The night started like any other, except for the St. Patrick’s Parade in Ybor City had raised the cost of parking about 400 percent, which was painful to pay, but hey, it was Bad Religion. Well worth it.
Local openers Dead Cat Lounge were a good fit on the bill and received an appreciative response from the crowd, then surprised everyone when they brought a couple onto the stage who were alleged winners of a fan contest; but instead of a free tee-shirt, the gal received a wedding proposal. Everyone cheered and it was a nice moment in what would eventually become a taxing evening.
Touring support was provided by Polar Bear Club, an energetic and tightly knit post-hardcore outfit hailing from Syracuse, N.Y. They reminded me that the best part of the 1990’s was that it became okay to look like you came direct from an IT department meeting to come on stage and play some rock n’ roll.
Against Me! was originally scheduled to perform but dropped off due to drummer issues. They weren’t the only ones to experience drummer complications, however. To everyone’s surprise, Bad Religion beat-keeper Brooks Wackerman was missing and in his place was Polar Bear Club’s Steve Port. Greg Graffin from Bad Religion announced Brooks had experienced a loss in his family and was called away unexpectedly, so for the time being, Port would be filling in.
My heartfelt condolences go out to Brooks, but all that aside, I imagine this was probably the greatest opportunity in Port’s life, not to mention an honor. His transition into Bad Religion, albeit temporary and sudden, was seamless and he quite literally “never missed a beat.”
To a guy like me, Bad Religion can do no wrong. I own every one of their 16 studio LPs and I’ve been consuming and absorbing their music on an immediate and consistent basis for the past 20 years. I love every single song, every lyric, and every harmonic “oohzin’ ahh.” And from “How Can Hell Be Any Worse” (1982) to the title track off this year’s release, “True North,” the set was representative of old, new and everything in-between – from what I experienced, that is. Among the highlights of the first half of the set were back-to-back performances of “I Want to Conquer the World” and “21st Century Digital Boy,” and that’s about all I can say about it – at least from the standpoint of a conventional concertgoer.
I didn’t intend on leaving halfway through my favorite band’s set, but I did want to avoid the end-of-the-night rush to the merch table, so I headed out of the main ballroom after they finished “21st Century Digital Boy” and discovered my instincts served me well; aside from the man working the merch table in the side room of The Ritz, there was no one else there except me. In all, it took no more than a few minutes – I bought a sweatshirt for my wife and t-shirt for myself – before I was heading back towards the ballroom and Bad Religion … except that I was stopped in the hallway just outside by a single security guard, who barred the entranceway and told me I couldn’t go back in.
“Why?” I asked.
“We’re over-capacity. The fire marshal is here.”
At this point, it was just me and the security guard, and as far as I could tell, I was the first person stopped from re-entering.
“For how long?” I inquired.
“Until my boss tells me I can let people back in.”
So I waited. At this point, I should point out that the restrooms are located outside of the ballroom along with the merch table. People use restrooms during concerts, right? Right. In fact, a huge number of people trickled out to use the restroom and they, too, were barred re-entry. I witnessed every single one of them get turned away by security, and none were warned as they initially exited that they would not be allowed back in. As the number of people trying to get back in grew, they were blocked by security guards who seemed to have multiplied exponentially in relation to the amount of resistance the fans were giving them. The Ritz hallway transformed into quite the glut of upset fans:
“I just went to the restroom! You’re telling me that I can’t get back in there?!”
“I paid $40 to be here! I bought a ticket!”
“My wife is in there!”
“My 10-year-old son is in there!”
“My handicapped husband is in there and he needs my help! I only stepped out for a minute; he doesn’t know I can’t get back in!”
Deaf ears… that’s what these cries of outrage fell upon.
Meanwhile, Bad Religion launched into “No Control,” and the irony wasn’t lost on me that we had no control over our current situation. “Come Join Us” followed soon thereafter, like an invitation we were all-too-willing but completely unable to accept.
As the disenfranchised fans became increasingly more frustrated and aggressive, the security guards responded in kind. The difference was that all the guards were a great deal taller and more built than most of the fans I saw. One looked like he might escalate the situation, so I took out my phone and began filming him. Some others followed suit and the guards took notice, effectively chilling out… for a while. Some of them, obviously frustrated by the situation, attempted to exert control where there was no foothold to be gained. One commanded us to back up and when we refused, focused on me, yelling angrily, “You’re looking me right in the eyes and not doing what I say!”
I said nothing; I moved not an inch. Henry Rollins says the most powerful word in the English language is “No.” Sometimes, silence and stillness can be just as powerful.
How well a band performs is only part of a great concert-going experience. The rest of the responsibility falls on the venue, which is supposed to provide a quality and safe environment for their customers. I say ‘customers’ because that’s what we are. We are not dumb [insert genre here] fans willing to be bilked out of dollars for services untendered; we are customers that paid money (that we could have spent somewhere else) expecting to receive a positive experience in exchange.
Why did this happen? Because too many tickets were sold. Who is to blame? The Ritz? AEG Live, the promoter? The fire marshal? Bad Religion?
No, not BR. Their responsibility is to put on a great show, and that they did. And no, not the fire marshal. Their responsibility is to enforce safety and ordinances that are already in effect before ticket No. 1 is ever sold. So, the blame falls somewhere between The Ritz and AEG Live, and the inherent greed that caused one or both of these entities to knowingly risk the customers’ satisfaction. Simply put, they shirked their responsibility to provide a service that they accepted cash-money to provide, and the fans are the ones who were left to shoulder the burden when they failed.
So, there I stood with the guards in front of me and the angry crowd behind me, mulling the situation over in my head. At first, I thought I’d stand by peacefully in the hopes that they were counting the number of people leaving and would allow some people back in at some point. However, there was no count. If they didn’t properly count the number of people they let into the show, they kept no count whatsoever as people left. In essence, from the get-go they had no intention of allowing any of these people back into the ballroom, and they were uncompromising towards anyone asking for a refund or any other kind of consideration. To add insult to injury, Bad Religion’s Facebook page is currently teeming with personal accounts from people who were not only denied considerations, but were laughed at by The Ritz staff.
My pacifism receded as my realization that we had been cheated grew. Furthermore, I remembered that of the three times I’ve seen Bad Religion, not one of those times did I get to watch the entire show. The first time, I was 15 and at the mercy of my ride. The second was at a Warped Tour so brutally hot that my girlfriend (now wife) got sunstroke. And now I was at my third miss, cheated out of an experience by someone who either didn’t have enough foresight to not over-sell the show or was so blinded by greed that they didn’t care.
The fury swelled, fueled by the soundtrack of my angry youth, and I responded to the call. Still positioned at the face of the angry crowd and in the face of the brutish guards, I centered myself before the largest of them and turned to address the crowd. I removed my hat and raised my hands, and did my best to speak in a kingly fashion.
“You belong in that room! You paid money to be in that room! You have a right to be in that room! We are going into that room! On three!”
I turned back to face the guards. One fellow fan touched my elbow and said, “I’m with you.” Another few gave me looks that said the same. My hand remained in the air to service the count.
The guards solidified their rank, moving shoulder to shoulder to close any gaps.
I decided I wouldn’t strike any of the guards, only try to slip past them. I didn’t want to encourage an arrest for the night.
Some of us charged. I wish I could say that everyone did – that my brief speech rallied and inspired the mob to work in symphony with each other to achieve a common goal. I’m glad I can say that I wasn’t the only one in the charge; even strangers in a crowd can keep their word, illogical as that word may be.
I didn’t make it far. I hit the biggest guard with my shoulder and then three of the guards grabbed me – one around the torso, another on one of my ankles, and I shook the third one off. Then I was in the air and being carried down the hallway. I managed to get my restrained foot back on the ground and pushed myself to the wall, where I freed one of my arms and braced myself against a jut (a support beam?) and halted my forced progress down the hall.
“Let him go! Put him down!” I heard behind and around me. Yup, those were my people. At that moment, I loved them.
I’m proud to say I didn’t swear, I didn’t swing, and I didn’t call the guards any of the names I wanted to call them. All I said was, “NO.”
“We’re carrying you out,” one of them said.
“Yes! We are!” he retorted.
This time, looking at him straight in the face: “NO.”
And he let me go. And then TPD approached.
“This guy is inciting a riot,” the guard said.
Funny, I didn’t think of it like that, but strictly speaking, I suppose he was right. Though my intention was only to get back into the main ballroom and not cause harm to anyone, I wasn’t going to stand around and have a conversation about it so I walked off quickly, hit the sidewalk outside and bolted. I overheard someone take a couple of lumbering steps behind me before falling off and calling out, “Slow down!”
I turned the corner at the end of the block and I went for a walk… and not the after dinner kind.
And that was where this piece was going to end. I wrote it the day after the Bad Religion show and the day before the Ritz issued an official statement addressing the situation titled “Bad Religion Concert: Formal Response & Public Apology.” While the letter opened with an apology (“The RITZ Ybor deeply regrets any inconvenience that was caused at the Bad Religion concert on Saturday, March 16, 2013”), the letter went on to outline what occurred and implicated the Fire Marshal as the perpetrator
“Due to circumstances beyond our control, the Fire Marshal expressed a capacity concern that evening,” read the letter. “This concern prevented The RITZ Ybor from allowing anyone inside the venue as well as allowing any patron into the Theater Ballroom until all measures were reviewed. During that time period, our staff shared our door clicker counts, wristband counts, number of collected tickets and our operation procedures with the Fire Marshal before our venue could receive clearance to let patrons back inside the Theater Ballroom and even inside the venue.”
It went on, “When our procedures checked out and the Fire Marshal finally granted clearance for patrons to enter the venue and re-enter the Theater Ballroom, it was unfortunately near the end of Bad Religion’s set leading many concertgoers to rightfully become upset. The RITZ Ybor was not in any type of capacity violation. The show was not oversold. The venue completely followed all rules and regulations. The RITZ Ybor was in complete compliance, and handled the sudden situation as best as we could. Last Saturday’s Bad Religion concert at The RITZ Ybor was not sold out and not at capacity when the Fire Marshal stopped by.”
There were assurances of a meeting with the Fire Marshal to resolve take preventative measures on future issues and deal safety concerns., etc. The letter ends with another apology: “On behalf of The RITZ Ybor owners, corporate company, management and staff, we are deeply sorry for the inconvenience experienced last Saturday night at our venue. We sincerely appreciate your support as patrons, and thank you for taking the time to read this.”
So they weren’t over capacity and it was the Fire Marshal’s fault? Boy, did I ever feel like a jerk, my ranting baseless. Or was it? I’m no dummy. I know how to question the answers. I was raised on Bad Religion, wasn’t I? Heck, the only reason I graduated from college is because I read an interview in Thrasher Magazine the year No Control came out and learned that Greg Graffin taught undergrads at UCLA in his spare time. I thought to myself, “Well, if these guys aren’t too cool for school, then neither am I.”
So I reached out to the Fire Marshal’s office and spoke with the inspector that investigated The Ritz that night. I asked him why the room was shut down. “The Ritz was over capacity,” he responded. So, the “capacity concern” he expressed was more than a concern, which directly contradicts the Ritz’s claims of being in “complete compliance,” “not in any type of capacity violation,” and “not oversold.”
Simply put, The Ritz is manipulating numbers and offering half-truths. The Fire Marshal Inspector explained that each room has a capacity limit; the large ballroom at The Ritz holds approximately 1,100 people, and each of the side rooms adjoining the main hallway hold another couple hundred each. So, the total building capacity of The Ritz is approximately 1,500 people (7-square-feet per person), but really anything over 1,100 in the main ballroom is considered over-capacity. So who’s at fault?
The Inspector places the blame on AEG Live, the promoter actually making money on the ticket sales after expenses (like paying the band) are covered. He said this is an ongoing problem with promoters and venues in general; typically the venue makes most of their money off the bar and possibly a room rental fee, but the promoter is the most frequently guilty of over-selling shows.
Bad Religion offered apologies on their own Facebook page, advising they weren’t aware of the situation until after the show. I can confirm that… they were busy being awesome, and God bless ‘em.
Let’s play figures a little bit, shall we? If each ticket costs $30 and the main ballroom has a maximum capacity of 1,100, that works out to $33,000 in ticket sales. If the promoter sold, say, 1,300 tickets, that works out to $39,000, making $6,000 the additional profit made from over-selling the event. So, if you’re wondering what your life is worth to a concert promoter, the answer is $6k.
When I asked the Fire Marshal what they normally do when a venue is found to be over-capacity, he advised, “The new rule of engagement is hold the line and dump the show.”
“So if they’re over capacity you shut it down, first offense?” I clarified.
“Yes, we turn on the lights, get everyone out and then count them back in,” he answered.
“How come you didn’t do that at Bad Religion?” I asked.
“Because they were really good.”
In light of this new information, I felt we should give everyone involved the chance to comment. I sent out queries to The Ritz and AEG Live, asking both to explain why the March 19 apology states that The Ritz was not over-capacity when the Fire Marshal confirmed it was? I also inquired about the capacity of the main ballroom, who should be held responsible if the show was oversold, what was being done to address complaints from Bad Religion concert patrons who paid for a tickets and were either denied entry to the show all together or denied re-entry after exiting the main ballroom, and what was being done to protect future Ritz patrons?
AEG Live chose not to comment at all. The Ritz, however, was accommodating and the corporate office issued a follow-up statement:
“The RITZ Ybor deeply regrets any inconvenience that was caused at the Bad Religion concert on Saturday, March 16, 2013.
The RITZ Ybor’s building capacity is 1,786 and there were under 1,500 tickets sold for that concert. The RITZ Ybor’s policy is to not allow more than 1,500 tickets sold for any show. Approximately 1,300 patrons were in attendance at the venue throughout that evening. The venue was not over sold the night of the Bad Religion concert. The concert was not even sold out.
During the Fire Marshal’s inspection, there was confusion with their initial crowd estimates inside the Theatre Ballroom based off of the entire building’s 1,786 total capacity and not the actual number of tickets sold.
Upon explaining the above to the Fire Marshal and walking with The RITZ Ybor management thru the crowd, we were able to resolve the situation and we were permitted to resume circulation into the building as well as into the Theater Ballroom.
The RITZ Ybor has always taken the issue of capacity very seriously and will continue to act responsibly regarding issues of customer safety and satisfaction.
The RITZ Ybor regrets the inconvenience and frustration that this situation caused for some of our customers and will continue to strive to satisfy anyone who had an unpleasant experience at the show.”
Now, to be fair, the issue of how many tickets were sold versus the main ballroom’s capacity limit was still dodged, since the ballroom’s capacity wasn’t actually included. Essentially, though the building itself was not over-capacity, the main ballroom (which holds 1,100 people) was, according to the Fire Marshal. Tickets were sold for the building’s capacity, not the single room, even though it was only one room that had Bad Religion in it.
In the interest of full-disclosure, I am a short-tempered, grudge-holding, American Irish rock n’ roller who’s still angry that after 20 years, I still haven’t managed to see one entire Bad Religion show… so that’s where I’m coming from. I’m not impartial. However, I am not calling for a boycott or rallying for a riot, either. I merely have two hopes: 1) That the venues and promoters will read this and realize the Fire Marshal will shut down a show if they’re playing it a little fast and loose with the ticket sales, and 2) At least one person was able to slip past the guards and make it back into the BR show because of me.