Is Fyre Festival's Fall from Grace a Low Point for the Festival Industry?

Article by: Laura Mason|@masonlazarus

Fri April 28, 2017 | 12:22 PM

The festival world woke up to quite the debacle this morning. Hyped for months by supermodels and influencers on Instagram, Fyre Festival, headed by rapper Ja Rule and 26-year-old tech entrepreneur Billy McFarland, was supposed to be a Bahamian oasis full of V.I.P.s, luxurious accommodations, chartered yachts and private planes, gourmet food and music superstars like G.O.O.D. Music, Blink-182, Migos, Lil Yachty, Major Lazer and more. It turned out to be a crumbling morass of cancelled bands, stranded festies, and soggy American cheese sandwiches.

Slated to begin its first weekend today, April 28 (its second weekend was scheduled for May 5-7), Fyre already seemed in peril last night when news dropped that Blink-182 had pulled out. The band stated "We're not confident that we would have what we need to give you the quality of performances we always give fans." By that time, many attendees (who paid anywhere from $450-$12,000 or more for the experience) had already arrived. By dawn the next morning, the festival had been postponed indefinitely and all inbound flights from Miami had been canceled. The U.S. Embassy reportedly had to step in to help stranded festies get flights back home.

Social media posts from stranded attendees hoping to leave ASAP highlighted haphazardly built infrastructure, barebones amenities, luxury tents that were actually leftover disaster relief tents from USAid, and everyone's extreme unhappiness with the sorry situation.

The festival released a statement today in an attempt to control the avalanche of venomous press already bombarding the internet. “Fyre Festival set out to provide a once-in-a-lifetime musical experience on the Islands of the Exumas,” it said. “Due to circumstances out of our control, the physical infrastructure was not in place on time and we are 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 and home safely as quickly as we can,” it continued. “We are working to place everyone on complimentary charters back to Miami today; this process has commenced and the comfort and safety of our guests is our top priority.”

The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism even released a statement expressing total dismay at the way things played out.

Those who chose not to go were undoubtedly waiting to hear how Fyre Festival's inaugural weekend would play out, regardless. In this crowded festival landscape, organizers must take risks to get their festivals to stand out. Fyre's promises of opulence and the way it was marketed by rich, beautiful models, influencers and entertainment moguls immediately gained the event a ton of press, and not all of it good. By positioning itself as a festival haven seemingly for the wealthy and genetically blessed where only luxury would suffice, Fyre's vibe was decidedly more exclusive than inclusive – and abrasive departure from the welcoming and warm vibes many of the world's best festivals embrace.

Are you ready? 💃🏽 @fyrefestival #fyrefestival

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Quartz relays a telling quote from Fyre's creative director Mark Musters, who told the Wall Street Journal that Fyre is for millennials who want to “capture those Instagram moments” in an “offline experience.” Such a reductive statement about its potential attendees reveals a complete misunderstanding and heartless view of its target audience. There's nothing about offering that feeling of unity and collective effervescence festivals so often give us. Nothing about those euphoric moments we all chase on the dance floor. Nothing about experiencing a new culture in a foreign country. Nothing about making new friends, becoming closer with those you love, nor even seeing your favorite bands in the world perform in paradise. For Fyre Festival, it was clearly always more about handing out fancy vacations people could #latergram once they got back home. And for those truly in it for the social media fodder, they certainly did get something to post about – just not what they expected.

From a financial standpoint, it worked – tickets sold out within weeks of its December announcement, and many of those included insane add-ons costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars extra. It proved that appealing to those with means could get money in the bank; with basic general admission tickets at $450 not even including airfare, Fyre was already the most costly music festival experience we'd heard of. But that couldn't guarantee Fyre's organizers had the means to pull it all together. According to Quartz, by early April the festival had "missed a number of payment deadlines to artists," citing a Wall Street Journal report, suggesting the fest was not in great financial shape, while ticketholders complained of a concierge service that was slow to respond to questions or concerns. In addition, the creative add-ons Fyre heavily promoted in order to help it stand out – including everything from Boats and jet skis for rental starting at $249 a person to an “Artists Estate,” a $49,999-per-person package offering personalized experiences, open bars, and resort housing “in the vicinity” of performers“ – cost the fest a lot of money to provide.

The lesson? It takes way more than money to build a festival from scratch. You also need to build a strong and dependable staff to make all of the things you've promised thousands of people become reality. You need to know how to treat the artists who are playing your festival. You need to communicate with your attendees. You need to be prepared for things to go wrong; chaos cannot ensue (such as so many people stranded that the U.S. Embassy has to step in) if you hit a snag. Focusing solely on selling high-priced tickets and not paying attention to the detail it requires to actually pull off "the cultural experience of the decade," as it was called by the festival itself, suggests a level of greed and lack of care for the trusting festies who put it all on the line to attend. This is bloated capitalism running amok, which begs the questions: Has the festival industry reached its nadir? How far will some in the industry go to make a buck off attendees? Is this the catalyst we – the global festival community – need to work more synergystically together?

Right now, angry festies are filling out forms to receive refunds from the Icarus-esque Fyre Festival. Fyre's organizers flew too close to that white-hot tropical sun and in the end, fell back to Earth ablaze with their own delusions of grandeur. Many reactions to this debacle detail an explicitly snide enjoyment over the plight of Fyre Festival and its ticketholders, but we cannot fall for blaming those who bought into Fyre's promises of once-in-a-lifetime experiences – that's something we all chase at festivals. From the ashes of Fyre's failure, we in the festival community need to band together and start the conversation about how something this toxic can never happen again.