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Squeeze Play: Is Festival Seating Worth the Risk?

When U2 plays four shows at the United Center this week, fans will participate in an age-old ritual. They'll scream together. They'll sweat together. They'll squeeze in tight together.

It's all part of rock 'n' roll tradition, right? If so, consider the consequences: in 2000, there were 24 safety-related deaths worldwide with 51,082 injuries, according to the concert watchdog group Crowd Management Strategies. In 1999, there were 70 deaths and 6,582 injuries.

Critics say the culprit is festival seating, which U2 has decided to use on its current tour. Instead of rows of seats laid out on the main floor, a few thousand fans will be unleashed to fend for themselves at standing-room only capacity.

The arrangement is old as rock itself, most associated with a 1970 Cincinnati concert by the Who, where 11 people were crushed to death. The most recent incident was last year in Denmark, when nine people were similarly killed at a Pearl Jam concert.

Recent shows at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont such as Metallica, Limp Bizkit and Eminem had similar festival seating on the floor.

To the diehard music fan, festival seating is a boon. If agile enough, you could work your way to the foot of the stage and watch the show right from the band's feet.

But to detractors, festival seating is a formula for a range of problems -- from general discomfort to serious injuries and even death.

Critics say festival seating encourages life-threatening activities like moshing and crowd surfing, it crushes fans up against the stage and isn't conducive to allowing emergency crews to move in and out of the crowd swiftly.

"It's ridiculous. It becomes a contact sport," said Stanley Kahn, a lawyer representing Randy Adams, who is now brain dead after a Metallica concert in outside Indianapolis in 1994. He was struck in the chest in a lawn mosh pit and left unattended for 10 minutes. His family is suing Metallica, the venue and promoter.

"Promoters make tons of money off of these kids," Kahn said. "Do they tell you moshing is dangerous? Do they post signs? Do they make announcements over the PA? No, they don't."

Part of the problem is, of course, the nature of rock concerts. Unlike, say a Chicago Symphony Orcheatra concert, fan participation at a rock show is meant to be in mind and body.

That's why bands prefer festival seating in the first place, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of the concert industry magazine Pollstar.

"If you were a band member trying to feed off the energy off the audience, it would be harder to do when you have reserved seats when the people tend to be older and less animated," he said.

The benefit for fans, Bongiovanni says, is saving money. The cheapest ticket on the U2 tour is the festival seating pass at $45, compared to seats on the side priced to $130.

"There's no doubt U2 could have made more money with reserved seats (on the floor)," he said.

But just the opposite is true, says Paul Wertheimer of Crowd Management Strategies, the group that consulted the Danish promoter on safety issues after the Pearl Jam tragedy.

Safety standards established by the National Fire Protection Association in 1994 recommend that promoters reduce the floor capacity, by changing the per-person ratio from about 2 feet per person to 15 feet. That way, first aid officers could easily wade through the crowd. It also would lesson the impact in case of a sudden surge.

But only a few states have legally adopted the measures and the concert industry has routinely opposed it, which Wertheimer said is due to "three major objectives: money, money, money."

"If someone gets killed, if someone gets crushed, (promoters) have insurance, big deal," Wertheimer said. "You might hear platitudes when a kid dies, but the way it plays out in litigation is that the defendants have insurance. It's really a form of homicide. (Promoters) get away literally with murder." Since concert industry safety standards remain unregulated, promoters have been free to keep injury reports private. Watchdogs like Wertheimer have had to rely on police reports, media accounts, litigation, industry news and eyewitness accounts.

A spokesperson for the National Concert Promoters Association would not return phone calls.

About 2,000 fans will be on the floor for Chicago's U2 shows, according to Arthur Fogel, president of touring for the SFX Music Group, the tour's promoter. That includes 350 fans who will be allowed into a special heart-shaped pit, placing them even closer to band action.

"We have done due diligence with the overall floor plan and staffing to insure that each patron has both an enjoyable and safe experience," he said in a statement.

When U2 announced it was planning to use festival seating ("these shows are going to be very exciting," said band manager Paul McGuinness), a fan Web site, atu2.com, posted an open letter to the band asking them to rethink the decision.

The letter remains on the site, but its operators are less cautious.

"There was some concern," commented an @U2 spokesperson who works on the site. "But after the first night, security was handling it very well and it was less of a concern."

Chicago fan Tony Kuzminski opted to buy seats on the side instead of floor tickets due to practical reasons: "I didn't feel like having beer spilled on me. Three hours on your feet is a long time."

But he quickly found he had to pay a different kind of price. To get an actual seat, Kuzminski had to shell out three times the money. According to Ticketmaster, the top U2 seat is $140.75, which includes $14.75 in service fees.

"I have mixed feelings," he said. But supply met demand. "There's obviously a market."

[@U2 note: the "open letter" referenced above is available for reading on our web site. We disagree with the assessment that the letter asked U2 to rethink the decision to use festival seating. All we asked for was more information. You're welcome to read the letter and make your own decision.]

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