On a cold Thursday night last December thousands of punters flocked to Brixton Academy in south London to see a show, as countless music fans have done over its 50 years as a nightclub and concert venue. The occasion was the third in a series of sold out gigs by rising Nigerian afrobeat star Asake. But tragedy struck. A crowd surge outside the Academy led to a terrifying crush. Rebecca Ikumelo, a 33-year-old mother of two, and Gaby Hutchinson, a 23-year-old security dog handler, died.
Petrified attendees spoke of chaos and confusion. “I was literally being crushed. A life or death moment. I just remember being so scared. You can’t move left, right [or to the] side. Everybody was dropping like flies,” one fan told the BBC. “It was traumatic; fear kicked in,” another concert-goer told the Telegraph last month.
Following the incident, local authority Lambeth Council suspended Brixton Academy’s licence for a month. Last Monday Lambeth extended that suspension until April 16. While ticketless fans were initially blamed for causing the surge, a more complicated picture has emerged. Last week an episode of the BBC’s File on 4 radio programme, Catastrophe at the Academy, contained allegations of bribery by a security whistleblower. This person, who was on duty that night, alleged that some security staff were making up to £1,000 by letting people into the venue.
What happened in Brixton is a tragic mess. So what needs to change to stop such incidents from happening again? And what impact might this have on concert-goers?
Numerous investigations are underway to establish the crush’s cause. The Metropolitan Police has launched Operation Wickmar and has set up an online portal for the estimated 4,000 witnesses to upload images and videos. The force has also referred itself to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) after footage emerged of an officer apparently shoving a reveller down some stairs in the chaos.
Lambeth Council has pledged to ensure that “December’s shocking scenes” are never repeated and is demanding changes to how the Academy operates. The venue’s owner Academy Music Group (AMG) – which runs around 20 UK venues and is ultimately controlled by Live Nation, the world’s largest concert promoter – says it’s co-operating with the inquiries and is “committed to understanding” what happened. Meanwhile the Security Industry Authority (SIA), the Home Office-sponsored industry regulator, has just launched its own investigation into the BBC’s corruption allegations.
Various other facts and theories emerged from the BBC documentary. There probably weren’t enough security staff in Brixton that freezing night. A pre-show risk assessment for afrobeats concerts, seen by the BBC, deemed that 200-plus security staff were required. But just 157 were on duty. It also seems that, contrary to those initial reports, many people outside during the surge had valid paper or electronic tickets. But they weren’t let in as the venue was already full, possibly due to an earlier wave of ticketless fans allegedly being allowed in. (AP Security, which provided many of the security officers, did not respond to requests for comment.)
It’s also likely that the crowd’s growth became scarily self-perpetuating: its size meant that, prior to the stampede, overwhelmed security officers were unable to properly scan valid tickets as people entered – allowing punters to text unscanned e-tickets to friends outside, thereby swelling numbers further. One fan also claimed to the Telegraph that their ticket was mysteriously cancelled days before the show, suggesting that ticket companies may have over-sold the concert.
One security expert who has worked at hundreds of large sport and music events, but wasn’t at the Academy that night, says that bribery attempts by ticketless fans are shockingly common. The probity of security staff is constantly tested. “I have been offered money at every single venue I’ve ever worked at and I’ve never taken it,” he says. “I was running the backstage access for a big rock band a few years ago and eight people offered me £200 each to let them in. I thought, well no, my job is worth far more than £1,600.”
So what happens now? Lambeth is requiring that AMG submits – and the council accepts – a so-called “variation application” to its premises licence for Brixton Academy. It’s technical, but it means that AMG must suggest acceptable changes to the way it does things there. Neither party will comment. But premises licences are granted based on four criteria: the public’s safety, the prevention of crime and disorder, the prevention of public nuisance (for example no rowdy beer gardens) and the protection of children from harm (no underage drinking). My security expert speculates that it’s the first two criteria – public safety and the prevention of crime and disorder – that Lambeth will want addressed. Practical changes that might follow could include: more security staff at concerts, reduced capacity inside (it’s currently 4,921) and the erection of fixed barriers outside the building. It’s speculation. But it would make sense.
There would be consequences to these hypothetical changes. More staff and fewer punters would dent profits at AMG. Its most recent accounts for the 2021 calendar year show that 1,587 live shows across its venues yielded operating profits of £3.6 million. Crudely, this equates to average profits of just £2,306 per concert. Yes, the year was disrupted by Covid. But erode those thin profit margins much more and you’d have to question the viability of putting on gigs. One answer would be higher ticket prices, which no-one wants in a cost of living crisis. But who can put a price on safety?
Problems are compounded by general staff shortages in the security world. Shortly before the Brixton crush, trade body the British Security Industry Association (BSIA) estimated that 62,000 extra security officers are needed in the UK to ensure public safety and to meet soaring demand. Meanwhile an estimated 20,000 security personnel are leaving the profession due to retirement and other factors. It is an “absolute nightmare” finding staff, says a security insider.
In truth, security costs are likely to rise anyway. The government is looking at ways to make events safer in the wake of the 2017 Manchester Arena terror attack when 23 people died following an Ariana Grande concert. The so-called Protect Duty initiative will create a legal requirement for organisations to provide proportionate security measures. “Businesses such as event producers know they need to spend more on professional security officers trained in terror-threat awareness and emergency first aid in order to protect people better,” said Mike Reddington, the BSIA’s chief executive, last November. Better protection is clearly a good thing. But, again, venues’ increased security costs will only lead to one thing: higher ticket prices.
There are knock-on effects from Brixton’s closure. They pale in comparison with December’s events but they’re causing headaches nonetheless. Forty-four scheduled concerts by acts including Suede, Fatboy Slim and Pendulum are having to find new homes. Due to the paucity of mid-sized venues in London, booking bottlenecks are occurring at alternative concert halls. “There’s a logjam and artists are having to take smaller capacity venues to make sure the show goes ahead,” says one affected act’s representative.
The scars of Covid are partly to blame. Oliver Gardiner, who sits on the strategy board of the UK Crowd Management Association, says that the pandemic has reduced young people’s understanding of crowds as they spent so long not being in one. They are less prone, for example, to spot danger signs.
Sadly, there have been other recent examples of crowd crushes to bear this out. Ten revellers died at Houston’s Astroworld festival in November 2021, 158 people were killed during Halloween celebrations in Seoul last year, and at least nine people perished in a crowd in Uganda at last month’s new year celebrations. “It’s a global issue,” says Gardiner. One UK-specific wrinkle is that the SIA-mandated training programme for a door supervisor licence doesn’t contain a specific module on crowd management. It’s needed.
Lessons must be learnt from the horrific events at Brixton. “We are an industry that is part of an event’s safety net. Unfortunately, sometimes that net is tested and sometimes it breaks due to a multitude of reasons. What we always try to do is learn from those incidents,” says Gardiner. “We want to make sure that everyone goes home safe.”