Rich millennials paid thousands for Ja Rule’s Fyre Fest and are now stranded on an island in disaster-relief tents
Fyre Fest was supposed to be the most luxurious music festival ever — an ultra-exclusive party spanning two weekends on a private island in the Bahamas, with private jet travel built into the extravagant ticket price, where Instagram ingenues, including Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid, were headed to dance on yachts.
That’s not what happened.
The production was “a shit show” from its inception to its spectacular collapse Friday — the exact words separately used by three people who bought tickets, though only two actually made it to the island, Great Exuma, in the Bahamas. Beginning early Thursday, many of the advertised private jets — which turned out to be chartered commercial planes departing from airports like La Guardia and Miami International — failed to take off at all. And those passengers may now consider themselves the lucky ones. Festivalgoers on the ground found “luxury” accommodations more like disaster relief-like tents, significantly less amenities than promised, and no clear way to leave.
“It’s complete chaos,” William Needham Finley IV, a Raleigh blogger, said from the beach Thursday night, later posting a Periscope video showing the bare-bones setup of tents, one small stage, and a half-built “concierge” structure.
So Fyre Fest is a complete disaster. Mass chaos. No organization. No one knows where to go. There are no villas, just a disaster tent city. pic.twitter.com/1lSWtnk7cA
— William N. Finley IV (@WNFIV) April 27, 2017
Produced via joint venture between rapper Ja Rule and Billy McFarland — the founder of the once-lauded millennial credit card company Magnises — Fyre Fest advertised a lineup with artists like Tyga and Desiigner and the band Blink-182 alongside activities like swimming with pigs and jet-ski rentals. But the problems started early Thursday when flights were mysteriously grounded. Finally passengers on a fully boarded flight out of Miami were forced to disembark late Thursday night after waiting to take off for hours.
“The government or whoever is running the festival down there don’t want any more people. There is no accommodation. There is no place to stay,” a man’s voice said over the loudspeaker in video recorded on the plane.
“Due to circumstances beyond our control, and in line with our culture of safety, Great Exuma inbound complimentary charter flights for Fyre Festival have been cancelled for this upcoming weekend,” a spokesperson told VICE News in an email Thursday night. “We are working to comfortably accommodate guests that have already arrived, deliver a great experience for everyone currently on the island, and will provide further press updates.”
By Friday morning, two people who made it to the airport in the Bahamas estimated there were hundreds of ticket-holders waiting in hopes of finding flights out; one flight boarded overnight before deplaning around 6 a.m. after the passengers were told the plane had been on the tarmac too long, real estate developer Danielle Hankin told VICE News Friday morning. Multiple people waiting at the airport said officials later secured the front doors with a padlock, effectively locking them in overnight.
“Someone fainted and they locked us in a room using a huge chain and deadbolt,” said Hankin, who’s still waiting at the airport. Two other attendees confirmed people were locked in and passing out. Officials from Exuma International Airport couldn’t be reached for comment.
While hordes of people were waiting at the Bahamas airport to leave, the organization sent out an email confirming the festival had been canceled Friday morning.
“Due to circumstances out of our control, the physical infrastructure was not in place on-time and are (sic) 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 as soon as possible. We ask that guests currently on-island do not make their own arrangements to get to the airport. We are working to place everyone on complimentary charters back to Miami today. This process has commenced.”
A few hours later, Ja Rule apologized in a screenshot from the iPhone Notes app, apologizing and denying the festival was a scam.
— Ja Rule (@Ruleyork) April 28, 2017
Those who did make it to the Bahamas touched down at a festival that hadn’t been fully installed yet, attendees on the ground in Great Exuma said.
Festivalgoers paid anywhere from $1,500 to $250,000 to stay on-site from Thursday to Monday, with another wave booked for next weekend. But instead of being shown to their accommodations when they landed, they were loaded onto buses and dropped off at a beach for an impromptu day party — even though some of them had traveled in on 5 a.m. flights, lifestyle blogger Brooke Morton said in an email.
The luxurious accommodations they were promised were nowhere to be found.
Gabby FitzGerald, a Columbia University sophomore, had booked an eight-person luxury “lodge” on the festival website that initially featured renderings of what the interior would look like. She said the company removed the pictures from the website at some point after she booked, and when she arrived, they told her it was no longer available. Other people who booked luxury accommodations and villas, even advertised with private bathrooms, were instead offered tents and a communal bathroom in a trailer, according to Morton.
Several people described the scene as more like a FEMA-camp than a festival.
“I have a picture of a disaster-relief camp in South America, and it’s the exact same thing. The geodomes are the U.S. aid relief domes. And everything was wet, all the mattresses were wet,” FitzGerald said. “They took all the luggage from the airport and put it in a giant shipping crate and drove it around.”
— William N. Finley IV (@WNFIV) April 28, 2017
The tents also didn’t lock, and the “secure lockers” promised in the promotional materials were hanging open because no one knew they had to bring their own locks, Finley wrote on Twitter, attaching a photo of the empty locker structure.
At least one coordinator gave up and told people to “just find an open tent and sleep in it,” Amber Hager, a software engineer who traveled to the festival with her husband, wrote in an email late Thursday night. She added that her husband turned to locals for a small meal, since neither of them had eaten that day, and bars were selling the only clean water for $4 a pop.
Morton said she and her husband booked an emergency flight out, just in case, after the festival organizers sent them a series of emails on Wednesday asking them to sign a “housing waiver” and “frantically asking us to add money to our Fyre bands, the only way to pay at the cashless festival.” Morton said she was writing from the airport, waiting to board that just-in-case flight.
In another email sent earlier, the festival recommended attendees preload at least $3,000 onto their bracelets to cover bar tabs and bottle service, promising that whatever they didn’t use would be refunded.
FitzGerald also went back to the airport, where she heard empty planes might be rerouting to pick up the disillusioned revelers. Hundreds of people had joined her, she said.
“Update: People are passing out in the airport dehydrated and begging for food. Still waiting for a plane to arrive,” she wrote in an email an hour later.
The attendees weren’t the only ones bailing on the festival. Hours after the first planeload of people landed in the Bahamas, headlining band Blink-182 dropped out.
“Regrettably, and after much careful and difficult consideration, we want to let you know that we won’t be performing at Fyre Fest in the Bahamas this weekend and next weekend,” the band wrote in a message on Twitter Thursday afternoon. “We’re not confident that we would have what we need to give you the quality of performances we always give our fans.”
What the band was missing was money, one source who worked on the event said — plus a host of other things listed in their rider.
But there were obvious problems long before the event began. A source involved in the festival said the organizers deliberately ignored their contractual obligations and were unreliable when it came to paying vendors.
“[The organizers] told me they were just going to do a stripped-down stage, and I was like, ‘Guys, you have these signed contracts with these artists saying that we’re going to honor their tech riders and their hospitality riders,’” the source said. “You can’t not give Major Lazer a video wall. It’s literally their whole set.”
The source who helped install the event said nailing things down with McFarland and his team proved difficult. “The whole thing was just so off,” the source said. “When we got to Miami, the card that they used for our hotels didn’t go through, so they were trying to get us to use our own cards for the hotel rooms. Same thing happened when we got our accommodation on the island. And the owners were just walking around with giant wads of hundreds just to pay people off.”
McFarland faced similar issues with another of his entertainment and hospitality companies, a credit card concierge service modeled on the AmEx Black Card and geared toward millennials. In January, seven current and former members spoke on the record with Business Insider, detailing their frustration with trying to access the perks advertised with membership. “I’m mad because I didn’t feel like I had the great experience that was advertised to me,” a former Magnises card-holder told the website.
The festival seemed to come out of nowhere last winter, when hundreds of so-called Instagram influencers, like former Pepsi spokesperson Kendall Jenner, began posting orange squares advertising the “#fyrefestival.” The mysterious announcement was followed by a series of photographs and videos of famous models and celebrity spawn — including Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, and Emily Ratajkowski, to name a few — frolicking around a private island one video claimed had been owned by Pablo Escobar.
Sources said Fyre Media had initially intended to purchase the private island but moved to the location near Sandals after realizing the island lacked the infrastructure to host a festival with thousands of people in attendance.
“It’s not a private island at all,” the person who worked on the event said. “It’s literally right next to Sandals. Like the place that people are supposed to park their yachts, if they bring them, is actually a dock owned by Sandals.”
Model and festival promoter Ratajkowski, who made her debut in the film Gone Girl, was one of the only participants in the Instagram marketing blitz to label her post an “#ad,” which the Federal Trade Commission requires for paid posts. Jenner, who did not, typically earns around $300,000 to do a single post for a brand on her Instagram account. She does have a personal connection to the festival, though — several artists signed to her brother-in-law Kanye West’s record label were listed as headliners.
It’s not clear if Jenner, Ratajkowski, or any of the other featured models attended the event.
In a statement Friday, the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism apologized and put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the organizers.
“Hundreds of visitors to Exuma were met with total disorganization and chaos. The organizers of Fyre recently asked the Ministry of Tourism for support for their private event. The Ministry of Tourism is not an official sponsor of the Fyre Festival. Given the magnitude of this undertaking, the MOT lent its support as we do with all international events. We offered advice and assisted with communications with other government agencies. The event organizers assured us that all measures were taken to ensure a safe and successful event, but they clearly did not have the capacity to execute an event of this scale.”
UPDATED 4/28/17 at 2:45 PM ET.