Fyre, in the Hole

The aftermath of two rival documentaries about the most disastrous music festival to date paint a portrait of how easy it is for cynical marketers to hijack the idea of community.

Screenshot from Fyre Fraud

Twenty-five years after his death in a shootout after a prison escape, the mythos surrounding Pablo Escobar remains very strong. In his native Colombia, he is nothing short of beloved, having burnished his reputation by doling out largesse to the impoverished inhabitants of Medellín. To many Colombians, Escobar is a lasting symbol of the country standing up for its own sovereignty against Yankee imperialism, a he’s-an-asshole-but-at-least-he’s-our-asshole sort of thing. The world’s most famous drug lord may have been worth as much as $60 billion, in 2019 dollars. And he acquired the trappings that go with some of that immense wealth, including a 7,000-acre estate with artificial lakes and a private zoo full of hippos and giraffes, plus a replica of the Piper Cub plane that delivered his first shipment of coke to the U.S. It’s still there, a quarter-century later. As the New Yorker wrote last March, 

After Escobar’s death, the compound was abandoned, its structures ransacked by memento seekers and by treasure hunters pursuing rumors that Escobar had hidden millions of dollars in cash on the property. After being repossessed by the state, Hacienda Nápoles was reopened in 2007, as a theme park with a zoo, a water park, and several family-friendly hotels. Escobar’s hippopotamuses are a main attraction. The herd, which began with three females and a male bought from a California zoo, is now believed to contain as many as fifty, making it the largest herd living freely outside Africa. As the estate fell into disrepair, several of them wandered off and found new habitat. One of the hippos was discovered in the nearby town of Doradal. As it lumbered down the street, children dodged around it, shrieking; the locals joked about making the hippo a mascot. Several family groups have migrated into the nearby Magdalena River system. Colombian authorities suggested a hunt to cull the hippos before they upset the local ecosystem or become a danger to humans, but after a public outcry the matter was dropped.

In certain circles in the U.S., Escobar has a similar mystique: a sexy, uninhibited entitlement, a safe danger. His name is a shorthand for cocaine the same way “party favors” is, only more broadly marketable outside of text exchanges. (Escobar’s cachet apparently applies to cryptocurrencies, too.) You can use his name to sell a curated lifestyle to rich and mostly white 20-somethings who will never have a gun pulled on them and who will never go to jail no matter what they do, and you can take more of their money than would fit in a single-engine plane used for international drug runs. We know this is true, because someone named Billy McFarland already did it.

The Fyre Festival was a colossal fuck-up that was to take place over back-to-back weekends in the spring of 2017, a couple weeks after Radiohead, Lady Gaga, and Kendrick Lamar headlined Coachella. It was to be the ultraluxe version of that other already-pretty-luxe, back-to-back-weekend festival in Indio, Calif., except billed as a fantasy getaway on a private island in the Bahamas with villas and sushi chefs. Just as Airbnb grew out of an idea for placing pads underneath the butts of art students exhausted from critiquing each other’s work, McFarland concocted the idea for Fyre after inventing a heavy, metallic credit card called Magnises that would make a baller clinking noise when you dropped it on the table at a restaurant.

Fyre was doomed because the timeline from conception to execution was too abbreviated for newbies to do anything but crash and burn, although the rot began well before. Magnises had gotten sued for trashing its clubhouse in the West Village, or “the community for the socially and professionally adventurous,” and McFarland needed to pay off his debts by gliding into the next hustle. So he developed an app that would theoretically enable people to book megastars for their personal parties. That app was also called Fyre, and once rapper and entrepreneur Ja Rule got on board, it quickly expanded into that ultimate totem of millennial culture: a festival. With the help of super-duper-relevant marketers Fuck Jerry and a bunch of models and influencers with huge social-media followings, Fyre was ready to launch — as an idea, anyway, albeit not a seaworthy one.

Less than a year later — to switch out of a metaphor of drowning — the whole thing had become a Dumpster Fyre of lawsuits, complete with multimillion-dollar lawsuits and that indelible viral tweet of a pampered person confronting the horror of a cheese sandwich in a polystyrene clamshell fit for a hurricane refugee. It looks like something Martha Stewart would photograph.

And now we have two simultaneously documentaries, a Volcano and a Dante’s Peak, one from Netflix (Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened) and one from Hulu (Fyre Fraud). Each purports to expose the truth behind this social-media flameout and the surrounding culture of influencer-enza. The two docs have different strengths and frequently cover the same terrain, and they each have at least one major drawback. Netflix’s version is co-produced by Jerry Media — Fyre’s initial marketing team, and people who have every reason in the world to depict themselves as culpable dupes who bear little responsibility over what happened. Meanwhile, Hulu paid McFarland $250,000 to interview him, essentially contributing to McFarland’s lifelong rolling jubilee of profit from fraud. (He allegedly demanded $125,000 from Netflix, too, but Netflix refused.)

Ethical quibbles notwithstanding, the composite story the two docs tell is damning to the nth degree, complete with a quintessential Company Man prepared to perform fellatio on a customs official to save $175,000. Virtually no one comes off looking smart or good, and those who are blameless are essentially pitiable, like the Bahamian restaurant owner who fed dozens of stranded Americans largely out of the kindness of her heart. Maryann Rolle spent her entire savings, but a GoFundMe helped her recoup four times that amount — and now she’s straining under all the attention. She’s financially whole, but many lower-profile workers certainly are not. 

It’s ugly. So how did what The New Yorker‘s Jia Tolentino describes as a “snowballing scam of scams” get started? By dropping the name “Pablo Escobar,” of course. McFarland initially tried to station Fyre on Norman’s Cay, an island that the dead drug lord has once used as a fortress for smuggling, but only on the condition that he not drop the name. Naturally, that was the first thing McFarland did. That violation of terms nixed the agreement and set in motion a series of events that caused Fyre to take place on a gravelly, undeveloped section of Great Exuma on the same weekends as that island’s biggest annual event, a sailing regatta. (The site was basically a lot next to Sandals, the resort. Only selective cartography made the festival footprint look like a true island.) Had the connection to the narcotraficante remained a private in-joke among Fyre’s organizers, the festival might have turned out a little better.

It did not, since the FOMO of something that’s meant only for V.I.P.s is too strong for invitees to ignore. McFarland et al. sensed that Instagram’s powers of hype could be exploited to sell anything, particularly when that thing is pitched as exclusive. Freeloaders will go anywhere, but no one really wants to pay top-dollar to be somewhere where everyone expects to be a V.I.P., as democratization, even at a high level, reduces the exclusivity of status. So they tried everything to create a V.V.I.P caste and direct the proceeds to pay off their mounting debts.

Billy and Ja — “Bird and Magic” — would have imported hippos from Colombia if they could. Instead, they got hogs and heifers. Once the Escobar island was off the table, a production crew brought some models to another island in the Bahamas with wild pigs on it, in order to show a promo video for a festival that they would then have to conjure from the either. They did it even though nobody on the team had any experience with that kind of thing and everybody they spoke to who did said the timetable was impossible. Connecting with Ja Rule lent a mogul’s imprimatur  to the whole thing, giving Fyre cover to book — or say they booked — acts like Disclosure and Blink-182

Fyre Festival Lego set (Imgur)

Klaxons blaring, the warning signs flashed red from Day One. Fyre’s initial orange tile Instagram post spread wildly, its blankness only adding to the seduction. Almost immediately afterward, its social media pages became merciless in deleting skeptical comments, particularly from noble trolls trying to save attendees from doom — and that mercilessness extended to straightforward queries, like “What flight should I book?” They even blocked anyone whose comment included the word “festival.”

No one in charge knew the answers to these questions, and the entire con depended on that information staying closely held. Like virtually everything else about the internet post-2009, Fyre looks like a big ruse for some bros to have sex with models on yachts and get paid for using other people’s money to make it all happen. They had no idea what they were doing, except they knew exactly what they were doing, and McFarland harbored contempt for the suckers who fell for it. Anyone who broached topics about logistics — even members of the team, like a straight-shooting pilot — was banished for spreading “negativity.” And yet people bought tickets and flights. 

Relentless positivity in the face of (self-imposed) adversity is the core of Billy McFarland’s schtick. He’s probably a sociopath, so it might be easier for him than for most. In the Hulu doc, he characterizes the Fyre experience thusly: “Before we had the worst luck, we had the best luck.” But his hustle doesn’t translate well to the screen. Apart from its ethical asterisk, the biggest problem with the Netflix documentary is that everyone involved crows about Billy McFarland’s dark magic and ability to sell anybody anything. That assessment has to be at least partly true, because otherwise none of this would have happened, but there’s almost nothing in the film that makes him out to be a slick operator. He’s far from telegenic. His eyes do not inspire trust. To be perfectly blunt, McFarland is a dorky white guy with a weak chin and a habit of swallowing parts of his words even when he’s calm. The comparisons with a certain President of the United States are inevitable, and the similarities are there: Like Trump,  the un-shameable McFarland is from the New York area, he was born to parents who worked in real estate, he even has a girlfriend with a Slavic accent, and he seems to crave — again, in Tolentino’s wise words — “success beyond accountability.” 

The Hulu doc does a better job grounding McFarland and his various lawsuits and controversies over selling things he doesn’t have, and not only because they paid for the privilege of sitting him down. Fossil-fuel executive and investor Aubrey McLendon gave McFarland $500,000 early on and died under mysterious circumstances shortly after his shady business practices came to light — something only Hulu brings up. Same goes for putting the Bahamas in the proper context as a first-stop for would-be scammers. Where that film goes wrong, however, is in working overtime to bash millennials left and right, from feathered headdresses at Coachella (where they probably last made an appearance in 2014) to Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. That last one’s a reach. Yes, a lot of millennials are narcissists who adore Kendall Jenner — but what about it? Many Gen Xers are apathetic slackers with bad taste, and collectively, the Boomers will stop at nothing until they’ve turned the whole universe into an apple core. It’s a wash.

Watching both films, a few mysteries remain unresolved. (Who is wry attendee William N. Finley IV, a performance artist or a Southern aristocrat?) And you come away almost wishing Fyre had truly descended into chaos, Lord of the Flies-style. As is, it was mostly just people with money getting drunk and acting entitled as they tried to escape the Bahamas. Others fought over rain-soaked mattresses and Facebook Live’d their discontent as act after act pulled out of performing. A flight back to America sat idling at the gate because there were 112 people aboard and the passenger manifest had 111 names — I would definitely have murdered that stowaway, and so would you — while a few lucky influencers got the promised villas. Granted, no one should have gone in the first place, but Fyre’s plunge into mild anarchy isn’t categorically different from any other epic fail. Had that been a golf tournament or a sustainability conference or CPAC, the camaraderie would still have broken down just as quickly. And unlike some previous festivals, everyone seems to have made it back alive. Woodstock ’99 set itself on fire, plus no one quite knows how many deaths and injuries there were at the original Woodstock, either. In perhaps the most amoral moment in either documentary, Ja Rule cites this exculpatory factoid on a conference call: “We didn’t kill anybody! Nobody got hurt!”

Attendees had so many warnings and so many opportunities to cancel their plans, but still they came. Even as they packed their suitcases, some influencers seemed very skeptical that it was even going to happen. Grifters like Billy McFarland succeed because of their ability to instantly explain everything away, to gaslight people into convincing themselves that it can’t possibly be that bad, until all of a sudden the proof is irrefutable and overwhelming. So who was at fault? Everyone. In its own way, the Fyre Festival shares a trait with the 20-year-long abuse scandals in the Catholic Church — the scandal and the institution are essentially one and the same, and no one is really prepared to face something of those proportions.

You can make the case that McFarland is the quintessential millennial, social media-savvy and self-involved to a frightening extent. You can also argue that he hijacked everything good about millennial culture and repackaged it for assholes who think they’re cool because they have lots and lots of money. The real question about Fyre is what we are supposed to make of that ultimate millennial value, community. Because that’s really what festivals are: fleeting communities where people venture out to experience something wonderful together, where certain social norms from this frequently dissatisfying and often outright oppressive “real world” are suspended for a few days. 

Everything everywhere wants you to think it’s “building community,” including Magnises and Ja Rule. But community isn’t always good. Sometimes, community is excellent and you make friends and memories and learn things about the world. Other times, community is a toxic clique whose members don’t do much except jealously police who’s in and who’s out, because they’re broken people with nothing to offer besides judgment or their own emptiness.

Clearly, Fyre did not fail spectacularly because it had good intentions that went awry after a heavy downpour. It failed because it succeeded at capitalizing on a genuine hunger for real-life togetherness. Showering gullible young people with all the right buzzwords is what every brand does, and just because you may experience Schadenfreude Level 1,000 at the sight of affluent people retweeting a terrible sandwich doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be marketed to, either. You can — and probably through social-media algorithms. We are all cynics who want something to come along that disarms our skepticism completely and makes us feel like we matter. In the end, Fyre was immersive only in the sense that it drowned in its own bullshit. But how badly we want to suspend our disbelief, and believe.

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