He put it like this, bluntly: “We sell an impossible dream for the average loser.” While designing the video and photo campaign, with the models and influencers Instagram highlights playing on a beach of white sands and almost unlikely blue water, Billy McFarland and the people who worked for him had a specific goal in mind: those who live attached to social networks, millennials and with some money –like them–, dazzled by those ephemeral paradises that cross as soon as they slide their fingers over their phones.
In 2016, McFarland presented himself in society as a young entrepreneur who bet on technology and all its possibilities. An admirer of Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and part of a similar generation – they were born in 1991 and 1984, respectively – McFarland smiled for the cameras, attended events and sought investors for his new project: the app Fyre, who would match stars of the entertainment world with those who wanted to hire them for their private events. The dream of the own party, for few, organized with a telephone. A world of aspirations.
That idea of exclusivity had already been around in the head of McFarland, which in 2013 had launched a payment system called Magnises, represented in a black credit card that was intended to grant its holders – usually wealthy young people – membership in a club, with benefits in nightclubs and luxurious restaurants in some American cities.
McFarland himself and his friends were smiling at parties and events in New York with cards and drinks in hand, surrounded by beautiful young women. But despite the fact that it got investments of several million dollars when it began to develop it, the project Magnises it was extinguished with the passage of the months.
With the Fyre application, for which the businessman created the company Fyre Media Inc., he again looked for funds and got them, although it was never clear to what extent. According to its own communications to the press and potential investors, Fyre Media assured that due to its potential it could be worth 90 million dollars in a short time (later, the court determined that the company’s real movements barely had a profit of 60 thousand Dollars).
McFarland had connections with popular social media people, he had glass offices, he had a strong marketing team. He lacked the final blow to finish taking off. Then he decided to do it in a big way and announced that in April 2017 a party would take place in an earthly paradise, to which only those who bought their tickets in advance would have access.
A meeting that would combine music recitals with the most sophisticated food and drink at all hours, luxury details in a unique natural environment, only possible for those who want to embark on an adventure for thousands of dollars. A VIP audience surrounded by influencers
Thus was born the Fyre Festival, which was to take place on a small island, Norman Cay, in the Bahamas. Or, as the organizers themselves called it, the small payment of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, a dream place where the public would feel, for a while, enjoying all kinds of pleasures.
At first in a mysterious way – first it was a hashtag, then it became an orange square that populated the feeds of various users of the networks – and then more officially, the Fyre Festival was announced with everything.
McFarland himself, who by then had teamed up with rapper Ja Rule, traveled with a huge recording crew to the Bahamas and with several supermodels and influencers to record the broadcast spots of the event, which was scheduled for April 2017.
Among others, it was possible to see the models and instagramers Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and Kendall Jenner on the Caribbean beaches, boating, sunbathing. They were the face, with Rule and McFarland, of the upcoming millennium event.
But the logistics were complicating things: the organizers had to take from the United States, by plane, from the tents where the spectators would sleep, to the stages, the chemical toilets, the drink, the food and all kinds of supplies. The chosen island, with no running water and insufficient facilities to accommodate a crowd, was a problem.
Meanwhile, the Fyre Festival continued to be everyone’s comment on the networks. Possible artists who would be present at the festival were being announced and everything was expectation. The McFarland employees, as they later recounted, had all kinds of complications in the assembly: few had experience in organizing this type of event and the demands of the founder of the company were increasingly absurd. For example, I wanted the festival to have a pirate ship for the entertainment of the audience and a lot of bizarre elements for the public to play treasure hidden on the island.
Eventually they had to change the location and the festival moved to Great Exuma, a nearby island that had more buildings, some luxury resorts and houses to accommodate some of the VIP guests.
McFarland himself supervised everything in the Bahamas and caught the attention of the locals as he spoke loudly about the millions of dollars spent on his cell phone.
With the festival a week away, Fyre Media employees began to suspect that, far from that idyllic promise, the event was going to resemble a nightmare. The water installations were not done as planned, the stages were much smaller than agreed, the trucks that had to carry from mattresses to tents got stuck on the precarious roads of the island, the provisions were piled up in the sand. Hundreds of islanders were hired to work day and night at the org anization.
The scene was completed with an unforeseen event that further complicated the picture: the night before the launch, a powerful storm hit the island. The supposedly glamorous tents where the public had to sleep, which were already installed in front of the sea, were flooded, along with the mattresses and other facilities such as shops and bars.
In the United States, meanwhile, everything was illusion until it was time to fly. Upon arriving at the airport, those who had bought their tickets for the Fyre Festival were shocked by news: the band Blink 182 announced on their networks that they were leaving the event due to problems with the organization. The surprises continued: upon boarding, the young people noticed that instead of a luxury jet they were going to travel to the Bahamas on a fairly discreet and economy class plane.
Once they landed on the island, the shock it was total. Nothing they had been promised (luxury, models running along the beach, drink at all hours) was fulfilled. The first ones who arrived were found by a damaged school bus that sped across the island: on the way the young people saw boxes, waste and all kinds of packaging thrown to the sides. Once in the center of the place, they found that, where their luxury tents should have been, there were tents and mattresses still damp from the storm.
At that time there were already hundreds who were queuing to wait for their luggage and seek some shelter, in the midst of confusion.
McFarland himself summoned a large group and tried to order the crowd himself, but it was impossible. Several outraged young people surrounded one of the houses that the production of the event had hired in search of explanations. Even the locals, overwhelmed, wanted the organizers to show their faces.
Some dehydrated, others without eating for several hours, the images of the disaster began to circulate on Twitter and Instagram, despite the efforts of the event organizers who tried, as it later became known, to block messages of anger against the festival through some tech tricks.
Until one of the attendees, who had paid about $ 12,000 for his ticket, uploaded the image of a lean sandwich in a plastic container to his networks and the wave became unstoppable. The Fyre Festival, a mixture of negligence and lack of control, was a fraud that everyone was talking about, while memes multiplied and some crowded into the Bahamas airport to go home.
There was no shortage, as the hours passed, lawyers behind the matter, who wanted to represent the victims as a whole, to achieve a massive trial.
The focus was mainly on McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, who had promoted the show with great fanfare, but also the influencers that had been loaned to spread the Fyre Festival. Some of them, in fact, had to go out and give explanations and in some American media the debate on this matter was opened: How far does the responsibility of those who, due to their influence on the networks, promote something that later turns out to be a scam ?
McFarland and Ja Rule were brought to trial, not only for the victims but also for having lied to some investors about the company, which apparently did not have the resources it claimed to have. They were sued for 100 million dollars, between individual cases for scams and collective causes for having left the festival public in a situation of abandonment. Meanwhile, the majority of workers in the Bahamas never received their full pay.
The owner of Fyre Media Inc ended up in jail in June 2017 and was soon released on bail. But in those days of freedom, as later investigated, he created a network with databases designed to sell fake tickets for large mass events, such as parades and musical shows.
In 2018, the businessman admitted in court that he had falsified documentation to attract potential investors to his company, who gave him about $ 27 million. In another investigation into fraudulent entries, the counterfeiting system was tested and he returned to prison, where he must remain at least until 2024, as determined by justice.
In 2019, two very interesting documentaries were released that, based on what happened with the Fyre Festival, raise questions about the power of attraction – and disappointment, in many cases – that social networks embody and those who swarm through them. The Hulu platform presented Fyre Fraud, a feature film that has the testimony of McFarland himself, while Netflix released shortly after Fyre: the big party that never happened.
While Ja Rule continued with his artistic life and set out to work on a app Similar to the one that Fyre pretended to be, to match artists with people interested in hiring them, McFarland is still in prison. At the beginning of 2020, the businessman had Covid and requested to be sent to another place because he is asthmatic. The authorities denied the request.
In October 2020, McFarland launched Dumpster Fyre, a podcast made from prison, where he tells of his experience with the festival and his days in prison. There he is interviewed by Jordan Harbinger, a famous communicator in the United States, who calls him on the phone.
In the first episode, the creator of the Fyre Festival says that the isolation made him think about his mistakes and the people he hurt.
“The first thing I have to do is take responsibility for all my actions,” says the man who was shown surrounded by his friends and partying. And he reflects, now in the solitude of a cell, on what he defines as “the hardest but also the most shocking” period of his short life: “This is a necessary confrontation with reality.”