2017’s Fyre Festival was the most talked-about music festival of the last few years. But it’s not because anyone had any fun there. Quite the contrary. The festival that had been promoted and advertised by famous faces Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Hailey Baldwin, was a hyped-up glamorous beach getaway party on a deserted island in the Bahamas. Or at least, that’s what the creators wanted people to think.
The tickets were sold and cost up to $100,000 each! The guests who booked the festival were promised “luxury accommodation” and “the best in food, art, music, and adventure.” Sounds amazing, right? Well, the attendees weren’t so happy when they turned up to mattresses on rain-soaked floors, “meals” including cheese slices and bread, and seeing their luggage thrown into a dark parking lot.
So what exactly happened between the star-studded promotional videos to people crying on the beach? That’s exactly what you’re about to find out.
For those who haven’t seen the Netflix documentary, ‘Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,’ this is the story of a festival that led to thousands of people demanding their money back and a businessman named Billy McFarland being to prison. McFarland, the 26-year-old founder of the Fyre Festival, was sentenced to six years in prison. Oh, and he also faces a $26 million penalty.
But why? How could a seemingly harmless musical festival end up in such a disaster? Well, there isn’t one simple answer. The truth is that it was the result of a string of unfortunate events, events mainly caused by McFarland’s lack of knowledge of what it really takes to produce a festival. That and the failure to recognize failure when you see one.
Take it from some of the people who were there…
Blogger and podcaster Seth Crossno and his three buddies from North Carolina spent $45,000 on a package including tickets, travel, and luxury accommodation for the Fyre Festival. But when they arrived at the beautiful beach, all they found was what looked like a building site. “There were still workers, pick-up trucks and 18-wheelers everywhere,” he told Radio 1 Newsbeat.
While the chaos of the festival was seen mostly on Twitter, with people posting live as it was going down, a lot was going on behind the scenes. “The organizers had 6 to 8 weeks to pull off something that should have taken close to a year,” said Chris Smith, the director of the Netflix documentary.
The festival was described as the Hunger Games…
“It looked like The Hunger Games. People were running around everywhere screaming, ‘Turn around, don’t get off the bus!’” That’s what Jon Dykert, one of the unlucky festival-goers, said about what he saw. Ironically, on the way there, he and his friends were joking around about how they were going to show up, and no one would be there. Oh, how intuitive they were.
They were promised charter planes, but they got a normal airline with a bunch of children on it. They were promised a limo, but they were picked up by a junky old bus instead. They got there, and everything was a mess. There were two Fyre Festival employees telling people what to do amidst mass confusion and disappointment. It was an utter disaster.
When Jon and his friends finally arrived at the gate, rumors had started popping up about how Blink 182 canceled their appearance. Then they pulled up to what he says looked like a war zone. Extravagant cabins? More like FEMA tents. A bunch of material igloos were planted on the beach. And Billy McFarland was standing up on a table, trying to delegate. Fear was in his eyes.
They were told to pick their own tents and take a number. But hey, at least they were given free bottles of Casamigos tequila. In keeping with the Hunger Games comparison, people were actually fighting for tents, taking out the mattresses, and bringing them to other tents. If you want to imagine another scene from a movie, you can also picture Lord of the Flies.
Two trucks had pulled up with a mass of suitcases, which they literally dumped into a pile on the ground. People were scrounging to find their stuff, probably stealing things, too. The bars and snack shops were only halfway done. The food was sitting in cardboard boxes. There was no staff around, so people were ripping the boxes open for candy, chips, Gatorade, basically whatever they could get their hands on.
Keep in mind that these were mainly rich kids who came to the festival. Many of them immediately left because they had the luxury of being sent back on a private jet or yacht. But not everyone was the rich kid of some richer parent. Some of them were college kids who spent their school savings on what they thought would be the trip of a lifetime.
That night the festival-goers got the first email from Fyre Festival, apologizing. The email notified them that the festival is officially canceled, and they were going to work on getting everyone off the island. Jon and his friends had a “moment of silence in the tent. We decided to stick this out.” It’s like seeing a train wreck – how can you not stick around and watch?
As it turns out, he and his seven friends were the last eight attendees on the island. They were told that the government is issuing a shutdown for Fyre Festival, and everyone was to be chartered home. Once they got home, each one of them came down with food poisoning. It was basically the cherry on top. It took a while, but they even got their money back, too.
But while Jon and other festival-goers saw it as a good story to tell their friends, those behind the scenes were in deep…
The festival was organized by businessman Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. They were trying to promote a new music booking app called Fyre. Ja Rule came to know McFarland through visits to events that McFarland had hosted at his previous company, Magnises. They became fast friends and business partners and to produce this festival; they needed a place. During a flight to the Bahamas, their private plane touched down on this lightly populated island called Norman’s Cay.
It had once belonged to Carlos Lehder Rivas, a drug kingpin of the Medellín Cartel in Columbia. McFarland rented the island from the current owners. But the lease came with one very strict condition: that McFarland will never reference the Pablo Escobar and Columbian drug ring connection in any of his marketing materials.
But McFarland proved to be someone who makes his own rules…
Now that Billy and Ja Rule had a private island for their festival, they had to focus on marketing. They hired supermodels who were flown to the island to do video and photo shoots. In early 2017, a promotional video was finally released on social media advertising Norman’s Cay as “once owned by Pablo Escobar.” Uh oh. That was exactly what Billy was told NOT to do.
So what happened? Well, for starters, the island’s owners immediately canceled their arrangement with McFarland. Not only did they do what they were told not to, but he also gave wrong information. In reality, Pablo Escobar didn’t own the island – Carlos Lehder Rivas (another drug lord) did.
This ended up being the first of many fails…
When Billy, Ja Rule, and their crew were kicked off the island of Norman’s Cay, they had a mere four months before their festival was set to occur – between April 28 and 30th of 2017. They had to search for a venue frantically. A music festival couldn’t take place without a place! They went from small island to small island, looking for venues.
But each one turned them down. It got to the point that they had only two months left, and they still didn’t have a place to hold the festival. Can you imagine the stress? They were finally saved by the Bahamian government when they gave McFarland a permit to use a site that had been set aside for development at Roker Point on Great Exuma, which was north of the Sandals Resort.
But they decided to keep that part a secret…
The location had been changed, but the promotional video remained the same. The material released on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) continued to promote the lie that the Fyre Festival was going to be hosted on Pablo Escobar’s private island. They even went so far as to alter the maps of the site to make it look as if Roker Point was an island unto itself. But it wasn’t.
In reality, the Festival’s location was in a remote parking lot near a Sandals Resort and close to a marina where the island’s locals would keep their boats. And Great Exuma wasn’t a private or even remote island. The festival site was planned to be in an abandoned resort development with roads that led to nowhere.
It isn’t clear why, but Billy McFarland never announced the location change; he just simply renamed the island, calling it “Fyre Cay.” He just assumed that it would all work out and that people would either not notice or not care. Or then again, maybe he was just delusional. The team had a location (albeit a bad one), but they still had no infrastructure and no villas.
They had under two months to turn Roker Point into “Fyre Cay.” In the days leading up to the festival, the production had to majorly cut expenses after learning that the luxury villas would actually cost them $10 million alone. So they cut the budget on things like deposits for the bands, food, infrastructure, and the hardworking staff.
The main reason why the Fyre Festival even sold tickets was because of the Instagram girls who promoted it with their exotic posts. On December 12, 2016, Kendall Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski, and other major influencers were paid by Fyre to simultaneously post to their Instagram feeds a video. The video had a thumbnail with an orange square and the Fyre app logo.
Clicking on that thumbnail played the video that featured Bella Hadid and other models from her modeling agency running around a tropical beach. The text on the video promised “an immersive music festival … two transformative weekends … on the boundaries of the impossible.” That was the beginning of the festival’s promotional campaign, one that would make everyone want to buy tickets.
One of the festival’s investors, fashion executive Carola Jain, arranged for Fyre to get a $4 million loan. What did they do with the money? They used most of it to rent luxurious offices in Manhattan’s Tribeca area. Billy McFarland, who had no experience staging an event of that scale, began talking to companies that did. McFarland was reportedly shocked when he was informed that the event would cost at LEAST $50 million in the time they had available.
The more experienced consultants told him that in addition to that massive cost, an event of this size, realistically needs an extra year to plan. But they didn’t have a year. They had two months. And not even! McFarland and his business partners mistakenly thought that it would cost a lot less.
So what did they do? They just kept going…
McFarland and the organizers tried to do things by themselves wherever and whenever possible. For example, McFarland apparently learned how to rent a stage by doing a Google Search. The festival was originally supposed to be scheduled for two weekends in April and May of 2017. They were selling day tickets from $500 to $1,500, as well as VIP packages, including airfare and luxury tent accommodation for $12,000.
Customers were guaranteed to get accommodation in “modern, eco-friendly, geodesic domes” as well as meals from celebrity chefs. And what about the music? Well, the lineup of 33 acts included artists like Pusha T, Tyga, Blink-182, Major Lazer, and many others. The lineup was filled with rappers, bands, and recording artists who actually did agree to perform.
But one by one, they all pulled out of their agreements…
In the days leading up to the event, each of the musical acts pulled out of their agreements to perform. There were even artists, like Major Lazer, who never even confirmed their attendance despite being advertised as such. Isn’t that illegal? To make things even worse, the organizers planned their first event (for April 28 to 30th) on particularly bad dates.
That same weekend was the Exuma Regatta, which was a Bahamian sailing race that used all of the island’s hotels, vacation rentals, and resources! Talk about bad timing! At this point, they had an underdeveloped location, no performing acts, and an island that would be full of locals, and nowhere near enough time to make it all work.
What else could go wrong? Well, you would be surprised…
While the promotional videos were still circulating with the idea of a remote private island that belonged to Pablo Escobar with models, influencers, and popular recording artists, the reality of the situation was something else altogether. The workers were beyond busy trying to prepare Roker Point for the festival that was still supposed to occur – even after all signs were pointing to failure.
The workers went so far as to scatter sand over the island’s rocks and fixing a road to a nearby beach, where they built cabanas and installed swing sets. I guess they thought that would make up for all the inevitable disappointment that was headed their way. In the Netflix documentary, most (if not all) the staff knew they were headed for disaster. But they just did the tasks at hand anyway.
In March of 2017, Fyre hired a veteran event producer, Yaron Lavi, who told them from the get-go that it was impossible to hold such an event that McFarland and Ja Rule believed would happen. But by this point, 5,000 tickets had already been sold, and expectations were high. The production secured an air service that was hired to charter festival-goers from Miami to the island.
There was also a medical-services company and caterer that were hired, but the caterer withdrew only a few weeks before the festival was set to take place. With two weeks to go until showtime, they hired a new catering service with a $1 million price tag. This was actually $6 million less than the budget they had originally allocated to provide the “uniquely authentic island cuisine of local seafood, Bahamian-style sushi, and pig roast.”
Lavi assumed that they would just postpone the event to November. It was clearly the logical thing to do and would have prevented not only major upset, millions of dollars lost, and their reputation; it would probably have saved McFarland from eventually going to prison. Lavi said how they even discussed postponing the festival since it was obvious to everyone that they weren’t ready.
But like I said earlier, McFarland creates his own reality, whether it’s delusional or not. When Fyre told Lavi, they would keep the original dates. He told them that they would then have to abandon their plans for temporary villas. He told them to go for tents instead, which would be the only accommodation that could be possibly be delivered in the time they had remaining.
But Lavi wasn’t like McFarland and Ja Rule, and whoever else kept making the decisions to deceive the public and those who paid for tickets. Lavi told Fyre to make this change of accommodation clear to those who already bought their tickets. Otherwise, it would be nothing but damaging to their brand. According to Lavi, the Fyre Company assured him that they were drafting an email. They told him that an email was being prepared, but it doesn’t look like anyone ever pressed “send.”
Another company, Comcast Ventures, had considered investing $25 million in the Fyre app – the app McFarland hoped would allow him to finance the festival. At the time, McFarland valued Fyre Media at $90 million, but he didn’t provide proof of that when Comcast requested it. So they ended up declining the investment days before.
One of the event organizers later wrote a piece for New York magazine, explaining how by mid-March, there were already significant problems with the planning. At one point, it was plainly suggested that they reschedule the festival until 2018. But denial plays a hard game. McFarland didn’t agree to postpone it. Apparently, one of the organizers was reported to have said: “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”
Later that month, Page Six started reporting the rumors revolving around the festival organizers being too disorganized and “in over their heads.” This was basically the first time that their whole mess of an organization was getting to the public. But then again, they were seen as rumors. And people don’t necessarily believe rumors.
After the Comcast deal sank, McFarland got a hold of some temporary financing through an investor called Ezra Birnbaum. The deal was that Fyre had to repay the company at least $500,000 of the loan within the first 16 days. That’s a lot of money in a little amount of time! So what did McFarland and his business partners do?
To make quick cash, with under 2 weeks to go before the event, Fyre sent an email to ticket-buyers, saying the festival would now be “cashless (and cardless).” According to one lawsuit, they encouraged attendees to add thousands of dollars (in advance) on a digital Fyre Band – a bracelet – to cover purchases at the festival. All this despite warnings that digital bracelets would be useless due to the poor Wi-Fi connection on the island.
Billy McFarland, who signed that email, suggested that ticket buyers upload $300 to $500 for every day that they planned to attend the festival. They managed to convince people because about $2 million was uploaded to these digital bracelets. According to a lawsuit filed later by Birnbaum, 40% of that $2 million was used to pay off the short-term loan.
The Washington Post had reported that McFarland “has a history of overpromising” in his earlier business ventures, and even gave multiple examples. One involved McFarland selling VIP tickets to the popular musical Hamilton for $430 only to cancel at the last minute. One customer complained to the Better Business Bureau, seeking a refund because they made multiple queries for over a month and a half with no response.
It looks like Billy McFarland had a pattern…
It was early morning on April 27, 2017, and heavy rain was falling on Great Exuma, soaking all the open tents and mattresses that had been piled out in the open for guest arrivals later that day. The first flights from Miami landed at 6:20 a.m. That same afternoon, Blink-182 announced that they were withdrawing from the festival.
The first arrivals were brought to an “impromptu beach party” next to a restaurant, where they were given alcohol and kept waiting around for six hours while frantic workers were trying to prepare. McFarland hired hundreds of local Bahamian workers to build the site. Later arrivals were arriving by school busses, and that’s when the true state of the festival’s site became clear…
What people came to find were scattered disaster relief tents with dirty and wet floors, some with soaking wet mattresses. The “gourmet food” was nothing more than inadequate, and poor quality cheese sandwiches served in foam containers. Festival-goers were dropped off at the bungalow where McFarland and his team were so they could be registered, but after so many hours of waiting in, people rushed to claim their own tents.
There were only about 500 people, but there weren’t even enough tents and beds for all of them. People wound up stealing from others. Around night time, after a day of hell, a local band took to the stage and played for a few hours.
They were the only act to perform at the event.
By the early morning, attendees received that email with the apology, saying the festival would be postponed and that they would be returned to Miami as soon as possible. Reports from the festival spoke of many other problems, too, like mishandling or theft of luggage, no lighting, an unfinished gravel lot, and a lack of medical personnel or staff.
Not to mention, there was hardly any cell phone or internet service, only a portable toilet to use, no running water, and awful security. These problems were only made worse as the festival had been changed to a cashless event, which meant that many guests were without money for a taxi or other expenses. People were reportedly stranded, as the Bahamas government canceled flights to and from the island.
Sh*t hit the fan, folks. It was chaos, and people were beyond angry, feeling that they were scammed. And no one can blame them! If there’s anyone to blame, it’s Fyre, right? Well, Ja Rule, described as the co-organizer, was not going to let this awful mess ruin his reputation. So what did he do? He went to Twitter, of course. His post on Twitter was: “it was NOT A SCAM” and “this is NOT MY FAULT.”
Fyre Festival posted something, too. They stated on their website: “Fyre Festival set out to provide a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience on the Islands of the Exumas. Due to circumstances out of our control, the physical infrastructure was not in place on time, and we are unable to fulfill that vision safely and enjoyably for our guests…We ask for everyone’s patience and cooperation during this difficult time as we work as quickly and safely as we can to remedy this unforeseeable situation.”
Notice how they said, “unforeseeable?”
There were more than eight lawsuits filed as a result of the festival. One of those involved McFarland and Ja Rule became the subject of a $100 million lawsuit in California. It was a class-action lawsuit with more than 150 plaintiffs. McFarland and Ja Rule were being accused of fraud, breach of contract, breach of covenant of good faith, and negligent misrepresentation.
Remember Seth Crossno? The blogger and podcaster who gave his account of the event? Well, on July 3, 2018, he and Mark Thompson (another attendee) were awarded $5 million in damages. Not only were attendees suing them, but medical services and ticketing vendors. McFarland and the organizers were facing hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
And then the criminal investigations began…
On May 21, 2017, The New York Times informed its readers that McFarland and his associates were involved in a federal criminal investigation by the FBI for mail fraud, wire fraud, and securities fraud. By June 30, 2017, McFarland was arrested and charged with wire fraud. By March 2018, McFarland pleaded guilty to what the U.S. Justice Department called “a scheme to defraud investors.”
In October 2018, McFarland was faced with a sentence of six years in prison and ordered to pay up $26 million. Ja Rule never got arrested or charged with the fraud. His lawyers successfully argued that McFarland used his name and connections to promote the event. In fact, Ja Rule sued McFarland for $2.5 million but could wait up to 20 years to get his money back.
“The remorse I feel is crushing,” McFarland said when he was being sentenced. “I lived every day with the weight of knowing that I literally destroyed the lives of my friends and family.” One investor, Joe Nemeth, said that Billy McFarland had “financially ruined” his and his wife’s lives. “It took me 20 years of saving my lunch money to save $180,000. I hope the justice system has the last laugh at Mr. McFarland.”
McFarland may feel remorse for ruining the lives of his family and friends, but he failed to acknowledge all the other lives he ruined. We haven’t yet spoken about the locals on the island. The people on Great Exuma lost an enormous amount of money, too. And sadly, they can’t afford lawyers to file a lawsuit.
One overlooked aspect of this entire nightmare is the aftermath the people on the island are forced to deal with. Fyre Festival wasn’t just a miserable experience for those who bought tickets; it also had a huge impact on the locals who helped organizers build the festival. According to one of the organizers, there were hundreds of day laborers trying to pull off an impossible task.
One restaurant owner, Maryann Rolle (who was interviewed in the Netflix documentary), personally lost her entire life savings. She gave up $50,000 for catering in the build-up to the event. She was committed to the agreement and gave everything she could to keep her end of the deal. In the end, after everything fell apart and everyone left, she was left with the aftermath. After the documentary, a GoFundMe page was started to organize money for Rolle. She has gotten over $220,000.
“Nobody went back to deal with that and that people moved on and came back to living their lives in New York and didn’t own up to the responsibility of their actions,” Chris Smith, the director of the documentary, said. Billy McFarland never paid the workers on the island for their time or resources. Billy was the only man missing from the documentary.
Apparently, he refused to be interviewed unless paid for his time. “We just didn’t feel comfortable with him benefitting after so many people had been hurt based on what he had done,” Chris explained. He hopes that with Netflix and influencers involved, some money will be raised to make it right for those people.” Those people deserve to be paid back.
If you’re curious to hear how other people experienced the festival, here are some personal accounts…
Todd Plummer, a freelance reporter, was covering the festival for a national outlet. “I got a call from a publicist the night before, and she basically begged me not to come,” he said. From the beginning, he was skeptical about the attention to detail. He was meant to stay in a hotel with all the other media. The people who invited him and were coordinating the travel were from a big reputable PR firm.
Naturally, he trusted them. But two days before he was set to fly out, he was notified that the accommodations were changed to a boat. The words they used: “luxury cruise liner anchored just off the main festival.” Changing accommodations three days before the media shows up is a huge red flag and glowing sign that things weren’t planned.
He was supposed to get on a 6am flight out of JFK to Miami, then catch his flight to Exuma. He got the call from a publicist the night before basically begged him not to come. She had just got there and said it was nothing like what he thought it would be. He had a plus one who put money on her Fyre Band. “I believe she has not been refunded to this day,” Todd stated.
About six weeks later, Todd saw Billy McFarland from across the room at St Ambroeus. He didn’t say anything but emailed him to ask for her money back. “Good afternoon, Billy, I hope you’re enjoying lunch,” he wrote. He responded within an hour and even appeared to be trying to make things right, but then he just stopped. And no money was ever returned.
“There’s absolutely no one in charge, pigs are squealing and pooping on people, and people are trying to take their picture.” That’s how festival goer, Tyler, described it. He and his co-workers bought flash sale tickets. He described his group of friends as “fun and chill,” admitting to having a “pretty enjoyable 36 hours on the island.”
But despite enjoying the sh*t show, described how the tents were put on an old construction site. There was no dirt, just hard clay; the tents were on top of rocks. When they flew into the airport, which was basically one room, some festival guy says: “Hey, welcome to Fyre Festival, I should know more information, but I don’t. Good luck.”
Before the festival, organizers were trying to charge $1,000 a person to go to Pig Beach, but once they were there, they were just trying to make everyone happy. It wasn’t canceled yet, but everything became free. Boats showed up, and people piled on and went to Pig Beach in the dark of night.
“I saw a girl get tusked in the forehead, and she was bleeding profusely. I was dunking her in the water. It probably looked like a weird baptism. There’s absolutely no one in charge, pigs are squealing and pooping on people, and people are trying to take their pictures,” Tyler described the experience. They stayed the night, but the next day people were freaking out.
There weren’t any more workers because they weren’t getting paid. The bar was abandoned, and guests could take whatever they wanted. “You could go behind the bar and take champagne to the beach,” Tyler said. Tyler also mentioned how there was a notebook floating around. They had to sign it to get a seat on the plane. When they got to the airport, which incredibly disorganized, organizers were calling names off of that notebook.
The people who hadn’t signed it had to stay on the island.
He even saw someone wheeled off of the airplane with a sea urchin in his foot. For anyone who doesn’t know, to remove an urchin, you need a syringe that dissolves it because there are serrated blades. So this poor guy had to leave it in his foot during the flight back to Miami.
Like I mentioned earlier, the event was promoted on Instagram by famous faces like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Hailey Baldwin, among others. Jenner was paid $250,000 for one post – a post she has since deleted. Other influencers include Elsa Hosk, Chanel Iman, Alessandra Ambrosio, Shanina Shaik, Nadine Leopold, Gizele Oliveira, Hannah Ferguson, and other media personalities.
Emily Ratajkowski was the only actress or model who used the hashtag #ad, but she also deleted the post. But it was only after the fact that these women were paid to make those posts. It was something they were required to disclose under federal law. According to the Federal Trade Commission, “#ad” only works at the beginning of paid posts – the hashtag alone wasn’t a sufficient disclaimer.
Bella Hadid acknowledged and apologized for the promotion. Hailey Baldwin (Justin Bieber’s current wife) revealed that she donated the entire payment to a charity after seeing the aftermath. However, at the time, Jenner, Hadid, Elsa Hosk, and Ratajkowski were all steps away from facing an order to return the large payments they received.
Bella Hadid shared on her Twitter: “Even though this was not my project what so ever, I initially trusted this would be an amazing & memorable experience for all of us… not knowing about the disaster that was to come. I feel so sorry and badly because this is something I couldn’t stand by, although, of course, if I would have known about the outcome, you would have all known too. I hope everyone is safe and back with their families and loved ones.”
The college dropout founded a short-lived online advertisement platform called Spling, where he served as CEO. In 2013, McFarland started a company called Magnises with $1.5 million of investors’ funding. He was trying to create an exclusive “black card” that had social perks like club membership. It was targeted at status-oriented millennials in big cities.
McFarland then launched Fyre Media Inc. In a term sheet that had been sent to investors, Fyre claimed to be worth $90 million. Later it was revealed by authorities that the company made only about $60,000 in business. I’m no math pro, but that’s way off from 90 million. I think it’s safe to say that Billy McFarland should stay far away from business and investor money.
McFarland is now incarcerated at FCI Elkton, in Lisbon, Ohio.