Review: Rival documentaries showcase the fraud behind Fyre festival
Fyre Festival promoter Billy McFarland promised a Bahamas beach fantasy. It was all a fraud. | Netflix

Netflix and Hulu dropped rival documentaries this month chronicling the events leading up to the massive failure that was the “luxury” music festival Fyre Fest. Much of the allure behind the festival, which was to take place in April 2017, was that it sold your “average joe” (with more than average disposable income) the promise of exclusivity and access to the celebrity lifestyle. What it actually delivered was one of the most convincing scams of our generation, combining the vainest aspects of millennial social media celebrity culture with the markers of “success” under capitalism.

Promotional videos before the event included clips of supermodels drinking on the beach, yachts, private jets—all the necessary components of a dream life. It exoticized the Bahamas, which was to host the festival, and promised a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone able to drop $1,500 for the general admission ticket, or $25,000 for the best package.

The mastermind behind the concept was 25-year-old “entrepreneur” and serial fraudster Billy McFarland, developer of an app called Fyre that was premised on making it easy to book gigs by big-time music acts. While vacationing in the Bahamas with his celebrity friends and social media influencers, McFarland got the idea for a luxury music festival named after the app. In the end, of course, it was a total flop.

Both the Netflix and Hulu documentaries spend a lot of time on McFarland’s efforts push out the event in an unrealistically short timeframe, even bringing in rapper Ja Rule as his partner in the idea. The pair seemed to believe planning and executing an exclusive music festival on a remote Bahamian island could be done in a span of 4-6 months, despite protests from those around them.

For those who kept up with the festival meltdown when it was happening in the spring of 2017, a lot of the video footage in the two documentaries will be familiar. The festival’s collapse unfolded in real-time that April, with several guests live-tweeting about the less-than-luxurious conditions they were met with upon arriving in the Bahamas. Photos of hurricane relief tents that were falsely marketed as “villas” were posted online, along with soaked mattresses that had been left out in the rain and severely limited food and water supplies. Images of the Lord of the Flies-style chaos spread across the web as bands quickly pulled from the lineup.

Netflix’s offering, Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, highlights some of the more entertaining aspects of the event, focusing on stories of reckless spending habits and outlandish proposals from festival employees who were frequently recycled out whenever they objected to an idea. McFarland is shown as an over-promising, incompetent, and corrupt figure, but he largely stands alone as the villain of the story. An important thing to note: The Netflix doc is co-produced by Jerry Media and Matte Projects—the same groups behind the original promotional fantasy videos advertising Fyre Fest. It’s been suggested by more than a few that the co-producers play down their own role in the scam.

Hulu’s documentary, on the other hand, gives much more attention to the behind-the-scenes logistics schemes and financial crimes related to Fyre Fest and its planning. Fyre Fraud exposes the investment fraud committed by McFarland in the lead-up to the event and even includes interviews with him during the pre-sentencing stage of the trials related to his crimes. He had lied repeatedly to investors about the profitability of Fyre Fest, the Fyre app, and many other business ventures. Unpaid debts and fake financial statements were his standard operating procedure—even after the meltdown in the Bahamas left him exposed.

Besides the greater amount of detail given concerning McFarland’s crimes, another major benefit of the Hulu take on Fyre Fest over that of Netflix is that it more deeply examines the influence of millennial consumerism and the ways it enabled McFarland to con people into believing his vision was even possible.

During the days leading up to the festival in April 2017, it had already become abundantly clear to the organizers working under McFarland that they were not going to be able to pull off the event. Leaked information from those who worked close to him alleged that people tried to warn McFarland of the impending disaster. Despite that fact, every person on the island of Exuma who was willing and available to work was recruited to help with the construction and setup of the event. Bahamian laborers spent endless hours attempting to meet the last-minute requests from Fyre staff. Needless to say by this point in the story, their efforts were never rewarded.

One Bahamian restaurant owner, who was featured prominently in the Netflix documentary, sunk $50,000 of her savings into paying back workers who were never compensated. MaryAnn Rolle, 55, took on the burden of feeding attendees after the festival began to collapse, with her employees working 24-hour shifts. Despite her attempts to complete the job she was hired to do, Rolle was left high and dry after McFarland abandoned ship and left the island.

At the time this all happened, the public’s reaction on social media to what unfolded on Exuma was largely one of delight. Online viewers took a certain pleasure in watching “rich kids” suffer; it’s only recently that more people have stopped to consider the immense damage that was caused to the community of Exuma. The Bahamas has historically been a popular tourist location, something which has always been a double-edged sword.

The islands financially benefit from the tourism that makes up nearly 40 percent of the country’s total gross domestic product. Although the Bahamas are considered to be a developing country, the big tourist revenue makes it the wealthiest country in the Caribbean, raking in an estimated $1.3 billion USD annually.

According to reports, half of the Bahamian labor force works in tourism and produces 70 percent of government tax revenue. Workers there rely significantly on the revenue generated by tourists—people like McFarland and his customers—who use the Caribbean as an “escape” fantasy. In the process, most of these visitors reduce the Bahamas to exotic beaches and luxury resorts, ignoring the delicate nature of the economy and infrastructure.

The tense relationship between colonization and tourism is pervasive in Caribbean countries. Those who have the privilege to travel internationally carry a certain responsibility in acknowledging the hegemonic power dynamics as a Westerner visitor. That’s the exact opposite of the fantasy sold by Fyre Fest. McFarland utilized his access to wealth and social capital as a means of attracting visitors to the island only to flee when faced with the consequences of the damage he had caused to the local economy.

Instead of luxury villas and a made-for-Instagram landscape, festival-goers instead found disaster relief tents, soggy mattresses, little food, and no musical acts. | Netflix

In the aftermath of the documentary’s release, a GoFundMe campaign was created on behalf of Rolle and amassed more than $200,000. Thousands of viewers heard her story and rushed to help her recover losses and rebuild her business. Now, a second GoFundMe is being created for the rest of the Bahamian workforce that remained uncompensated for their labor.

While the public’s generous contributions are noble and surely welcomed by those on the receiving end, it has implicitly allowed McFarland to evade responsibility yet again. The former businessman pleaded guilty to two counts of fraud in October 2018. He was initially sentenced to six years in prison, but it is being reported that he may be get an early release. Even if Rolle and others in the Bahamas get some kind of financial assistance, it won’t be coming from McFarland and his co-conspirators.

McFarland himself, meanwhile, remains the poster boy for rich white male privilege. While out on bail awaiting his original criminal trial, he was re-arrested and charged with a third count of wire fraud and money laundering related to a new scheme to bilk people out of money with offers of fake concert and event tickets. His disregard for the communities he has harmed is evident, not only in how he left the workers and residents of Exuma high and dry but in the criminal ventures he continues to perpetuate.


CONTRIBUTOR

Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias was a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities.  

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