It seems like everyone is talking about the new Netflix documentary, Fyre. Since its release on January 18, the riveting new film has been an ubiquitous topic of discussion. The documentary follows the story of the Fyre Festival, a music festival that happened in early 2017. Hulu also released a documentary on the same subject just days earlier. Both films have been at the center of discourse around social media over the last two weeks. It may be a stretch to call the event they portray a music festival — it would be more accurate to say that while a luxury music festival was promised to those who bought tickets, the actual product delivered was really nothing at all.
The festival was the brainchild of Billy McFarland, an entrepreneur who wanted to promote his Fyre app, a live music booking platform. Beyond being a riveting story of false promises and a private island disaster, McFarland’s tale is one that shows how an entrepreneur can sell their idea without a proven product. In the film, McFarland was characterized as being a gifted salesman who was able to secure investments of millions of dollars to realize his vision for the Fyre Festival. In partnership with rapper Ja Rule, McFarland acquired property in the Bahamas, announced the festival using celebrity social media influencers, and eventually sold multitudes of tickets promising a luxury, private island experience. After facing logistical challenges and an inability to accept the impending disaster, his team was unable to prepare the island to host the festival. Music acts were cancelled, the inadequate lodging was a complete disaster, and festival goers were left fighting over food and water without a way to get off the island. McFarland pleaded guilty to fraud in 2018 and is currently serving a six year prison sentence.
So, what does this have to do with Tech Trek?
McFarland is — or was — an entrepreneur. His story is a cautionary tale of what can happen when the buzz around an idea gets out ahead of the product itself. Though it is clear that McFarland was a criminal who committed fraud, I don’t believe that he went into the whole Fyre Festival fiasco with the plan of purposefully sabotaging the event and walking away with his investors’ money. He was disillusioned in his own ability to solve problems and to create something out of nothing. Multiple times throughout the documentary, various team members would point out the glaring issues with the planning of the festival to McFarland. Rather than addressing these issues or informing investors and ticket holders, he always asserted that their company should be focused on solutions rather than problems. Through this inability to adequately work through logistical issues, McFarland doomed his own festival. His story is certainly unique and extreme, but in many ways it is a cautionary tale of what can happen to a buzzworthy startup lead by a cunning entrepreneur.
When the festival happened in 2017, and again after the Netflix and Hulu documentaries came out, many people spent more time talking about the foolish rich kids who purchased tickets to the festival. It is certainly easy to blame people for paying for an experience that had no credibility that it could actually deliver what it promised. But I think the much more interesting story is how McFarland and his team were able to build the Fyre Festival into such a widely anticipated event, without actually having any infrastructure or way of delivering on their advertisements.
The documentary can also teach us something about the power of social media.
Essentially, McFarland was selling a dream. And unfortunately for his investors and customers, the dream never became a reality. Wanting to promote the Fyre app that he had started with Ja Rule, the Fyre Festival was meant to be a way to give his company a name. The first step along McFarland’s treacherous path was inviting dozens of celebrity models and social media influencers down to the Bahamas to shoot promotional footage for the festival-in-planning. The video they made contains images of private jets, models partying on yachts, and promises of a luxury experience on a private island. In addition, influencers like Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid posted about the festival on their social media accounts, exposing millions of followers to McFarland’s festival. The promotional content and backing from well-known influencers proved to be enough for McFarland to sell ticket packages with prices ranging into the tens of thousands of dollars.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the festival was born on social media. Although their advertising turned out to be completely false, the team behind Fyre Media knew how to create buzz around their event using digital platforms. A fiasco of this nature would never have occurred before the days of Twitter and Instagram. Whether we like it or not, social media influencers have great power to exercise over their massive follower bases. And except for a small number who were acquainted with the planning of the festival, very few people were at all aware of the impending disaster that was to be the Fyre Festival before it happened. Thousands of people, many of whom spent a lot of money on tickets and flights to the Bahamas, trusted what they saw posted by their favorite celebrities on social media. Perhaps even more shockingly, McFarland was able to get investors to pour millions of dollars into the project. It was eventually found that he defrauded investors of $27.4 million.
Fyre Media was not McFarland’s first entrepreneurial venture. He was already relatively well-known for creating Magnises. Magnises was an exclusive credit card, for which members paid an annual fee and were promised access to special events, along with other perks. It was essentially a scam promising status and perceived wealth for millennials. McFarland raised $1.5 million in seed round funding for Magnises in 2014, according to Crunchbase. It seemed like McFarland had a knack for creating startups that promised exclusivity and status and generated a lot of buzz, but actually ended up being completely unfounded in their promises. The Magnises card was sold promising to give users special elite status just like tickets to the Fyre Festival promised a luxury, once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend a weekend on a private island hanging out with celebrities and super models. McFarland created these products in hope of manufacturing an elite and wealthy life for himself. However, both products failed and were unable to provide the status that they promised.
Neither McFarland nor his team members did anything to warn people who had bought tickets to the festival of the difficulties they had with setting up the infrastructure on the island. ‘Difficulties’ is probably too weak a term — the small section of the island designated for the festival was full of recycled hurricane tents, hundreds of soaking wet mattresses (after they had been left out in the rain the night before), and very little by way of food and water. None the wiser, people boarded planes in Miami and arrived to the island, expecting the luxury festival experience they had been promised. Needless to say, it was a disaster. People were appalled by the conditions they found. With no way to get off the island immediately, they were stuck overnight until planes could take them back to Florida.
As the Netflix documentary points out, the festival, which had originally come to life through social media, was essentially broken down in the same way. One attendee of the festival posted a picture of a sample of the food they were given. Two slices of bread with some cheese thrown on top, and a small salad on the side. A far cry from the luxury meals they were promised. As this image and others started to spread on social media, the truth about the Fyre Festival came out quite quickly. McFarland had relied on social media to create buzz for the event. Now, Twitter and Instagram allowed people to quickly realize his company for the sham that it was.
For the hundreds of good startups that are poised to make a difference in the world, there is a bad one set up to mislead its customers and investors. For the hundreds of good entrepreneurs who care about their communities and have their customers’ best interest in mind, there is one who will lie, cheat, and do whatever it takes to benefit themselves. Billy McFarland and Fyre Media represent the bad side of entrepreneurship.
In addition to the tale of McFarland and the Fyre Festival, the success of the new documentary marks a continuation in Netflix’s attempt to produce more films and shows to put on its streaming service. With the recent release of the Academy Award-nominated film Roma and now the success of Fyre, Netflix is poised to continue producing high-quality content, and to become even more of a media giant.
Even though it has only been out for a couple of weeks, it feels like everyone has watched this film. The legal battles left in the wake of the Fyre Festival are still raging on today, and although Billy McFarland has pleaded guilty, his story will serve as a cautionary tale for years to come.