Over the last few years the battle between concert promoters and people who sell nitrous oxide balloons has escalated to almost an all-out war. Standing on the front lines is Marshall Rodriguez, a fan who launched a security company in 2000 that specializes in festivals and jamband-oriented concert events. His company, Marker Security, has since handled security for dozens of festivals, including Gathering of the Vibes, Clearwater, and Camp Bisco. That usually means it’s Marshall and his team’s job to stop the sale of nitrous oxide. In some cases, that involves staring down a highly organized, armed, and sometimes violent nemesis. Looking for a new perspective on the nitrous controversy, HeadCount caught up with Marshall for an exclusive interview.
HeadCount: Tell me about Marker Security, how it got started, and its approach to festival security.
Marshall: I was a festival kid and have been going to Phish shows since the early ’90’s. Then I had the chance to work Phish’s millennium show as a runner, and I saw what [longtime Phish security chief] John Langenstein was doing. I was like, “I want to start a company and do that.” My approach to security is to not be a bunch of thugs. I came from the scene so I knew what it was like. Half the time roughness was unnecessary. Our clients can see that. I want to ensure a safe environment for everyone: concertgoers, entertainers, and production. We thoroughly enjoy doing what we do.
HeadCount: Let’s talk about nitrous. What have you observed over the last few years? Is the problem getting any worse? Any better?
Marshall: Worse. [Promoters] are trying to make it better, and I commend them for it, but they’re being overrun. A group of guys can make $300,000 a weekend selling nitrous. That’s money they’re willing to go to great lengths to protect, even if it means hurting somebody, even hurting security. It’s starting to get out of control. It’s getting ridiculous.
HeadCount: What are the worst things that have gone on? How far will some of these guys go?
Marshall: We’ve dealt with one of my guards getting pistol whipped, and a couple of our guys have been threatened with knives and told, “If you come back here…” At that point we had to retreat and back off. Making a few dollars an hour isn’t really worth your life, you know.
HeadCount: So if a promoter comes to you and says, “I want to stop nitrous at my concert no matter what the cost,” what do you recommend? What can you do to stop it?
Marshall: That’s a tough one. Sometimes these guys will show up weeks in advance and hide the tanks, so when they get to the check points they don’t have anything on them. They’ll have tanks waiting in certain spots, and if one’s taken, fine, they go back and get another one. We can’t really have security there three weeks in advance roaming the property. It would be too expensive for the promoter. As far as ideas, it all begins with searching everybody –- from employees to vendors on down. Sometimes things get in through the vendors. You’ve got trucks packed full of vending stuff, so it’s hard to get through that whole truck. If you have a strong security presence right from the beginning, a squad dedicated to taking on nitrous, then it can be done. It’s hard, but it can be done.
HeadCount: Some people would say, “Nitrous, isn’t the worst drug in the world. What’s the harm?” Why is this something promoters are concerned about?
Marshall: Beside the obvious factor that you’re killing your brain cells, it’s taking away from the festival environment, the community. These people aren’t there for the show. Not only that, I’ve seen countless people stand up and, BAM! They fall forward, smash their face, and don’t feel it for a second later. Then they’re all bloody and have teeth knocked out, so it’s turned everything into a very ugly scene. And there’s a lot of fighting over it. These people are so organized that if another person comes in, a regular kid who just wants to make a few extra bucks and thinks nitrous is the way to go, they’ll go after him. The Philly Mafia, Nitrous Mafia, or whatever they want to be called, they’re very territorial. They’re like, “You’re making my money; you’re taking money away from me.” Back in the day, they weren’t organized. They would get a tank from the store and make a few bucks just to get to the next venue. It’s not like that now.
HeadCount: I’ve heard it called “felony money for a misdemeanor crime.” What are the laws and legal remedies? Can people go to jail for nitrous? Or is that part of the whole issue: The lack of penalties and fear of incarceration attracts an even larger criminal element?
Marshall: Absolutely. I saw a web page that listed the nitrous laws for every state. I was just taken aback by how little there is on the books. In some states nitrous only becomes illegal if you intend to use it for something other than as a prescribed drug. In other states there are no laws against it and it’s very easy to obtain. It needs to be addressed. There need to be stricter guidelines and rules for obtaining this stuff because it’s too easy. I could walk into a store and walk out with a nitrous tank right now without pretty much any hassle. And other states don’t care. There’s really no penalty. I’ve attended and worked shows where law enforcement walked right by. They know what it is but don’t care because it’s not something they’re looking for, as opposed to powder drugs or pills. But nitrous is just as harmful.
HeadCount: Let’s talk about Gathering of the Vibes. Rumors have suggested the death there was tied to nitrous. What can you say about that? And do you think that incident will affect the festival community and security in the future?
Marshall: Since we were mainly providing protection for one area at the Vibes, I really don’t know the particulars. All I know was that the official cause of death was natural causes. There’s a lot of speculation about foul play, but it’s just people blowing things out of proportion. Poor kid, it’s a shame it happened. Maybe he went a little too far, but it really had nothing to do with anything other than what the paper reported. [Editor’s note: According to a report in Bridgeport's Connecticut Post, the FBI is investigating a security company that worked the Gathering of the Vibes. Marker Security is not involved in this investigation because its role was limited to securing one particular area of the festival grounds.]
HeadCount: With all the publicity and speculation, do you think we’re reaching a tipping point?
Marshall: A lot of us are getting to that point. From promoters on down, it’s getting to the point where enough’s enough and it’s time to take this thing back from those people, whether by law enforcement or more security. The majority of people are there to have some good clean fun. I love working these festivals; it’s great getting out there and seeing how happy people are, and I love doing what I do. But sometimes we see the ugly side of how people can be toward one another, and I think nitrous is at the root of that. It’s disheartening at times from a security standpoint when you can’t do anything about it because, a) you don’t have enough manpower, and b) you’re overrun by them and can’t put your security guards in danger. If there’s 20 security guards and 100 dealers, who’s going to win? It’s disheartening when you have to just drive by because there’s nothing you can do about it. This Philly Mafia, that’s whole other-level stuff, from headsets to bodyguards to different kinds of uniforms they wear. It looks like plain clothes to people, but they dress a certain way. The lookout might wear a plain white T-shirt with black pants or something. They’re organized. In the beginning I thought it was a joke, but I have a feeling the people who are really behind this aren’t even at the festivals. They’re putting up the money, fronting the product, and expect to get their money back when it comes home. It’s kind of unfair to single out Philadelphia, and I don’t know how it became that way. I don’t know the ringleaders or who’s behind it but there seem to be new faces every year.