Fyre Festival, the biggest event that never happened.

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In 2017 the Fyre Festival disaster rocked the social media world.

The biggest festival that never happened was cooked up  by  Billy McFarland, a silicon valley entrepreneur, and Ja Rule, the famous rapper from Queens NY. Billy and Ja Rule bought an island in the Bahamas and planned on using it to host an outrageous luxury music festival to promote his talent booking app “Fyre”. It was supposed to be hosted on an island once owned by Pablo Escobar. The catering was supposed to be opulent, the tents were supposed to be ornate. Fast forward 3 year later and Billy is in Federal prison for fraud. This is the saga of one of the biggest failures in the history of the entertainment industry.


Early signs, a sketchy credit card company

Let’s go back 4 years before the ill-fated festival was conceived: Billy had just launched his Exclusive invite-only credit card company Magnises. The card was supposed to emulate the American Express’ black card, targeting wealthy millennials who were attracted to its over-exaggerated benefits, including exclusive VIP passes to clubs and other exclusive perks. The truth is that the magnetic strip on this card was simply a copy of a regular Wells Fargo credit card. Some of these “exclusive events” were nothing but house parties held at the “headquarters” of the Magnesis company. Like Frat parties in an American university, these parties were hosts to beer pong competitions and lots of vodka being drunk in small plastic cups. Or as one of the magineses customers/victims describes ““It was stocked with bottom-shelf liquor and a bunch of random people walking around as if they were roommates.” All this for a flat yearly fee of 250$. The story of magnises of course ends with the landlord of the “headquarters” kicking everyone out and suing Billy for “considerable damage”.

A salesman that could sell anything

His own strength was his own downfall, and Billy Mcfarland’s best-honed skill was selling. He was so good at it that he sold a disastrous idea, which was clearly disastrous, to everyone. He convinced entire teams of Marketing experts, PR professionals, event organizers and famous models and Instagram influencers to join him. Not only did he sell them on a flawed dream, but after the problems started happening he managed to keep them on, they had been completely duped.

Ja Rule’s role in the Fyre Festival

One of the biggest influencers involved was Ja Rule, who partnered up and actually served as one of Billy’s right-hand men. His excitement about the event and contagious energy garnered the attention of millions of his fans world wide. He was probably the most blinded by the imminent disaster that was about to unfold. So blinded in fact that to this day he still defends his decision. He has never given a proper explanation and has never admitted to any fault, and insists that it wasn’t fraud so much as “false advertising”. Many will question why Ja Rule isn’t locked up in the same federal penitentiary as Billy as a promoter of an event which defrauded people out of 27.4 million dollars.

Ja Rule Fyre

The only real success: Influencer marketing

The pre-marketing event that brought in all the attention was truly a marketing triumph. The incredible initial success which led Fyre to be one of the of most talked about events of the year was a result of the effort and resources that went into promoting the event.  Months before the festival was supposed to take place Billy and Ja Rule brought in influencers and models to the island along with an entire team of cameramen, editors and producers. Picture beautiful models on the Bahamas beaches, swimming with the infamous Bahamas beach pigs, bikini-clad girls on jet skis or lying on the beach. All by influencers with millions of followers, and enough web clout to break the internet.  This is when the #fyrefestival hashtag starting blowing up and the social media eyes of the world turned to what would soon be the most talked about event on the web.

Fyre Influencer Marketing

Early warnings from Keith the Pilot

Billy hired one Keith van der Linde, a pilot, to run logistics on the original island location. Kieth was one of the only participants, out of hundreds, that realized that they had a huge problem with regard to logistics. He realized early on that there were not enough tents to host the number of people who had been invited, and the tents were not in the “luxurious conditions” that were being advertised. He took pro-active measures and proposed that they hire out a cruise ship ( plenty available in the Bahamas ) and dock it by the island providing a second accommodation option. Billy flat-out refused, insisting that everyone would stay on the island.  Keith was later fired for not being a “team player”. What is flabbergasting here is that Keith was the only member of Billy’s team to see the imminent danger. Everyone but Keith had drunk from the kool-aid pitcher.

Fyre Festival

Early problems: the island

One of the biggest setbacks that Billy and Co. ran into was their pride and joy, Norman’s Cay island. This island used to belong to Pablo Escobar and even featured a runway and sunken plane, all used by the notorious drug dealer to traffic drugs into the USA. Part of the purchase agreement was that the name “Pablo Escobar” wouldn’t be used. However Billy and his marketing team couldn’t help capitalizing on the legendary infamy that came with the “king of cocaine”. They immediately started advertising on their Fyre Festival Instagram and YouTube accounts, with flashy videos of their Instagram models on the beaches of Norman Cay, selling it as “once owned by Pablo Escobar”. Within a week they had been evicted from the island and were hunting for new territory to host the festival. They quickly settled for the island of Great Exuma to be the epicenter of the party, on an old construction site. There are multiple aspects of fraud to be unpacked here: first of all the promo videos were never shot on Norman’s Cay, they were actually shot at Saddleback Cay ( close by and currently on sale for 11.8 million $ ). Finally, Great Exuma, where the festival was finally held, was very much inhabited, unlike the videos promising Pablo’s deserted island.   

Bringing everyone down

It’s ironic that I was brought up to try to achieve and get that Ivy League degree and get that banking job and get that hedge fund job and start your company and sell it. And after all that, the reason I’m here right now is because of this massive public failure of some stupid music festival that never happened.” 

To put it bluntly Billy Mcfarland was piloting a ship full of holes that would eventually sink. But he was such a convincing captain that he brought everyone down with him. Some of these people could have jumped ship had they the foresight of what was about to happen. Others were unassuming victims left in his wake, who are suffering to this day as a result. Some notable consultants that stuck with Billy all the way until the ship hit the bottom of the ocean were Andy King and Marc Weinstein. The Netflix documentary shows multiple testimonials from these two victims of Billy’s badly orchestrated disaster. Andy king fell into multiple bouts of stress and panic attacks, during the last months leading up to the event. He even famously agreed to perform oral sex on the Bahamanian customs agent, as a bribe, who was keeping the water bottles purchased for the festival. The officials were keeping the water from being released due to the fact that Billy hadn’t paid the fees. Marc Weinstein on the other hand stuck with Billy until the end because otherwise he wouldn’t be paid. The victims we truly feel sorry for in the documentary are the Bahamanian locals who suffered at the hands of Billy’s ill intent. Maryann Rolle of the Elvis Rolle restaurant was tasked with feeding the crew of the Fyre festival during prep, and all the way up to the day the FYRE festival was supposed to happen. After pushing herself and her staff to the limit, serving 1000 meals a day she was never paid for her services. In the end had to dip into her life savings to pay her staff. Since then a gofundme page has raised over $161,000 to pay her back, thanks in large part to the publicity from the documentary.

A recap of lessons learned. 

Marc Weinstein put it best in a Medium article which appeared on July 23rd 2019: “ I’m grateful for being here. It’s ironic that I was brought up to try to achieve and get that Ivy League degree and get that banking job and get that hedge fund job and start your company and sell it. And after all that, the reason I’m here right now is because of this massive public failure of some stupid music festival that never happened.”  In the article Mark sums up the lessons he learned and how he’s grown as a result of being part of  Fyre Festival. One of the biggest lessons he highlighted is regarding FOMO ( fear of missing out ). This was something that Ja Rule also highlighted in his many post-fyre interviews. Both Mark and Ja Rule were victims of not wanting to miss out on what could have been one of the world’s biggest, and most exclusive festivals in the world. The lesson here being “Trust your gut — not your FOMO”

Mark Weinstein

Tell us about your “follow your FOMO” moment! Comment below.

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