This article first appeared in Malta Today
In 2017, millennials with too much money and not enough sense become the butt of a running joke by stand-up comedians after being scammed by the promoters of the Fyre festival. This was supposedly going to be the most lavish, luxurious music festival ever, but ended up being a festival which never happened.
Now the subject of two documentaries, what has come to be known as the Fyre fraud all began when a smooth-talking young entrepreneur by the name of Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule concocted the idea of a music festival on a private island in the Bahamas. McFarland hustled investors into giving him money and he shot a promotional video with all the right ingredients: beautiful super models frolicking on yachts and breathtaking, white sandy beaches, while promising the best music artists who would perform on the island “once owned by Pablo Escobar”. It was the ultimate teaser for three days of (implied) sex, drugs and rock & roll.
McFarland, who knew exactly how to hook his target audience, hyped up the festival with words like “exclusive”, ‘VIP”, “private”, “limited availability” and of course, “the best” of everything. Set against images of the exotic location and beautiful girls with perfect beach bodies, the slickly-produced promo lured many people in with its taglines: “The best in food, art, music and adventure…on the boundaries of the impossible, Fyre is an experience and a festival ..a quest, to push beyond those boundaries.” Those attending the three day festival were promised private jets, luxurious villas and gourmet food.
Prices started from $1500 for the flight, accommodation, meals and festival tickets. Before their arrival, guests were then enticed to spend more money on wristbands paid in advance for the “cashless” festival which would entitle them to more food and drinks. For $8,999, guests could stay at “The Lodge” which had four King beds. The VIP packages cost up to $12,780, including complimentary flights, a villa, and yacht access.
When those who bought tickets arrived they found a disorganized mess, which quickly degenerated into chaos and a Lord of the Flies scenario. McFarland had run out of money but was too stubborn (or delusional) to call the whole thing off and nothing which had been promised materialized. The beautiful island seen in the promo could not be used and another unattractive location was used instead. Small white tents used for disaster emergencies were the “villas” and the gourmet food was a sandwich with a slice of unappetizing cheese which ended up going viral on Twitter.
In dissecting how McFarland (who ended up going to jail for six years for fraud), managed to con so many people, the documentaries point out that by roping in high-end models who are also social influencers like Bella Hadid, he sold the idea of a fantasy which was depicted in the promotional video. In a clever social media stunt, the models and other celebrities who have millions of followers, not only were told to share the promo and shots from the photo shoot on their Instagram and Twitter accounts but were also persuaded to simultaneously post a square in a burnt orange colour with the hashtag Fyrefestival which caught people’s attention. Kylie Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 for a single Instagram post about the festival.
The hype worked. The reach and clout of these so-called “influencers” was so great that the festival was sold out immediately. 5000 booked tickets to go to the festival that “everyone” was talking about, with McFarland once again playing on something he knew that many millennials keenly dread: FOMO (the fear of missing out). Peer pressure has always existed, of course, but social media has raised it to a whole new level because you actually witness the jet-set lifestyles of the rich and the yearning to be like them can be hard to resist.
One fallout of this elaborate scam is that these A-list celebrities are now also being subpoenaed in class action suits for being complicit in the fraud because they were paid to promote a bogus festival which never happened. While it is common knowledge that social influencers are paid to post content and promote trends, the scale of the Fyre fraud means they now have to be very careful before they put their names to anything. The UK’s Competition and Market Authority has warned that these influencers may be breaking consumer protection laws if they fail to reveal that they were being paid or rewarded to promote a brand, by putting the hashtag #Ad.
Those who have taken the greatest hit however are (as always) the little people. The workers in the Bahamas were not paid for constructing the stage, and the catering staff were paid by the restaurant owner from her life savings (a GoFundme page for them has since been set up). McFarland’s own employees were left without a salary when he told them he had no more money for the payroll.
There is a very important lesson to be learnt from all this here in Malta which has become an island of hype, flashy stunts and fast money and which has its own share of self-styled “influencers” and promotional content dressed up to look like something else. Basically, if something looks too good to be true, it usually is.