How Fyre Festival Organizer Billy McFarland Became the Madoff of Music Festivals

Vanity Fair explores how millennial marketing mess of a music festival happened.

July 8, 2017 5:00 am

Of late, all of the reports on the doomed-before-it-started Fyre Festival have been about its aftermath—the onsite chaos, subsequent lawsuits, and eventual, arrest of co-creator Billy McFarland.

But Vanity Fair has taken a little extra time to weave a soup-to-nuts tale of the buildup to the event—through the eyes of “serial entrepreneur” McFarland.

It appears that this wasn’t McFarland’s first big failure. He got his first bite of success in 2010 via a startup called Spling, which led him to drop out of college. But it was rendered obsolete when Google+ launched with a similar theme.

He then started the Magnises business, which was a members-only club that were given exclusive access to a Manhattan townhouse and bar—later adding high-end, celebrity-hosted parties around town. But after bringing in a supposed marketing whiz, who tried to scale the company up, McFarland ended up cutting costs to the business’ detriment. “They began trying to do things bigger and cheaper. The original kids, these rich kids, got disillusioned and began to leave. It was a mess,” says photographer Patrick McMullan, who McFarland burned on a proposed website project.

Where the Fyre Festival comes into the equation is pretty incredible: The entire affair was actually meant as a promotion for an app McFarland meant to launch called Fyre Media. The app was supposed to be a “clearinghouse where bands and musicians could be hired directly, cutting out the booking-agent middlemen,” notes Vanity Fair.

Just months out from the festival, though, McFarland was unable to secure any professionals to manage it or any of the multimillion-dollar amenities he’d been advertising for months on the festival website and didn’t yet have in place. So he and his team of wholly inexperienced organizers tried to do it all themselves. One production exec told the magazine: “What I heard was Billy literally Googled ‘How to rent a stage,’ and he rented a stage, and that was it. That was all they had.”

Maybe the most damning quote comes from Dan Berkowitz, CEO of CID Entertainment, a company that helps organize VIP packages for festivals like Coachella. “Remember, Bernie Madoff went to work up until the day he was arrested, because he had to keep up airs, because that was his whole life,” he told the magazine. “These guys let it go on because, if they admitted on Monday this was crumbling, they had four less days of glory as kings of Fyre Festival.”

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