As many of you heard or read, there was quite a security incident at Ottawa Bluesfest last Thursday night. That was actually the only day I wasn’t at the festival all day so I feel pretty lucky to have missed out on the chaos created by the crowds, both inside and outside of the park. What I do find interesting, and what I want to discuss in this post is the reaction and multitude of stories and suggestions that I’ve both heard directly from people as well as read in the various media reports on the day’s incidents. I know I’m a little late to the party with my article, but I’m not major media, so just live with it. 🙂
Let’s start with a bit about the Bluesfest “normal state” as it’s been maintained for years. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Bluesfest layout, I’ll just try and describe it to you with the accompanying map (as found on the festival website). There are four outdoor stages of decreasing size. The “City Stage” is considered the main stage with a huge crowd capacity while acting as the headquarters for the main acts to relax and set up for their concert as well as the other acts to take advantage of catering and shower services. This is where you’ll find most of your daily headliners. The second stage is the “Claridge Stage” located directly across the field from the City Stage. The last show of the night on this stage is typically a more well-known artist but isn’t the day’s headliner. These two stages house the biggest acts of the festival and will rotate between the two as the sound bleed would be too great should they play at the same time. The third stage seems to change names each year, and this year was called the “Bluesville Stage” which was built into a large tent this year for the first time at the festival. Finally, the fourth and last outdoor stage is the “Black Sheep Stage” which is located on the reverse side of the War Museum and often hosts the EDM or other very specialized type concerts.
The entire site is surrounded by varying heights of typical Modu-Loc fencing that you’ll find at most events or construction sites. The fences are typically strong enough to keep innocent people from entering but are by no means hard-fast crowd control barriers. There are two main gates to enter the festival, the first is located on the Sir John A. MacDonald Parkway about halfway through the “main bowl” of the festival. The second is on the opposite side of the main bowl, up Vimy Street near the museum’s main entrance. The entire site is now considered one area with changes made about 3-4 years ago to allow patrons to move freely with alcohol across Vimy so once you’re in, you’re in.
A regular week-night at Bluesfest starts at 5:00pm with the gates officially opening. At this time, you’ll usually find an early crowd of die-hard fans hurrying to get to the front of the stages for the headliners where they’ll wait 5-6 hours for them to perform. As the night progresses, the crowds continue to grow at an orderly pace until finally maxing out between 9:30 and 10:00 once everyone has settled in for whatever show they want to take in for the evening. The tickets normally offer in-and-out privileges so if you want to leave, you can pass it off to a friend for a later show, or you can come and go as you please. The site offers a variety of food and drinks, and with very little commercial establishments in the vicinity, there are very few reasons to actually leave and come back. Once the concerts finish up, the crowds typically leave in an orderly manner out the five exits that become available to facilitate the larger crowds all leaving at the same time. Like I said at the start of this paragraph, that is a typical night, and by no means what happened on Thursday of the second week of the festival.
Bluesfest has strayed quite far from it’s roots of a blues festival and hasn’t offered as much in the way of blues programming in many years but now has become a leading festival for all sorts of music drawing huge numbers making it one of North America’s leading music festivals. With this change in music, all types of crowds are now drawn to the festival and will change daily depending on the type of music playing, whether it’s country, EDM, Hip-hop or Rock. Often the genres of different bands get mixed where you’ll have a country artist following a Hip-hop act, or rock act following a dance music band. It all comes down to scheduling and band availability which the festival does not necessarily have full control over as they have to work with the artists schedules as well. It is quite a puzzle to piece together and every once in a while, there’s a bit of a conflict in genres creating potential issues. Well last Thursday, there was no genre conflict at all, it was a perfect storm spelling disaster from the start.
I have nothing against hip-hop generally, I listen to it frequently, but what I do have a problem with is music that encourages unnecessary violence in any form. For now, I’ll call this “gangster rap” which is a phrase that has been used around the festival pretty consistently this year, more specifically after Thursday. That day, the band “Migos” opened the City stage at roughly 7:00pm followed across the bowl by “Lil Yachty” and then once again across the bowl by Plume to close out the night. These three acts draw a similar crown but Migos and Lil Yachty are known to incite violence and draw on hate and anger for the basis of their music. The crowd, as loyal fans, thrive in this situation which is where the problems began. Let me go back a couple days for the “Fetty Wap” concert, also a thriving hip-hop artist, where I personally witnessed a group of 10-20 youths crash one of the fences beside Claridge stage avoiding paying the not-so-expensive ticket price. This fence crash was so unexpected, security couldn’t react in time to chase down this group of ignorant youths before they merged with the rest of the crowd. This was one of a few examples of how a “tamer” hip-hop night brought out the illegal activity. Additionally on that night, again, a tamer night, there were several fights that occurred throughout the park with larger numbers of people where volunteers, carrying out their tasks, were struck and hurt by these small mobs.
Going into Thursday night, the festival management and security company, Toersa, were aware of the disaster that was about to hit but the severity of it seemed to shock everyone as it’s never been witnessed before at the festival. Bluesfest is run on volunteers putting in time to help out and enjoy the music. They boast that there are roughly 4,000 people volunteering annually at the festival in all the different areas. These people, many of them youth, should never have to deal with the kind of behaviour that they witnessed first hand on Thursday and many of them quit and won’t be back as their safety was in question and isn’t worth the risk if this should happen again. The other side of the coin, is the paid security in place is a massive team to make sure the whole park is safe. But as with any event, there’s only so much that anyone can do when outnumbered by hundreds. The Toersa team acted very professionally and did everything in their power to keep people safe and did a great job. The volunteers who also helped out where they could should also being noted as being brave and very helpful in deterring further actions.
I’d like to remind you that I’m piecing together the following anecdotes from what I had heard and seen online. We’ll start with the hilarious stupidity first. Behind the Bluesfesville stage, there’s a fenced off area designed to protect some of the plants that the War Museum cares for on their grounds. This area is totally fenced off with nothing inside of it, other than those plants. On the following link, you’ll see a now very common YouTube video of maybe 50 people cheap people crashing the fences to gain free access to the festival. They run in and all come running out 20 seconds later as there is simply nowhere to go once you’re in there! It made me laugh at how idiotic these guys were especially the one at the end yelling about losing his phone. Haha…(sucker).
Next up is the path behind the war museum along the water, there’s a bike trail that remains open through the festival to allow non-festival goers access to the city from the west end. This path is also used by security to patrol the area and keep an eye on the back fence line, often while driving golf carts. This area was almost completely cut off due to the mobs of youth creating havoc on the fence line. One particular security guard whom I’ve know for years, was struck in the head with a rock while trying to break up a fight that happened in the back. He spent the next day in the clinic but was back to work the next night. Another employee of Bluesfest was driving a Kubota along the same path and got jumped by likely the same mob as they were trying to flip it! There was a young girl who was sexually assaulted in the same area as reported to the OPS. Every fence was being tested by hundreds, if not thousands of people to break in and effectively destroy the normal calm of the festival. Inside the fences was no better. One girl who made her way to the front of the stage early enough to see the concert was one of many victims of the crowd as she got hit in the head not once, but twice by beer cans. There were fights in all corners of the park, there were people simply out to riot and destroy anything they could.
Now, my scolding part….I don’t understand the point of this and how stupid these people where to try and pull this off. They are wrecking a great festival that has been around for 22 years and if for some reason this starts a trend, then we’ll simply not get acts back who bring this type of behaviour. Like I said, I do listen to and enjoy hip-hop music so it saddens me to agree that this type of music is certainly the cause for this ridiculousness. As a co-owner of another security company who works festivals in Ottawa said on social media, that this never happens in an EDM environment, such as the Escapade festival, it’s only hip-hop where you’ll find this behaviour. As much as that’s a generalization, I do mostly agree. Violence can break out anywhere but in my eleven years attending Bluesfest, I’ve never seen this in a genre other than hip-hop. Yes, people get drunk, and have other incidents, but nothing even close to this scale. It’s sad and pathetic and once again, a great thing is being ruined by a group of ignorant individuals. The owner of Toersa security referred to these mobs of youth as “animals” and I’m sure all the politically correct people cringed a little bit at the use of the word, but he’s absolutely correct because that type of behaviour can only be done by animals, and no civilized group of individuals would even consider trashing something so great as Bluesfest.
There is one other news story, that made me laugh on Thursday night. There were reports of people (or perhaps only one individual) living in the city complaining because many of the patrons leaving the festival used their front lawn as a toilet. The complaint was specifically that Bluesfest doesn’t have enough toilets. This makes me laugh in the same way that I laughed when we heard all the ridiculous complaints out of the Glebe (Glebe-ites) when they were re-designing Lansdowne Park. So for the record, Bluesfest has two massive sets of porta-potties in the main bowl alone, with many other sets through the park. They have dozens of bathrooms to be used which are located right beside the exits. The closest houses to the festival are probably a ten-minute walk when someone finds themselves in a large crowd, such as when leaving a festival. All these people in the crowd were just coming from a destructive frenzy where they don’t consider anyone’s health or well-being let alone other people’s property. In no way is Bluesfest at fault for the urination on to someone’s lawn who is located more than a ten-minute walk from the festival. People just like to complain and pass blame I guess.
Overall, I just wanted to pass along my kudos to the security team, and the volunteer team in a job well done. With any festival of this size, there will be occasional issues that come up that are out of their control (you may remember the stage collapse several years ago) and you have to cope with it as best as you can. I think the festival did everything they possibly could to react to this insanity and although I’m sure there were many lessons learned, it was a job well done, and hopefully it won’t cause anyone to think twice about continuing to attend in a normally friendly atmosphere.