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It was the cheese sandwich heard around the world. Do you remember where you were when you first saw it? I was in bed on a Friday morning, scrolling my phone through one bloodshot eye, before I even put on my glasses, when I noticed multiple people Tweet about something called Fyre Festival, before I saw it. It was the saddest looking sandwich I’d seen this side of an elementary school bag lunch, and apparently it replaced a catered meal. The further details came through Tweets and Twitter pics: A group of 3,000 odd festival attendees had been functionally kidnapped into a Bahamian vacation, where they were not able to get even basic human necessities like food, water, shelter or a place to shit. It was the funniest thing to happen to Twitter in all of 2017; people paying $50,000 a head were so thoroughly owned that it felt like we were all collectively Robin Hood, giving rich bros a comeuppance via our memes.
Over the next few weeks, the story just got more absurd and more delicious. Ja Rule was apparently one of the heads of the festival. Blink 182 were supposed to be the big headliners for a festival where attendees paid $50,000 each in 2017. It seemed that the guy--who we’d learn was named Billy McFarland--thought he could pull off a festival in four months. The social media influencers who promoted the festival--from the Hadids to the Jenner/Kardashians--could face criminal charges. The island they shot the advertisements on was not the island they went to. They hadn’t booked flights back for anyone. There was a dumb app that was allegedly the thing being sold at the festival, where you could book Rick Ross to show up to your birthday party. They forgot/refused to pay everyone. The “Villas” everyone was promised--and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for-- turned out to be FEMA tents with air mattresses. Everyone involved could go to jail.
What was best was that the people who got conned into the fest seemed like people you love to hate, the kind that had it coming. You know, the affluent, trust fund kids who post selfies in snapbacks from Auschwitz with 500 hashtags, functional nihilists whose only affiliation is with their own personal brand. “They got what was finally coming to them, fuck these people” is what you’d tell yourself, as you’d laugh at memes of Ja Rule running through a jungle in place of Ace Ventura in When Nature Calls.
Or at least that’s what I thought until this past week, when dueling Fyre Festival docs hit Netflix and Hulu. Though they present different theses of What Went Wrong--the Hulu one is much more about social media, and FOMO, and how Silicon Valley startup culture is the new Snake Oil, while the Netflix one more puts the blame on Billy McFarland being a singularly insane person who could con thousands of people with no regard for anyone--together, they present the most accurate depiction of what it’s like to be alive today. They capture so many microcosms of 2019, from influencers and “celebrity,” Silicon Valley greed, music festivals being treated as FOMO events before being a place to see music, the crushing reality of cheap labor, and startup/app culture.
What you realize watching Fyre Fraud (Hulu) and Fyre (Netflix) is that Fyre Festival is not some outlier, not some extraordinary swindle or disaster. If the Fyre Festival attendees deserved what was coming to them, it’s remarkable we all haven’t been sucked into something similar. And honestly, we probably all have already.
The main thrust of Fyre Fraud is examining how social media felt like a conveyor belt pushing marks into Billy McFarland’s processing machine, where he could promise them the all-powerful weekend of “experiences” and separate them from their $50,000 for Villas, jet ski rides with a Hadid, and liquor drank out of coconuts on an island where pigs will swim alongside you. In the rollout for the festival, Fyre Festival--and its digital agency, Fuck Jerry--paid hundreds of Instagram Influencers to post a orange tile at the same time saying they’d be at Fyre Festival, featuring an absurd video advertisement saying the festival would happen on Pablo Escobar’s private island. It was the ultimate in FOMO, that all-giving life force that dictates why anyone posts anything on social media. It was a festival that seemed too good to be true, but too good to be missed, so people bought thousands of tickets. Social media would build Fyre Festival and bilk its ticket buyers, but ultimately, when the fest turned out to be a shitstorm in a vacant housing development, it was also the fest’s undoing, thanks to the memes and the sandwich pic.
McFarland sat for an interview for Fyre Fraud (more on this later), and of course, he basically never admits any wrongdoing. He says that the money he took from attendees and from his investors was all used in legit ways, they just came up short. He says that the influencer campaign was morally fine, he says that he’s not guilty of all of the charges against him, fraud, wire fraud, being a tool. What becomes clear, in the interview segments, is that the degrees between McFarland, and say, the guy who founded Uber is a matter of commas and zeros in venture capital. McFarland sought to move quickly and break things--the festival economy, influencer harnessed marketing--and figure it out later. He never got to figure it out later, because he so thoroughly broke things. But both documentaries end with minor notes of positivity; if Fyre Festival had been what it was promised, maybe it would have been the best music festival of all time. That it was clearly never going to happen becomes secondary; we’re willing to give men like McFarland the benefit of the doubt as they con us into believing in them.
The Netflix documentary is much more focused on the festival itself, it’s best portion being its latter third, which serves as a tick-tock, blow-by-blow of the festival coming apart at the seams in its last week (including, in its most viral part, a story from an investor/producer of the festival steeling himself up to perform fellatio on a customs officer in exchange for pallets of Evian three days before the festival). Fyre--the weaker of the two docs, all considered--showcases the levels of stupidity involved, from Billy’s right hand man being upset the sushi he wanted on the fest’s menu fell through, to Ja Rule giving a speech after the fest about how all of it was just a small setback (and giving the same speech about “fucking like pornstars” while the fest burned around him).
But it’s at its best when it considers the plight of the army of low-level workers wrapped up in the Fyre Festival disaster, from the catering woman conned out of $50,000 of her life’s savings trying to feed the stranded festival goers (there’s a GoFundMe up to pay her back, as her final interview is the saddest part of either doc), to the people toiling in a fancy office in New York, building McFarland’s Fyre booking app, spending every payday wondering if their checks will clear, or if they’ll be paid in a paper bag like last time. In a way that I’m not sure it realizes, Fyre captures the plight of the modern American worker, who makes less money than before, and is not sure if 1. Their boss will actually pay them the salary, benefits, the experience they’re promising 2. What they’re doing actually matters 3. If what they’re doing is actually going to hurt people 4. If their boss is a monster 5. They’ll even have a job tomorrow. It’s summed up by an event producer succinctly; he knew that Fyre Festival probably couldn’t happen in such a short amount of time, but he also needed to get paid.
There’s a creeping sense of inevitability you get watching these two documentaries, that of course this would happen somehow. When you let a charismatic founder with an app sold to VC firms with buzzwords like “millennials” and “experiences” have an open checkbook, and you allow him access to hundreds of people’s Instagram accounts for promotion, and you allow him--like we allow every music festival--to package music not as something that is sacred or worth appreciating and instead the fuel for FOMO, you pair him with a digital agency, you let him move through the world and through people’s lives without consequence, you let him be able to make vague promises to a wide range of people who will foot the bill if things go sideways, shit is going to go sideways. But McFarland is not some big bad; he was made in this crucible, and it’s not his fault he figured out how to exploit it.
These documentaries feel like zeitgeist capturing, essential viewing. And now that they’re both out, there’s the attendant drama that lets you know these are going to be things we talk about for a while: Hulu surprise dropped their doc three days before Netflix released their version partially to ride the wave, and partially to get out in front of which one is going to be remembered. That’s come with the producers of each openly beefing--the Hulu doc director takes umbrage with the Netflix one being produced by the folks at Fuck Jerry (and for good reason, Fuck Jerry are the henchmen for McFarland in Fyre Fraud), while the Netflix team is alleging that Hulu paid McFarland $250,000 to appear in their doc, which of course they did, McFarland has proven he makes his money coming and going. Ja Rule won’t even give up the ghost. This story continues to be salacious, and incredible, and like watching a train wreck. But what stings most about Fyre Fraud and Fyre is that we’ll never know if we're on the train or not.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.