The deaths at this year’s Stereosonic festivals have put the spotlight squarely on the promoters, who recently joined a global empire that holds events at which patrons routinely die, are hospitalised or are arrested for drug offences and violence.
At least three people have died at Australian festivals organised by SFX Totem this year but these cases are not isolated, with at least 28 fatalities recorded at electronic dance festivals around the world since March 2014.
Apart from the two deaths and hundreds of arrests at the recent Stereosonic festivals in Australia, SFX Totem also promotes the notorious ‘A State of Trance’ electronic dance events across the country.
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In February, a 19-year-old man died from a drug overdose at the Sydney edition of the trance rave and five others were hospitalised. Police also arrested more than 40 people for supplying and possessing illegal drugs.
But the death tolls at other events linked to the local promoters have been much higher, including events in Asia last year where nine people died and many more were hospitalised.
On 14 March last year, six people died at an electronic dance festival in Kuala Lumpur from drug-related dehydration. A day later three people died at the Jakarta edition of A State of Trance (ASOT).
Both events were not staged in 2015 because authorities in both countries feared the tragedies might be repeated, and yet similar festivals have gone ahead in Australia with deadly consequences.
SFX Entertainment’s public response to the 2014 deaths in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur overlooked the fact that nine people actually died at the events.
“Thank you Jakarta & Kuala Lumpur … March 14 and 15 2014 will be remembered for 3 things in particular: love, music and unity,” the ASOT website stated, ignoring the fatalities.
The company has reiterated its “zero tolerance” attitude to drugs following the deaths at Stereosonic.
A lucrative business begins to crack
There is big money riding on the Stereosonic brand.
According to a recent disclosure made to US regulators, the New York-based SFX Entertainment has agreed to pay $80 million to the Australian owners of the music promotion and festival business.
The sale was negotiated in 2013 with local owners of the Totem OneLove Group, who include leading music industry entrepreneurs Dror Erez, Richie McNeill and Peter Raftopoulos, also known as ‘Peter Raff’.
The deal appears to have been completed because in 2014 SFX Entertainment began to report revenue and profits from the Australian business – including the Stereosonic events – in its financial accounts.
The New Daily can reveal that the reported profit of the Australian business in 2013 was $6 million.
However, SFX Entertainment told its American shareholders in October this year that the terms of the sale had been renegotiated.
The Australian shareholders are now in line to receive not only $60 million in cash but an additional $20 million through equities and profit sharing on the Stereosonic festivals.
The additional pay-out to the former Melbourne owners of Stereosonic may depend on the ability of SFX Entertainment to sell the Australian business to another buyer.
The stakes are particularly high for SFX Entertainment, which has seen its US share price slide by more than 90 per cent since 2013 after two concertgoers died at its “Electric Zoo” dance festival in New York.
Indeed, the business itself is acutely aware of the dangers posed by its events, telling investors: “Illegal activities or conduct at any of our events or venues may result in negative publicity, adverse consequences (including illness, injury or death) to the persons engaged in the illegal activity or others and litigation against us.”
A history of overdoses and drug busts
While 2015 will be remembered as the year that the Stereosonic festivals acquired a lethal reputation, the warning signs around drug use at the events began flashing in 2011.
In that year about 89 people were arrested for drug and alcohol-related offences at the Melbourne dance event and eight patrons were hospitalised.
In 2014, the Stereosonic events in each of the Australian capital cities appeared to get significantly out of control, with 221 arrests and 13 people hospitalised during the Sydney festival.
This year’s event in Sydney, which was marred by the death of a young woman and 69 arrests for drug offences, marked a turning point in public attitudes to electronic dance festivals.
In a statement, NSW Police said of the 81,000 patrons, more than 830 (about 1 per cent) were searched in an operation with drug-detection dogs.
Of those people, 196 (about 23 per cent) were found to be in possession of prohibited drugs, including cocaine, cannabis, MDMA, GHB and Ketamine.
In 2014, 123 people were charged at the Brisbane event.
This year, 116 Brisbane patrons were arrested, mostly for drug-related offences.
Many other local events organised by the Totem OneLove Group have been associated with drug busts and overdoses.
The Melbourne leg of the Creamfields annual dance music festival in April 2012 was a busy one for police who made around 200 arrests.
Two years before his appointment to the board of Totem OneLove in 2009, Richie McNeill was involved in organising a rave party in Ballarat where 14 people were hospitalised for overdoses.
Three patrons were admitted to intensive care at Ballarat Base Hospital.
Coroner ‘should investigate’
Independent senator Nick Xenophon has called for a coronial inquest into the death of Adelaide man Stefan Woodward, which came a week after 25-year-old Sylvia Choi died at the Sydney Stereosonic festival of a suspected overdose.
“We need to ask questions of what the police were doing,” Mr Xenophon said.
“Thirty-five pills were confiscated when it appears that this concert was awash with pills.
“Using these pills seems to be a chemical form of Russian roulette. The other issue is what duty of care do the organisers of this event have.”