The Festival That Went Up in Flames
What we can learn from the demise of Billy McFarland and Fyre Media Inc.
Back in 2017, a strange phenomenon began to appear on social media. Influencers from around the world began posting a seemingly cryptic burnt orange square, telling their followers that they too could attend utopia, by clicking on the website link. The warm glow of the square filled social feeds and from there, one of the most infamous marketing campaigns began.
Fyre Festival commenced with the perfect recipe; they had top influencers on their payroll, a large budget and a great agency behind them, but behind the scenes, the foundations that the festival was built on was a web of lies and deceit.
Fresh new talent
Anyone in the world of marketing knows the name of Billy McFarland. The man-child who spent most of the Netflix documentary, FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, drinking until he passed out on the beach, racing his jet ski up and down the shores of the Bahamian island and bumping fists with rappers and socialites.
Billy McFarland was a college drop-out who had the charisma to convince anyone to sign on the dotted line. The New Jersey native founded the advertising platform Spling, a ‘content sharing network’, but it was short-lived, and Billy quickly moved on to other projects.
In 2013, Magnises was born and with $1.5million of investor funding backing the venture, Billy took the company to the elites of America’s big cities. The credit card came with perks and gave its 40,000 members access to events, discounts at restaurants and a private penthouse, amongst other benefits.
The company eventually moved away from networking events and instead turned its attention to popular concerts and events for the likes of Beyoncé, Ja Rule and musicals such as Hamilton. They’d resell the tickets to their members via the Magnises app at a profit, however, the card that charged its members an annual fee of $250 wasn’t what it was thought to be.
Business Insider spoke to numerous Magnises card owners, who told them that on multiple occasions their tickets for events were cancelled, refunds took much longer than normal, and some claimed that unwanted charges had been made to their cards.
Billy blamed the success of the app on its downfall;
“Our system was amazing when we had 18,000 members or 20,000 members, but once we got up to 40,000, we ran into some roadblocks scaling with our vendor.”
Magnises Air was launched in 2015, offering its members the chance to fly from New York to the Hamptons. A year later, the company began advertising other destinations, such as Cuba, Miami, Lake Placid and others, but as the tickets were bought, the cancellations began.
Citing issues with visas and hurricanes, many trips were negated, and some members vowed to cancel their annual membership. That renewal came early for many and some were charged up to 5 months in advance for their next annual subscription. Once again, Billy blamed the popularity of the company;
“We’ve been slowly switching our processors over the last few months since we’ve grown. We’re growing super fast, and we fix things when they go wrong.”
While Magnises continued, Billy created Fyre Media Inc. which would bring talent and bookers together. According to Bloomberg, the company appeared to be worth $90million on paper, but in reality, the company was only worth around $60,000. Billy also told investors that he’d sold Magnises for $40 million, but he hadn’t.
The pitch deck shows the inner workings of how Fyre began and reads like most presentations you’d see from an agency. The whole idea started with an app, making booking talent easier for all involved. There was and still is a niche for this service, and there’s no doubt that the app would have been successful. But at some point, the app launch turned into a festival that outgrew itself very quickly.
Billy already knew Ja Rule from bookings through Magnises and together, the pair dreamed up the idea of the festival during Halloween in the Bahamas in 2016.
From there, they devised the strategy of using influencers or ‘Fyre Starters’ as they called them, to help sell the festival to their followers. According to the pitch deck, the influencers reached 1.5 million media impressions in the first two days of the promotion.
The orange squares were originally posted by 63 of the leading social media accounts, with Kendall Jenner reportedly earned $250,000 for the single post about the festival. From there, 400 additional influencers, athletes and models took part in the second phase of the campaign, branching out the festival’s advertising to hundreds of millions of followers.
The whole campaign was based on the idea behind Magnises. Billy wanted to give the elite, younger generation of the world something to spend their money on, and they gave them every opportunity to do so.
According to Rolling Stone, ticket prices ranged from $500 to $250,000, depending on which package the buyer purchased. Festival-goers could cosy up in a Bedouin tent on the beach, stay in one of the luxury villas on the island, or grab a cabin on a yacht, that would offer Michelin star food. The reality, as we saw, was very different.
The luxe tents were replaced by disaster relief shelters, filled with wet mattresses and no basic necessities. The award-winning food turned out to be cheese, bread and salad in a polystyrene tray, and the water, well, we know what Andy almost had to do to get the Fiji water…
The pitch deck claimed that the 40,000 tickets available would all be sold by the end of March, however, come the day of the festival, only 8,000 had been purchased and many of them had been given as freebies or at a highly discounted rate.
The time between the Halloween party, where the idea was first bandied around, and the opening day of the festival was 179 days. In the end, Fyre Media had around eight weeks to build a suitable space for the stage and accommodation, procure talent, security, food and water, and ensure necessities such as toilets and showers were in place for the guests and workers.
The promotional video was shot on Norman’s Cay, a private island owned by a head honcho in the Medellín Cartel. The video, produced by Matte Projects, showed sandy beaches and stunning views. Models danced around bonfires and swam with the pigs that inhabited the island, all the while cutting stock footage of another festival into the reel.
The video was a spectacle and dared viewers to miss out on such a glamorous event, dubbed the “Coachella in the Caribbean”.
The island was leased to Fyre Media on the basis that they didn’t mention the affiliation with the leader of the cartel, Pablo Escobar, but the name-drop was too good not to use and it was included in the promotional video.
Fyre Media lost the use of the island and instead had to find another suitable, Instagram-worthy place to hold the festival, which was quickly approaching. Instead, they took over part of Great Exuma island, that was much larger and less private. In fact, the site they leased was right next to a Sandals Resort.
As the weeks went by, more corners were cut and anyone other than a ‘yes man’ was asked to leave the team. Bahamian locals worked overtime to build the arena, and restaurants employed extra staff and food to deal with the upcoming footfall. The festival would have brought thousands to the island and would have helped massively with tourism on an annual basis.
Meanwhile, Billy and his male employees would spend long weekends on the island, drinking and partying.
“Billy would take all the boys down there, it would be boys only,” an employee told Vice. “They talk about f — ing bitches and hoes in conference meetings.”
And then, the day before the festival was supposed to begin, punk rock band Blink-182 dropped out.
In an interview from 2019, lead singer, Mark Hoppus, told NME, that they knew something wasn’t right from the start.
“We had indications kind of early on that there were problems. Our production crew was having problems getting even the most basic of answers as to staging, power and things that you would normally have well in advance of the show. That being said, us and our crew have always prided ourselves on being able to put on a good show.”
Fyre Media sued the band to retrieve the $500,000 they were paid to play the festival. They also filed lawsuits against Major Lazer, Disclosure, Tyga and Pusha T in an attempt to recoup the $14.4 million they’d paid the artists.
According to Billboard, all the performers returned the money they were paid for their sets, apart from Blink-182, who returned $360,000 to Fyre.
On the 28th of April, the day of the guests’ arrival, the festival organisers were still building parts of the campsite. Heavy rain the night before had soaked the tents and the contents inside them, leaving nowhere for the campers to sleep, but the festival organisers were still pressing for the event to continue. However, Billy personally called many of the top influencers beforehand, telling them not to come to the island.
As people began to arrive, they were quickly chaperoned to the Exuma Point Bar and Grille, owned by MaryAnne Rolle, who’d brought in additional staff to help cater to the onslaught of hungry patrons.
After hours of drinking and partying at the restaurant, campers were squeezed into school buses and taken to the festival site, where nothing was ready.
“The infrastructure just wasn’t there,” said one employee, speaking to Variety. “It had to be built. [Fyre] hired a bunch of professionals and the professionals told them it was impossible — and they couldn’t handle that, so they fired everyone.”
A festival the size of Fyre, which by all accounts wasn’t actually that large, would take at least eight months to plan properly. Booking the talent and getting the crowds to buy tickets was, in theory, the easy part, and that’s where the majority of the budget went. Billy didn’t seem worried.
“We said, ‘What you’ve promised [in statements and advertising promoting the festival] as opposed to what we’re even maybe capable of delivering in this amount of time is not the same. You’re going to destroy your brand if you try to have it on this date and don’t deliver what you promised. If you push the date a year, people will be upset. But once you deliver what you promised, they’ll get over it.’ But it was like they didn’t care: They literally kept saying, ‘We’re gonna be legends.’”
What happened that night has been documented across social media. The images of sad food, ripped tents and hordes of influencers being locked in the airport overnight, was a sight to behold.
The Fyre team initially blamed the issues on growing pains of a new festival, but patrons, the festival’s investors and the internet as a whole quickly realised that this wasn’t the case.
“Due to circumstances beyond our control, we must postpone this experience. We are working tirelessly to ensure each guest leaves the island safely and ask for everyone’s patience and cooperation as we continue to provide ongoing updates via email and our official social media channels as they become available, including refund information.”
The team quickly exited the island, with some throwing themselves into passing cars and covering themselves with blankets, as locals began to demand the money they were owed for several weeks of work.
In fact, many were left out of pocket and when MaryAnne Rolle told viewers of the Netflix documentary that she’d paid her staff — a huge $50,000 in total — out of her savings, her GoFundMe page reached $235,800 of donations and is still rising.
In May 2017, McFarland told his employees that he wasn’t going to pay for their work anymore. He wasn’t ‘firing’ them, but they wouldn’t be receiving paycheques in the short term. He believed the talent booking app was still a lucrative business, and he wanted to continue work on getting it to market. However, holding onto his employees meant they couldn’t receive employment benefits and the topic of conversation soon turned to who had been contacted by the FBI.
Once patrons were safely home, the personal and investor lawsuits began. $100 million worth of class actions for fraud were filed against Fyre Media’s CMO, Grant Margolin and others, in the month after the festival. The suit was dismissed over two years later due to lack of evidence that Margolin and the other organisers knew that the event was going to fail.
However, at least one lawsuit was successful, and two attendees were eventually awarded damages. Seth Crossno and Mark Thompson filed their lawsuits following the event, and as McFarland failed to respond to court proceedings for a year, they were awarded $5million between them.
Billy eventually released a statement declaring, “We were a little naïve in thinking for the first time we could do this ourselves. Next year, we will definitely start earlier. The reality is, we weren’t experienced enough to keep up.”
He truly believed there would be a ‘do-over’ the year after.
On the 30th of June, Billy McFarland was arrested and charged with wire fraud. He was released on a $300,000 bail the next day, where he began his next enterprise, named NYC VIP Access.
The new company was similar to Magnesis and was now managed by Frank Tribble. It offered VIP access to Burning Man festival with sponsorship tickets, Taylor Swift meet and greets and even entry to the Met Gala. The emails and phone calls came directly from Frank and offered extraordinary experiences, but the recipients of the communications weren’t stupid; it was the same Fyre Festival email list, and many realised early on that it was another scam by Billy McFarland.
Frank stated that the offers were legitimate, and it was by chance that it was the same group of people being offered these tickets;
“I’m just an agent for the company, but I do know that we’re partnered up with ticket organizations for higher-end clients, VIP access. So whoever I reached out to, whoever referred you, they were on a list of people that I was reaching out to, on a list that I received from the company.”
However, the Met Gala guest list is hand-picked, Taylor Swift notoriously declines meet-and-greets and Burning Man doesn’t hold sponsorship tickets. It was simply another con.
Billy McFarland was charged with selling fraudulent tickets via NYC VIP Access while on bail. He also pleaded guilty to using fake documents to attract his investors for Fyre Festival, who put $26 million into the company. On the 11th of October 2018, he was sentenced to six years in prison.
Billy is now incarcerated at FCI Elkton in Ohio. At the beginning of the pandemic, he requested compassionate leave from prison, to avoid contracting the virus, which was denied. In July of last year, he tested positive for COVID-19.
Kendall Jenner eventually agreed to pay $90,000 for her promotional involvement in Fyre Festival, as it was alleged that she ‘intentionally’ misinformed the public, stating Kanye West would also be performing, and that followers could purchase tickets for an afterparty by using a promotional code.
There are several lessons to be learned from the failing Fyre Festival and Billy McFarland’s ultimate demise. Never fake documentation relating to your company, always have timings and budget planned out well in advance of any campaign or event, and surround yourself with people who are good at their jobs, understand the task at hand, and aren’t there to act as ‘yes men’. The failure of Fyre Festival is now part of the learning curriculum of many marketing courses and serves as a lesson in bad judgment.
Some good came out of the ‘festival that never happened’. Because of the issues surrounding Jenner’s misrepresentation, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) changed advertising rules, to ensure that viewers were aware of a social media post was an advert.
Due to the new regulations, audiences now know if a product is being advertised by an influencer, rather than assuming the merchandise or experience is being presented without an ulterior motive.
The Fyre Festival would have been a monumental success if the strategic planning had been done at the outset, and there’s no doubt that someone else will attempt to launch a similar endeavour in the future.