Fyre Festival Fiasco: Timeline of a Disaster
Great music festivals can delight the senses in so many ways: with killer sets from your favorite artists (plus special guests), delicious food, a lush setting, crazy creative amenities, unexpected collaborations, celeb sightings, and so on. But bad festivals? All disappointing in the same way: they're rip-offs that leave you feeling like a chump.
That goes double for the fiasco that was the Fyre Festival. The instantly notorious Caribbean getaway co-produced by first-time promoters Ja Rule (born Jeffrey Atkins) and entrepreneur Billy McFarland, which exploded into a steaming heap of dashed expectations, sketchy conditions on the ground and zero fun for the unlucky patrons who paid between $1,000 and $12,000 per ticket (or $250,000 for super luxe group VIP packages). Those sad souls were promised a week of exclusive, high-end luxury accommodations on the private island of Exuma in the Bahamas from April 28-30 and May 5-7.
How did it all go so wrong? Here's a timeline of the Fyre fall:
2015: McFarland, 25 -- the name behind Magnises, a credit card company aimed at millennials that promised cool trips and concert tickets that some members say weren't delivered -- meets Ja Rule, and the unlikely duo bond over their love of flying small airplanes and hip-hop.
Early 2016: The pair go flying from New York to the Bahamas and -- in an eerie presaging of the problems to come -- their plane runs out of gas and they land on Exumas. ("Both of us immediately fell in love," McFarland told Rolling Stone after the festival fell apart.) Their instant crush led the two to launch a website and marketing campaign and begin booking acts, even as it slowly dawned on them that the island "didn't have a really great infrastructure."
Among the missing links: poor transportation options and a lack of potable water and sewage lines.
December 2016: As part of the organizers' plan to leverage social influencers to sell tickets, models Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski and a few fabulous friends are flown down to the islands "to give feedback for the launch" of Fyre, where -- according to an Elle magazine article from the time -- ticket buyers could look forward to "yoga on the beach, water trampolines, seabobbing... music, art, food and... $1 million of real treasure and jewels hidden around the island."
Dec. 12, 2016: The fest posts the now-infamous teaser video promising the best of everything. (Also, check out this purported 43-page pitch deck sent out to potential Fyre investors.)
Dec. 13, 2016: The model-heavy tease obviously worked, since one fashion blog asked: "Hey, Quick Question: What's Fyre Festival, And Why Are All the Models in the Bahamas Promoting It?"
Jan. 4, 2017: In a since-deleted Instagram post, Pepsi spokesmodel Kendall Jenner announced her involvement with Fyre with a post in which she said she was "so hyped to announce my G.O.O.D. Music family as the first headliners for @fyrefestival." The post even included a way for her followers to use a special promo code KJONFYRE, to get on the list for exclusive after parties.
January 12: Organizers release a nearly two-minute, splashy announcement ad on YouTube showcasing the island's crystal blue waters, highlighted by longing close-ups of bikini-clad models on a "remote private island" they claim was "once owned by [drug lord] Pablo Escobar. The spot promises the "best in food, art, music and adventure" amid footage of luxury yachts, jet skis and yet more models cavorting "on the boundaries of the impossible."
March 12: Two months out, word begins to leak out about festival headliners, including the addition of Blink-182. Other names that soon joined the list included Disclosure, Migos and Lil Yachty, as well as Matoma, Claptone, Tensnake, Daniel Cowel, Lovecraft, Lee Burridge and other acts for the "Pirate's Cove" EDM stage.
March 14: Writing in New York Magazine (after the festival implosion), talent producer Chloe Gordon says that when she arrived on the island six weeks before the fest was to take place, things were obviously not good. "I was excited, at least at first. Flying in, the water looked beautiful — but I was almost immediately warned not to go near it because of a rampant shark problem. That was an omen I regrettably missed," Gordon wrote.
"After we landed, we drove to the festival site to assess our goods. When we arrived, my initial reaction was 'huh.' This was not a model-filled private cay that was owned by Pablo Escobar.This was a development lot covered in gravel with a few tractors scattered around. There was not enough space to build all the tents and green rooms they would need. There was not a long, beautiful beach populated by swimming pigs. There were, however, a lot of sand flies that left me looking like I had smallpox."
Gordon wrote that her 11-person production team was packed with newbies who were told before they arrived that "things had been in motion for a while. But nothing had been done." She said no vendors had been secured, no stages rented and no transportation arranged. "Frankly, we were standing on an empty gravel pit and no one had any idea how we were going to build a festival village from scratch." With artists reportedly complaining about not getting paid and time ticking, Gordon said some planners on the ground asked if it was perhaps best to just "roll everyone's ticket over to 2018 and start planning for next year immediately."
Ja Rule, however, wasn't hearing it. "To living like movie stars, partying like rock stars and f---ing like porn stars!" the rapper allegedly toasted after the decision was made to plow ahead.
April 2: The Wall Street Journal sounds the first public alarm over the fest's health with a story bearing the headline: "At Up to $250,000 a Ticket, Island Music Festival Woos Wealthy to Stay Afloat." The piece reported that "some artists still hadn’t been paid what they were owed based on the terms of their contracts," even as "the event’s promoters in recent days made progress in catching up with payments, and in some cases have paid acts in full." It also noted that some fans who purchased VIP ticket packages that purportedly included air travel to and from the festival were "nervous as the festival’s 'concierge' team has been slow to provide them with logistical details."
April 26: Vanity Fair asks the burning question: "Can a Critical Mass of Victoria's Secret Models and a Hadid Give Bahamas Tourism an Insta-Boost?" The magazine spoke to McFarland before things went south. "We didn't just want to be a tech company that was a pure enterprise with no consumer awareness,” McFarland said of the event the magazine referred to as "a brand activation" cloaked in a Coachella-esque vibe. “So a festival was a great way to go and do that and beyond people who are attending.”
Curiously, given the lack of amenities, VF said Bahamian tourism officials were totally on board at the time. "They’ve readied the excursions, provided the jet skis for rent, made the yacht marinas available, and tapped the University of Bahamas culinary division to prepare food. The many businesses involved are depending on Fyre’s ability to deliver." Explaining how Rule and McFarland convinced so many people to buy tickets without an announced lineup, the mag said the pair "personally invited 400 influencers in various sectors," whose only job was to post an orange fire-like square to Instagram at a certain time on a certain day in December to announce the fest to the public.
Among those who reportedly complied: professional surfer Anastasia Ashley, Miami Dolphins all-pro safety Mike Thomas and models, lots of models. The bid seemed to have worked, since general admission tickets reportedly sold out before the lineup was announced.
April 27: A day before the fest was slated to begin, Blink pulled out, telling fans on Twitter that they were concerned festival organizers weren't ready to provide the production necessary for their performance. "Regrettably, and after much careful and difficult consideration, we want to let you know that we won't be performing at Fyre Fest in the Bahamas this weekend and next weekend," a tweet from the band's account read. "We're not confident that we would have what we need to give you the quality of performances we always give fans."
Speaking to Billboard, an agent who had a headliner slated to play said organizers had to renegotiate the guarantees they were offering some artists after the cost of hosting the ambitious festival began to spiral out of control. Around the time Blink bailed, attendees started flooding Reddit and Twitter with complains that the grounds were not ready when they arrived on Thursday (April 27).
We're currently working through the unexpected start to #FyreFestival. Thank u for bearing with us as we attempt to accommodate guest needs— Fyre Festival (@fyrefestival) April 28, 2017
GUEST W/ PENDING TRAVEL— Fyre Festival (@fyrefestival) April 28, 2017
Due to circumstances beyond our control, inbound flights have been canceled. We're working to refund your ticket
Fans on the ground tell Billboard that they arrived on Exumas to find a half-finished site with no communication on the island and flimsy "disaster relief tents" instead of well-appointed rooms. By midnight many attendees begin trying to board flights home only to find the airport closed.
A ticketed fan who goes by the alias William N. Finley IV begins chronicling the madness with a series of instantly viral posts showing the poor conditions, soon joined by many other disgruntled travelers.
So Fyre Fest is a complete disaster. Mass chaos. No organization. No one knows where to go. There are no villas, just a disaster tent city. pic.twitter.com/1lSWtnk7cA— William N. Finley IV (@WNFIV) April 27, 2017
April 28: The situation goes from bad to worse as organizers admit defeat and cancel the event amid a flood or reports from disgruntled attendees on the ground about the shockingly poor conditions. "Due to circumstances out of our control, the physical infrastructure was not in place on time and we are unable to fulfill on that vision safely and enjoyably for our guests,” a statement from organizers released on Friday morning reads. "The festival is being postponed until we can further assess if and when we are able to create the high-quality experience we envisioned."
The Bahamian Ministry of Tourism issues their own statement, blaming the disastrous festival on Fyre's organizers. "The event organizers assured us that all measures were taken to ensure a safe and successful event but clearly they did not have the capacity to execute an event of this scale," the statement reads. "A team of Ministry of Tourism representatives is on the island to assist with the organization of a safe return of all Fyre Festival visitors. It is our hope that the Fyre Festival visitors would consider returning to the Islands Of The Bahamas in the future to truly experience all of our beauty."
Rule releases his own statement on Twitter, denying any wrongdoing. "We are working right now on getting everyone of the island SAFE that is my immediate concern... I will make a statement soon I’m heartbroken at this moment my partners and I wanted this to be an amazing event it was NOT A SCAM as everyone is reporting I don’t know how everything went so left but I’m working to make it right by making sure everyone is refunded... I truly apologize as this is NOT MY FAULT... but I'm taking responsibility I'm deeply sorry to everyone who was inconvenienced by this..."
A short time later, Rule and McFarland release a joint statement to Billboard, apologizing for the mess and promising full refunds as well as free VIP passes for next year's re-do:
Billy McFarland and Ja Rule started a partnership over a mutual interest in technology, the ocean, and rap music. This unique combination of interests led them to the idea that, through their combined passions, they could create a new type of music festival and experience on a remote island.
They simply weren’t ready for what happened next, or how big this thing would get. They started by making a website and launching a viral campaign. Ja helped book talent, and they had hundreds of local Bahamians join in the effort. Suddenly, they found themselves transforming a small island and trying to build a festival. Thousands of people wanted to come. They were excited, but then the roadblocks started popping up.
As amazing as the islands are, the infrastructure for a festival of this magnitude needed to be built from the ground up. So, we decided to literally attempt to build a city. We set up water and waste management, brought an ambulance from New York, and chartered 737 planes to shuttle our guests via 12 flights a day from Miami. We thought we were ready, but then everyone arrived.
Bottom line, they say: their team was overwhelmed and the infrastructure wasn't there to support the rush of attendees, not to mention a strong storm the night before gates opened that "took down half of the tents on the morning our guests were scheduled to arrive." Citing concern for their guests, the organizers say they hastily built as many tents and beds as they could, but as more guests arrived, "we were simply in over our heads."
Even as the internet schadenfreude continues to explode over the spectacular failure, the promoters claim "something amazing happened... bands, and people started contacting us and said they’d do anything to make this festival a reality and how they wanted to help."
Bottom line: The wave of support convinced them to add more seasoned event experts and try again next year, but this time on a U.S. beach venue.
April 29: Billboard speaks to Finley, (born Seth Crossno), a North Carolina blogger who said he was initially psyched for his $4,000 island getaway. "When we first got there, I asked myself, 'Am I the only one who had higher expectations for this event?'" he said. "But it wasn't long before my friend turned to me and said, 'We're getting off this f---ing island.' I was like, 'No, let's give it an hour or two' before admitting, 'Okay, this really is terrible.' Why did nobody else tweet out that this was such a s--t hole? I don't know."
Crossno describes the island as a "rock quarry," and relates a scene in which McFarland was standing on a table yelling at confused attendees to run and grab any tent they could find. "It seemed like no one was in charge," he says.
Yesterday was a very challenging day for us + our guests. But we would like to fully explain what happened. Details: https://t.co/d0FoaRMb5t— Fyre Festival (@fyrefestival) April 29, 2017
#FyreFestival is a dream & vision we poured our hearts & souls into creating, 2017 fell dramatically short of even modest expectations— Fyre Festival (@fyrefestival) April 30, 2017
May 1: Reports emerge that Rule and McFarland are banned from ever attempting another festival in the Bahamas. In addition, celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos (Chris Brown, Michael Jackson) files a proposed $100 million class-action lawsuit against the Fyre team on behalf of client Daniel Jung. The suit accuses the organizers of fraud, citing the fest's "lack of adequate food, water, shelter, and medical care created a dangerous and panicked situation among attendees — suddenly finding themselves stranded on a remote island without basic provisions."
The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism releases a statement that same day in defense of Grand Exuma following numerous reports about the island's alleged lack of infrastructure. “Exuma is one of the most beautiful and developed islands in The Bahamas, and we in the Ministry are so disappointed that there have been false claims surrounding the island," director general Joy Jibrilu expresses in the statement. "We want to ensure that all stakeholders and guests know of the development and infrastructural capacity of this island.”
May 2: A second class-action lawsuit is filed against organizers, this time in Los Angeles Superior Court, claiming defendants tricked people into attending the event by paying more than 400 social media influencers and celebrities to promote it. Reports emerge that fest organizers have fired off cease and desist letters to at least one disgruntled festivalgoer, claiming that their gripes that “communications on the island were non-existent and there was nothing but disaster relief tents that were on the verge of blowing over” are untrue and could “incite violence, rioting, or civil unrest.” If the fan in question doesn’t take the posts down and “someone innocent does get hurt as a result,” the attorneys promise, “Fyre Festival will hold you accountable and responsible.”
May 4: As Fyre quickly briefly rivals Pres. Trump for punching bag status among late night talk show hosts, the legal avalanche continues, with a third set of attendees file a class-action suit alleging negligence, fraud and violation of consumer protection law. Attendees Matthew Herlihy and Anthony Lauriello each paid $1,027 for their weekend tickets, including airfare from Miami, according to their lawsuit. They uploaded an additional $900 and $1,000 to their respective festival wristbands, which were supposed to enable a “cashless” event. Both men say they haven’t been able to access those funds since. Lauriello also claims he was robbed of his clothes and headphones on the island, “because Defendants failed to provide any security.” The suit details the "total chaos" of conditions on the beach when the men arrived.
Another suit comes from New Jersey's Andrew Petrozziello, saying organizers violated the state's consumer fraud act.
May 5: Nation Event Services, a Pennsylvania event staffing company hired to provide emergency medical services for Fyre join the legal fray with a suit filed in a Philadelphia court accusing Fyre of breach of contract and fraud, claiming that organizers didn't buy cancelation insurance despite an understanding that they had not properly funded the event; they seek $250,000 in damages. NES claims that when they arrived on Grand Exumas Island a few days before the concert was scheduled to kick off the company said staff members "immediately discovered that the accommodations were uninhabitable, including bug infestation, blood-stained mattresses, and no air conditioning," and that the defendants had failed to provide proper facilities for staff to provide medical services.
May 7: Yet another class-action is filed, this one in Miami by North Carolina couple Kenneth and Emily Reel, seeking $5 million from Rule, McFarland and the fest's public relations agency, 42West LLC and advertising company, Matte Projects, LLC. The PR and ad agency are dragged into the mess, with attorneys for the couple arguing that the companies "did not take any steps, let alone reasonable steps, to ensure that their promotional materials and marketing campaigns were accurate" and that they "did nothing to ensure that what they were marketing, and in turn what people were relying upon in purchasing tickets, was or even could be true."
The Reels said they signed up after an ad for the event popped up in their Facebook feed, booking a "two bed 'duo' with a VIP upgrade for $4,599.84." The suit takes on the PR defendants, saying they "knew or should have known that their advertisements and promotions of Fyre Festival were false and likely to mislead consumers. The campaign described above that they set in motion was, at bottom, a reckless disregard for reality and at worse, a blatant falsity."
May 9: The hits just keep on coming, as a suit against Rule and McFarland is filed in Manhattan by two disgruntled attendees, Sean Daly and Edward Ivey, who claim in their class-action lawsuit that the two engaged in breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation of claims, unjust enrichment and violation of New York state business law. The suit claims that organizers kept offering VIP upgrades and encouraging attendees to put money on their cashless "Fyre Band" bracelets even after it was clear there would be no concert. It also alleges that they told artists that the festival had been canceled well before attendees were informed.
May 12: Audio of a call between McFarland and Fyre employees leaks in which McFarland informs his staff that they will not be getting paid for their work. “After conferring with our counsel and all financial people, unfortunately we are not able to proceed with payroll,” McFarland can be heard saying. “We’re not firing anyone, we’re just letting you know that there will be no payroll in the short term.”