Questions Linger After Radiohead Stage Collapse

As Canadian investigators sift through the remains of last Saturday’s Radiohead concert in Toronto, looking for clues as to why the stage collapsed before the show and killed the band’s drum technician, veteran concert producers are calling for fundamental industry changes. "You need to go to steel," says Lars Brogaard, Rod Stewart’s production manager since 1985. "The shows nowadays are getting heavier and heavier with the lighting and the video screens. These aluminum roofs, they can’t take the weight."

The roof above the stage at Toronto’s Downsview Park appeared to be aluminum, according to Brogaard, and pulled down the overhead scaffolding from the corners when it fell. Scott Johnson, 33, a British member of Radiohead’s crew, died and three others were injured. "There's just been too many accidents," Brogaard adds. "I have guys working who are really upset about it. Why go out and do a show and have something fall on your head and die?"

The Ontario Ministry of Labour is reportedly investigating four companies – Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promoter, Radiohead’s Ticker Tape Touring and Toronto-based Nasco Staffing Solutions and Optex Staging – but spokesman Matt Blajer wouldn’t offer a timeline for the case. "This is a very complex one," he says, "and it'll take some time."

Several sources in the concert business say that while the headlines read "Radiohead stage collapse," standard operating procedures suggest Live Nation was responsible for erecting the stage. In most cases, before a large show, production managers for both the artist and the promoter negotiate the elements the performer plans to use on stage. Then the promoter chooses contractors to build the stage, provide building materials such as scaffolding and trusses and hire local crews.

"It’s not a theater, it’s not an arena, so you’ve got to go to a company that builds outdoor stages. Hopefully you’ll check and make sure they’ve got the experience and references," says John Scher, a veteran New York City promoter who also manages acts such as Art Garfunkel. "It’s the promoter’s responsibility to be able to hire somebody who can deliver the specifications that the production manager and the act ask for."

Scher, like many fans and concert organizers, is dismayed by the number of stage collapses that have happened since last summer, from a non-fatal incident before a Cheap Trick show at the Ottawa Bluesfest to a horrifying Indiana State Fair tragedy in which seven people died. "I'm puzzled," Scher says. "This never happens – or hasn't. We went through 30 years of outdoor rock concerts and the only time you heard of some of this was in Podunk, Utah, when they didn't use a professional company."

Representatives for Live Nation and Radiohead wouldn’t comment, other than to issue statements offering prayers for Johnson’s family. (Radiohead has postponed seven European tour dates after the tragedy.) Nasco and Optex officials didn’t return phone calls, but sources who have worked with both companies say they’re experienced and reputable. "They’re solid guys," says John Donnelly, president of Donnelly & Associates, which promotes large outdoor events in Canada, including shows at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

Last summer’s tragedies prompted some in the concert business to rethink safety guidelines. "The [insurance companies] that really concentrate on the [entertainment] industry are taking a harder look at events they're insuring – staging, engineer sign-off, weather monitoring, security plans, emergency plans," says Peter Tempkins, senior vice president for Nashville-based GNW-Evergreen Insurance, which represents events such as Bonnaroo and the Warped Tour. "Production people for the most part are vigilant – they’re going to be a little more vigilant now."

Some top production sources tell Rolling Stone that the disturbing rash of stage collapses over the past year are not indicative of a more dangerous trend. "It’s like a plane crashes – do people say, 'I’ll never ride in a 747 again'? The answer’s 'no,'" says Jake Berry, production manager for large tours such as U2 and Madonna, adding that while those shows employ steel roofs, it’s hard to judge whether steel or aluminum should be used in every event. "In general, our safety record is phenomenal."

Although Brogaard has no direct knowledge of what happened to the Radiohead stage, he insists live shows have evolved to the point that worldwide regulators need to change their policies to require stronger equipment. At the moment, in North America, aluminum roofs are allowed, but in Europe, many stages have already converted to steel; he believes the U.S. lags behind. "They’re heavier to transport, so they cost more," he says. "Everybody wants to make a lot of money. They go with the most cost-effective [equipment] that they think is going to work. That’s where we have the problem.

"Obviously they were not safe," he says, "because people were killed."