Opinion: The Radiohead stage collapse in Toronto and its impact

published:  June 17, 2012

So where does Radiohead and the concert industry go from here?

Everyone knows the facts now:  One young member, Scott Johnson, of the Radiohead camp tragically dead, three injured, 40k fans turned back in a strange mixture of grief and disappointment.   What seems like one of the worst days in Radiohead’s history (arguably it is its worst) was merely 30-60 minutes from being unfathomable.   What tiny consolation to be found is the fact that more weren’t killed.   Everyone by now has run the thoughts through their heads – what if this had collapsed during the soundcheck or what if this had collapsed during the concert with a general admission crowd jam packed merely feet from the stage?   Weather wasn’t a factor.  No one saw it coming.  There was no warning.   That’s a dangerous combination of ignorance from a situation that demands maximum safety.   What’s worse is, this situation isn’t new.

Radiohead’s reaction

So where does Radiohead go from here?   History shows us whether it be Pearl Jam, the Rolling Stones, The Who, etc., that the bands are very emotionally impacted.  How can they not be?   Simply because they write and perform songs better than 99.9999% of the general public doesn’t remove them from the bubble of emotional attachment we all feel towards the tragic loss of those close around us.   With the emotion and feeling interjected by Thom Yorke into Radiohead’s music we assume that translates to an even larger amount of grief (and probably, unnecessary but inevitable self-blame) towards this incident.   No one believes this to be the band’s fault.   We’re certain they were made to believe the stage setup would be 100% safe.  What we do hope is that they can take this and foster change.

Which of the following will happen?

A delay in touring?   I doubt it, quite frankly.   The next show is less than two weeks in Rome, followed by over a dozen dates in July.   I see a stoppage of the tour an extremely remote possibility.   A scaled down stage set makes far more sense – cancelling shows does not.  Lets dispel with the scaffolding and the big floating plasma TV’s – just bring the amps, the guitars, drums and move on from there.   I see little or no benefit in disappointing what would be upwards of a half million fans over the next month or two.   I can’t imagine Scott Johnson would want Radiohead to stop.   I can’t imagine a stoppage would pay homage to their lost friend.  It would be a greater acknowledgment of emotion to play onward with a change to the stage set or dedicate a song to Mr. Johnson and his family than to halt the shows.  Music is healing.

Safer stage sets.  And soon.

How about reduced stage sets for future shows – and not just for Radiohead?   How many more stage collapses does this world require?  Do we really need the enormity of a stage that propels itself halfway to the clouds?   It’s beautiful yes, but is it necessary by any means?  Absolutely not.  Wouldn’t a more realistic and helpful trade-off be to reduce ticket prices, or the price of t-shirts and dispel with the expensive scaffolding or hanging fixtures?   Do we need 16 large TV screens dangling dangerously above Jonny Greenwood’s head to enhance our enjoyment of ‘Karma Police’?    I say no we don’t.   We have this unspoken contest between U2, Radiohead, Coldplay and the dozens of other large acts that turn the stage into miniature cities.    For Christ sakes half the audience are staring at their cell phones during the show anyway or trying to take a blurry photo from 350 feet away.   Maybe that hologram idea doesn’t sound so stupid after all.  I don’t recall anyone being killed by a tumbling hologram of 2Pac.

The influence of Radiohead

Radiohead’s influence?    The reaction of the band to this incident and its decisions on touring, stage sets, etc., will be followed closely.   Radiohead – along with U2, Madonna, Lady Gaga and Coldplay are among the most influential live acts in the world for the music industry.   Radiohead has an opportunity to certainly steer the future with their influence in the days and weeks ahead.    A change is not an over-reaction.   We’re not going on a blind rabbit hunt looking for weapons of mass destruction here.   We have evidence this time!  (see collapsed stage photo above).  We’re advocating more safety via reduced stage design.  My last $5 dollars says Radiohead makes some changes, respectully.   Wouldn’t you feel strange going out onto an open stage right now if you were Thom Yorke with 30 tons of metal, big TV’s and equipment hanging above you and your bands’ (and fans) heads?  This is one of the most influential bands in the world and their innovative ability to transform rock music the past 20 years now needs to shift gears temporarily and change the infrastructure of the live show industry and its stage setup.    What are we waiting for?   Do we need a piece of scaffolding to fall down and kill Bono, Jonny Greenwood or Madonna to make a change?   Let’s push for it now.  Who would possibly look Radiohead in the eye and stop them from change?


Related article:   The worst concert disasters ever, by ranker.com

11 thoughts on “Opinion: The Radiohead stage collapse in Toronto and its impact

    1. twths Post author

      Thank you Rob. If there were ever a better opportunity for change, when would be a better time than now? Imagine the outrage (and additional tragedy) if a member of the band had been hurt or killed. Thank you again for your comment sir.

  1. Sam

    It is a nice article and I understand your point but… their structure is not that big, much less if you compare them with U2, Coldplay, and many other big acts. They had a similar stage for In Rainbows and everything went well for the whole tour. This year, with the screens and all, they had many shows in temporary rigs, including two big Mexico shows, and nothing went wrong.

    They love that their music communicates with the crowd through their lights. They used hanging screens before as well. It is their style. Something went really wrong with the Toronto rig structure, and it has to be investigated.

    And I hope they do continue with the tour. It will do better for their and for their crew minds, to do what they love, what Scott loved doing.

    1. twths Post author

      Thank you so much for the reply and comments. All very valid points. Perhaps a stage setup that doesn’t require so many overhead items would be a fine compromise along with your thoughts above. They could simply push these big screens, lights, etc., more to the sides of the stage, which allows the band to communicate with the fans in a safer scheme. There has to be a safer way to accomplish the same goals.
      And yes, you are 100% right – the stage setups of U2 especially, dwarf the current Radiohead tour.

  2. Dave

    Who knows what will happen after this terrible event? Firstly, I think you have to realise that in terms of iconic performing artists, Radiohead’s stage set-up is relatively low key (certainly compared to U2 or Lady Gaga). So I don’t think they’ll change anything beyond the location of their lighting rigs and anything hanging above them.

    Then we have the simple fact that a great deal of their instruments have been seriously damaged or completely destroyed (just look at some of that aerial video footage). They will not have back-up equipment for everything on that stage.

    Then there are the insurance considerations: this accident didn’t take place due to a freak wind storm like the Flaming Lips’ stage collapse. Therefore, they will likely be considered uninsurable at this point until the investigation proves the cause of the accident. Legal quagmires like this can take several months or longer to sort out.

    And that’s even if they want to continue the tour. They all knew and worked with this poor man and are clearly devastated (see Phil Selway’s new Dead Air Space post). Finally, Radiohead (or, specifically Thom Yorke) have openly discussed quitting touring altogether in the past due to environmental considerations, etc. Now something much worse has occurred: a friend and colleague has died in a horrific accident. Who knows how this will affect them?

    It would be an awful shame if this were to be the end of Radiohead as a live act, for the simple reason that it would forever freeze this moment in time and prevent them from coming to terms with it as Pearl Jam and The Who did. But all of this seems crass to even consider at this moment in time. This is by far the worst thing that has happened to Radiohead in the last 20 years.

    The only thing I’m sure they’re thinking about now, and is worth thinking, has been expressed in Phil Selway’s eloquent Dead Air Space post: Scott Johnson and his loved ones.

    1. twths Post author

      Very good comments Dave – great additions, thank you. We all know several members of Pearl Jam considered retirement in 2000 after their disaster. It’s certainly unclear how the band reacts to this tragedy in Toronto. One thing we think we know for certain is that the band takes this very seriously and very hard. Truly, a terrible day in all aspects.

      I also agree with you – the recent U2 tour set the standard (for better or worse) in stage setups, along with the things that Roger Waters and others construct. There’s no reason we can’t have the great music without the increased safety risk. It’ll be interesting to see how they react. I’m sure they will come through in flying colors like Radiohead usually does.

  3. scott

    So what you are saying is Radiohead, in addition to dealing with the death of a close friend and how to proceed with their career after this devastation, (not to mention, further down the road: insurance issues, legal issues, lost equipment and revenue), must also devise a scheme to save the world from the irresponsibilities of the entertainment industry? This is a ridiculous and unfair article, even if the author means well.

    1. twths Post author

      Scott, I can fully appreciate the passion for the band in your comments, and I share in that 100%. This is the 2nd stage collapse in Toronto in less than 12 months and the problem worldwide has become more than a coincidence and nearly an epidemic. Many concert goers and bands in the future may benefit from the fact that Radiohead’s high-profile and powerful influence could come into play here and help ensure safer stage setups for fans, the bands and their road crews. Here’s an excellent article from Yahoo on this same topic:

    2. http://ca.news.yahoo.com/blogs/dailybrew/radiohead-stage-collapse-toronto-leads-call-safer-regulations-124949585.html
    3. –TWTHS

  4. Ann Ony

    While I appreciate your spirited commentary, I’m unimpressed with your lack of insight. Once again, it’s too early to know what caused the stage failure. Unless you’re a seasoned engineer with psychic powers, your speculations are… well, sorry… kind of worthless.

    Until we know with some certainty what caused the canopy to collapse (poor design, poor construction, overloading that was intentional or due to miscommunication between the band’s engineers and the venue’s engineers), this conversation doesn’t have much significance. Perhaps the frames weren’t assembled properly and it was the increased load that brought it down sooner in an empty venue, rather than later in a full one? It could be that the converse of your argument is true – that the elaborate light displays prevented a bigger catastrophe. Kind of hard to know for sure without an advanced education in physics and firsthand knowledge of how that stage got up into the air and came down again.

    Some interesting points were, made, however, on the subject of insurance. But again, without any insight into what the interface between the insurance and concert industry looks like, it’s also really hard to guess how the rest of the tour will be affected. Does the band buy a policy for the whole tour, or one for each show? How do the insurance companies evaluate risks for huge events – will they consider that the equipment rig has proven stable in permanent structures, or is one accident enough to throw the whole operation in doubt? Also, can an insurance company cancel the policy after one incident before the an investigation has been done? (Car insurance doesn’t work that way – if they drop you after an accident, it’s usually months after all the paperwork is finished.)

    Regarding equipment, I’ve heard both scenarios: they have backup equipment/their equipment is unique and irreplaceable. Also, it’s a bit hasty to assume that all of their instruments were damaged beyond salvageable. A lot of their electronic gear sits close to the floor of the stage and is likely to remain unscathed. It might not look so good for the drum kits, though, which sit on platforms, and the ondes.

    The rest of the discussion is entirely premature. If the band doesn’t call it quits, I think the only certainty here is that Toronto won’t be rescheduled anytime soon as it was the last show on the North American portion of the tour. Even before the accident, I had a hard time envisioning another big stadium tour after this one, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this conversation. Regular touring fatigue, plus grief, plus legal, insurance, and financial complications are certainly good reasons for ANYONE to think twice about wanting to do this again in the future.

    Radiohead is a live band – the lighting and staging are as much a part of their performance (and, dare I say, art) as their music is. Your argument bears an unfortunate resemblance to that of the fascist family values camp who want to censor music they find offensive because of perceived threats to the institution of family (or marriage or god or w/e those hyper weirdos might be on about). Please consider that this was an accident – an unforeseen occurrence; life is full of them – and that if the set design created a reasonable risk, the hundreds of people involved in executing a huge tour like this would likely NOT have risked their careers on LED sticks and hanging plasma TVs.

    Also, the word you were looking for is “dispense.” One dispenses with something they want to get rid of, and dispels the enchantment of misinformation. (Sorry. It’s a compulsion.)

    1. twths Post author

      Thank you for taking the time to reply and with so many thoughts. We also appreciate your passion on the topic!


  5. Tim Lindsay

    It is ludicrous to suggest that the spectacle itself is at fault. To insist that bands play with less production value for safety’s sake is entirely wrong-headed. What bands and especially promoters of these massive tours need to do is take responsibility to ensure that the show can be done safely. The engineers who routinely build and operate these shows know their jobs. It is when promoters cut corners on safety precautions to save money that tragedy strikes.

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