Tragedy in Manchester: How safe are concerts?
In the wake of the horrific attack outside an Ariana Grande show in the U.K., EW investigates how promoters and U.S. venues are changing their security measures
This story appears in the June 2-9 issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands Friday. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
The evening was supposed to be fun and carefree. Tens of thousands of fans — many kids and teenagers — congregating at the Manchester Arena in Manchester, England, on May 22 to sing and dance along to their favorite pop star, Ariana Grande, who was in the midst of a massive world tour. But after the 23-year-old wrapped up her show with an encore of the single “Dangerous Woman,” that elation quickly turned to horror. At around 10:30 p.m. local time, as hundreds of fans were streaming from the cavernous venue to the nearby Victoria train station, a terrorist detonated an improvised explosive device, seriously injuring more than 59 people and killing 22, including an 8-year-old named Saffie Rose Roussos. “It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” concertgoer Esme Findlay, 20, told EW’s sister publication People. “It was really loud; it sounded like a huge bang…. Then everybody began screaming immediately and pushing to get out.”
The unthinkable act of terrorism, allegedly executed by 22-year-old British native Salman Abedi on behalf of the Islamic State, was the worst one the U.K. has seen since London’s 2005 bombings, which killed 52 people — and it was immediately condemned by both leaders and artists around the world. “These are innocent vulnerable kids, this could’ve been any of us!” Rihanna tweeted, while Lorde wrote to fans, “shows should be safe for you. Truly a worst nightmare.” Grande, who was not physically harmed, tweeted, “From the bottom of my heart, I am so so sorry. I don’t have words.” Though the singer returned to the U.S. the day after the concert, a source close to Grande told EW on May 23 that her tour is “not canceled…. The focus [right now] is the victims and the grieving. Ariana is just absolutely beside herself.”
Safety at public events has become an increasing concern in recent years following tragedies like the June 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, the November 2015 attack at an Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris’ Bataclan theater, and the 2012 shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater. Wes Westley, the president and chief executive of SMG, which manages Manchester Arena, told The New York Times that the venue was vigilant about screening attendees — “You have to go through very strict security to enter the arena,” he said. Still that doesn’t necessarily prevent a terrorist from striking immediately outside a venue, as was the case with the Grande concert.
One music-industry veteran tells EW that promoters, venues, and artists’ teams will typically work with local law enforcement on venue and event security in advance, but adds that “the zone of security [eventually] ends. It’s outside the venue where it gets tricky. If this happened in New York City, you don’t get patted down going into the subway.” A spokesperson for the 20,000-seat Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., tells EW that they “partner, consult, and train with local, regional, and federal law enforcement agencies regularly and have a strong law enforcement presence in place both outside and inside during all building events.”
Going forward, look for coordination between venues and law enforcement to only increase — especially as the industry hits peak concert and festival season this summer. The Madison Square Garden Company — which operates the 20,000-seat Madison Square Garden in New York City, the 17,500-seat Forum in Los Angeles, and four other venues nationwide — tells EW it is amping up security measures after the deadly bombing, “including a greater police presence, and continuing to work closely with local law enforcement to ensure we remain informed of any potential concerns.” Outdoor festivals, meanwhile, present additional security challenges: Those events often take place on hundred-acre open-air plots and draw crowds that on average quadruple the size seen in spaces like Manchester Arena. (Organizers for some of the nation’s largest festivals didn’t respond to EW’s requests for comment on how they might bolster security for this year’s events.)
While arenas and promoters are on higher alert, security isn’t always airtight — especially for smaller clubs, venues, and movie theaters. One music-industry source tells EW, “With security, it depends on the show and where you’re going. Sometimes you get wanded and sometimes you don’t. I would certainly hope that would change. Everybody needs to think about security measures going forward.”
With additional reporting by Steve Helling and Madison Vain