How Dangerous Are Music Festivals Like Coachella and Ultra, Really?

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Timothy Norris

On Thursday, Coachella attendee Kimchi Truong died after an apparent overdose. It's believed to be the first death tied to the giant annual festival since 2008 -- though the actual number is hard to ascertain, since the Riverside County Coroner's Office says it does not track them.

But as always happens when a young person ODs at a music festival, parents and onlookers alike are wondering: Just how safe are these bacchanals? Should they be shut down entirely? Or should we just be glad there aren't more fatalities?

By Andrea Domanick

People have been dying at music festivals for as long as those events have been held, but the MDMA era and the rise of the popularity of electronic dance music (EDM) in the U.S. has drawn scrutiny to dance festivals. And, with its increasing focus on this genre, Coachella shares a similar demographic draw.

A pair of deaths at last year's Electric Zoo festival in New York prompted the city to shut down the gathering, while six fatalities have been tied to Insomniac's Electric Daisy Carnival festivals inLos Angeles, Austin and Las Vegas in recent years.

All were drug- or alcohol-related, though the two Vegas deaths happened under peculiar circumstances: A woman said to be under the influence of ecstasy jumped out of a window, and a drunk man was hit trying to cross the street outside the festival grounds.

At least seven fatalities were reported at music festivals in 2013, while Truong's passing brings this year's festival death toll to at least eight, after one fan was found dead at Miami's Ultra Music Festival in March. It was the second year in a row that someone has died at Ultra, which started in 1999 and was casualty-free before 2013.

Perhaps most shockingly, six people reportedly died of drug overdoses at the Malaysian leg of the EDM-focused Future Music Festival last month, prompting organizers to cancel its third day.

But dance music festivals aren't alone; the more rock-oriented Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee has seen 11 deaths since 2002, many owing to a combination of substance abuse and overheating.

Almost all of these festivals are massive undertakings, and most have made safety a top concern -- from increased security and medical tents to peer support teams and water stations. That Coachella has not had more deaths than it has is probably a tribute to the cross-platform teams that work to keep attendees safe.

It seems likely, however, that the popularity of MDMA-based drugs is correlated with the rising fatality count; as Dennis Romero has reported, it's not just "bad" ecstasy that can kill you --it's any ecstasy. And it's almost impossible for the guards to stop kids from getting drugs onto the premises.

All of which is why we should probably expect more overdose deaths at festivals in the future, rather than fewer. At which point, we must decide as a society if we want to start shutting them down -- which seems problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it will likely just deflect the drug abuse elsewhere.

At this point, the burden of responsibility shifts to the individual users and a culture that gives them their guidance. MDMA use continues to be glamorized -- we're sometimes guilty of this ourselves -- but the cost is beginning to catch up with us.

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