After three incidents in a month, are Spain’s music festivals safe?

Death of an acrobat, a fire and overcrowding prompt experts to call for clearer regulations of events

Atendees at the Arenal Sound Festival.
Atendees at the Arenal Sound Festival.ÁNGEL SÁNCHEZ

An acrobat named Pedro Aunión plunges to his death at the Mad Cool Festival, in mid-performance. A fire breaks out at the Tomorrowland Festival, prompting the evacuation of 20,000 people. And massive crowds rush the stage at the Arenal Sound Festival, causing cancellations of concerts. All of these incidents happened in Spain this year, and all within the space of less than a month.

These three incidents have brought the issue of safety at large festivals to the forefront. It isn’t that security measures are more relaxed, but that the proliferation of these kinds of events increases risks, experts say. There are almost 1,000 festivals in Spain throughout the year, mostly taking place in the summer months.

Smaller, local events often serve as examples of how to not set up a festival

Pepo Márquez, a spokesman for a musicians union

Given these large figures, the incidents seem infrequent. But according to Albert Salmerón, president of the Association of Music Promoters, security measures need to be adapted. “Despite the numbers, the incidents have been minimal. Festivals are safe and strict protocols are followed with evacuation plans, certification and licensing from the regional governments,” says Salmerón. Pepo Márquez, a spokesman for a musicians union, notes that “with the exception of the international festivals, there is still a long way to go at the European level. Smaller, local events often serve as examples of how to not set up a festival.”

No one is denying that the incidents are alarming, says Francisco Martín Peñas, from La Mar de Músicas Festival in Cartagena, a city on the southeastern coast of Spain. He wonders if cuts to budgets have influenced the safety levels. “We must be responsible with these matters. In the cases I’m familiar with, there haven’t been any cutbacks,” says Peñas. “Sure you can save on security,” adds Márquez. “For example, you can hire personnel to work double shifts. There are security officers who have been standing for 12 hours and are tired, so they can’t be at 100% when they need to be.”

Photo of the fire at the Tomorrowland Festival in Barcelona.
Photo of the fire at the Tomorrowland Festival in Barcelona.

Márquez says the union doesn’t want to be alarmist, but to simply draw attention to where improvements can be made. “As a spectator, nobody has ever stressed to me the importance of knowing about security measures or shown me an evacuation drill. As an artist – and I’ve played in almost all the major festivals – I’ve never been presented with a security protocol or been told about occupational hazards. Dangerous areas of the stage often go unmarked,” says Márquez.

The issue extends beyond Spain. “The first thing you note in a European festival is the number of people working at the festival. In Spain, it is often the bare minimum. There are no regulations that state, ‘For a festival with more than 8,000 attendees, six access points and four stages, and X employees are needed’.”

Each festival is mostly regulated by the laws of the region in which it is taking place

Risk prevention can be strengthened by ensuring that organizers don’t scrimp in order to save on costs. “Above all, penalties for those who do not comply need to be increased. The current fines are not dissuasive. If an employer wants to bypass a law, the first thing they will do is calculate how much the fine would cost them. If the profit is higher than the cost, it’s worth it,” says José Luis Gómez, a security expert. Márquez also asks that these fines actually be acted on since in most cases, “they stay on paper.”

Each festival is mostly regulated by the laws of the region in which it is taking place. Gómez suggests that a more centralized framework would be better. “There is a countrywide law that establishes some basic principles for festivals, the General Regulations of Police at Public Shows and Recreational Activities of 1982 – which is very old if we take into account that in that year there were hardly any macrofestivals in Spain,” says Gómez. “There are also regional laws that lay out protocols for following the countrywide law that are complemented by some other local regulations created by town councils. The consequence is that what in some cities is mandatory might only be a recommendation in others.”

The regulations are abundant, but dispersed throughout the country. Some regions have developed the regulation a great deal and updated it accordingly, but others have not. “For example, it is only mandatory in some places to have electronic access points,” explains Gómez. “This is important in order to have a real-time record of people entering and leaving through the several entry points. Not just so the security officers know, but also so that the attendees can see for themselves if the festival is exceeding capacity.”

Festivalgoers at this year’s Arenal Sound, which ran into problems due to overcrowding within the site.
Festivalgoers at this year’s Arenal Sound, which ran into problems due to overcrowding within the site.ÁNGEL SÁNCHEZ

“The Spanish government should update things like this throughout the country and not wait for local communities to take the initiative.” Márquez adds. “Festivals need to be controlled by someone. The nature of the business is that the festivals will try and get as many people as they can to attend. Because the attendees are also customers who will consume.” The musician emphasizes that not only is there no official control over the numbers of attendees, the festivals themselves often inflate the numbers for the media and their sponsors.

In the absence of consistent regulations, several regional governments have stepped up. “There are two very advanced communities in terms of legislation, implementation and involvement with regulating large events: Catalonia and the Basque Country,” says Alfonso Santiago, of the Bilbao BBK Live Festival. “We have undergone a process to modernize the legislation and adapt it to the specific needs of the Basque Country. I think it is very important to be open to dialogue and know the particularities of these events. Knowing how the events evolve is key to building good regulations so that promoters are serious and professional.”

Madrid, meanwhile, has not developed the regulations laid out in its own law, which was passed back in 1997. “For example, 20 years later the specifics regarding surveillance have not been established,” says Gómez. “Even worse, there are inconsistencies, such as the fact that there are sanctions for those who do not comply with surveillance regulations that have never been established.”

At these kinds of events, work is almost always done in haste, and that is always an added risk Union secretary Luis León

In the 1980s, when the national law was passed, large events were not a common terrorist target. Attacks such as the one seen at the Bataclán concert venue in Paris in 2015, and the vehicle attacks in Berlin and Nice, have forced a rethink of risk and security strategy. “Plans and emergencies have taken into account all sorts of factors, from a terrorist act to a profile of the spectators,” says Gómez. “A classical music recital is different from a heavy metal concert. The possible consumption of alcohol and drugs is another factor. All of these factors need to be taken into account when making a decision on whether or not to evacuate an area.”

Volunteers are now so common at these kinds of events but there are no official numbers of how many. “What if the worker is a volunteer?” asks Luis León, secretary of graphic arts, communication and large shows at a national workers union. “Are you protected if they suffer an accident at work? Do you receive training on how to act in case of an emergency or evacuation? In theory, you should but there is no law regulating that. Things like this should not be left to the good nature of employers,” he continues. “Contracts should also be monitored so labor risk prevention regulations are complied with. At these kinds of events, work is almost always done in haste, with a lot of improvisation and that is always an added risk.”

These new challenges need more anticipation and actions taken to prevent the unforeseen. But even minimal risk will always be present. Although there have been unfortunate events, security is always a fundamental element, says José Manuel Piñero, of the Low Festival, which is held in Benidorm. “For us, everything that we do is based on the foundation of security. Without security, the other parts of the festival wouldn’t work. The attendees wouldn’t be happy and the artists would be affected,” says Piñero. “That’s why we see it as a priority, affecting all the departments of our events. Throughout the year a continuous effort is made to organize the area and its security. And that’s how we get to the smooth opening of the event, and everything goes well without any problems. Solving a security problem or the public’s comfort once the doors are already opened is much more complicated.”

English version by Debora Almeida.

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