[caption id="attachment_2569" align="alignleft" width="225" caption="Marker Security's Marshall Rodriguez"][/caption]
The battle between concert promoters and the people who sell nitrous oxide balloons has escalated in the last few years to almost an all out war. Standing on the front lines of that battle is Marshall Rodriguez, a fan who launched a security company in 2000 that specializes in festivals and jam band-oriented concert events. Since then his company, Marker Security, has gotten busy – handling security for dozens of festivals over the years 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 frequently discussed topic of nitrous oxide, HeadCount caught up with Marshall for an exclusive interview.
HeadCount: So tell me about Marker Security and sort of how it got started and its whole approach to festival security.
Marshall: Well, I was a festival kid, I was always going to Phish shows, I’ve been going since the early 90’s. Then I had the chance to work the [Phish] millennium show as a runner and I saw what (longtime Phish security chief) John Langenstein was doing, and I was like, “I want to start a company and do that” and it just kind of went from there. When I started, the approach I wanted to take with security was to not go in there and be a bunch of thugs. I’d come from that scene, so I knew what that scene was like and that half the time being rough with the people wasn’t needed. The clients that we have can see that, and the heart that I’m putting in. I’m worried about making sure it’s a safe environment for everyone, the concertgoers, the entertainers, the production. We thoroughly enjoy doing what we do.
HeadCount: Well let’s talk about nitrous a little bit. What have you observed over the last few years? Is the problem getting any worse? Any better?
Marshall: The problem is getting, I feel, worse. There are [promoters] out there that are trying to make it better and I commend them for it, but they’re being overrun. It just seems like when you got a group of guys who are coming in, some can make $300,000 a weekend –that’s money that they’re willing to go to great lengths to protect, even if it means hurting somebody, even if it means hurting security. It’s just starting to get out of control. It is getting ridiculous.
HeadCount: What are some of the worst things that have gone on? How far will some of these guys go?
Marshall: We have dealt with one of my guards getting pistol-whipped and we’ve had a couple of our guys threatened with knives pulled on them. They’ve been told ‘if you come back here…’ you know when they pulled the knife out they alluded to what they were going to do. So 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 are things that you can do to stop it?
Marshall: That’s a tough one. Sometimes these guys will show up weeks in advance, hide the tanks already there, so when they get to the check points they don’t have anything on them. When they get there they have tanks waiting in certain spots, and if they get one taken, fine, they go back and get another one. We can’t really have security there three weeks in advance just roaming the property. It would get so expensive for a promoter. As far as ideas for that, it all begins with the searching, everybody- on down from the employees to vendors. Sometimes things get in through the vendors. You’ve got trucks packed full of vending stuff or people who are selling food and everything, so it’s hard to get through that whole truck. If you have a strong security presence right from the beginning, a nitrous squad that is dedicated to taking on this nitrous, then it can be done, it’s hard, but it can be done.
HeadCount: Now some people would say, “Alright, nitrous, it’s not the worst drug in the world, what’s the harm?” Why is this something that promoters are so concerned about?
Marshall: Besides the obvious factor that you’re killing your brain cells, it’s taking away from the festival environment, the festival community. These people aren’t there for the show. Not only that, but I’ve seen countless people stand up and, BAM! they fall forward and smash their face and they don’t feel it for a second later and then they’re all bloody and at that point they’ve got teeth knocked out and it’s turned everything into a very ugly scene. There’s a lot of fighting over it. I mean, these people are so organized, that if you have another person that comes in, just a regular kid who just wants to make a few extra bucks and thinks that nitrous oxide is the way to go – these people that are part of the Philly Mafia or the Nitrous Mafia or whatever they want to be called – it’s like territorial. They’re going after them. They’re like, “You’re making my money; you’re taking money away from me." You know back in the day they weren’t organized. They would go get a nitrous tank filled from the store and you know make a few bucks just to make it to the next venue, and it’s not like that now.
HeadCount: I’ve heard it called ‘felony money for a misdemeanor crime.’ What are the laws on the books and the legal remedies? Can people go to jail for nitrous? Or is that part of the whole issue, that there isn’t a lot of penalty or fear of incarceration and therefore it attracts an even larger criminal element?
Marshall: Absolutely. I was on a web page, I don’t know where, somebody gave me a link to it and it had every single state in the United States and it said what the laws were about nitrous oxide and I was just taken back about how there isn’t really anything on the books, other than in some states if you intend to use it for something other than nitrous oxide then it becomes illegal; it becomes a prescribed drug that you don’t have a prescription for. But in most states, it’s just a joke. In some states there are no laws against it, and it’s very easy to obtain. It’s something that needs to be addressed. Something needs to happen and there’s got to be stricter guidelines and stricter rules for somebody to obtain this stuff because it is very easy. I can go and get a nitrous tank right now, and walk into a store and walk out of it without pretty much any hassle, and that’s just here. And other states, they don’t care, as long as they get the money they’re filling them and there’s really no penalty. I’ve been to shows and been to concerts, worked shows, where law enforcement walked right by it. It’s not like they don’t know what it is, but they don’t care because it’s not really something that they’re looking for, as opposed to some powder drugs or some pill form drugs. But this is also just as harmful.
HeadCount: Let’s talk about Gathering of the Vibes. A lot of rumors coming out of Vibe this year, there was a death that some believe was tied to nitrous. What can you say about that? And do you think that that incident will have any future impact on festival community and security?
Marshall: Well since we were mainly providing protection for one area I really don’t know the particulars. All I know was that it was from natural causes, and the people involved with that, that’s what they came out with. There’s a lot of speculation of foul play but it’s just people blowing things out of proportion. Poor kid, it’s a shame that it happened, maybe he went a little too far, but it really had nothing to do with anything other than what was stated in the paper. [Editor’s Note: Published reports have said the FBI is investigating a security company at Gathering of the Vibes. Marker Security is not involved in this investigation as its role was limited to securing one particular area of the festival grounds.]
HeadCount: Still, with all the publicity and speculation, do you think we’re reaching a tipping point?
Marshall: You know what it is, a lot of us are just getting to the point, from promoters on down, it’s just getting to the point that enough’s enough and it’s time to take this thing back from those people. Whether it be 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 the people and seeing how happy they are and I love doing what I do. But sometimes it can be very ugly and we see the ugly side of how people can be towards one another and I think nitrous is at the root of that. It’s somewhat disheartening at times from a security stand point when you can’t do anything about it because A) you don’t have enough man power and B) you’re overrun by them and you can’t put your security guards in danger like that. If you don’t have enough man power and you’re over run, you know, 20 security guards to 100 of them, who’s going to win? It’s disheartening when you have to just drive by it 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 that they wear. It looks like plain clothes to people, but if you notice, they dress a certain way. If you’re just the lookout you’re wearing a white plain t-shirt with black pants or something. They’re organized. In the beginning I thought it was a joke, but I have a feeling that the people who are really behind this aren’t even at the festivals. They’re just putting up the money and they’re fronting the product and they’re expecting to get their money back when they come home. I’ve heard it being called anything from the Philly Mafia, to the Philly Nitrous Mafia, to the Nitrous Mafia, and it’s kind of unfair to point out or to single out Philadelphia and I don’t know how it became that way. I don’t know the ringleaders, I don’t know who’s behind it. It’s just new faces every year it seems.