Will the Fyre Festival Fiasco Have a Chilling Effect on Destination Events?
In the wake of the epic meltdown of the luxury event, other destination festivals could feel the burn.
There are bad weeks, and then there's Fyre Festival's week. The first-time venture in the Bahamas, sold as a luxury island getaway with Instagram-famous models for company, instead became the internet punchline heard around the world, losing millions of dollars in the process.
The firestorm that followed the festival's botched -- and ultimately canceled -- first weekend (April 28-30) included an avalanche of news coverage, at least three class-action lawsuits against co-founders Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, and a frenzy of online snark. As Fyre Festival's email to aggrieved attendees put it: "We are now one of the world's famous festivals, for all the wrong reasons."
Fyre Festival provided the perfect ammunition for a backlash, from its deployment of celebrity influencers (coined "Fyre Starters") to the exorbitant ticket prices that, for some packages, reached $400,000. However, it's not yet clear how the fiasco will affect other festivals that ask fans to travel for the experience.
Several promoters speaking to Billboard agree the fallout from Fyre will make it even harder for first-time destination festivals to secure funding and a ready audience. For the established festival players, Fyre stands out as an isolated case of bravado masking incompetence.
"[Fyre] created an aspirational image with models and yachts that looked like Jay Z’s 'Big Pimpin'' video, and they had no clue how they’d translate this image into an actual festival," says Marjana Jaidi, the founder and creative director of Oasis Festival in Morocco. "I was really surprised they’d spend millions on marketing a product that basically didn’t exist, instead of investing in the actual product." Jaidi believes it will now be harder "for people to trust a festival that's untested or doesn't have a track record."
Oasis earned its trust as a destination festival by avoiding the mistakes that appeared to have plagued the Fyre team. Starting small in 2015 at a luxury hotel in Marrakech, Jaidi and her Moroccan partners paid special attention to logistics, from making sure shuttle buses ran smoothly to securing on-site amenities. They also curated a select lineup of house and techno talent that matched its pitch as a "festival for adults." While ticket sales fell short in the first year, the Oasis team resolved to push on regardless. "If we were to cancel the festival, our reputation would've been gone," Jaidi says. The gamble paid off: Oasis has added an extra day for its 2017 edition.
Julian Prince, founder of SXM Festival on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin, believes Fyre Festival was misguided from the start. Prince says that despite the stunt marketing, its organizers were woefully ill-equipped to stage a festival in the Caribbean. SXM Festival launched in 2016, and like Oasis, Prince is committed to "pushing the limits each year, but within reason." His team collaborates with the local community and relies on satellite phones to work around Saint Martin's patchy internet. "I knew the island really well and I surrounded myself with people who've done events in tough places," he says.
Prince also predicted that the Caribbean would be the next hotspot for destination festivals, which invited the risk of a debacle like Fyre. With five days soundtracked by underground DJs, SXM promotes a more inclusive atmosphere, in contrast to Fyre's ultra-exclusive pastiche. "What I love about Saint Martin is you can get a $50,000 villa or a $50 motel," he says. "Our idea wasn't to be heroes. It's a different mentality."
There was also a glaring discrepancy between Fyre's ticket packages and those of established destination festivals. Oasis, for example, has priced its 2017 tickets under €200 (appx. $220) and arranged packages with local hotels, while Fyre sold the idea of luxury accommodation built from scratch on a "remote island." That lofty promise only made the reality of sodden FEMA-style tents all the more stark. "Every time you sell something to a client, they expect to get it," Prince says.
Beyond Fyre's spectacular failure, destination festivals are a tough sell. After launching in 2012, Groovefest in the Dominican Republic entered liquidation days before its 2016 edition, while the LCD Soundsystem-curated Beach Vibes festival in Mexico was canceled ahead of its 2017 debut. EDM camping weekender TomorrowWorld also folded after its 2015 installment in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia was hit by inclement weather. The logistical mess that followed earned the festival its own horror headlines.
What set Fyre apart, industry sources tell Billboard, was the ignorance of its organizers. "Ultimately Fyre Festival was created well beyond the confines of the music industry, which is why there was so much schadenfreude," says journalist Zel McCarthy, who has covered most major festivals. "It can't be understated: any festival that promises models in attendance isn't a music festival, it's a douchebag festival."
Artist managers and agents are understandably wary about speaking on the record about Fyre Festival. One agent who had artists booked on the lineup confirms to Billboard that they were paid in full in advance. "When the offers came in and we heard about the vision for the festival, we obviously took it with a grain of salt," he says.
In a pitch deck for the festival, a copy of which was obtained by Billboard, Fyre Festival laid out its plans for a talent-booking app that bypassed the usual channels. The concept is roundly dismissed by sources in the booking industry. "It's ridiculous," the agent says. "Anyone who says they're going to do that doesn't understand the very basics of how bookings work, and no artist would tolerate that for any amount of money."
Agents say Fyre's implosion won't change how they deal with festival promoters. Untested events are always a calculated risk, but this one was far shakier than most. "We knew it was a first-year festival run by completely unqualified people, and we relayed that to the artists," the agent says. "By the time it imploded, we hadn't put any artists on the plane."