Fans evacuate Union Park during this year's Pitchfork Music Festival (Photo: Robert Loerzel)

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Following the weather-related collapses of three separate festival stages in the summer of 2011 and another in March 2013, it became clear that the concert industry needed to make some changes to properly deal with fan safety. Seven people died in those incidents, and dozens more were injured. And for what—rock and roll?

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In subsequent years, concert promoters have become increasingly vigilant when it comes to bad weather—particularly rain, wind, and lightning. And while it seems obvious enough that when lightning starts threatening, concertgoers should get inside, when you’ve got 110,000 teenagers, some surely drunk, enjoying the rain in a open field at Lollapalooza, the actualities of that evacuation become a little more precarious. Still, both Lollapalooza and the Pitchfork Music Festival cleared out all their concertgoers during this year’s events, due to inclement weather.

We at The A.V. Club were beneficiaries of both those evacuations, and because there’s always plenty of grousing as the whole thing happens—especially from the aforementioned drunk teenagers—we wanted to know how those evacuation calls are made and why. While the Newport Folk Festival only almost had to evacuate this year, the festival’s producer, Jay Sweet, was nice enough to answer all our semi-frightened and lightning-related questions.

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The A.V. Club: What’s the process behind evacuating a music festival? How is the decision made? And how do you keep from annoying drunk people?

Jay Sweet: What you just said right there is my worst nightmare. In 2014, [Newport Folk Festival] had Mavis Staples, whose birthday we celebrated and who was closing the festival, and we had Norah Jones, Dawes, and Trampled By Turtles all singing with with her. Amazing, once in a lifetime moment, and my phone is blowing up.

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We have a certain radius that if there’s lightning to ground or sky to ground or ground to sky—I don’t know if you know that, but lightning can hit down and go back up—within a certain radius around the event, we have to evacuate. So I had to sit there while this magic is happening that I’ve spent my whole year to try to make happen with texts coming to my phone that are just reading, “10 miles,” “9 miles,” our radius being 5 to 7 miles, depending on frequency of strikes. By the way, it was bright sunshine. The storm was just to the west and southwest of us, and because there’s a 35-40 foot huge wall around the fest—meaning the fort—you couldn’t see it. If you were in the audience, you couldn’t see what I was seeing, which was that the clouds to the southwest of us were black and lightning was all over the place, and I was about to have to pull the plug on Mavis Staples.

I have anxiety attacks about lightning. We’ve had monsoon rain and nobody would move. It’s not an issue. Wind is obviously an issue, but we are so conservative with our wind. We’re pretty good about having everything locked down, mostly because there’s a reason why sailing is really, really popular in Newport. The America’s Cup happens in Newport because wind is there all the time. But to me, it’s all about lightning. It’s the worst thing about doing what we do. Honestly, if you were to ask me the single worst part of my job it’s how much I’ve learned about weather, most importantly lightning. I never thought I would be a somewhat amateur meteorologist.

As a producer, one definition of my job is that I try to control the entire environment that I’m creating for a paying customer. The biggest thing that is 100 percent out of my control is the one thing that could stop the festival. Boom. That’s a horrible thing. My entire festival is three days. I don’t have other festivals I work on. This is it. I work for three days. If I would have to evacuate and have people leave, it can take years to come back from that. If there’s an incident or people have a really bad time trying to get to safety…

AVC: People won’t come back the next year?

JS: It’s really tough to recover from that, if there’s an incident. It’s this heightened anxiety. When you’re sitting in a trailer, my trailer, and it’s a tiny little trailer and you have members of the state police, the Department Of Environmental Management, the fire marshall of the city, local police, and various state authorities all in a trailer that’s 10 feet by 10 feet all staring at a radar and these people have weapons? It becomes a stress box and you don’t want that stress to leak out. People didn’t pay to get all stressed out. People say, “Well, what are the odds of getting struck by lightning?” The odds are far greater when you have 11,000 people mushed together. Where are you calling from?

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AVC: Chicago.

JS: Okay, well in Chicago you guys get lightning all the time. But I live in a little town. It’s like 3,000 people. My town is one-third the size of my festival. It’s actually less than that. If lightning is happening in my town, no big deal, but if you took three of my towns and squished them into a space where there’s always someone within 7 square feet of me, the odds of somebody getting hit by lighting if there’s lightning in the area are far greater than they are on a normal day because there’s more for the lightning to hit. It’s just a mass. That’s why it’s frightening. If you look, the majority of non-drug and alcohol-related deaths at festivals are weather related. It’s lightning.

I read every one of those announcements we make so fans know that it’s not over a loudspeaker, it’s me. That audience knows the last thing that I want to do is stop this festival. That’s how seriously we take this. I don’t know if you’ve seen one of my announcements, but it’s literally like, “Do not congregate under tents or metal structures.” Well, two of the places I’m saying that, you’re actually sitting under a metal tent. It’s difficult for everyone to immediately get back to their cars. People take shuttle busses.

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I am not an overtly religious person. I’m an extremely spiritual person, but I pray. Honestly, pray. From the 10-day out period, I am more saintly and spiritual because that is the 10-day weather report. You’re 10 days out from your festival and that’s when the weather reports get very real, very quickly.

AVC: Who in your trailer makes the ultimate call? Who says, “We’re clearing people out?”

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JS: I do. Well, when I say I do, there’s two things. If we’re talking about wind, I look to the person who built my stage, the stage engineer, because we have an anemometer. When it becomes a storm—like we’ve had a squall that was terrifying. It wasn’t lightning. It was literally a squall. Like a mini-water-spouting water tornado happening about a hundred yards off the festival. The little vendor tents were blowing into the ocean. It came on with about five minutes of warning. It was crazy. This was in 2008. It was bright and sunny 20 minutes later. It was one of those crazy things. It just happened in the late afternoon.

Anyway, if it’s a wind-related issue, it goes right to my stage guys because they run the anemometer, which is the reading, and if we hit sustained gusts of 25 to 30 miles per hour, we lower the roof of the main stage. If we have gusts over 30, I get everybody off the main stage and we push people back into the audience.

But when it comes to lightning, we set a parameter. When I say “we” it’s a collective we of everybody in that space. I’ll give you an example. If it’s 7:15 p.m. and we’re two songs from being done and lightning is within 7 miles, the question then becomes what is the frequency? Meaning, how many times are we getting? Are we getting 14 hits? Have there been three hits in the last hour? One hit? As soon as the song is over, it might just be prudent to say, you know what, we’re only going to miss one song, shut it down, send people away. Storm is coming, bad weather is coming. We did that with My Morning Jacket three years ago. Not this year, but we shut it down at 7 o’clock and there was supposed to be 15 more minutes of music. There were three more songs but we just shut it down, which was the right call at the moment. Ultimately, that’s why I go out to do it.

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When we’re sitting in that trailer, we collectively say, okay, guys if we break—it might be a 7 mile or 5 mile radius. And if we break that, no matter what is happening, no matter if it’s bright and sunny and there are no clouds in the sky, I’m shutting it down. That’s when we put the plan into action, which is that I go to each stage. We have people evacuate and we say, “Turn to our social media.” Or we have a local radio station then becomes 100 percent ours. I will always be guilty of over-communication. Always.

Two years ago on one of the days there was some lightning, and I had to make the exact same announcements that I made this year. What’s amazing to me is that instead of people getting really upset about it, they’re like, “Hey, other festival, this is how you’re supposed to do it.” Meaning the way we were doing it.

Remember, I’m walking up on Strand Of Oaks and they’re about to break into another song and I’m literally standing on the stage in the middle of their set that they’ve been waiting for a long time and I have to give that little notice. That’s a horrible feeling. But I feel like the minute I get the warning, and usually it’s that it’s broken a 10-mile radius, I’m giving warning immediately. That’s why it’s the most horrible thing. It’s really not the wind, it’s not the rain. It’s lightning, and the hardest thing is that sometimes in the summer lightning has nothing to do with rain.

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I know some people who really flirt with safety. There are other events that I know feel more comfortable flirting with the “show-must-go-on” mentality. But at the end of the day, it’s different when you’re the oldest festival, the grandaddy of all American music festivals. We’re going to be back next year, though I mean that in a tongue-in-cheek way. We are a family and we want our family to come every year. If that means having to cut something short for one day, one hour, whatever, we’ll do it. Because we’re so small, we would take a massive financial hit—like to the point of crossing our fingers. But when you look at some festival that’s brand new and they get one shot and they have to evacuate the event—any up-and-coming festival is already losing money from year one anyway, so they’re going to get crushed. It’s a big deal. So they try not to do that because, [Mock chants.] “We want refunds.”

When we’ve had to stop, we’ve never even been asked to give a refund. I feel very fortunate again, because perhaps we’re different. I think we are different. The people know who we are. They know we’re non-profit. They know that we’re barely pulling this thing off by the skin of our teeth. It’s a rain-or-shine event. You’re not going to get your money back if it’s raining. When you’re buying your ticket, you’re basically saying we’re all subject to the weather gods. I think our fans know that this isn’t a business for us. IA lot of people, throwing a festival is their business. This isn’t a business. We lose money. But at the same time, safety is so important to us because this is my family. These are the people that make me get up every morning.

AVC: Do you guys have an evacuation plan in place? Do you know how many people can get inside the fort and how many people can be in their cars and so on?

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JS: We have a plan, but like any good plan, it can vary. By the way, speaking of Lolla, Charlie Jones [from C3 Presents] has been a semi-mentor for me. I thought what they’ve done at Lolla in the past has really, really set a precedent.

AVC: They do what they need to, but people might not understand why they’re doing it.

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JS: I just think it’s impressive. The difference is that they have buildings. Lolla is in the middle of the damn city. People can walk out of that park and in five minutes be inside of a building. Not so in Newport.

Bonnaroo, go to your own tents. Go to your own structures. Go to the parking lot, which is directly surrounding the event. Ours, it’s really different. You’re on a speck of land out in the middle of the ocean. So, really the safest thing is to open the whole backstage area where people are actually allowed to go into the fort. The problem is, you think, “Well, why don’t you put them all into the fort?” More than 90 percent of the fort is actually condemned. You’re actually legally not supposed to go in there. It’s actually more unsafe in that building than if you were standing in the middle of the field in the lightning storm because roofs are collapsing, especially if it’s raining. So it’s difficult.

For us, it’s getting people into their cars. It’s much easier to communicate with them. Because you can say, “Turn your radio to this. Don’t try to leave. This is going to be passing in 10 minutes so don’t everybody drive off at once. Please stay put in parking lot two, we’re going to move parking lot one off site first.” It’s a way to communicate with the entire audience when they’re in their cars.

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If the you-know-what hit the fan, the people that came by car, we ask them to go back to their cars. The people that didn’t, we have certain places where we will open up backstage that they can go. But again, that capacity is maybe 1,500 total considering all the places that are open and available to us. Maybe not even. It’s definitely a dance, which is why our radius is perhaps a little bigger than most. Because we know it takes longer to get people to safety, we might call it earlier than Lollapalooza would. God, I’m nervous even talking about this and this festival’s already happened this year. I’m literally gripping my chair.

AVC: What if something goes down next year?

JS: I’m already worried about it.

AVC: How much does insurance play into the decision?

JS: I don’t know, insurance-wise. The people whose job it is to save people’s lives when it comes to this stuff are in my trailer and when they’re like, “Hey, you know the frequency?” We’re all looking at it, like, the way the wind is blowing and time and modeled images and radar images. When I make a call, with my team—the team includes my director, the festival director, and the various department heads—I get all the information and then ultimately somebody has to be the person that calls it.

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When we do that, I look around the room and I get all the reports from those people. It’s not just me in a room by myself. It’s like, “Do you acknowledge that this happened at this date,” and we log it. We log everyone of those meetings. Even if we don’t call it and we’re having the meeting, we log it. We also take screenshots and images of exactly the time when I make the warning, we screen shot if there was a lightning strike.

There’s data that you can get that basically reads like a ticker tape. Like, “lighting strike in Warwick.” Boom. It literally comes in a ticker tape. So we can see the little dots on the maps and we pay to get all this information, but ultimately we’ve made the warnings and we have all our warnings taped. Every time I’m up there doing it, the soundboard tapes what I did and marks the time. So there’s a whole bunch of data that our insurance can look at and see what we did. These are the people that I consulted with, this was the time that we discussed this, this was the time I made the call, by the time I made the call to the time I got to stage was this amount of time. This is what the wind was reading, here are the screenshots, here’s the social media messaging we sent to people. Every time I talk on the stages, that is going out to all the social media and all the app alerts all happen pretty much at the same time.

To me, it’s the most serious thing we do. People are trusting us, because they’re not sitting there looking at their TVs with one of those “beep beep, this is a warning, there is a tornado warning“ things. They trust us to communicate with them when this shit is about to happen.

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When you’re at home watching TV in Chicago, you get those weather alerts like, “Flash flood warning for this area.” Where I am, the TV will start beeping and tell you or your phone will start beeping and tell you. But when you’re out in a field, you’re trusting that I’m going to tell you.

AVC: You’re also subject to a lot more hearsay. Like “She said this. I heard this.”

JS: “They didn’t tell anybody. They didn’t even warn us.” Or “What am I supposed to do? How do I know when I’m supposed to go to my car?”

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AVC: “My cell phone’s dead.”

JS: Exactly. Happens a lot at music festivals.

AVC: You’d always rather be safe than sorry.

JS: I’d rather be safe and sorry. I’d rather be safe and apologize than be sorry because of something that I can’t amend. I’d rather make the apology and be able to thank you later when you come next year. I do really want to say that I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody come up to me upset that I had to call the festival 15 minutes early. I’ve never had somebody say “I’m upset, I don’t like the way you guys handled this.” I think our audience knows that we have a really small staff. It’s mostly volunteer and you’re acknowledging that before you come to the event. The majority of the audience has been there several times. You know what you’re getting into.

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We do some tongue-in-cheek tweets beforehand saying there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad planning. We basically have ponchos at cost everywhere we can, but to us it’s New England. Plan for there to be weather. Know that it’s going to be really, really crazy weather and if we get lucky and it’s sunny that’s just luck. Usually it’s not like that. I haven’t had one year in six years where it didn’t rain. Not one. It has rained every single year that I’ve worked the festival.

AVC: But then the sun comes out and everyone dries off and you’re good to go.

JS: A couple of years ago, Beck did “Sunday Sun” on Sunday after it had been overcast with on-and-off rain. He was playing the song and then it stopped raining in the middle of his song and the sun came out when he was singing “Sunday Sun” on Sunday and there was this roar from the crowd. If you listen to the tape, it’s between a lyric and it’s one of those things when you’re listening to a live thing, and you think, “What just happened in the audience? Something crazy just happened, because it wasn’t everybody screaming for the song.” It was because the sun finally dropped below the dark clouds as a sunset and it just lit up the sky.

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