FYRE it up!
FYRE festival has reached a point where it probably already holds a cult reputation of a totally flopped event. It is quite amazing how a single person with a clear (or crazy as some might say) vision and a mindless drive, just almost manages to throw the most exotic and lavish festival of all time. Instead what happens is, this person ruins it all and ends up in prison owing millions from fraud. How is this possible you may ask? The answer: he basically didn’t understand any of the budgeting he did. What comes to marketing, he was a genius and soon you will understand why.
Billy McFarland was the visionary behind Magnises, an expensive looking credit card that will holds a membership of an exclusive network for millennials. He somehow managed to birth himself groupies who looked upon him as he drove a Maserati and lived the high life. His brand was to look and do as the elite does. Through this network the cardholders were promised discounts and events, yet none of them were ever redeemed. This is already a fraud from a legal point of view, but no actions were taken from any behalf. Billy was the definition of a true salesman.
In 2016 Billy McFarland and musician Ja Rule came up with the idea of creating a platform, through which talent of different fields could be booked to events. The market was theirs to take as nothing like it had ever existed. Billy had connections to VC funding and Ja had the connections to the entertainment industry. They wanted to start the marketing for this FYRE platform and came up with the idea of organizing FYRE festival; an exclusive luxury music festival arranged at the Bahamas.
The idea for the festival was quite unique as said. Billy had bought an island (previously owned by Pablo Escobar) where the festival was said to be held. There was going to be real-life treasure hunting, the guests would be brought by private jets, food would be of Michelin star quality and much more of very exclusive details were desired. It was organized to no less than 10 000 guests and the prices of the tickets cost from mere 500$ up to 100 000$ depending if you wanted to stay in a luxurious tent, a private home or a luxury yacht during the event.
Within the first hour 95% of the tickets were sold. At this point more investors and more people wanted to leave their mark on the festival. Now, usually this is how most festivals are financed; through the ticket sales. If everything is done accordingly concerning budget wise, no problems should occur. There were a few individuals who started raising concerns such as whether there was actual room for all the guests and how would the infrastructural point of view work at the island (such as toileting). No matter even some self-made piloting about the accommodations was made and proved out to be a terrible option, these doubters and critics were quickly removed from the team as they didn’t share the vision. I agree, vision must be shared by everyone in the team to generate the feeling of belonging and motivate all the workers. This shouldn’t still be an obstacle to understand facts and find a way to overcome them in the most efficient way.
With less than two months to the festival, a budget of 38 million was presented to Billy and he approved it. The core team had 6-8 weeks to organize the whole festival. With such a scale most people would at this point raise their hands and postpone the event. Billy and Ja wanted so badly to sell a dream, where the average American could pretend to be something much more during the festival, that they felt they owed the audience to keep on going. Was this a wise move? Knowing where to draw the line between self-consciousness and recklessness is a fine skill I say.
From the beginning of planning this event employees were mesmerized by Billy. He was described as a charismatic, courageous and friendly leader with a very straight forward vision. The project team had a lot of faith in whatever Billy said. Also, the people working on this project weren’t just some old friends, Billy gathered a team of very talented and highly respected individuals from different fields such as marketing, distribution, system development etc. Still, even knowing nothing more than a possible place where the festival would be taking place and the idea of playing music there, people were more than excited to jump aboard. A great example of a sort of great leader; inspiring others to follow and believe in the leader’s vision.
The marketing done for the event was quite unforeseen. First, a very sleek video of a beautiful island with the 10 top names of modelling industry frolicking in clear blue water was filmed. Then a whole 400 models, comedians, Instagram influencers and other influential people were paid to post an orange tile on their Instagram pages on the exact same date and time. This was done to raise interest and build up expectation of something very amazing that would take place somewhere in the future. Viewers were feeling excitement and confusion as the video didn’t clearly state who could be a part of this festival and what was the actual content of it. Still, the hype for the festival was surreal and everybody wanted to be included. Even big investors from other already existing big festivals, such as Coachella, reached out if they could invest in FYRE. Makes me wonder how professional these investors in fact are if they are ready to invest millions on something, that builds its bases purely on impressions and has no concrete validation.
From the start of producing marketing materials grey area was exploited. No matter had the team been granted a permission of doing something, it was done anyways. It seemed like regulations nor laws bound them as they were almighty with all the money spent on the project. The models involved in the marketing video had no idea of the mission as most of the time the whole cast would party and have fun instead of planning and rehearsing the scenes. The ideology was to have as much fun as possible in a very exclusive way and just film everything. Sure, this gives an “authentic” overview to the target audience, but clearly a concrete plan and vision lacked.
The event was marketed alongside its glamorousness as a good deed. It would create hundreds of jobs to the island, tourism would grow their industry etc. What it really turned out to be was over 200 workers reconstructing the site around the clock and no payment to be given. Also, the feeding of the workers lied on a single woman’s shoulders. I’m still wondering how no human right activists weren’t included at that time. Even these workers must have believed in a good cause for signing up to work for a music festival they knew nothing about.
The first booked artists were the likes of Major Lazer, Blink 182, Disclosure and other big names. Alone in these artists an estimated four million was spent (and this was for some reason greatly above the market value of these artists). Of course, such artists have a requirement for the level of equipment (stage, sound, lights) they will use. For some reason, none of these requirements were a) inquired, b) acquired or c) executed. Some very basic tasks to consider when hosting a festival. It is quite bizarre that the other main character was himself a musician, who should have all the knowledge what a music festivals needs are from the performers point of view. What was he doing behind the scenes? Definitely not sharing his resources and strengths. It almost seems as if he sensed a “weak spot” on Billy’s determination and took advantage of it to get more visibility.
Due to the lack of proper planning, organizing and trust inside the team it all came crashing down. Billy wanted to focus on solving problems and staying positive instead of cancelling the festival. Even a miracle couldn’t have saved the festival anymore and still Billy strongly hanged on to his vision. In a way I admire his determination and trust towards the process. I believe not many have that kind of nerves under such pressure. At this point people were finally questioning Billy, but he wouldn’t take advice or no for an answer. Instead he wanted people to do what he wanted no matter was it possible or not. However, I didn’t notice any change in Billy’s behavior or the communication between him and his team though tougher actions were required.
People who worked on the FYRE platform were kept on a black bag regarding the actual festival. Employees started getting frustrated and afraid at the same time as payments were late or delivered on a brown bag of cash. No one had any idea of the financial status as Billy oversaw them alone and wouldn’t give any insight on it. If Billy really was the master and genius he himself so obviously believed, why didn’t he have the discretion to build up a financial team? Often leaders are overwhelmed with the amount of work they carry out so delegating tasks is a common policy. In Billy’s case it seems to be a coverup for something which shouldn’t see the daylight.
Billy was described as a magician when it came to fundraise. Whether it was his charisma or inventiveness, he came up with millions until the end. When no more sponsors were achieved, they promptly asked guests to load money on an electronic wristband that supposedly work as a payment method on the festival site. Instead, the money went on thin air.
A website that leaked photos of the actual festival site was launched to raise awareness of what was actually happening behind the scenes. AT this point the team members were strongly advising Billy to start posting actual footage of the festival and start marketing it as a non-luxury festival. They thought they could minimize the damage by coming forward at this point as people would know what was waiting for them. Even the guests started asking questions, such as how they will book the flight to the area, will there be electricity, what is the schedule etc. but they weren’t answered. At the end, commenting on the FYRE accounts were disabled and all comments that could even distinctively harm the brand were deleted. The guests were finally brought to the destination by cheap airlines, there were only some wet tents for a few of the guests and no artists performing. Guests were locked inside a local airport without any food or drink for a whole day. Imagine the panic and chaos.
Even after watching the documentary a couple of times, it still remains a mystery for me where the tens of millions of dollars ended up in. Billy was obviously a very talented leader. I’d like to believe he meant no harm to happen, but with such intelligence it just seems absurd that it all turned out so unsuccessful. Could there have been another result if everybody who questioned his actions had been straight forward about it? I believe it is quite unlike to reach an outstanding outcome if the team doesn’t work transparently even on the inside. May this be a lesson to any company. No matter how excellent of a leader, if the team isn’t allowed to know what happens behind the scenes, it probably won’t end up well and is most likely illegal.
Smith, C. 2019. FYRE: The greatest party that never happened. Netflix.