A cheese sandwich should not be the defining image of a luxury music festival. But Fyre Festival, which took place (in the loosest possible sense) on an island in the Bahamas over a weekend in April 2017, will forever be associated with two triangles of brown bread, a slice of clammy white cheese and a fistful of limp salad – all presented in a white polystyrene box.
The photograph was posted on social media at the time by a furious festival-goer expecting exclusive parties with supermodels. Luxury lodgings and the finest cuisine was also pledged. The image perfectly captures the contrast between what had been promised by the organisers and what was delivered. For the rest of us, who were either not as rich or foolish enough to spend thousands of dirhams on a ticket, there was more than a hint of schadenfreude in watching the whole thing unfold in real time. As more images emerged – such as queues of sad-looking rich kids waiting for their luggage – the sniggering amplified.
After all, there’s nothing quite like watching through the gaps between splayed fingers as the privileged and entitled stumble and fall, especially if it’s straight into a muddy puddle.
Netflix documentary explains all
But a brilliant new documentary on Netflix, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, shows that the real victims of this ill-fated project were not the hoodwinked people who went, but the Bahamian people. The locals who built the site were never paid. And one restaurant owner claims she spent about $50,000 (Dh184,000) of her savings paying staff, whose wages should have been covered by the festival organisers. These people were burnt by Fyre and are still trying to recover. The festival wasn't a comedy at all – it was a tragedy.
So where did it all go wrong? It is a classic tale of hubris. A young entrepreneur called Billy McFarland was working with rapper Ja Rule on an app called Fyre, which was designed to let ordinary people book talent. If you wanted, say, supermodel Gigi Hadid to attend your party, you could log in to Fyre, pay your money and she'd be there. As one former employee explains, Fyre was meant to be "the Uber of booking talent".
To promote the app, McFarland decided to throw a massive party – which eventually morphed into Fyre Festival. About five months before the event was due to take place, McFarland flew a group of supermodels, including Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and Hailey Baldwin, to the Bahamas and shot a promo video, all super-yachts and sunshine. It was incredibly seductive.
Sponsored social media posts
Scores of celebrities and influencers were paid (or offered a free ticket) to post a cryptic orange tile, with a link to the Fyre Festival website, on their Instagram feeds. Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 to do this. And it worked. Within 48 hours, 95 per cent of tickets had sold. McFarland had a crowd, now he just needed a festival. He'd left himself about eight weeks.
The documentary is excruciating to watch. There is a brief window when there is still time to pull it off, but nothing ever seems to happen. Yet more drinks are opened, people are hired and fired, advice is ignored and, all the while, the clock is ticking.
Catastrophic decisions stack up as fast as the bills, which amount to some $30 million. In one moment of breathtaking stupidity, McFarland and his team decide to host the festival on the same weekend as a popular sailing regatta in the Bahamas, meaning the majority of accommodation in the country is already booked up. The tents, meanwhile, which are supposed to be luxury, are left-over hurricane tents.
It goes on and on, but even when the money runs out and the lie begins to be exposed, McFarland refuses to change course. The festival, he insists, must go ahead. Sure enough, when the guests arrive, it is worse than you could possibly imagine: not enough accommodation, not enough food, not enough of anything. And then it starts raining. "There are mattresses all over the place getting soaked," says music festival consultant Marc Weinstein, reliving the final, horrific moments. "Any tent that was done is now unliveable. And the guests are still coming."
The worse it gets, the more entertaining the documentary becomes. That's human nature; it's why we love watching comics flop on stage. But Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened has other serious things to say about the society we live in.
An undeliverable dream
Fyre Festival, built entirely on social media buzz, is the physical representation of the chasm between the real and the fake, the haves and the have-nots. People bought tickets because they wanted to live like the Instagram stars they follow online. That world isn't available to everyone. For all its intrigue, Fyre Festival is really just an extreme example of the lie we are sold when we start scrolling. It promised guests happiness and then made them miserable. Isn't that what social media does?
At the end of the documentary we see an interview with Maryann Rolle, the restaurant-owner who lost $50,000 because of McFarland's arrogance. "They just wiped it out and never looked back," she says, her voice cracking. "It really pains me when I have to talk about it."
How many of us considered these stories when we gleefully shared images of a bad cheese sandwich? It is the documentary's great triumph to relegate the suffering of the organisers and guests below that of the Bahamian people left to pick up the pieces of an undeliverable dream.
And what of McFarland? After eight lawsuits were brought against him relating to Fyre Festival, he was sentenced in October to six years in prison for fraud. For his part, Ja Rule has been busy distancing himself from the ordeal, recently posting a message on Twitter claiming that he, too, "was hustled, scammed, bamboozled, hoodwinked, led astray". The only good news is that, since the documentary, an online fund has been set up for Rolle. It has already reached $160,000.
Not that many lessons seem to have been learnt, however. Astonishingly, it wasn’t long before McFarland and his team were using the Fyre Festival email database to try and sell tickets to other exclusive events – depressingly, with some success.
And most people who know McFarland think the 27-year-old will be back after his stint behind bars. “I actually wouldn’t be surprised if, 10 years down the line, we’re hearing about Billy McFarland starting some kind of other adventure that’s imaginative and gets some serious momentum,” says Weinstein. “And [then] this happens in some form again.”
If this turns out to be true, one thing is not in doubt – he'll find plenty of customers. The siren call of social media and the idea of perfection it peddles is far too irresistible.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is available to watch in the UAE on Netflix now