Like everybody else who watched the wreckage of Fyre Festival, the "luxury" event last weekend in the Bahamas marred by shoddy housing, questionable meals and overall substandard conditions, veteran managers, agents and others in the concert business tell Rolling Stone they couldn't believe organizers neglected to supply attendees with basic food, water and lodging. Billy McFarland, who created the event with rapper Ja Rule, lamented to Rolling Stone last week that "we tried building a city out of nothing" — but those who put on Bonnaroo, Coachella and other music festivals do such a thing every year. One concert-business source called the festival "completely ass-backwards." Another said it was "a complete disaster and a lot of people fell for it."
"Their approach was, 'We thought up the idea, we put tickets on sale, then we decided on marketing and talent and tried to see if the venue would work,'" says one source who wished to remain anonymous. "The traditional way of promoting a festival is: Find a great site, make sure it works, then select some talent and put together marketing and put tickets on sale. They took the traditional method and did it the opposite way. It seems like you should know if there's running water before you put on a festival on your site."
Fyre Festival, ostensibly featuring Blink-182, Migos, Major Lazer and other top acts, drew fans who reportedly paid up to $250,000 apiece for high-end villa packages and gourmet meals. Instead, as festivalgoer Gunnar Wilmot said last week, he and three friends arrived via chartered plane Thursday night to find tents, cheese sandwiches in Styrofoam containers and conditions "like a Syrian refugee camp." Because a storm on the Exuma islands site canceled and delayed flights, many guests were trapped, some without lodging. Class-action lawsuits, including one for $100 million led by celebrity lawyer Mark Geragos, are starting to roll in.
Concert-business sources were incredulous that McFarland and Ja Rule apparently neglected to hire any of the companies with experience putting on these kinds of events — from top promoters Live Nation and AEG to remote festival specialists such as CID Entertainment. "Any professional would know 30 to 60 days out that this thing wasn't happening to the level they were advertising it," says Bert Holman, the manager for the Allman Brothers Band which had organized the Wanee Festival, in Live Oak, Florida, for years. "I look at the audience like, 'What are you people thinking? How could you buy tickets for something that doesn't have a track record? Oh, man, are you guys crazy?' I think they all got what they deserved."
Holman has been shocked and amused to follow the Fyre Festival reports since last Thursday — a hired talent producer, who visited the Exuma site in March, deemed it a "mess" before returning home to New York and quitting. "It's unbelievable. Unbelievable," he says.
Dave Frey, manager for Cheap Trick who co-owns the annual Lockn' Festival in Arrington, Virginia, received "is that you?" Facebook messages as the festival debacle was unfolding, with friends mistaking "Fyre" for "Frey." (He was not involved in Fyre.) Frey couldn't believe the organizers neglected to properly prepare for such an out-of-the-way gathering. "Any time you have a mass gathering in a remote place where you don't have infrastructure and you don't have resources, it's hard to supply," he tells Rolling Stone. "Even doing a show in Hawaii is challenging. If you don't plan it properly, you can pretty much plan on not having the things that you need: 'Oh yeah, we needed golf carts, I forgot.'"
McFarland told Rolling Stone that he and his other promoters were "a little bit ambitious" and didn't realize their lack of foresight until a storm hit days before the festival and knocked out its water and sewage facilities.
Others in the concert business were less amused than Holman and expressed worry that the crush of negative media coverage might extend to legitimate, longtime music festivals. "To put those people through apparently what they went through, while kind of hilarious, is actually not," one of the sources says. "It's hilarious if you weren't there."
"I'm sort of hoping this is a wake-up moment for a lot of people: 'Oh, it sounds fun launching a music festival,'" the source continues. "Hopefully, people can see it's a hard thing to do, and maybe they should just leave it to the professionals."
This source questions the entire concept of Fyre Festival, which made "thousands of offers representing tens of millions of dollars" for celebrity appearances, according to a pitch deck sent to potential investors. According to Fyre's promotional material, organizers hoped to raise $25 million on "500 exclusive managers" with hopes to "expand Fyre globally." The source received a copy of the deck earlier this year and chose not to invest: "They definitely were hitting people up for cash way before they had it all secured."
In the deck, Ja Rule and McFarland are listed as co-founders, with the rapper responsible for "overall business strategy, guiding creative and facilitating artist relations." In a statement last Friday, the rapper declared, "This is NOT MY FAULT but I'm taking responsibility." The Allman Brothers' Holman wonders if the organizers took the time to protect themselves legally, given the slapdash nature of virtually everything else involved in the festival. "Sounds to me like a lot of this stuff is on the fly," he says.
"When you look at their teaser videos, all they show is models frolicking in the sun. It barely mentions the music," adds another concert-business source. "Something of this sort requires at least a year of intensive planning. To go to an island without any infrastructure and build something from scratch, it's hard for me to pencil out how the finances could work effectively."
Chloe Gordon, the talent producer who quit working for Fyre Festival in March, said Friday that producers "had a lot of warnings" and "fired everyone along the way that told them it wasn't feasible." In his Rolling Stone interview, McFarland was apologetic and acknowledged the promoters were "overwhelmed and just didn't have the foresight to solve all these problems."
Some in the concert business appreciated his contrition, but others criticized the promoters' hubris for noticing crippling problems in advance but moving forward with the festival anyway. "The plug should have been pulled and it was reckless," says one of the sources. "There has to be an overarching understanding that it must be safe. It just seems they didn't even understand that basic priority." Adds another source: "The fact that they still let people come is crazy."
Over the last 15 years, the U.S. concert business has followed Europe's lead in shifting the summer concert business away from traveling festivals such as H.O.R.D.E. and Ozzfest to standalone weekend festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. As these events have become big business, selling out with crowds of up to 90,000 over one or two weekends, smaller festivals have popped up everywhere, from the Roots Picnic in New York City and Philadelphia to the Eaux Claires in tiny Eaux Claire, Wisconsin. They can easily cost tens of millions of dollars to produce, especially when top headliners alone can charge as much as $5 million for individual performances.
One of Fyre Festival's big miscalculations, says Dennis Arfa, agent for Billy Joel, Metallica and Rod Stewart, was marketing itself as an A-level event. "That's when the shit hits the fan. This was presented as high-end, and obviously it wasn't together," he says. "It was promising people paradise, and they didn't deliver on paradise.
"The Bonnaroos and the Coachellas and the Governors Balls — we know that those are all legitimate," Arfa continues. "But then there's a second layer, and then there's the tertiary layer, and those are fringes. If you're working those festivals, you have to know some of them are on a shoestring. Not everyone's Coachella."
Holman says the Allman Brothers Band had played questionable events over the years, and came to insist on receiving a 50 percent deposit in advance. He tells horror stories about promoters who didn't have enough cash in the box office to pay the band the rest of its money after it performed as scheduled and wonders how Fyre Festival's organizers will have enough assets to settle the lawsuits that have piled up in recent days.
"I can't figure out what this thing is. It's not like they have other festivals," Holman says. "At the end of the day, when you deal with bad people, bad things happen."