Astroworld: Ex-Workers Surprised It Took Promoter This Long to 'F-k Up This Badly'11/13/2021
It was the final night of the 2018 Neon Desert festival in El Paso, Texas, when David Tran claims his boss punched him in the face. Tran — who was then an assistant to Sascha Stone Guttfreund, president and co-founder of festival producer ScoreMore — tells Rolling Stone he had pocketed some leftover cash at the box office after he says another worker told him it was OK. Tran says Guttfreund accused him of stealing and, one way or the other, he ended up jobless. But first, according to Tran, Guttfreund punched him. “I fell back because I was just kind of shocked that this even happened,” he says.
Another former employee who spoke to Rolling Stone on the condition of anonymity was at the festival and claims Guttfreund walked into the afterparty “amped up” after the alleged incident with Tran (which this employee did not witness). This former employee recalls Guttfreund saying something like, “I just hit David.’” “We were all sitting there like, ‘Holy shit man, I wouldn’t be bragging about it,’ because this was right after he had executed the deal with Live Nation.” The concert giant had acquired a majority stake in ScoreMore that same month.
Over the last week, ScoreMore has found itself under intense scrutiny after a massive crowd surge killed nine concert-goers at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival at Houston’s NRG Park, which the promoter helped organize along with Live Nation. In the wake of one of the deadliest concert disasters in history, the public wants answers, and they’re looking at ScoreMore — along with Live Nation and Scott — for clarity. The Austin-based promotion company’s 50-plus-page security plan for the event, first reported by CNN, has become the subject of intense debate. (Why didn’t they account for crowd surges when there’d been crowd control issues at previous Astroworld fests?) And ScoreMore and Guttfreund have been named among other defendants in several lawsuits filed by festival attendees and victims’ families.
Meanwhile, Tran, the other former employee, and a contractor — all of whom worked for ScoreMore during its first decade of operation — spoke to Rolling Stone about the young company’s practices during their time there. Painting a picture of a company with a history of alleged disorganization, cost-cutting, and unprofessionalism, they say they’re not surprised it’s wound up involved in a tragedy like this. “There’s a company here with a history,” says one of the former workers, who reached out to Rolling Stone with their concerns. “It felt like some things needed to be shared.”
Rolling Stone reached out to ScoreMore and Guttfreund for comment with a list of allegations by the former workers we spoke with and received a statement from Live Nation on behalf of ScoreMore repeating part of a statement the company posted on its social media platforms and reflecting a focus on the ongoing Astroworld investigation: “We have been working to provide local authorities with everything they need from us in order to complete their investigation and get everyone the answers they are looking for.”
Guttfreund founded ScoreMore with Claire Bogle in 2009 when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas at Austin, and soon built a reputation for bringing big-name rap acts to Texas and organizing several yearly festivals. (The nature of Bogle’s relationship to the company today is unclear. She has not been named in any of the lawsuits relating to the Astroworld tragedy.) Rolling Stone interviewed the founders for a 2015 feature on young industry innovators where they talked about filling a void in the festival market in Texas. “For us, it’s about discovering opportunity,” Guttfreund told RS. “More cities deserve art and the experience of live music.” When Live Nation acquired a majority stake in 2018, ScoreMore had a full-time staff of just 17 but had become the largest independent promoter in Texas less than a decade after its inception. One report described it as the youngest company ever bought by the events giant. “LiveNation empowers us to be so much better and to learn so much more,” Guttfruend told Texas Monthly at the time.
“If Fake It ‘Til You Make It Was a Promoter”
Being a young scrappy company can have its downsides, however. The three former ScoreMore workers describe an open and fluid atmosphere during their time there that they say sometimes seemed disorganized to an unprofessional degree. According to the anonymous former employee, for example, there was no human resources department and no regular work hours at the time. It is unclear whether the company has a dedicated HR team now that LiveNation is in the picture.
That ethos also apparently extended to event planning, the former contract worker claims. They remember a haphazard and rushed preparation process during their time working for the company, which fits with the two former employees’ descriptions of their experiences. “If I could describe ScoreMore in simple terms, it’s like if ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ were a promoter,” the former contract worker says. Having worked for Austin City Limits — organized by C3 Presents, which also puts on events like Lollapalooza and is also owned by Live Nation — the former contract worker says ScoreMore events were comparatively less organized. Of their time working for the company, they described it as feeling “just barebones” and without infrastructure. “Everything [was] super last-minute planned and if they [didn’t] have something, it [was] like, ‘All right, well, I guess we’ll just do without it.’”
“Just a Huge Clusterfuck Backstage”
Like any successful business, ScoreMore is led by people who value the bottom line. But one of the former employees now looks back with alarm at alleged cost-cutting choices in the past — such as an alleged aim to keep police and security costs low and multiple occasions when, the former employee claims, the company opted for six-foot-high perimeter fencing rather than eight-foot fences. (The planning document outlined intentions to use eight-foot-high fencing at the 2021 Astroworld festival. And the New York Times reports that they supplemented that with scrim, bike racks, snow fencing, and concrete bollards for maintaining crowd control. Officials reportedly told the Times that these measures were stronger and more robust than at the 2019 festival.)
Although security has been beefed up over the years, crowd control issues are not new when it comes to Astroworld. The anonymous former employee recalls fans storming through fences to enter Scott’s first iteration of the festival in 2018. “We had kids crashing through gates, knocking down fences,” the employee says. “There [was] just not enough due diligence, not enough preparation. It’s surprising to me that it took this long for people to get seriously hurt like this.” In 2019, the crowd repeated its gate-crashing routine and three people were injured. While barriers at this year’s Astroworld were stronger than they had been in 2019, footage from this year’s ill-fated event still showed fans bursting through a VIP entrance and bypassing security.
Alleging a similar incident at Neon Desert festival in 2017, Tran says he and other fest workers felt an expectation that fest workers would do whatever was needed to keep things running. He says he and other festival workers physically held up a fence between the VIP section and general admission as the Neon Desert crowd pressed against it to get closer to the stage. “That’s not a safe thing to do,” he says. “And then the show kept going on like nothing ever happened.”
All three sources that Rolling Stone spoke with point to an incident at JMBLYA 2017, when they say the event ran out of water. The second day of the multi-city May festival was held at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas race track, which the former workers describe as similar to a parking lot. People were passing out, Tran says. “[It’s the] heat of Texas on a black concrete floor.”
“I remember it being just a huge clusterfuck backstage, just trying to get water on site,” says the contract worker. “And when they finally did get water, I remember watching people jump barricades.” In the worker’s version of events, they watched one audience member jump the barrier into the photo pit, don a safety vest, scamper backstage, retrieve water, and bring it to the crowd multiple times. The anonymous former employee says the fest crew managed to refresh the water supply within an hour or two but recalls things got “pretty hairy” in the meantime. “We didn’t have a backup plan,” the employee says. “We were having to run all over town” to get more water.
“I’m Surprised It Took Them This Long to Fuck Up This Badly”
On Monday, ScoreMore issued a statement on its social media platforms saying its team was “mourning alongside the community” in Houston following the horrific news from Astroworld. They were taking steps to support attendees and victims’ families, the statement said, as well as offering refunds and doing everything they could to help authorities investigate.
With the Astroworld death count rising and more lawsuits filed each day, the former ScoreMore workers say they are, sadly, not all that surprised that an event run by their old employer has ended in tragedy, pointing to the red flags they shared with Rolling Stone.
The former contract worker says: “Rest in peace to all of the victims, but I’m genuinely not surprised this happened. What I’m surprised about, and this may sound mean, is that it literally took [ScoreMore] this long to fuck up this badly.”
Meanwhile, former employees hope this disaster will be a wake-up call to the entire live music world to transform the way it approaches events. “I think the festival industry will take a look at what happened in Houston,” says one. “And I think you’re going to see a lot of changes made.”
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