Music Festivals in the Time of Extreme Weather

Festival organizers, meteorologists, and more sound off on the strange challenges and increasing risks of presenting outdoor live music
An illustration of a rainstorm with instruments inside of it
Image by Marina Kozak

As a lifelong U2 fan, Beth Nabi had always wanted to see a concert at Red Rocks, the outdoor venue made famous by the 1983 concert film Under a Blood Red Sky. So when Louis Tomlinson played the Colorado amphitheater in June, the One Direction die-hard jumped at the chance. The skies over Red Rocks were iffy that night; venue staff issued weather alerts and paused the show several times, leaving concertgoers to seek shelter under awnings, huddle under raincoats in their seats, or wait it out in their cars. Finally, it looked like the show would go forward, so Nabi made a quick bathroom stop in anticipation of Tomlinson taking the stage. But when she emerged from the stall, she found the women’s restroom “crammed” with people packed shoulder to shoulder, and more streaming in.

“It was mind-boggling,” the 44-year-old college professor says over Zoom from her home in Jacksonville, Florida. She wondered, “Do I need to panic?” Then she glimpsed the sky outside and realized what was happening: Hail the size of golf balls—one person reported seeing stones the size of apples—was pummeling down, pelting concertgoers, and sending thousands scurrying for cover wherever they could find it.

When the storm finally passed, Nabi gingerly made her way outside. “It was so white, the ground looked like snow,” she says. “But it was incredibly slick—essentially, icy ball bearings.” She clambered onstage for a moment to let the crowds thin, before heading to the parking lot. “I was seeking shelter, but I was also like: Bono! Red Rocks! It was a little demented, but my brain was in a million different directions at the moment.”

Nabi was lucky. Although she sustained $17,500 in damage on a rented SUV (“There were expletives when I pulled up” to the rental office, she says), her insurance will likely pay the bill. But among those who were without a roof over their heads when the skies opened up, nearly 100 injuries—bruises, cuts, even broken bones—were reported, including seven hospitalizations.

The Red Rocks debacle was a particularly dramatic example of how extreme weather is wreaking havoc on outdoor events. This summer alone, Primavera Sound Madrid, Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, German metal festival Wacken Open Air, Scottish folk festival Tiree, Michigan rave Electric Forest, and our own Pitchfork Music Festival were either paused, preempted, or aborted due to inclement weather. Unexpected rains turned Burning Man’s Mad Max desert cosplay into a mud-caked hellscape that forced the cancellation of events and the closure of roads (even Diplo and Chris Rock had to hitch a ride home). In Australia, heavy rains stoked by La Niña, a periodic weather phenomenon that climatologists say is exacerbated by ocean warming, recently forced the cancellation of more than a dozen music festivals. British Columbia’s Under the Stars was halted and evacuated last month after wildfires flared up nearby. Meanwhile, South Korea’s World Scout Jamboree suffered a heat wave that sickened hundreds, followed by a typhoon that forced its evacuation.

Scientists agree that global warming is triggering increasingly unstable and unpredictable weather around the globe. And that has left festival organizers scrambling to grapple with their new normal. Such events can be deadly: Last summer, high winds killed one and injured 40 when a stage and other structures came down at the Medusa festival in Valencia, Spain. But even small incidents can put a festival’s entire future at risk. After Australia’s Splendour in the Grass festival flooded its campground locale last year, some local government officials called for organizers to find a new location.

We Out Here, a fledgling festival in the UK countryside, had a close call in 2019, its very first year. While stages were going up in advance of opening day, high winds forced the closure of multiple events in the region. “That was scary,” says We Out Here’s Joe Barnett. “We had fences going over, structures being blown. Had we been a week earlier, our inaugural year of the festival would have been canceled, and I’m not entirely sure that you survive that.”

Uganda’s Nyege Nyege Festival changed its dates from September to November, to be closer to the beginning of the dry season, and is shifting to an outdoor space within Jinja, a town on the shore of Lake Victoria, at the source of the Nile. “Global warming is dramatically affecting different parts of the world in different ways,” says Arlen Dilsizian, co-founder of Nyege Nyege. In the 12 years he’s lived in the country, the Greek-Armenian musicologist has seen Uganda’s wet and dry seasons become increasingly erratic. Last year, a month of rain leading up to the festival turned access roads into mud pits, exacerbating the already difficult logistics of the site’s remote forest location. “If it rains, we’re much better prepared now, and everyone can rush off to their hotel,” adds Dilsizian.

Nyege Nyege Festival also employs various “rainmakers”—that is, shamans who, contrary to their name, specialize in keeping the clouds at bay. They are traditional fixtures at Ugandan events, ranging from weddings to political rallies. “I can’t vouch for the science behind it,” Dilsizian acknowledges. “But in 2019, it rained straight for three days on the opposite side of the Nile, and on our side, just 200 meters away, we stayed dry.”

For many festivals, of course, neither rainmakers nor changing locations are feasible options. Coachella’s identity is synonymous with the grounds of the Empire Polo Club; Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas would be unthinkable anywhere but the Nevada desert. Germany’s Wacken Open Air, one of the biggest heavy-metal festivals in the world, takes its name from a rural municipality in the far northwest of the country. (“It’s not raining until the herrings are swimming past at eye level,” goes a saying in this notoriously wet region.) This year, after heavy rains battered the site while attendees set up camp, the festival cut off further entry at just two-thirds capacity. Cars and RVs stuck in the mud led to hours-long traffic jams; local farmers were enlisted to haul vehicles out of the muck with their tractors. If the festival continued to let people in, organizers reasoned, the logjam would last until the end of the week.

“The area is farmland,” says W.O.A. founder Thomas Jensen. “We learned how fast the ground structure is changing. Even our farmers learned a lot this year. We had over 100 tractors pulling.” Still, he believes that temporary setbacks come with the territory of running an outdoor festival. “Going back to Woodstock, this is what it’s all about. They had heavy, heavy weather.” Even Jimi Hendrix’s final gig, in Fehmarn, Germany, was plagued with rain; for Jensen, the mud is simply part of the mythology.

“I jokingly tell people that I’ve become a meteorologist,” says Mikołaj Ziółkowski, founder of Poland’s Open’er festival, held every summer at a windswept spot barely a mile from the shore of the Baltic Sea. Over the course of a four-day program, with six days of camping, it’s rare that it doesn’t rain at least once during Open’er. “But storms are the most difficult, and in the last two or three decades, they’ve become more extreme,” Ziółkowski says. Last year, on the third day of the festival, the main stage registered wind speeds of 63 miles per hour, forcing Ziółkowski to make the difficult decision to evacuate all 60,000 people on site. “It was literally the biggest evacuation in Poland in three decades,” he notes. But staffers successfully got everyone off site and away from vulnerable structures, and after three hours—including extensive rig checks—they were able to start up again, save for Dua Lipa’s headlining set.

Fortunately, the team was prepared: The day before the festival each year, they run a full trial evacuation of the site, a process he believes should be standard. “If you’re a responsible promoter, safety is the most important thing,” Ziółkowski stresses. Just as importantly, he stresses, it can’t be an economic decision. “We pay for insurance to help us make the right decisions.”

Even so, losses incurred during a temporary shutdown like Open’er’s—i.e., revenue from the bar, merch sales, and artist fees to acts who never perform—are increasingly mitigated from most insurance policies, says Paul Bassman, a Dallas insurance broker who works with festivals like Riot Fest, Life Is Beautiful, and Pitchfork Music Festival. (“I had a lot more before Live Nation and AEG started buying them all up,” he laughs.) Though a typical cancellation policy will cover many weather-related events, most policies today carry a deductible of five or even 10 percent of the entire festival budget. Bassman says, “If the festival was shut down for three hours and a couple of artists don’t get to play, and you lose concession revenue, making claims on that is just not practical anymore, because that loss is typically within the deductible.”

Bassman confirms that weather-related claims are broadly on the rise. “Over the past 10 years, it’s night and day,” he says. In the past, insurance companies offered prices based on industry standards and “gut feel.” Increasingly they’re relying on data analytics to determine the probability of severe weather hitting at a certain time in a certain location, which has caused rates to skyrocket even in places that wouldn’t seem to be at risk. “​​I had a festival in New England that happened to be coastal, and they determined that to be a hurricane risk. A hurricane hasn’t hit there in 20 years, but they saw that the probability of a hurricane hitting landfall at that time warranted a 3.5 percent rate,” says Bassman. In the Carolinas, that could go as high as five percent. And that percentage, he stresses, comes right out of a festival’s bottom line, cutting a significant chunk out of its profits before the gates even open.

Bassman wasn’t always in the insurance business. He used to manage metal bands like Drowning Pool and Dimebag Darrell’s Damageplan. He was working with the latter when the former Pantera guitarist was shot and killed onstage. “That was it for me,” he recalls. “I was done with that shit. And I fell into insurance. I never in a million years have dreamed I’d do it. But oddly enough, I’m really good at it.” Perhaps that’s because Bassman’s experience behind the scenes has given him an intuitive understanding of his clients’ needs. The one thing he stresses: Festival organizers should hire a professional, third-party weather-monitoring service.

Brad Nelson is a professional meteorologist and amateur storm chaser who works for an operational intelligence company called DTN. Among their offerings is a package they call WeatherOps Live Event Services, wherein Nelson’s team monitors adverse weather conditions like lightning or wind, assesses the safety of stage rigging and other structures, and advises when it’s time to take emergency measures like evacuation. DTN’s customers—festival organizers but also major sporting events like the PGA Tour—are equipped with online dashboards and 24/7 support. A really big contract might entail having a meteorologist embedded within the festival staff itself.

Such weather risk communicators, as they’re known, assist in minimizing shutdown times. “We specialize in shortening that window, with a reasonable safety risk,” Nelson says. When monitoring the movements of a nasty-looking lightning storm, weather risk communicators can assess when it’s too dangerous for the show to continue, or if the oncoming storm isn’t actually a cause for concern. Nelson adds, with evident pride, that his company has saved many events from prematurely shutting down by monitoring the path of a storm and guessing—thanks to reams of proprietary forecast data—that it isn’t a direct threat.

With social media, there’s more public-facing accountability when adverse weather hits and organizers are unprepared (see: Fyre Festival). “You’re not going to be able to handle every weather situation perfectly,” Nelson acknowledges. “But having the best plan in place and proving that you did your due diligence—that’s becoming even more important. We do have changing climate conditions, and not all people might acknowledge that. But it’s certainly becoming more extreme in certain areas of the globe, and that’s affecting how people should mitigate risks around large-scale events.”

More needs to be done to address those risks, agree organizers and experts. Nelson suggests more general communication around emergency action plans to both attendees and staff. Joe Barnett, of We Out Here, sees the burden of responsibility as two-fold for event organizers: First, they must adjust to the new reality of extreme weather through increased infrastructure. (“One of the reasons I’m excited about working on a new festival site in Dorset is that we have some really good ground in terms of drainage, and we have a landlord who’s open to us investing in road networks on the site,” he adds.) And secondly, they should use their platform to educate. “I don’t think festivals just have a responsibility to reduce their negative impact,” Barnett says. “They have an active responsibility to discuss the impact of climate change and to encourage their customers to be conscious of it.”

Open’er’s Ziółkowski agrees, citing Billie Eilish’s solar-powered stage at Lollapalooza as an example of positive messaging. “You and I believe in climate change, but so many people are saying everything is fine,” he says. “We’ve got the perfect tool to talk to new generations.” At the same time, Ziółkowski adds, part of the nature of festivals is, well, being close to nature. “As humans, we have to be outside. Sometimes we will get wet.”

If all else fails, there are always rainmakers.