velocities they can't control, because I'm there expecting and prepared for it.

But at the Ogden, that was damn near impossible. People who didn't want to mosh stood on the second level; the back of the pit was not metalheads with crossed arms, but sections of steel barrier.

The second unusual consequence of this layout was that there was no place on the floor with really high density of people. On an open floor, the human density increases steadily towards the front rail (with the exception of the hurricane that is the mosh pit). But at the Ogden last night, the press forward was broken up by the section barriers.

And this is important for you, Mr. Putman, because of the invitation/instruction you issued to the crowd last night: you threw down a challenge to go crowd-surfing.

That was a really, really, bad idea. A fucking irresponsible idea.

Why? What is the first rule of being in a crowd where crowd-surfing is going on?


If someone is up on the crowd's shoulders, if there is any space at all between those bodies, they will find a way to fall into that space. Then the crowd will have to desperately try to catch them and lift them back up. That, or the surfer can fall onto their head.

In case we're not clear: a fall from six feet onto a hard floor, leading with your head, is a good way to end up dead.

This is why a surfer never, ever launches themself toward an active mosh pit. There is a huge active hole surrounded by people whose attention is directed entirely inwards, or towards the stage. A surfer who gets propelled into the pit is ending up on the ground, and probably hurt.

Anywhere else on the floor, the key to keeping a surfer in the air is for everyone to throw their weight towards them. Everyone, within a five-foot radius. There is a natural inclination to stand back, to let those who are holding the surfer up proceed unmolested. THIS IS A FATAL MISTAKE. You must press towards the surfer, to close up any space between those holding him or her up; the surfer must continue to move toward the front rail, toward higher human density, until they can be caught and safely returned to their feet by the trained security guys between the rail and the stage.

And at the Ogden, this was impossible. There was, nowhere on the floor, sufficient density of bodies to hold up a crowd-surfer. And if a surfer did cast himself on the mercy of the crowd's shoulders from the second level or above, what would happen when they reached the front barrier rail of that section? There are no burly security guys to catch them -- just a pit full of frenzied moshers looking out for themselves, or fans facing forward, totally unprepared to catch a body coming in from a foot or more too high.

Through the first six bands, Mr. Putman, the crowd understood this. The pit in the front level mostly took care of itself -- when it reached critical mass, people took it upon themselves to line the back barrier and prevent out-of-control human/steel impact -- and the rest of the crowd banged head and rocked out with their feet firmly on the floor.

And then you challenged the crowd to do otherwise.

And more than a few did.

And that broke the "take ye fucking care of one another" ethos that makes metal such a community.

And we're lucky that no one got seriously hurt or killed last night. A couple of times it was a very near thing indeed.

So please, metal fans: protect each other when there's crowd-surfing going on. Throw yourself at the surfer, plug the hole that their body will try to fall into.

And please, bands in general and Norma Jean in particular: be more carefully.

[1] Full disclosure: I'm not much for metalcore, so NJ's set wasn't going to be one of the high points of my night regardless; but I freely acknowledge the skill and hard work the band has put in, and don't want to shit on them gratuitously.

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