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Fyre Festival: A Classic American Con

What this epic beach party disaster says about social media and the status anxiety of our generation.
fyre fest

Arguably the most notorious moment of the Fyre Festival, apart from the ill-fated event itself, took place during a planning meeting in March 2017, a month before the April 27 launch.

That was when the organizers learned how unprepared they were to put it on. There were no vendors, no stages had been rented, performers had not been paid, no transportation arrangements had been made, there was not enough space for the accommodations (which had not been set up), and to meet even the lowest possible expectations would cost $50 million. The sound advice was to cancel and plan immediately for 2018.

Then a member of the marketing team offered a counterproposal that won the day, “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”

Everyone knows what happened from there. The Fyre Festival was a colossal bust, but from it a legend was born. And like any good legend, it can be told in perpetuity. New details may be added with each retelling, but the singular appeal remains unchanged.

Fyre Festival was supposed to take place on weekends in April and May 2017 on the island of Great Exuma in the Bahamas. At a time when music festivals like Coachella and Burning Man had become annual boutique events, Fyre’s ambition was to be the most boutique. Hype was generated on social media thanks to a film featuring Haley Bieber (née Baldwin), Emily Ratajkowski, and others lounging on a beach and riding on jet skis. Tickets cost as much as $12,000. Luxury tent accommodations were promised—not to mention makeshift villas that cost up to $250,000 to rent—with meals prepared by celebrity chefs. Transport to the island would be provided by private jets. Acts like Blink 182, Kanye West, and Lil Yachty were booked to play. There was going to be a treasure hunt. Kendall Jenner would host a private party on a yacht. It was less a music festival and more a pop-up luxury resort experience that happened to have musical acts.

When the first attendees arrived, however, they were brought to a gravel pit strewn with disaster relief tents. There was $2 million worth of alcohol on hand but no water and no medical personnel. Attendees’ luggage arrived on trucks and was tossed onto the ground. There were no public toilets. Theft was common. All the booked musical acts had canceled or didn’t show. The highest-quality cuisine was a cheese sandwich in a Styrofoam tray. Attendees were stranded by canceled flights either on the island or in Miami.

And because this festival catered to Millennials, the entire debacle was documented in real time on multiple social media platforms to the shock and delight of millions. The idea of entitled, phone-addicted rich kids stranded on an island made for irresistible copy. In that sense, the legend was also a dream come true—for anyone who wasn’t there. But the story was only being told in part. Further elaboration would reveal not just comic incompetence and raging youthful ego, but fraud on a massive scale.

In a cultural moment when seemingly everything gets a documentary, the Fyre Festival was a shoo-in. The trailer for Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened boasted behind-the-scenes footage for more schadenfreude fixes and hopefully some illumination as to where it all went wrong. It was set to premiere on January 18.

But then there were two. Hulu dropped its own documentary, Fyre Fraud, with no advance notice on the preceding Monday. It seems ridiculous that both were made, given that the subject had not been lacking for documentation. The films were mired in their own drama almost instantly. Hulu’s film effectively accuses Netflix’s film of bias by pointing out that the latter was produced by Jerry Media, the social media marketing team that promoted Fyre Fest. Netflix countered by saying that festival organizer Billy McFarland, now serving a six-year prison term for fraud among other charges, requested $125,000 to be interviewed by them. McFarland participated instead with Hulu and was said to have been paid $250,000.

On top of being a legend and a dream, Fyre is also a kind of sickness wherein everything it touches contracts its chaos. That the story begs retelling goes without saying, but which retelling has the most clarity?

The documentaries have some practical differences. Hulu’s Fyre Fraud is more essayistic and focused on the why. It includes several digressions, some longer than necessary, on Millennials, “fear of missing out” syndrome, Instagram influencers, the psychology of con artists, and a not very appropriate warning to McFarland’s current girlfriend. Fyre Fraud does have McFarland’s direct participation, but he is largely useless. He starts out his confident pitchman self, recounting his successes and hailing his ambition. “So many things had to go right,” he admits, “to make it this big a failure.” But when asked about the festival itself, he clams up and stammers like a sophomore in the principal’s office before just walking off.

Netflix’s Fyre, on the other hand, has more narrative coherence and is focused on the how. It proves that you don’t really need the man himself when you have copious footage of him in his hubristic and criminal element. Footage, for instance, of McFarland explaining to a supermodel that Fyre’s concept is “selling a pipe dream to the average loser.” Footage of a post-festival conference call where rapper Ja Rule, McFarland’s (mostly nominal) collaborator and spokesman, distinguishes between “fraud” and “false advertising.” And most galling of all, footage of McFarland (that he commissioned, no less) carrying out NYC VIP, a blatant scheme to extract more money from festival-goers for access to exclusive events that was not available while he was out on bail.

In truth, it hardly matters as to which one is better. Those interested enough will likely watch both, and in the end, both are at least adequate in relating the event and expounding on why interest endures.

Fyre Festival, in each case, boils down to the discrepancy between perception and reality, idea and execution. Embodying this discrepancy is Billy McFarland, a driven and charismatic 20-something who made a name for himself in financial circles for being able to capitalize on the status anxiety of his generation. He was never selling a product so much as access and exclusivity. His Magnises credit card—a rip-off of the American Express black card—promised perks and networking opportunities for hungry young city-dwellers. McFarland proved a gifted salesman who could enchant venture capitalists, socialites, celebrities, and employees with the majestic scope of his ideas. Magnises (a word McFarland made up) wasn’t a card you paid $250 a year for; it was a way of life. It implied serious vision and keen business sense. But McFarland was less interested in process or management. The amenities to which customers were promised access—tickets to Hamilton, for instance, and planned trips to Cuba—were often canceled at the last minute.

Fyre Festival had much the same dynamic but on an ever-widening scale. McFarland and his team at first seem clueless and overwhelmed but arrogant. Nothing was impossible and no obstacle could not be overcome. It is alleged that McFarland tried to convince an event planner to perform oral sex on a government employee instead of paying to get their water supply out of customs—thankfully that was unnecessary. Anyone who tried to reason with him or just say “no” was ignored or fired, often impulsively, such as when McFarland sacked the caterers over a budget dispute weeks before the festival.

But McFarland was unscrupulous in keeping his pipe dream afloat. He falsified wire transfers to creditors and he embellished the value of his company, his earnings, the amount of stock he owned in Facebook, and the roster of artists booked to perform to investors. Social media complaints about the festival were monitored and suppressed. The local labor that was hired to actually set up the grounds were simply never paid. He came up with new schemes to bilk attendees like making the festival “cashless” and having them deposit money into scannable bracelets, which was used to cover previous loans and expenses. Any suggestion to save face or offer full disclosure was met with more lies, all the way down to the official statement the day of the festival, which blamed inclement weather for its failures.

Both documentaries lay out the full extent of McFarland’s crimes and question whether six years in prison is sufficient punishment for them. But the films also offer a larger prognosis of an entire generation that is understandably compelling but ultimately less convincing.

The ultimate appeal of the Fyre Festival disaster was that its main organizers were mostly in their 20s. It confirmed the popular media trope that Millennials ruin everything, including themselves and everyone foolish enough to believe in them. It also supposedly exposed them as having exceptional credulity when being sold a bill of goods. Both arguments are solid provided one overlooks, say, Bernie Madoff or Jim Bakker. And if McFarland had been 20 years older, there’s reason to believe that his whole contribution would have been a footnote. Woodstock 1999 is remembered for the rioting, assaults, and property damage inflicted by the attendees. Less remarked upon was the severe corner-cutting imposed by the (much more experienced) festival organizers in order to bolster their profits. Security was understaffed and underpaid, teens were hired to clean the garbage but were not given water and quit, tickets were overpriced as were beer and water, vendors were not provided with plumbing, and the site was a former toxic waste dump. One person died.

Ultimately though, Fyre’s young attendees and employees acquit themselves with some dignity. They freely admit to how well they’d been taken in by McFarland. As a result, they’ve gained a healthy cynicism over American life. None have any illusions that McFarland won’t try again. It’s not like he knows much else. Fitzgerald wasn’t wrong when he said, “There are no second acts in American lives.” They’re more like long cons.

Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey. He has been published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The Week. Follow him at his blog and on Twitter @CR_Morgan.