Lessons from the Fyre

What I Learned Working on the Disastrous Fyre Festival

It had been difficult, as a contractor who worked — however unsuccessfully — on making the Fyre Festival a reality, to step back and take account of the mess we were handed, and the one we ultimately couldn’t make right.

But after really trying to take stock, I feel like the failure of Fyre revealed something about the Potemkin Village of our online lives, and how little it takes to reveal what’s behind the facade.

Bolstered by dozens of “influencers” — many of whom had been paid by Fyre — the hype around Fyre created the illusion of something grand. But slapped on top of a weak foundation, there was little substance to support either the lofty dreams of the festival’s founders or the vision they had promised to festival goers.

In a way, the Fyre founders are not much different than the rest of us — we all create images of ourselves on social media that don’t wholly reflect our reality — and that’s what scares me. Part of the image that we create often begins with the way in which we assign value to experiences.

On the surface, it sounds great to value experiences over belongings: If we all did what we loved and didn’t measure ourselves by our accumulation of material things the world would be a better place.

But the way we assign that value has become its own problem, a sort of new consumerism. Rather than living experiences, we consume them: we capture key moments in time to share on social media, and as such take each experience as a possession.

We no longer measure one another by what we have, but instead by what we have done lately (or, at least how well we’ve posted about it) — and this is not much better. Each highly curated post contributes to an avatar of ourselves that often differs from the true lives we lead.

Sort of like Fyre itself.

I can just look back at my Instagram during those April days on Great Exumas, when I was desperately scrambling to secure housing for 150 influencers and 250 staff, to see that to be true. My account was full of pictures of crystal clear waters, beach patios, and sunsets; even though I spent most of my days in front of a computer crunching numbers. It was one of the most stressful times of my life and yet, judging by my posts, my life seemed exotic and tranquil.

To be fair, that’s what I thought it would be at the start of the month when I stepped off the plane onto the white sand beaches of Great Exumas, took in my first view of the classic brochure blue water, and gulped in the salt-laced Caribbean air.

In that moment, all I knew was that whomever was in charge around there had given me an all-expense-paid trip to the Bahamas to sit in the sun and provide my services as a freelance festival consultant.

It didn’t take long to realize that this freelance gig wasn’t going to be the breezy island job that I had thought it would be.

My job, it turned out, was to find off-site housing for staff, influencers, other VIPs, and fast. The 400 I was told I had to find would’ve been difficult enough in less than 3 weeks, but a pattern emerged working on Fyre: things were never what they seemed. Soon I discovered that I actually had to find housing for 1,100 people, including 350 guests who had paid for “lodge packages” that Fyre would not be able to accommodate. There weren’t close to enough available houses on the island, so we found a cruise ship — but that still didn’t solve the problem.

Eventually, I came to realize that we weren’t just talking about people having fun at the festival in our planning meetings, we were talking about people’s safety and whether or not they’d have shelter. That was brushed off as an insignificant problem — just one of many other issues brought to management’s attention — and left unresolved. To admit a lack of adequate accommodations would have tarnished the perfect image that Fyre’s founders wanted to create and in the end, like the facade of a poorly-constructed house, it all crumbled.

I’ve worked in festivals since 2012 and in terms of on-paper failures, this was bad but definitely not the worst I’ve ever seen. But the failure of Fyre caused a knee-jerk reaction that was both swift and communal.

It felt like people enjoyed watching the facade crumble, liked seeing the banal and grubby reality behind the beautiful Instagram pictures posted by these influencers. With all the Schadenfreude, I began to wonder who they’d been influencing in the first place, and whether all they’d been promoting was envy.

Over the last few months, I’ve often reflected on what could have saved Fyre and I keep coming back to one word: honesty.

Had the founders communicated truthfully with their fans, articulating the struggles they faced along the way and the reality of what would they could deliver versus that which they promised, they could have averted disaster. The potential for a once-in-a-lifetime experience was still there — had they better managed the number of guests or at worst agreed to move the date. Yes, the event would have been far from perfect, but that imperfection is also a reflection of life in general.

But the founders seemingly wanted to keep the reality of the situation at bay for as long as possible, to keep basking in the vision of what could be, the vision they sold to attendees, rather than admitting to something less perfect and less perfectly Instagrammable.

If we apply this honesty to our own social media feeds, we could start building a foundation of truth. Life may not always be a day spent on a magnificent beach; a perfectly composed plate at a pricey restaurant; or a meticulously planned photo of one of the seven wonders of the world. But, if we embrace reality, at the very least it won’t be disastrous when people discover that we aren’t what we seem — and the best moments will taste less like a cold cheese sandwich, and more like a Stephen Starr culinary masterpiece.