Opinion by Terry Gotham
Unless you were somewhere totally isolated like a private cay 40 miles south of Miami, you couldn’t have missed the deliciously schadenfreude-laden miasma of coverage and commentary surrounding #fyrefestival. This fuck up eclipsed the Pepsi, United, Nivea and all other corporate scandals this year so far by several orders of magnitude. The feed of one Seth Crossno, live-tweeting as William N. Finley IV gave us a window into what happened at the hastily organized pet project of Ja Rule & Billy McFarland. If the name Ja Rule is unfamiliar, please review this clip of him losing a drag race at the beginning of Fast & the Furious 1.
If the name Billy McFarland sounds familiar, I’m sorry you were tricked into joining Magnises, the network for rich posers. Get this, he thought he could fund & produce a destination festival because his last venture was this company that promised members could “unlock their cities and take their lives to the next level.” However, members repeatedly complained that they’d be contacted last minute to be notified that their tickets were not available. That’s right, to quote the Business Insider report directly:
Each time, just before the show (often the day before the event or even the day of) a representative for Magnises would send an email explaining that the startup would no longer be able to provide the purchased ticket and offer to help reschedule the seat for another date.
“They send the same email for every problem, but it’s like fill-in-the-blanks for what the problem is,” the person said.
~Business Insider, 1/24/17
So, Fyre leadership includes a rapper who was an also-ran in 2001 and a guy who pump faked trust fund kids, conning them into joining a fake influencer network. In the grand scheme of things, this is in no way the worst group of people to put together a music festival, but here’s the thing. McFarland has a history of grift and shenanigans, documented wonderfully in a timeline over at EDMSauce. But from a logistics perspective, neither Ja Rule or McFarland would be the ones actually “throwing” shit. Production companies have an army of leads, venue scouts, technical directors, sound people, lighting people, talent people, in addition to the entire hospitality/guest services battalion who are needed to be people people, for the attendees. While many mega-festivals like Coachella or Ultra or Burning Man are colossal endeavors, they’re not unknown quantities.
Festivals aren’t “big risks” for the people who keep their lights on by throwing these things. They are “deeply calculated” ventures with multi-year profitability timelines and insane amounts of market research. Ask any regional Burning Man coordinator. They’ve got a pretty good idea how many tickets they’ll sell, as does a seasoned EDM promoter or talent buyer at a venue. The costs associated with destination festivals are well known, given that there are a dozen successful ones thrown there every year. Holy Ship, Mad Decent and a number of other brands have done pretty well keeping profits ahead of costs when it comes to festivals on cruise ships and despite this year’s black swan event during BPM, Mexico hosts hundreds of thousands of party tourists every year. But, to hear McFarland tell it, they just started a website and marketing campaign before anything else:
We started this website and launched this festival marketing campaign. Our festival became a real thing and took [on] a life of its own. Our next step was to book the talent and actually make the music festival. We went out excited, and that’s when a lot of reality and roadblocks hit….
~Rolling Stone, 4/28/17
To hear these people talk about the massive challenge it was to do site scouting, some napkin math on flights/carrying capacity of the space, labor costs, and the tiniest bit of logistics analysis burned even more deeply when a “notebook” surfaced with planning notes. If they didn’t find it, I’d say they made it up, and even now, I’m still struggling to believe it’s not satire.
— William N. Finley IV (@WNFIV) April 28, 2017
The allergic reaction to work that anyone associated with this festival has, speaks to how a lot of people think parties happen: You get a lot of attractive people in a place that has bass and beer and you’re good to go. McFarland continues:
The morning of the festival, a bad storm came in and took down half of our tents and busted water pipes. Guests started to arrive and the most basic function we take for granted in the U.S., we realized, “Wow, we can’t do this.” We were on a rush job to fix everything and guests were arriving and that caused check-in to be delayed. We were overwhelmed and just didn’t have the foresight to solve all these problems.
~Rolling Stone, 4/28/17
So, to sum up, McFarland didn’t check that the site had access to water, power or adequate plumbing for sewage (it didn’t), didn’t check to confirm that his site wasn’t being used for another event that weekend that had been taking place in that location on that date every year for 60 years (it did, the George Town Regatta), and didn’t produce any inclement weather, disaster or hazardous situation plans in case of emergencies. Oh, and they told the important people not to show up when it looked like they didn’t have it under control. Does this sound like the mud-laden disaster of TomorrowWorld 2015? If it doesn’t, it should. These failures have one thing in common: a belief that money and BEAST MODE can replace experience, well paid teams that know what they’re doing and days/weeks on the ground ensuring you’re prepared for every possible problem.
One of the secrets that you learn when you start working with people to throw parties is that the people who do it, especially at the street or community level, do it because they hate bad parties more than most. Sure there’s this idea that if you throw dank parties you’ll be rich, but that’s something you’re disabused of almost immediately. Venue costs, fickle talent, licensing, law enforcement, dude bros, bath salts, and a thousand other things put a damper on any kind of rags-to-riches success story very quickly. Events, underground or retail, may not be brain surgery or translating Middle Egyptian, but they aren’t something you can just throw money at like an app or a promising pop/rap/edm star. And reality reminded us of that on Friday.
This debacle has progressed to the “class action lawsuit & apology tour” segment of any really bad consumer-facing failure, with public statements in Rolling Stone by McFarland and an amazing non-apology apology from Ja Rule (after he was found). The eye-watering $100,000,000 lawsuit announced Monday is going to attempt to teach the pair a very expensive lesson. Honestly, didn’t have to be this way. The people I know who’ve managed throw profitable community-driven parties (especially ones that aren’t 100% licensed and legit) for years are some of the most skilled business people I know. And they’d throw a hilariously good party with even a drop of the capital Ja Rule & DudeBroMcFarland had access to.
By the time the smoke clears on this public lesson in production, how many millions of dollars will have been frittered away to not have a party? How much money was spent compensating Instagram “influencers” instead of DIY artists? How many video cuts of trailers and fantasy play were created instead of paying seasoned producers to create something truly great, not just for the elite, but for anyone who was willing to behave? Way better destination events have been thrown this year, with more than one jokester on Twitter saying they wish they’d gone to BPM. Which gets to the heart of why this commodified pratfall was so viscerally enjoyable to so many people you know.
These events, especially before the bro-ification of EDM, used to be safe spaces, away from the over-produced, airbrushed universe of Instagram & “Fuck Me I’m Famous.” The parties and festivals we all hold dear in our hearts were our refuge away from the exact people who are now throwing these events and bringing in their racist, elitist, “Commodification Rocks!” friends. This is the central reasons why the response was so visceral from so many people who do theater, fine art, marketing, events, music, live performance or any industry lateral to those sectors. We’ve mourned the money changers swarming our temples for over a decade now, and we’ve been able to do nothing to fight back. So when some fresh-faced kid and a washed-up rapper decide they can do what we do, only better, and then fail so hard it becomes the #1 trending topic worldwide on Twitter and earns coverage from the New York Times and every other major, they can’t help but smile. Not because they like to see people fail, but because many of them made similar mistakes, albeit on a much smaller scale. Even more of them have tried to work with Triple-AAA talent over the years, only to be told they charge too much, are too “focused on rules,” are too indie, alternative or not-corporate friendly enough. Any pro worth their salt has touched events that are recognized the world over, and they can see bad ideas from a mile away. NYMag had a great write-up by one of these people.
Maybe now the festival circuit will remember that you can’t jerk skilled tradespeople around, you should make sure your disaster plans are in place, and when the old Union guy says the thing isn’t safe, maybe listen to him. Hopefully we can all spend a little bit of money on parties & festivals that practice this stuff, and let Further Fyre Festivals collapse under the weight of their arrogance and commodification. And now, I leave you with a bunch of Fyre Festival memes, because that was a long article and you’re a champ for sticking it out.