Millennial Fyres (Review: Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened)
Looking at 1999 with the benefit of hindsight, it seems symbolic that Woodstock should die the year that Coachella was born, setting new foundations on which the modern festival circuit would be built. With Woodstock’s roots as a gathering of people brought together for music above all else destroyed in a blast of anger over poor festival management, Coachella was, however unintentionally, given a chance to fill in the crater with something else. A festival where the draw wasn’t simply music, but the experience of participation itself. It took a few years, but today, Coachella is a multi-million dollar success.
That success has created the template for American music festivals, one where social media and showing off the day-to-day experience of attendees is as integral to the event’s self-perpetuation as having big name headliners. Well-managed camping-like experiences with beautiful people in beautiful weather is now a main selling point of just about any festival, and who can argue with that? Certainly, nobody wants to be stumbling around in a muddy field with lawless throngs of concertgoers. But the appeal of festivals to the millennial generation, my generation, has less to do with a desire for comfort and more to do with the desire of those attending to show the world that they are relevant. Selfies and hot shots of friends at festivals flood social media every summer, a sea of phone screens illuminate main stage crowds as attendees record the band for Instagram and Snapchat stories to prove to their social circles that they aren’t missing out, they’re doing all the things and having the maximum amount of fun.
These are only moments in others’ lives, but when someone is subjected to hundreds of those moments every day simply by picking up their phone, reality becomes distorted and can leave them with the sense that they aren’t living their own life to its fullest potential. This is so common that we created a term for it, “fear of missing out” (FOMO), and that fear is a powerful thing to leverage.
Billy McFarland understood that.
In December 2016 Billy McFarland, a young tech entrepreneur in New York City, partnered with Ja Rule to launch a new app designed to make booking big ticket artists easy for anyone with the cash. To generate hype for the app, McFarland and Ja Rule planned a music festival in the Bahamas, one where attendees would pay anywhere between $500 and $12,000 to be present. They offered luxurious tents and villas, high-end catering provided by a renowned chef, the company of super models, social media stars, and high profile musicians for three full days of partying in an oceanic paradise. McFarland’s team shot a promotional video with said models and stars on an island in the Bahamas, blitzed social media with it, and watched their idea go viral beyond their wildest expectations. The festival sold out almost immediately, attracting massive amounts of media and investor attention in the process.
It sounds like some kind of rockstar fantasy, and it was indeed just that: A fantasy. The chosen date was only six months from when tickets went on sale, the location they promised attendees wasn’t actually available, the actual location they ended up with had no infrastructure on site (running water, toilets, internet, etc), production expenses piled up faster than money could be found, and McFarland refused to entertain the idea of delaying anything despite the obviously insurmountable and increasingly dangerous set of problems.
On April 27, 2017, hundreds of people arrive to find rain-soaked emergency tents instead of the luxury accommodations they were promised, no food prepared by a celebrity chef, no music, and a location that could best be described as an abandoned gravel pit. Attendees immediately posted about the disaster and the controversy spread even faster than the initial promo video, cementing Fyre Festival’s legacy as a complete and utter failure. It’s a small wonder that nobody was physically hurt, as the one thing that did show up as planned was millions of dollars of alcohol.
It’s maybe not a surprise, given the audience attracted to Fyre Festival, that there’s a wealth of footage and people willing to openly discuss what they experienced as attendees and organizers, resulting in two documentaries released almost simultaneously: “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” by Chris Smith (“American Movie”, “Jim & Andy”) and “Fyre Fraud” by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason (“Welcome to Leith”, “Rest in Power”).
When two documentaries aim at the same subject, often times one feels like a response to the other, or there’s such a discrepancy in perspectives that deciding which presentation is most believable becomes an additional exercise. “Fyre” and “Fyre Fraud”, however, comfortably dovetail together to form a fascinating investigation into a generation’s fear of missing out and how it can be manipulated to dangerous ends.
Smith’s “Fyre” (available on Netflix) feels like the right place to start. With a fly-on-the-wall feel, “Fyre” walks us through the experience in linear fashion, offering insight into the unmitigated arrogance and chaos as it grows. The film spends most of its time with those around McFarland and Ja Rule, reflecting on how things happened the way they did more than why, with commentary from those involved, several of the attendees and, notably, representatives of the local Bahamian workers who suffered unrecoverable losses.
“Fyre’s” frontline perspective allows us to see firsthand how things derail. When the promotional material goes viral, the excitement of the organizers is palpable. For all their excited toasts and partying after they first tell the world about Fyre, you would think that something more concrete had happened than Kendall Jenner making an Instagram post. It’s a telling glimpse of a group that puts perception ahead of reality.
As someone points out late in the film, the real Fyre Festival was the promo video shoot. Sixty people partying with Ja Rule and super models in the Bahamas all on McFarland’s dime is absolutely as good as it got, and that speaks volumes to the attitude of all involved; despite there being a total absence of tangible groundwork mere months before the festival is scheduled, the blind belief that everything will work out if enough money is thrown at it overrides all. Watching this unfold step-by-step makes the crushing failure of the festival all the more cringe-inducing.
It’s easy to feel for many of the subjects in “Fyre”, too. Andy King, an experienced event producer that McFarland brings on late in the game, is particularly sympathetic as someone who threw decades of experience at the festival (including one horribly selfless solution that you have to hear him explain to believe) and still came up short. The initial logistics officer and one of the first to point out the potential problems, Keith van der Linde, is another face that you wish had been taken more seriously instead of fired for highlighting the very real challenges everyone needed to address immediately.
McFarland himself feels like something of an enigma in “Fyre”, which could be taken as short-sighted on the part of the filmmakers. It’s mentioned at one point that as the festival was self-immolating, he simply vanished; other times, he sped off in a four wheeler to vent his frustration. These moments can be read as symptomatic of a rich kid with his head up his ass, certainly deserving of our damnation, but possibly out of sheer arrogance rather than manipulation.
Most affecting, though, are the stories of the Bahamians who did so much of the leg work and were left high and dry as McFarland and his team literally fled the island. Caterer Mary Ann Rolle describes how she put $150,000 personal savings into organizing parts of the festival, money that she felt she had to spend or risk failing the organizers, only to see it vanish as unceremoniously as McFarland.
Furst and Nason’s “Fyre Fraud” (available on Hulu) takes a more editorial perspective than “Fyre”, offering the why to Fyre’s how, laying out extensive context and background on key aspects of the festival and everyone involved. It’s less linear and stylistically more flashy, which goes a little too far in places with a somewhat awkward use of text-to-speech voiceover. While “Fyre” does go into more detail on McFarland’s incredibly brazen post-Fyre scam (NYC VIP Access) that got him arrested even as he awaited sentencing for his original charges, “Fyre Fraud” digs into his past and offers insights that paint a more insidious portrait. Specifically, one that shows McFarland as an energetic con artist whose real motivation in every new venture is raising money to pay off the previous one.
In “Fyre Fraud”, we see the lines clearly drawn from McFarland’s previous venture Magnises to Fyre Festival in the form of his outstanding debts to various investors, and with that in mind, it’s hard to see McFarland as a naive rich kid who was in over his head with Fyre Festival. Not only did he scam thousands of people out of millions of dollars, he did it knowingly, and in the instances where he stepped over clear legal boundaries, he did it while actually saying that people like him “can’t go to jail.”
It’s not entirely McFarland’s show, though. “Fyre Fraud” offers additional insight with other important players, one of the most revealing being Oren Aks of Jerry Media, an online media company hired by Fyre to handle promotional duties for the festival. Aks’s testimony reveals that McFarland was not alone in deceiving the public, as Aks personally removed any critical or inquisitive comments online about the festival as it drew near. As McFarland says at one point: “So many things had to go right to make this a big failure.” Indeed, Jerry Media’s shaping of public perception played a huge role in keeping the train rolling even as it came off the rails.
Note: Jerry Media was involved in producing “Fyre”, so you won’t see any criticism of their actions in that film. I think this is ultimately irrelevant to the documentary’s intentionally limited perspective, but it’s worth keeping in mind.
“Fyre Fraud” offers little sympathy for attendees and organizers alike, which won’t offend most people as the prevailing attitude is “they all had it coming”. However, it does feel like a misstep to not drive home the impact that Fyre had on the locals who tried to help. There’s a somewhat extensive interview with McFarland’s right-hand man on the ground, but nothing with the caterers or laborers who lost tens of thousands of dollars doing back-breaking work for nothing. If anything demonstrates the true negative consequences of the entire Fyre fiasco and the circumstances that led to it, it’s showing how rich Americans blatantly got away with stealing money from a developing nation.
It would be short-sighted to write off Fyre Festival entirely as a scam at all levels. Many times, in both documentaries, we hear organizers offering the same sentiment: What could go wrong? Oren Aks thought exactly that when offered the job to handle promotion of the event, despite his initial hesitation that any of it would work. “We’re all professionals,” he recalls thinking, much like attendees looked at the promo video and thought “this is real.”
Some of us might feel a certain smugness about watching young people get burned as they throw away the kind of money many of us hope we make in a few months just to cover basic living expenses. “Fyre Fraud” makes it especially tempting to revel in their loss, with shots of twenty-somethings laughing at how ridiculous the festival turned out to be when they first see it, rather than outwardly fuming over being conned out of a small fortune. It’s easy to look at the attendees, social media tastemakers, out-of-touch investors and think, “I would never be so ignorant. They deserve this.”
The immediacy of social media has made the idea of caution into an obstacle, a chore that you can choose to ignore. But if we’re going to be the generation that tells our peers what’s real online and what’s fabrication or distortion, we need to demonstrate that we deserve that position. Our obsession with not missing out on a perceived reality must be replaced with skepticism, otherwise we are doomed to make the same mistakes as those that came before us.