Termed as the “greatest party that never happened,” the FYRE Festival set out to be the “biggest FOMO-inducing event of 2017.” The event aimed to rival events like Coachella and Burning Man. Young entrepreneur Billy McFarland was the mastermind behind the whole ordeal.
A few years before Fyre Festival’s development, McFarland gained national attention for his “invitation-only” credit card company, Magnises. The company claimed to offer cardholders exclusive access to the hottest concerts, art shows and restaurants in New York City, as well as additional discounts and deals around town for only $250 annual fee. The company gained notoriety for its low acceptance rate and exclusivity. However, when the company began to fall through, McFarland had already started working on his next endeavor.
In 2016, McFarland partnered with American rapper Ja Rule and founded Fyre Media, Inc. Fyre Media set out to make music and entertainment booking easier with a new innovative and accessible app. In an effort to promote the new company, the two decided to create a music festival under the same name.
The Fyre Festival was to be hosted in Norman’s Cay in the Bahamas. This private island had formerly been owned by Carlos Lehder, one of the leaders of the Medellin drug cartel. The island also holds a connection to infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. However, McFarland signed an agreement stating he would make no reference to Escobar’s connection to the island in any of the marketing festival’s materials.
To promote the event, the company flew out models like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski to the Bahamas to film promotional videos and posts photos on their Instagrams to generate excitement about the not-yet-announced event.
On December 12, 2016, several social media influencers posted a simple orange square on their Instagram accounts with a URL to fyrefestival.com and the hashtag #fyrefestival. Hype for the event began to swirl.
Fyre Media began to release photos and videos from the models’ weekend getaway. The advertisements featured images and videos of crystal-clear blue waters, private jets and luxury accommodations. It promised guests the best in food, art, music and adventure for an immersive music festival.
The event was scheduled for two weekends, April 28-30 and May 5-7 in 2017. Day tickets ranged from $500 to $1,500, with VIP packages hitting over $100,000. Many guests purchased tickets that included airfare to the island and luxury accommodations.
In just a few days after the initial video was released, the festival sold out with 5,000 tickets sold. However, even after what seemed to be a successful marketing campaign, many details of the actual event had yet to be laid out.
The festival did not have any talent booked at the time of its original promotion, and because the commercial made reference to Pablo Escobar, McFarland lost the agreement to the land. The Bahamian government instead granted McFarland use of Roker Point on Greater Exuma to host the festival. However, the area that they were then working with lacked water, sewage and infrastructure.
To build the event space for the festival, McFarland hired hundreds of Bahamian workers to execute plans for the luxury experience. However, it became apparent to many involved in the preparation for the festival that the promise of luxury was not going to be fulfilled.
Scrambling to make ends meet with talent and event staff, Fyre Media encouraged guests to pre-load their festival wristbands with money to make the event “cashless.” Many guests complied, and infused $2 million into the sinking operation.
However, on April 2, 2017, the Wall Street Journal claimed that many artists and workers had not been paid for the event. Many guests had also not received any information regarding their travel itinerary. The day before the event, headlining act Blink-182 backed out of the festival stating they were not confident they would have had what they needed to give fans the type of performance they expected.
On April 27, planes flew from Miami to the Bahamas as planned, despite a recent storm blowing through the festival site, leaving it even further unprepared for the guests’ arrivals. When festival goers finally arrived at the site, they found unfinished grounds bearing little resemblance to what they were promised in the promotional video. Guests soon realized their luxury villas were actually disaster relief tents. The food service turned out to be prepackaged sandwiches in limited supply, and with few staff members to be found.
Social media posts came flooding in with claims that the festival staff mishandled luggage resulting in theft, tents were unlivable, there was a lack of medical personnel and event staff, there were a limited number of portable bathrooms and no running water. Because many guests prepared for a “cashless” event, they then had no way to pay for taxis or hotels to leave the festival for better accommodations. This left many guests stranded in the airport trying to find a way back to Miami.
On April 28, the official first day of the festival, Fyre Media canceled the event. Blaming the cancellation on “circumstances beyond [their] control,” McFarland and Fyre claimed to be postponing the event. Immediate action to get everyone off the island and back to Miami became a top priority. Festival goers were promised a full refund and complimentary tickets to next year’s festival.
On May 1, McFarland is hit with his first lawsuit surrounding the Fyre Festival. Mark Geragos, celebrity attorney, filed a $100 million class-action lawsuit on behalf of all festival attendees on the grounds that the festival’s organizers flew guests to the site despite knowing they were uninhabitable and unsecure. The following day, McFarland and Ja Rule were presented with their second $100 million lawsuit which accuses the pair of a breach of contract and fraud claiming they tricked people into attending the event by paying social media influencers to post about the event without disclosing they had done so. McFarland, Ja Rule and Fyre Media received several other lawsuits both from investors and festival goers.
In March of 2018, McFarland pled guilty to two counts of wire fraud. He admitted to faking documents in order to persuade investors to invest in the Fyre Festival. Ja Rule has faced no charges or arrests in connection to the festival claiming he was also a victim on McFarland’s scams and lies.
While out on pretrial release, McFarland had already begun working on another project, NYC VIP Access. Not too long after the company’s development, the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) charged its founder with yet another fraud scheme. McFarland plead guilty again.
McFarland is serving six years in federal prison, to be followed by 3 years probation. The judge ordered McFarland to repay $26,191,306.28.
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