Fyre Festival organizers blew all their money months early on models, planes, and yachts
One month before thousands of well-heeled millennials were set to descend on a remote island in the Bahamas for the Fyre Festival to frolic on yachts, rub elbows with models, and hear acts like Blink 182 and Major Lazer, the organizers had a big problem.
They were running low on cash and the festival lacked fundamental necessities — toilets and showers, for example — and they were running out of time. One supplier told VICE News that when they were contacted by the festival in April, they told the organizers that all the money in the world wouldn’t get trailers for toilets and showers past customs in time, because that takes weeks to process. The festival was scheduled over two weekends in late April and early May.
“There was no infrastructure to even support the equipment. They didn’t even have a loading dock, they had no understanding of what vehicles were on the island to even move the stuff off the ship once it got there,” said the supplier. “They said stuff like, ‘Don’t worry about customs; it’s only for a weekend, you don’t have to worry about customs.”
It turns out customs was something Billy McFarland, Fyre Festival’s 25-year-old founder, should have worried about. On Saturday, Bahamian officials shut down the ill-fated site. “Customs has the area on lockdown because Billy has not paid Customs duty taxes on the items that he imported,” the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism said in a statement obtained by ABC. By then the festival had at least one toilet trailer and a cluster of porta-potties, but the ticket-holders were long gone from the site, which some compared to a refugee camp in part because the “luxury tents” were similar to FEMA tents.
Interviews with dozens of people, including former Fyre employees, contractors, and potential investors, reveal the organizers behind Fyre Fest knew months in advance that they were not going to be able to provide even a fraction of what they were selling. Despite the glossy marketing, McFarland and his company, Fyre Media, had little to offer investors beyond a now-infamous photoshoot featuring 10 of IMG’s most popular models, and a press release touting a partnership with YachtLife, a luxury yacht charter app.
Serious logistical planning for the festival didn’t even begin until late February or early March — less than two months before the thousands of people McFarland had sold a luxury vacation on a private island were scheduled to arrive.
The toilet and shower supplier, who did not get the Fyre Festival contract, told the organizers it would cost north of $1 million just to order the equipment — a rush-order mark-up he unironically referred to as “disaster pricing.” That number did not include the cost of shipping the equipment to the island or the high cost of the barge needed to dispose of the wastewater created by thousands of people showering and using the toilet for four days.
— Alex Stivers (@AlexStivers) May 1, 2017
The collapse of the festival became a national punchline. Those involved believe McFarland and his co-organizer Ja Rule started out wanting to deliver on their promises — an ultra-lux experience on a private island formerly owned by Pablo Escobar, with famous models dancing on yachts, bottle service at beachside concerts, and hidden treasures accessible only by jet-ski. But all agree they knew or should have known well in advance it wasn’t going to work.
🚨 FREE GETAWAY ALERT🚨
— Complex Music (@ComplexMusic) April 17, 2017
If Fyre Festival seemed last-minute, that’s because it was. McFarland thought of the idea in October 2016 and announced the festival on Instagram a month later, spending millions on models, private jets, and yachts to promote what would be his first-ever large-scale event, sources familiar with the planning said.
He spent $250,000 on a single Instagram post from Kim Kardashian’s half-sister Kendall Jenner and laid out hundreds of thousands more on lesser-name “influencers,” none of whom were paid less than $20,000, one person familiar with the payments said.
Only one model — “Gone Girl” actress Emily Ratajkowski — labeled her promotion as an ad, as required by the Federal Trade Commission. The other models’ omissions are now the subject of a class-action lawsuit.
“These ‘sponsored posts’ were in direct violation of Federal Trade Commission guidelines on disclosing material connections between advertisers and endorsers,” the suit alleges. “Social Media ‘influencers’ made no attempt to disclose to consumers that they were being compensated for promoting the Fyre Festival. Instead these influencers gave the impression that the guest list was full of the Social Elite and other celebrities.”
Fyre Festival employees said planning for the event took on the feel of an extended Spring Break frat party. McFarland and members of his team would fly down “every other weekend for lavish vacations” on nearby islands, but only male employees and models were allowed to go. “Billy would take all the boys down there, it would be boys only,” the employee said. “They talk about f—ing bitches and hoes in conference meetings.”
The employee said McFarland would often urinate in the office with the door open for employees to see. “It’s a boys club,” the employee said. “They laugh about it.” Another former contractor called the environment “low-key sexist and racist.”
Someone who briefly worked on the festival and asked to remain anonymous agreed: “They were just stoked on getting vacation homes there. I didn’t feel like they were taking it seriously at all.”
According to Chloe Gordon, a production coordinator, the team laughed off warnings that they wouldn’t be able to finish in time. “Let’s just do it and be legends, man,” she said a man on the marketing team said in response to advice that they should postpone the festival to 2018.
By March, things were starting to get desperate. The festival was running low on cash, despite significant investments from a New York City socialite who also worked with McFarland on his failing millennial credit card company, Magnises.
McFarland and his team started soliciting a second round of investments, said several people familiar with the offering. In at least one meeting with an investor, McFarland intimated that Fyre had spent several million dollars on celebrity endorsements and marketing and now needed cash to pay vendors, staffers, and artists.
Despite a pitch deck that promised 10,000 ticket-holders each weekend, sales were low and largely discounted. Most buyers had paid somewhere between $500 and $2,000 for their tickets, despite outlandish claims that people were purchasing ticket packages for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The target audience wasn’t elite or affluent people — it was people who wanted the lifestyle but couldn’t afford it, until Fyre Festival came along.
A former Fyre Media employee who asked for anonymity recalled McFarland and Fyre Fest director Grant Margolin’s pitch to the prominent New York socialite. “She was sold a story. They were taking her to the same island as they were taking the models. She had no idea,” the employee said.
Their promises to registrants also kept changing over time. Pablo Escobar never owned an island in the Bahamas, and even if he had, the festival was located on an abandoned development site on a public beach near a Sandals resort. In an early pitch deck obtained by Vanity Fair, McFarland’s team claimed the festival had been given $8.4 million in land on Black Point in Exuma “in exchange for hosting the festival and promoting the island.” Though sources say McFarland and 24-year-old Margolin did look into buying a private island in December after the first wave of ticket purchases came in, they abandoned the plan because the location had no electricity, no water, and no space for more than a thousand or so revelers.
They initially said they expected to sell 40,000 tickets by March 31. That number was later lowered to 20,000, but the “private island” bit was left in all the marketing materials. After tickets had been sold, the company abruptly changed the lodging options from a “rustic lodge” tent picture in renderings to the FEMA-style tents that were standing there when attendees showed up.
— Michele Smith (@MicheleSmi) April 27, 2017
The villas advertised on the website never existed, one Fyre employee said — they listed them as a joke, not expecting anyone to buy them. Organizers ignored emails and left ticket-holders unsure of where they were flying in from or when until days before the festival.
An agreement with Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr to provide gourmet catering was canceled on April 2 after the organizers failed to make payments, an employee familiar with the transaction said. Starr confirmed in a statement that since April, it had “not been involved with, or provided any services in connection with, this event.” Bloomberg reports the organizers balked at the six-figure estimate given by Starr.
Many of the vendors who were involved said they still haven’t been paid.
— William N. Finley IV (@WNFIV) April 28, 2017
During that time, several former employees and one manager for artists slotted to play the festival confirmed, most people were having trouble getting paid, and those who were getting paid were getting money directly from McFarland. Payroll abruptly stopped in the Fyre Media office in October, according to one employee at the company.
“We started getting paid as wires from Billy’s account and one time [in January] we got paid in a wad of cash. They didn’t have any money. They kept paying the influencers and the models,” the employee said.
Alarmed by what was happening, multiple employees quit after it became clear upper management wasn’t interested in their concerns, the employee said.
“At South by Southwest this year, every party had someone who had worked on this, and everyone was like, ‘It’s a hot mess,’” the person who briefly worked on the festival said.
— William N. Finley IV (@WNFIV) April 30, 2017
The organizers also cycled through several production teams, after firing some for saying the job was impossible and driving others to quit with slow payments and unfeasible tasks, multiple sources said. One team arrived at their Miami hotel only to find the credit card information provided by Fyre wasn’t working. The same happened when they arrived in the Bahamas.
“They were trying to get us to use our own cards for the hotel rooms,” a member of the production team said. “And the owners were just walking around with giant wads of hundreds to pay people off.”
A former Fyre employee said McFarland sold Ja Rule a “pipe dream,” though there’s evidence to suggest the seasoned recording artist should have known better. Video hyping the festival he posted on Twitter and later deleted includes footage of the main stage, which had walk-up stairs and lacked barricades or an exit for EMS. “People would have died,” the production employee said.
The festival’s first website was also pulled — after Fyre failed to pay the company that created it, a former Fyre employee said.
On Thursday, festival organizers, including McFarland, started warning celebrity VIP guests not to come, according to a $100 million lawsuit filed Sunday by Mark Geragos.
McFarland and Frye Media declined to comment for this story, but they’re far from done selling. On Monday festival organizers began circulating a form that offered ticket holders the option to get free tickets to the 2018 Fyre Festival in lieu of the refund they were promised.
“Would you prefer to exchange your 2017 ticket(s) for additional 2018 VIP passes, as opposed to receiving a refund? (Ex: If you purchased 3 passes for 2017, you would receive 6 total 2018 VIP passes),” the form asks. “We have received support and commitments from several musicians to perform at next year’s event. We would be so thankful to have your support as well.”