Recent Ethics Thoughts On The Fyre Festival Fiasco

This Instagram photo of one of the “luxury gourmet meals being served to attendees of the 2017 Fyre Music Festival has come to symbolize the whole stunning debacle.

When Ethics Alarms last posted about the ridiculous Bahamas Fyre Festival  debacle, it was this, last July: “Remember the Frye Festival fiasco? Billy McFarland, the inept con man/idiot who set it up has been arrested and charged with fraud. Good!” Now more about that epic ethics fail is coming out. Two documentaries about the ridiculous scam/botch/whatever it was were released in January, one on Hulu and one on Netflix. I just saw the latter, and it’s pretty incredible. Here, to refresh your horror, was the original Ethics Alarms description:

Celebrities with ties to the organizers  tweeted and Instagrammed, building buzz about Fyre.  Ja Rule tweeted just a month ago, “This is where the cool kids will be April 27-30 May 5-8!!! #fyrefestival #fyre.” Ticket packages to experience the self-proclaimed “cultural event of the decade” included accommodations and chartered flights from Miami, with a low price of $900 and a luxury tag of $399,995 for access to the performers.  Days before the festival was to begin, @fyrefestival  was still ginning up anticipation.

Then the festival-goers arrived on the first day to find…nothing. Well, worse than nothing: chaos. Those who had  paid $500 apiece for what the festival’s promotion described as “villas” found that the only shelter provided were FEMA-style refugee tents. There was no food, except some hastily packaged cheese sandwiches. All of the scheduled performers canceled.

The festival-goers who hadn’t arrived by private yachts found themselves confused and stranded, with luggage but nowhere to sleep for the night. Some paid festival employees $100 to return them to the airport in a flatbed truck, but when they arrived at the airport gate, they were told that they couldn’t access the airport, requiring more bribes to get to a plane, if they were lucky. The stampede of shocked glitterati desperately trying to flee backed up the local airports, stranding many attendees in deplorable conditions, like understaffed kitchen tents with pots of uncooked food.

Subcontractors and suppliers went unpaid, Bahamian workers were stiffed, millions of dollars vanished.  The interviews with McFarland’s “team” are jaw-dropping. One fast-talking, ever-optimistic leader, McFarland, somehow convinced everyone, some who were experienced in event planning,  that he could pull off the impossible, even as the days counted down to zero hour and it was obvious that there would be no festival, just broken promised and angry rich people. There’s also an amazing coda to the Netflix documentary: while McFarland was out on bail, awaiting trial, he set up another scam, using the mailing list for the Fyre Festival to get some of the same suckers to buy phony event tickets.

Some new developments and thoughts:

1. Mcfarland created buzz with a slick video and social media posts by “internet influencers,” models and celebrities who were paid to pimp for Fyre. Now Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin and Emily Ratajkowski could be questioned in court about their role in promoting the scam, especially Jenner. The law says that a “social media influencer” must make it clear that a post is an ad if he or she received money from a third party to post it. Kim Kardashian’s little half-sister didn’t do that, and she pocketed $250,000 for a single Instagram message.  Doesn’t that make her complicit in a fraud? Shouldn’t it?

The trustee overseeing Fyre Fest’s bankruptcy plans to subpoena two groups: IMG Models and Jerry Media, along with individual  subpoenas to Jenner and her ilk.  IMG Models, employers of Jenner and the rest, received a $1.2 million payout to make viral festival ads which falsely advertised the event as the glamorous experience of a lifetime it never was. Musicians like Soulja Boy and Waka Flocka Flame may also be subpoenaed. They were  paid $115,000 and $150,000 to say they would be performing at Fyre Fest. Neither showed up, having been tipped off that there was no there there.

So far, McFarland is the only one who has gone to jail. That doesn’t compute.

2. Somehow rapper Ja Rule has avoided accountability, though he was the celebrity who first brought the Fyre project it’s “buzz.  He swears that he was just another of McFarland’s victims,  though in the Netflix documentary he is heard arguing in a post-disaster meeting that there was no fraud, just maybe “false advertising,” and insisting that the scammers can bounce back with a real festival in the future.   Ja Rule has been named in a class-action lawsuit filed by festival attendees. McFarland will also face millions of dollars in civil suits eventually.

3. Andy King is a veteran event planner who worked on logistical details for the Fyre Festival. He says he believed in McFarland, which still doesn’t explain why he stayed with the project when impending  doom should have been obvious…especially after King was asked by McFarland to to perform oral sex on Bahamian customs officials instead of paying $175,000 in cash that the festival didn’t have for water. “Billy called and said, ‘Andy you need to take one big thing for the team … You’re our wonderful gay leader and we need you … will you suck dick  to fix this water problem?'” King says on camera.

4. I keep thinking about the fact that risk-takers, visionary entrepreneurs and creative rebels who can and will deliver on their seemingly crazy ideas and those, like McFarland, who are just manipulative sociopaths–or idiots–are often indistinguishable. They inspire trust and devotion, and when they deliver, society benefits. Walt Disney could have been Billy McFarland, but fortunately, he wasn’t. Then there are the infuriating geniuses like Orson Welles, whose crazy projects sometimes worked, and other times turned out more like the Fyre Festival.

26 thoughts on “Recent Ethics Thoughts On The Fyre Festival Fiasco

  1. And there are the Hitlers, able to convince people almost to the end that he could pull a victory out of the mess.

    We watched both documentaries. I recommend watching the other.

    • A lot of inexperienced young people trusted what they saw on Instagram. Note most tickets sold were on the cheap end, so they weren’t all rich young people, either.

      The investors should have known better. I wonder if some of them were complicit.

      Starting Hulu doc now.

  2. I wouldn’t blame the musical acts for anything. They usually get paid an upfront fee to perform, but when they got wind of how the festival wasn’t really happening and was a mess, they didn’t go. I’m assuming they returned the money though.

    • The lure can be simply irresistible.

      Whatever happened to the term “confidence man?” “Con man” doesn’t really cover it.

      • OB, I’d be willing to bet that there aren’t many people under 50 who even know that “con man” is short for “confidence man.” I have had police academy cadets ask me where the term “con” comes from, and if it means the person is/was a convict. Their parents probably don’t know, either.

  3. 4. I keep thinking about the fact that risk-takers, visionary entrepreneurs and creative rebels who can and will deliver on their seemingly crazy ideas and those, like McFarland, who are just manipulative sociopaths–or idiots–are often indistinguishable.

    Then there are the ones that start out as visionary entrepreneurs that are delivering on their ideas that transmute into manipulative sociopaths when the market goes against them.

  4. (I’ve heard that the Hulu documentary skewers a few government/official parties whose complicity was not noted by Netflix.)

    McFarland is tall and attractive, and appears confident, PRESENTING himself as wealthy and masterful. These are not actual virtues or anything, but sadly, it is a proven fact that most people treat them as virtues. Tall, pretty, young people get more admiration and respect, are hired more, and earn more money for the same work over time, than short, chubby, or old people. The younger and dumber you are, the more sway these superficial traits have over you.

    I’ve been on both sides of the attractive/unattractive divide, and it’s a noticeable difference. When you’re good-looking some people will follow you to the ends of the Earth, assuming without evidence that you’re smarter, harder-working, and nicer. (I was unfortunate enough to browse Twitter after Ted Cruz was reelected, and the nasty comments from the losing side were about 2/3rds related to how much uglier that mean old Ted Cruz was than dreamy Robert Francis O’Rourke, who was totally hawt and should have won.)

    It’s a weakness of our biology (see also Elizabeth Holmes.) If McFarland looked like Danny DeVito and had advertised on the radio instead of hiring vapid Instagram models to pimp his scam, a lot of millennials would be a few thousand dollars richer right now.

  5. Let’s not forget Daniel Cowel, the one and only performer to actually perform at Fyre. I don’t know as it bumps him to Ethics Hero status, but even in the midst of the obvious disaster he made an effort to do his job and give the people what they came for. Also he’ll probably be a Jeopardy! answer some day.

      • Details are sketchy since more interesting things were going on, but:

        Artists and organizers are starting to speak out about the events. Dancing Astronaut spoke exclusively with Zero Founder, Richard Hooban who had organized a stage at the star crossed festival. Said Hooban:
        “Zero organized the best stage that never happened… But it’s all true.
        Daniel Cowel played the first and only set of the festival. Halfway through, the Bahamian government called the festival off and forced the music to stop. I told Daniel to keep playing and he did, but the sound was turned off.
        I thought ‘this is crazy!’ At least give these poor people music and a chance to escape from the chaos and cancelled festival.”



        “As a matter of fact, Daniel Cowel was the only artist who played at Fyre Festival,” Cowel’s manager told BuzzFeed News. “He played for 60 minutes and during his set the Bahamian government cancelled the festival.” Cowel’s manager said he encouraged him to keep playing, “because the people had been through so much already,” but the sound was eventually shut off.


  6. There’s also an amazing coda to the Netflix documentary: while McFarland was out on bail, awaiting trial, he set up another scam, using the mailing list for the Fyre Festival to get some of the same suckers to buy phony event tickets.

    I did not know that before.

    I searched and found that he was selling non-existent tickets to the MetGala, among other things.

    This guy is truly following in the footsteps of Bernie Madoff.

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