Nobody who watched the promotional video for the Fyre music festival could have been in any doubt that it was going to be an extraordinary event indeed.
Scantily-clad supermodels cavorted on the golden sands of a private island in the Bahamas, frolicked in the turquoise waters and sunned themselves on the decks of luxury yachts. At night, they partied beneath the stars before retiring to their beach-side villas.
Those who paid up to $12,000 (£9,200) for a coveted ticket to Fyre were told to expect the same star treatment as the likes of supermodel Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, who were paid handsomely by Fyre’s organisers to plug the event, using their powerful social media presence to sing its praises to their millions of followers.
The hefty price tag included private jet and limo transfer, luxurious accommodation and five-star cuisine, with festival-goers offered the chance to party alongside some of the most famous, and most beautiful, faces in the world.
But what followed, as two new documentaries reveal, was an unmitigated disaster, which has landed its founder in jail.
Instead of A-list headline acts, five-star villas and gourmet food, the wealthy millennials who turned up in their thousands were confronted with chaotic scenes more akin to the aftermath of a natural disaster than the exclusive, dream-like experience they’d been promised.
(Left to right) lsa Hosk, Emily Ratajkowski, Bella Hadid, Lais Ribeiro, Gizele Oliveira and Rose Bertram
The festival site, which was set up in a gravel pit, had no proper infrastructure. There were few toilets, no mains electricity or water supply and barely any food. Security and first aid provisions were a shambles.
Bottled water had to be brought in at the last minute on four giant lorries.
Most seriously of all, there was nowhere near enough accommodation for the 5,000 attendees who had purchased tickets for the weekend.
In place of the luxury beach-side lodges they had been promised, they found a sea of hastily erected emergency hurricane tents.
With not enough available to house them all, a lawless free-for-all ensued as hysterical guests tried to claim beds — which had been soaked by a storm the night before.
One ticket holder described it as being ‘like the actual Hunger Games, people were fighting for tents, ripping mattresses out of them and bringing them to other tents to fit more people.’ Another likened it to The Lord of The Flies.
The new documentaries — Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix and Fyre Fraud on U.S. online channel Hulu — chart the meteoric rise and epic fall of the festival, which was scheduled to take place over two weekends in April and May 2017.
They tell the behind-the-scenes story of how, even when it became clear to the festival’s organisers that the situation was unsalvageable, they kept going, throwing good money after bad despite already being millions in debt.
Fyre festival promotional image shows glamorous models frolicking on sandy beaches
The 27-year-old entrepreneur behind Fyre, Billy McFarland, is now serving a six-year jail term for fraud — and has been ordered to pay back £21.1 million to more than a hundred investors.
Above all, however, the story of Fyre’s epic failure provides a salutary tale about the unfettered power of social media, in particular that wielded by today’s so-called internet brand ‘influencers’ who make a living by plugging products and events to fans desperate to emulate their seemingly perfect lifestyles.
The only British influencer among the 250 invited to Fyre was CC Clarke, a glamorous young singer from Hertfordshire with 1.7 million followers on Instagram, where she shares beauty and make-up tips.
She was offered a free ticket to the event in return for mentioning it — a mere snip compared to the $250,000 (£193,000) Kendall Jenner was paid for doing the same.
‘When I saw the other names who were promoting it, I thought, ‘Well, this is legit!’ she recently told Grazia magazine. ‘I was only a year into my influencer career and it was exciting to think I could be there with big names.’
Her first indication that something was wrong came on board the cramped plane laid on from Miami in Florida — a normal commercial flight, not the promised private jet — where other passengers began receiving texts from friends who had already arrived telling them to turn back. ‘By then,’ she admits, ‘we were all in too deep.’
But when festival-goers arrived at the private island they were greeted with a scene of chaos
The plane landed on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma, but instead of the promised limousine, passengers were ferried to the Fyre site on a bus. With no accommodation available, CC was among the lucky few taken to a cruise ship, but then found herself trapped onboard.
‘I was panicked and angry,’ she says. ‘You never think that something that huge, where big, worldwide artists are performing, is going to fall through like that.’
Right up until the last minute McFarland also refused to acknowledge that his event was in trouble. Ignoring the warnings of colleagues, he kept going until the 11th hour, drafting in hundreds of local Bahamian labourers — who were left unpaid — in a desperate bid to construct stage sets and toilet blocks.
They were fed by a heroic local restaurant owner who lost £77,000 of her life savings after stepping in to provide 1,000 meals a day for the exhausted staff.
Until that point, McFarland had been seen as a something of a golden boy in U.S. business circles, a young college drop-out turned entrepreneur firmly in touch with the up-and-coming generation of young rich millennials and their constant quest for exclusivity.
He had previously created Magnises, a cheaper version of the fabled American Express black card, fashioned from steel to make it stand out from other cards. While it wasn’t a real charge card — data was simply copied from the magnetic strip of a normal bank card — for a £350 fee users were promised exclusive perks, discounts and invitations to private parties and a private club in New York.
Fyre’s website marketed itself as the ‘best in food, art, music and adventure’
Fyre was the name he coined for his latest venture, a music event booking app, with Fyre Festival organised alongside rap artist Ja Rule as a way of launching the brand.
The first tantalising glimpse of ‘the cultural event of the decade’ came in December 2016 when 400 in-demand influencers paid by McFarland simultaneously posted orange squares on their Instagram accounts.
A tap on the square revealed a promotional video tempting wealthy millennials with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Within 24 hours, the video had been viewed 300 million times and the Fyre Festival hashtag had gone viral. Within 48 hours, 95 per cent of the tickets had sold out, leaving those who had failed to get their hands on one in the grip of every millennial’s worst nightmare — FOMO, or ‘fear of missing out’.
But the tantalising promotional video which kick-started the frenzy was shot in the early planning stages when confidence about the project was running high, despite the absence of a solid business plan.
In reality, McFarland had no experience of organising such an event and vastly underestimated the cost and the logistics involved. Yet the hype he generated — footage obtained by documentary makers shows McFarland and his team drinking and partying with a host of glamorous models — encouraged wealthy investors to hand over vast sums.
The first disaster was the location itself. The original site chosen for the event was Norman’s Cay, a private island with historic connections to drug smuggling.
McFarland spent a cool $1 million (£771,000) on a lease from the current owners on the promise that he made no mention of its criminal past.
When he bragged on social media that the island once belonged to drug lord Pablo Escobar, the lease was cancelled — just 45 days before the event was due to take place in April 2017.
McFarland subsequently got a permit from the Bahamian government to use a site at Roker Point on Great Exuma, just above the Sandals holiday resort, but continued to peddle the ‘private island’ lie.
Maps of the site were altered before being posted online to make it appear as if Roker Point was a deserted island in itself.
On top of all that, the date of the festival clashed with a popular annual regatta weekend on Great Exuma, which meant that all the accommodation on the island was already booked out.
In reality the unfinished festival site was a gravel pit with rubbish across the beach and not enough food or water
The land itself was little more than a building site, with sand brought in by the lorry-load to try to make the area look like a beach.
McFarland — described as ‘unflappable’ and ‘entirely delusional’ by one former colleague — was deaf to cautions about the lack of toilet facilities and the fact it would be physically impossible to fit all the guests on the site.
Even the option of mooring a cruise ship off shore to provide accommodation was problematic because of the risks posed by getting drunken festival-goers from a launch boat onto a ship late at night.
Freelance festival consultant Marc Weinstein, who was contracted to work on Fyre and was one of those who warned McFarland it was doomed, says: ‘To admit a lack of adequate accommodation 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.’
As the date of the festival approached, employees who tried to warn McFarland of the impending disaster were replaced.
Instead of pulling the plug, he dug in further for fear of losing the millions of pounds of investors’ money he had already spent.
Ticket-holders were emailed and told that since the festival was cashless, they should load money onto their digital ‘Fyre Bands’ to cover the cost of food and thousands of pounds worth of ‘luxury experiences’ such as diving trips and helicopter rides. With the promised deals including a ‘Kendall Jenner yacht party’, some uploaded tens of thousands.
But rumours of trouble began to circulate online. Just 24 hours before the big day, headline act Blink-182 cancelled their appearance, releasing a statement saying: ‘We’re not confident that we would have what we need to give you the quality of performances we always give our fans.’
Some ticket holders also noticed that sketches of the luxury rooms they had paid for had been taken down from the Fyre website. An online concierge service stopped responding to questions.
Those that made it to the island, before flights from Miami were cancelled, were directed to a local bar and restaurant while McFarland tried to buy himself more time.
When CC Clarke did finally make it ashore she found guests sleeping rough on the beaches ‘being eaten alive by mosquitoes’ while waiting for someone to organise flights home.
Billy McFarland, the promoter of the failed Fyre festival in the Bahamas, leaving federal court after pleading guilty to wire fraud charges in New York
Outraged, she turned her camera on the chaotic scenes around her and uploaded video clips onto her website.
Indeed, perhaps the greatest irony of all is that while social media hype was used to peddle the fantasy of Fyre Festival, it was also, ultimately, the cause of its downfall.
As ticket holders posted photographs of the chaotic scenes, word soon got around that Fyre Festival was a flop.
The ultimate symbol of its failure became a photograph shared thousands of times online of the limp cheese sandwich served to guests.
By the time McFarland agreed to cancel the festival, thousands were stranded on the island and unable to get home.
The true victims of the entire fiasco, of course, were the Bahamian labourers who are still owed £193,000 in wages — not to mention caterer Maryann Rolle.
As well as providing 1,000 meals a day to workers and festival organisers, it was to her restaurant, The Exuma Point Bar and Grille, that McFarland and his team sent guests when it was clear they could not be brought to the shambolic festival site.
Rapper Ja Rule and Billy McFarland promoting the festival. Pictured is a scene from the new Netflix documentary FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
In one of the documentaries, Maryann tearfully recounts how she and her husband Elvis lost their entire life savings — over £77,000 — because McFarland didn’t pay her.
‘I don’t even like to talk about the Fyre Festival,’ she said. ‘They really, really, really hurt me.’
Since the documentaries have aired, an online GoFundMe has been swamped with donations for the couple amounting to more than £154,000.
Marc Weinstein says that the failure of Fyre reveals ‘something about the Potemkin Village of our online lives and how little it takes to reveal what’s behind the facade’.
He also questions whether the latest cultural trend, to value experiences over belongings, isn’t simply a ‘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.’
It’s a stark wake-up call that CC Clarke has heeded. She says that since being burned by Fyre, she is far more discerning about what she puts her name to — a lesson we can only hope that her fellow social media ‘influencers’ will also take on board.
‘This has opened everyone’s eyes about Instagram versus reality,’ she says. ‘It’s important people are wise to who they follow, and question whether things are real. We’ve all loved being sold the Insta dream, but just believing pictures isn’t enough any more.’