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.