U2's Festival Seating Plan Draws Fire

Concert safety consultant blasts policy; other experts unconcerned.

U2's recently announced Elevation Tour 2001 has already been dubbed one of the biggest outings of the year — now some are calling it one of the most controversial.

Some — including a concert industry safety expert and a group of U2 fans — are concerned about the Irish rockers' decision to use festival seating (also dubbed "standing room only" or "general admission") on the floors of the 33 arenas where they will perform in North America.

"Historically, festival seating is the most dangerous concert configuration," said Paul Wertheimer, owner of Crowd Management Strategies, a concert-safety consulting firm that released a controversial report last year stating nearly 70 people were killed at concerts in 1999.

"We seem to keep relearning this lesson every year. One would have thought that Roskilde would have made SFX and U2 think twice about crowd safety and crowd comfort," Wertheimer added, referring to the tragic deaths of nine concertgoers resulting from a crowd crush at a Pearl Jam festival performance in Denmark in the summer.

Wertheimer, who authored the taskforce report on the 1979 Who concert stampede in Cincinnati — where 11 fans were killed rushing into the open seating inside Riverfront Coliseum — criticized U2 and promoters SFX Entertainment for choosing festival seating. He believes there is no demand for it by U2's fans and said the decision was probably prompted by a desire to increase tour profits.

"U2 fans that I know would rather sit down or stand in front of their seats and dance than be pushed around and possibly injured in a festival seating environment," he said. "Festival seating is used when promoters, artists and venue operators are focused more on the bottom line than on the life line of their audiences. Festival seating is all about money, because more people can be stuffed into a space with no seats than with fixed seats; labor and chair rental costs are considerably less or nonexistent; security costs are reduced; and tickets are easier to sell at a higher price because fans do not envision themselves being stuck in obstructed view areas."

U2 were not available for comment Thursday (January 11), though frontman Bono discussed his excitement about festival seating on MTV's "TRL" on Tuesday. (Sonicnet.com's parent company, Viacom, also owns MTV.)

"We've got a thing going called general admission, which we've never had before, where the floor is opened up. There's no seats in front of the stage," Bono said. "The best seats are actually the cheapest seats in the house, and that's right in front of us. And we are gonna elevate our mind, elevate our soul, elevate your heart, maybe. I hope so."

But some fans are apprehensive. George Combs of Trenton, Ohio, has launched a grassroots movement of concerned U2 fans who believe the festival seating policy should be outlawed. He plans to petition the band.

"While I believe U2 concertgoers are far less rowdy than say those of Metallica or Pantera, the chance that the fans could unwittingly injure other fans in a mad rush to get the best available seats is definitely there," Combs said. "I grew up near Cincinnati, Ohio, the site of the 1979 Who concert tragedy. I still remember waking to the news of the 11 people who died that night. I partially blame the festival seating policy."

But Gary Bongiovanni, editor of concert industry magazine Pollstar, said fans should not be concerned. "Certainly, if there is a band that can pull off festival seating safely, it is U2," he said. "Their crowd isn't going to be as volatile as say a Red Hot Chili Peppers crowd. How much moshing will occur in front of a U2 stage?"

A spokesperson for SFX did not return phone calls, but another promoter was not worried about the festival seating. Jack Larson, assistant executive director at the Target Center in Minneapolis, said his venue often books festival seating events, including such acts as Pantera and Limp Bizkit, and it has never had any problems. "U2 should be one of the mellower general admission shows we've done," he said.

But Combs remains concerned. "How can one overreact to the very real danger of injury or death?" he wrote. "A lot of things in life are risky, but entertainment should not be one of them."

Because festival seating is becoming less common, U2 may have chosen it to be unusual, Bongiovanni said. It also adds a certain energy level to shows, he said. "And they probably got a taste of that at Irving Plaza," a New York club where the band played in December.

The Elevation Tour 2001 kicks off March 24 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and it will continue until June 21. Tickets for some dates of the tour, which will include opening act PJ Harvey, will go on sale Saturday.