|Location(s)||Bahamian island of Great Exuma|
|Founded by||Billy McFarland/Fyre Media App|
Organized by Fyre Media founder Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule as a luxury music festival to promote the Fyre music booking app, the event was promoted on Instagram by "social media influencers" including socialite and model Kendall Jenner, model Bella Hadid, model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, and other media personalities, many of whom did not initially disclose they had been paid to do so, in violation of federal law. During the Fyre Festival's inaugural weekend, the event experienced problems related to security, food, accommodations and artist relations. Eventually, the festival was indefinitely postponed after some festival-goers had already arrived, finding tents and prepackaged sandwiches, instead of the luxury villas and gourmet meals they had been promised when they paid thousands of dollars for admission.
As a result, the organizers are the subject of eight lawsuits, one seeking more than $100 million in damages. The cases accuse the organizers of defrauding ticket buyers. On June 30, 2017, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York charged McFarland with one count of wire fraud. In March 2018, he pled guilty to one count of wire fraud to defraud investors and a second count to defraud a ticket vendor.
The festival was organized by Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule to promote the Fyre music booking app. During a flight with McFarland, whom Rule had come to know through regular visits to events McFarland hosted at his previous venture, Magnises, Rule's private plane stopped on Great Exuma island in the Bahamas to refuel, and the two conceived the idea of the festival after taking the island in. After several small islands that seemed like likely venues were turned down, the Bahamian government gave McFarland a permit to use a site set aside for development at Roker Point.
On December 12, 2016, Kendall Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski and other influencers whom Fyre had paid to do so simultaneously posted to their Instagram feeds an image of an orange square with a stylized logo of flames. When viewers clicked on it they opened a promotional video showing Bella Hadid and other models represented by her agency running around a tropical beach. Text with the video promised "an immersive music festival ... two transformative weekends ... on the boundaries of the impossible". This was the beginning of the Fyre Festival's promotional campaign.
"It's one of the greatest social-media campaigns I've ever seen," a financial manager for a popular rapper commented later. "They got the most beautiful women in the world, with the largest social following." However, when he called McFarland later to find out more, and found out that his partner was Ja Rule, he declined McFarland's invitation to invest, believing that the promises of the festival could only be fulfilled if a star as prominent as Jay-Z or Kanye West was involved. "I was surprised at all the artists who committed," he recalled later, because "we didn't take this seriously at all."
One of those who did invest, fashion executive Carola Jain, reportedly got Fyre a $4 million loan. The company used most of it to rent luxurious offices in Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood. With no experience staging an event of the proposed festival's scale, McFarland began reaching out to companies that did. However, he was reportedly taken aback when they told him the event would cost at least $5 million, perhaps even $12 million to stage in the time available as he had promised; he and his associates at Fyre believed it would cost far less and continued with their plans under that assumption, which one executive at a company he contacted calls "a complete detachment from reality". They tried to do things themselves where possible; McFarland supposedly learned how to rent the stage by doing a Google search.
Scheduled for two weekends in April and May 2017, the event sold day tickets for $1,500, and VIP packages including airfare and luxury tent accommodations for US$12,000. Customers were promised accommodations in "modern, eco-friendly, geodesic domes" and meals from celebrity chefs.
Contrary to the festival's promotional material, "Fyre Cay", the festival site, a remote private island it falsely claimed once belonged to drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, did not exist. Instead, workers in the Bahamas were busy preparing Roker Point for the festival, scattering sand over its rocks and improving a road to a nearby beach, where they built some cabanas and installed swing sets. On the mainland, five thousand tickets had been sold and an air service hired to charter festivalgoers from Miami. A medical-services company and caterer were hired, although the latter withdrew a few weeks before the festival.
In March 2017, Fyre also hired a veteran event producer, Yaron Lavi, who saw that it was possible to hold the sort of event McFarland and Rule envisioned, at the site. He assumed, however, that they would reschedule the event to November as they had been discussing since they were not ready. But after they told him they would stage the event in the spring anyway, he said they would have to abandon the plans for temporary villas and instead erect tents, the only accommodations that could be delivered in the time remaining. Lavi advised Fyre to make this clear to those who had already bought tickets as otherwise it would be damaging to their brand; he says the company assured him that an email was being prepared, but he is not sure if it was sent.
Comcast Ventures considered investing $25 million in the app, which McFarland apparently hoped would allow him to finance the festival, but declined days beforehand. Reportedly McFarland had valued Fyre Media at $90 million, and was unable to provide sufficient proof of that when Comcast requested it.
Writing for New York magazine, one of the event organizers would later note that since at least mid-March, there were significant problems with the planning, and at one point it was agreed to outright cancel the 2017 festival in favor of working to perfect a 2018 one. These plans however were revoked at the last minute with the decision to go on with the event as planned. "Let's just do it and be legends, man", one of the organizers is reported to have said.
Business journalist Bryan Burrough later reported in Vanity Fair that after the Comcast deal fell through, McFarland had obtained some temporary financing for Fyre through investor Ezra Birnbaum that required the company repay at least half a million dollars of the loan within 16 days. The only place where the company could get that kind of money within that time was from the festival receipts. Burrough speculates that this may have been McFarland's primary motivation for proceeding with the festival despite the many difficulties.
Around this same time, Fyre informed ticketholders that the event would be "cashless (and cardless)," and encouraged attendees to put up to $1,500 in advance on a digital Fyre Band to cover incidentals, according to one lawsuit. McFarland, who signed the email, suggested that they upload $300–500 for every day they planned to attend. According to a lawsuit later filed by Birnbaum, 40% of this money was to be used to pay off the short-term loan.
At the venue
On April 27, attendees began arriving on chartered flights from Miami International Airport to Exuma International Airport operated by Swift Air and Xtra Airways. Initial arrivals were brought to an "impromptu beach party" rather than the festival grounds while later arrivals were brought directly to the grounds where the true state of the festival's site became apparent.
Around nightfall, one musical act, a group of local musicians, took to the stage and played for a few hours. They were the only act to perform. In the early morning, it was announced that the festival would be postponed and that the attendees would be returned to Miami as soon as possible. Reports from the festival emerged of mishandling of guests' baggage, scattered disaster relief tents with dirt floors, mattresses that were soaking wet, no place to sleep as there were no housing assignments, an unfinished gravel lot, lack of staff, no cell phone or internet service, portable toilets, no water, inadequate and poor quality food including cheese sandwiches made with slices of processed cheese on wheat bread with a salad served in styrofoam containers, theft, lack of medical personnel, and heavy-handed security. Many attendees were reportedly stranded as flights to and from the island were cancelled following a government order that was not allowing any more planes to land.
The first flight back to Miami boarded at 1:30 a.m. April 28 but was delayed for hours due to issues with the flight's manifest. It was cancelled after sunrise and passengers were locked in the Exuma Airport terminal without access to food or water and no air conditioning; one passenger recalls that at least one person passed out from the heat. The flight eventually left Exuma that morning. More charter flights to Miami departed Exuma throughout the day.
With $3.1 million in venture capital to date and 25 employees, Billy McFarland also founded a card company called "Magnises," which promised members paying an annual $250 fee that they could "unlock their cities and take their lives to the next level," including "private members-only concerts, tastings with notable chefs, and exclusive art previews at top galleries." The Washington Post reported that "some of those benefits never materialized or were far from what was advertised." "They send the same email for every problem, but it's like fill-in-the-blanks for what the problem is," a member reported to Business Insider. Magnises reportedly became profitable in 2015.
The Washington Post reported that McFarland "has a history of overpromising" in his previous business ventures, and cited multiple examples. For example, after McFarland sold tickets to the musical Hamilton for $430, the tickets were cancelled at the last minute. In a complaint to the Better Business Bureau, one customer seeking a refund reported getting no response to multiple queries over a month and a half.
The event was promoted on Instagram by Kardashian family socialite Kendall Jenner (who was paid $250,000 and has since deleted the post), Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin, and other niche-actresses and media personalities. Ratajkowski was reportedly the only actress or model to use the hashtag #ad, but has also since deleted the post. Only later was it reported that Jenner and the others had been paid to make the posts, something they were required under federal law to disclose. The Federal Trade Commission said #ad only worked if at the beginning of paid posts, and that the hashtag alone was not a sufficient disclaimer.
Fyre Festival posted a statement on their website:
Fyre Festival set out to provide a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience on the Islands of the Exumas. Due to circumstances out of our control, the physical infrastructure was not in place on time and we are unable to fulfill on that vision safely and enjoyably for our guests. At this time, we are working tirelessly to get flights scheduled and get everyone off of Great Exuma and home safely as quickly as we can. We ask that guests currently on-island do not make their own arrangements to get to the airport as we are coordinating those plans. We are working to place everyone on complimentary charters back to Miami today; this process has commenced and the safety and comfort of our guests is our top priority. The festival is being postponed until we can further assess if and when we are able to create the high-quality experience we envisioned. We ask for everyone's patience and cooperation during this difficult time as we work as quickly and safely as we can to remedy this unforeseeable situation. We will continue to provide regular updates via email to our guests and via our official social media channels as they become available.
Many news organizations compared the chaos to William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies and Suzanne Collins's book The Hunger Games. The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism apologized on behalf of the nation and denied having responsibility for how the events unfolded. Fyre Festival announced that it would offer all attendees a choice between a full refund or VIP tickets to the following year's festival.
As a result of the festival, McFarland and Ja Rule are the subject of a $100 million lawsuit in the state of California. It was filed on behalf of plaintiff Daniel Jung by entertainment lawyer Mark Geragos, who is seeking class action status for the lawsuit with over 150 plaintiffs. Per the filing, Jung's lawsuit alleges fraud, breach of contract (part of this was the decision from organizers to go cashless so no one had money for taxis), breach of covenant of good faith (part of this was due to the "cheese sandwich" meme and the airport incident) and negligent misrepresentation. Ben Meiselas of Geragos's firm pledged to hold "all those who recklessly and blindly promoted the festival" accountable, which was interpreted as being directed at Jenner, Hadid, and other social media "influencers". A Geragos lawyer stated Fyre Festival sent cease and desist letters to whistleblowers.
A second class action lawsuit against Fyre Media, McFarland, Ja Rule, and the event promoters identified as "Does 1-100" was filed in Los Angeles by personal injury lawyer, John Girardi on behalf of 3 attendees. The plaintiff alleges that they deceived patrons into attending the festival by paying over 400 social media personalities and celebrities to promote it. The parties are accused of breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, and fraud. A Bloomberg reporter filed a FOIA to the FTC regarding their Instagram knowledge, after the second class action lawsuit zinged the event promoters.
A third lawsuit was filed in New York federal court against Ja Rule, McFarland, Fyre Media, and chief marketing officer Grant Margolin. Plaintiffs Matthew Herlihy and Anthony Lauriello accused the festival organizers of "false representations, material omissions... negligence, fraud, and violations of consumer protection statutes". “Upon the arrival of guests to the island of Great Exuma for the first weekend, the island was lacking basic amenities, was covered in dirt, and guests had to sleep in tents with wet blankets,” the suit claims. “There were no communal showers or bathrooms as promised; instead there were porta potties (only about one for every 200 yards) that were knocked down and only three showers although there were hundreds of people arriving.”
In May, two more lawsuits were filed against Fyre; bringing the total to five. On May 4; National Event Services, which provided medical services for the festival, filed a lawsuit, claiming to have suffered $250,000 in damages and alleging breach of contract, fraud, and negligence on the organizers' behalves. Fyre “failed and/or refused” to buy cancellation insurance and “failed to secure a contract with a medical evacuation helicopter or plane.” NES employees reported that the medical clinic was closed and the accommodations were “uninhabitable”, with “bug infestation, bloodstained mattresses, and no air conditioning.” In New Jersey federal court, festival attendee Andrew Petrozziello filed a lawsuit alleging that the organizers' violated state consumer fraud act and committed breach of contract.
A sixth lawsuit, filed in Florida federal court as a class action suit, alleges violations that include fraud, negligence, and breach of contract. The plaintiffs Kenneth and Emily Reel accused the organizers of sending cease and desist letters to people who criticized the festival on social media.
A seventh lawsuit was filed in Manhattan federal court as a class action suit on behalf of Sean Daly and Edward Ivey. In addition to the infractions mentioned in the other lawsuits, this suit alleges unjust enrichment and violation of New York state business law, claiming that the organizers continued to offer VIP upgrades and opportunities to deposit money into the "Fyre Band" payment system after the festival had been canceled.
An eighth lawsuit was filed in Suffolk County Superior Court on behalf of ticketing vendor Tablelist. The company is alleging that the festival organizers and financial backers committed breach of contract and fraudulently deceived Tablelist and ticket purchasers. Tablelist is seeking $3.5 million to refund customers, as well as damages resulting from loss of business after being forced to lay off 40% of their workforce to focus on the litigation.
On July 3, 2018, two North Carolina attendees were granted $5 million in damages. One of them, a blogger whose live-tweeting of the festival got much media coverage, has declared he has purchased the Fyre Festival trademark following its abandonment by the original organizers.
On May 21, 2017, The New York Times reported McFarland and his associates are under an active federal criminal investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for mail fraud, wire fraud, and securities fraud. The case is being overseen by the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. On June 30, 2017, McFarland was arrested and charged with one count of wire fraud.
On March 6, 2018, McFarland pled guilty to one count wire fraud in what the US Justice Department called a scheme to defraud investors, as well as a second count of wire fraud related to a scheme to defraud a ticket vendor. McFarland was ordered to repay $26 million to investors.
- Other festivals and conventions that suffered disastrous consequences due to poor organization and planning
- Altamont Free Concert, 1969 festival near San Francisco where an attendee was killed in a clash with a member of the Hell's Angels working as security.
- Powder Ridge Rock Festival, three-day 1970 festival at a Connecticut ski area to which 30,000 attendees showed up despite an injunction against the festival taking place that left Melanie Safka the only artist to actually perform; many of them had negative experiences with the LSD sold and the promoters absconded with all the money
- Edenfest, three-day 1996 rock festival in Ontario, Canada where outer security broke down
- Woodstock '99, 30th anniversary concert outside Rome, New York, that devolved into near-riot conditions.
- Lapland New Forest, 2008 Christmas attraction in the UK that similarly fell short of advertised expectations and led to violence between visitors and staff.
- Love Parade disaster in Duisburg, Germany, in 2010; poor planning and crowd management led to 21 deaths in a stampede.
- DashCon, 2014 Tumblr enthusiast convention where organizers tried to mollify disappointed attendees by offering them free time in a small ball pit.
- TomorrowWorld, yearly festival outside Atlanta canceled after 2015 iteration ruined by bad weather.
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Rich millennials paid thousands for Ja Rule's Fyre Fest and are now stranded on an island in disaster-relief tents
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