This January, two competing documentaries set the internet ablaze; “FYRE: The Greatest Party that Never Happened” hit Netflix January 18, while Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud,” dropped four days prior. Both films tell the infamous tale of a luxury music festival gone wrong that was meant to take place in the Bahamas in April 2017. FYRE Festival was the brainchild of charismatic but previously low-profile character Billy McFarland and his business partner, well-known rapper Ja Rule. The promo for the festival promised an elite gateway to top musical acts, private villas, and lavish meals.
McFarland enlisted the help of over 400 international models, influencers, musicians, and actors to promote what FYRE media described as “a cultural moment created from a blend of music, art, and food,” taking place over two-weekends in Exuma, a private island in the Bahamas. Before the official lineup was announced, several famous models including Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, and Emily Ratajkowski posted pictures and videos of themselves frolicking around the island, enjoying secluded beaches and crystal blue waters.
FYRE Festival recently re-emerged as a trending topic when the documentaries were released in mid-January. Both films refer to FYRE Festival’s advertising as “the best coordinated social media campaign in the world.” The festival’s signature burnt orange fire tile was strategically posted by dozens of famous Instagram users at the same time, on the same day in December 2016. The pictures, captioned “Join me at #FyreFestival,” garnered international attention and created a frenzied craze around an event now poised to be “the next Coachella.” Tickets sold out in a matter of minutes, selling for prices as high as $250,0000. FYRE Media’s astounding and immediate success in their debut festival was unheard of in the music industry.
Immediately, McFarland was hailed as a genius for tapping into the appeals, insecurities, and desires of an entire generation constantly in search of extravagant novelties to provide them with instant gratification. But what exactly was McFarland giving his customers? When asked why people were willing to drop such large sums of money on a brief music festival, Tufts junior Eric Metaj answered with one word: “clout.”
“In a society that places such high value on materialistic things, people are willing to spend anything to climb the social ladder,” he explained. In other words, the influx of posts fueled the campaign’s success of marketing a luxurious lifestyle that many young adults and teens were eager to buy into. One of FYRE Media’s workers perhaps said it best when they described the festival as “Instagram com[ing] to life.”
“[FYRE FESTIVAL] was about posting this thing that looks amazing,” Akshat Rajan, a senior at Tufts who has over 20,000 followers on Instagram, added. “[Whether] it was not actually amazing did not matter. Just the fact that it looked amazing was enough to get everybody there.”
As the festival-goers discovered, Rajan was exactly right. Attendees eager to arrive on Exuma and post about their A-list experience at FYRE Festival were severely disappointed when they saw the lavish villas were nothing but left-over hurricane tents, and the promised gourmet cuisine was ham and cheese sandwiches slapped together in a last-minute panic by the FYRE Media employees. Their craze to live a seemingly perfect life on Instagram had failed, at a high cost.
In a statement to Billboard, McFarland claimed that the reason FYRE Festival crashed and burned was a lack of proper planning, and the inability of the island’s infrastructure to support thousands of people. As the Netflix documentary depicted it, the promo shown to ticket holders was FYRE Festival as it was marketed, but instead of happening for the festival’s marketed 40,000 attendees it simply became a party for the 60 celebrities filming the shoot. This is why it worked; the marketing campaign tapped into what people wanted—access to exclusivity.
“What [influencers] post is not who they are. The whole thing is a big human experiment because the followers will make it all about the [influencer’s] lives,” Rajan explained. He goes on to note how Instagram influencers have the power to lead their fanbase into thinking: “‘all I want to do is be this person,’ ‘all I want to do is live this life,’ ‘all I want to do is show that I am having fun.’”
Rajan also referenced British-American Author, Simon Sinek, who compared the thrill of being validated through Instagram as similar to the dopamine that is released when you smoke a cigarette or have a sip of alcohol. What happened with FYRE Festival was “the equivalent of opening the liquor cabinet to teenagers and saying ‘here have a go.’
When the attendees of FYRE Festival took to the internet to vent about their disappointment, they received widespread critique around the world. Various media outlets referred to the event as “Rich kids of Instagram meets Hunger Games.” When comedian Ron Funches appeared on the talk show Conan, he referred to the people who spent thousands of dollars “to go on a trip to see Blink-182” as “darwinism at its finest.”
Adding to the money splurge, festival attendees spent thousands of additional dollars during the days leading up to the event when they were notified about the cashless policy and additional exclusive packages. This was a desperate move from the organizers of the festival in an attempt to replenish the money that was quickly running out.
“[People were willing to pay] for social validation because they must have thought ‘this is a once in a lifetime experience, and I will be able to brag about it for the rest of my life,’” claimed class of 2018 alum Kevin Lustgarten, who has over 50,000 followers on Instagram. Various media outlets further idealized the festival by calling it the “most FOMO inducing event of the year.”
Eventually, McFarland was charged with a $100 million class-action lawsuit, and has since been sentenced to six years in federal prison. Although McFarland was the mastermind behind FYRE and its eventual disaster, some say his intentions in creating the event were sincere, and have even attempted to alleviate some of his accountability.
Bella Hadid was one of the few celebrities who reached out to her fans via Twitter, apologizing for the festival’s failure to deliver on its promises. “Even though this was not my project whatsoever…I do know that it has always been out of great intent and they truly wanted all of us to have the time of our lives…” Hadid wrote, excusing herself from accountability, in addition to assuming the best intentions of McFarland.
“It is a job, like any job,” Rajan agreed, speaking specifically of influencers. “When you really get into that job, you feel really passionate about it, you’ll do anything for it.”
Alyssa Lynch, a highly valued influencer for FYRE Festival, did not advertise the disaster that was the actual festival on her Instagram. Instead, she posted a picture of herself and friends on Exuma with the caption, “Maybe Fyre Festival didn’t happen, but insane adventures with these three are about to.” Despite the failure that it was, Lynch continues to advertise her life as though it was perfect, setting unrealistic expectations for her 500,000 person follower base.
“I believe [celebrities] could have done better research before accepting a paid publicity offer,” Lustgarten said. “At the same time, due to the motion of the moment and seeing other celebrities posting, if they would have asked me, I probably would have posted it.
Lustgarten further emphasized the impact an influencer’s posts can have, whether it be negative or positive. He concluded that, “We all make mistakes [but] that does not make you innocent.”
Additionally, Rajan commented on the high expectations of maintaining his social media presence, and how it can be trying to be constantly sharing your life with thousands of people. “I no longer feel comfortable with these thousands of people seeing my life with my friends,” he said. “I feel like my own Instagram has created an expectation out of me.”
Rajan depicts a cycle that many social media influencers fall into—needing to document their lives for their jobs, but simultaneously needing to document their lives for constant personal validation. This phenomena is often hyper-present in younger generations, due to the constant presence of social media in our daily lives as a platform for expression and generating self-worth.
The Netflix documentary concludes by reflecting on McFarland’s behavior and his motivation behind creating FYRE Festival. One of his employees at FYRE Media said, “I think it was important to him not just to be on a plane with a model, but to feel like that was his life. That he belonged there, and not because he owned FYRE, but because that’s who he was.”
In this way, McFarland fell victim to a similar cycle to the one Rajan described—despite likely knowing the festival was destined to fail months before, he was determined to perform his luxurious celebrity lifestyle as long as he could, to prove to himself that he belonged there, both to himself and to others.