Fyre Festival is one of the most well-known festivals in the world — because it was a big flop. Known as one of the greatest scams ever (not-quite) pulled off, the ring leader of the whole ordeal, Billy McFarland, became simultaneously an overnight celebrity and villain. While the “festival” scammed hundreds of people out of millions of dollars, it was hard to pin down exactly what kind of crime he had committed. After all, there was a festival, just nothing close to the one he had promised. So was that fraud? False advertising? Did Billy McFarland even go to jail? Don’t worry, we’ve got all the dish, right here.
Fyre Festival was promoted as a star-studded celebrity event. Hailed to be the most luxurious of all the music festivals, it was rumored to have a rock star celebrity lineup with all the A-listers from Kendall Jenner to Gigi Hadid in attendance. People were offered a stay in luxurious beachfront mansions, high-end tent setups, and even on yachts floating in the water nearby. People booked exclusive “private plane” rides to the “private island” and even spent hundreds to prepay the accounts associated with wristbands to enjoy a “cash-free” experience. It sounded like pure paradise. Except it wasn’t.
What happened at Fyre Festival?
When the first weekend of the event rolled around in April of 2017, it became immediately apparent even from the plane rides, that what was promised was not going to come to pass. Some of the attendees had booked “exclusive and private” plane tickets, only to find themselves on a very crowded coach class flight out of a regular airport.
The promised location was to be on Pablo Escobar’s private island, however, the real location was on Great Exuma in the Bahamas, a public island and location, only a few feet away from the Sandals resort. There were no beachfront mansions or yachts, and the “luxury” tents were little more than emergency tents set up with soaking wet mattresses inside. The “five-star cuisine” consisted of a cheese sandwich with a piece of lettuce with a slice of tomato inside a styrofoam container. There wasn’t enough food or water on the island for the influx of new guests and the music festival itself was simply non-existent.
There were not enough bathroom facilities, lighting or any type of air conditioning and let us not forget, most of the guests had no cash or card with them, having loaded thousands onto the promised “wristbands.” Talk about a five-star fraudulent flop!
The guests flooded the airport desperate to get flights home, but many ended up staying in the airport or at the campsite all night long. Their money was not refunded and even worse, the event staff that had been working on the site for months, were never paid.
Social media was flooded with photos, videos, and live streams of the event’s complete disaster scenario under the hashtag #fyrefestivalfail. So where were all the promoted celebrities and bands? Where was Ja Rule, one of the co-creators? Where was Billy McFarland? Nowhere to be found. The celebrities and bands seemed to have caught wind of the scenario in advance and stayed far away from the flop. Billy himself initially attempted to put out fires, then realizing it was hopeless, disappeared himself. The entire event was dubbed “The Hunger Games for Influencers,” and that description does not seem far off. The total cost of the scam? $26 million.
Fyre Festival lawsuits
Ja Rule and Billy McFarland were the faces behind the Fyre brand, with Ja Rule even giving up a spot on The Fast and The Furious for it. The festival was meant to promote the Fyre app, a booking platform for bands and other musical acts, but neither the app nor the event ever took off. Both did however accumulate a huge amount of debt. So with a $26 million price tag on the failed event, who took the blame?
Ja Rule almost immediately tweeted his lack of responsibility for the event’s failure.
While many fans did not agree with him, a judge did, dismissing him from the first of around 17 subsequent lawsuits filed. The first was a $100 million suit filed in California by Daniel Jung against Farland and Ja Rule, though Ja Rule was dismissed from the filing in 2019. There were around 150 plaintiffs and the complaints were for “fraud, breach of contract, breach of covenant good faith, and negligent misrepresentation.”
In 2018 a judge in North Carolina awarded two festival attendees some $5 million. They initially had sued Ja Rule and McFarland, but Ja Rule was, once again, removed from the filing. Kendall Jenner, however, was included, and agreed to pay $90,000 for promoting the festival in a social media post. That is one costly post!
NPR reported on the most recent class action lawsuit totaling some $2 million in damages in 2021. Hundreds of ticket holders received around $7000 each and of course, Fyre Festival had long since declared bankruptcy.
A Crowdfund page was set up to help recoup some of the Bahamian staff’s lost wages, including the caterer’s. While it did get $200,000 that is small consolation for the overall price that went unpaid to the workers many of whom worked in manual labor roles day and night the entire week leading up to the festival.
Did Billy McFarland go to jail?
One long story and several dozen lawsuits later, yes, Billy McFarland did go to prison. In 2018 he pled guilty to two counts of wire fraud on a federal investigation and was sentenced to six years in prison. It seems a small price to pay for all the chaos he caused.
McFarland was held in Otisville Correctional Facility in upstate New York. As the headquarters for Fyre was a sweet Manhattan loft in the posh, celebrity-lined Tribeca neighborhood, McFarland’s crime technically was committed there.
He reportedly also had another New York-based company(and scam) called Magnises. Magnises was a credit card company aimed at millennials to help them “upgrade their lifestyle.” It promised user perks such as “exclusive and VIP” tickets to events and shows in NYC. Yet the tickets never materialized, and sometimes the shows themselves did not even exist. Customers would spring for the tickets only to never receive them or be told the shows were “canceled at the last minute.” Some would pay for backstage VIP passes to exclusive artists, and wind up with nosebleed section floor seat tickets worth far less than what they paid.
In fact, he claimed to have sold Magnises for $40 million, which he used as information to tempt new investors in Fyre Festival and the app. In reality, he had never sold Magnises and the company itself was facing backlash of its own and worth practically nothing. He also would claim various celebrities were holders of the card, when in fact, they were not. It seemed McFarland’s deception had no end, as scam after scam was revealed during his various lawsuits and trials.
Yet if you think the prison time would slow him down, you would be wrong. Right up until the day of his incarceration, McFarland was still trying to run scams over the phone, and now that he is out, he is back to his old tricks.
Fyre Festival 2
Yes, believe it or not, there will be a Fyre Festival 2. In fact, it is already sold out. It seems the festival titled the “Hunger Games for Influencers” is now almost seen as an infamous rite of passage. The entire festival sold out almost as soon as it was posted. Tickets began tentatively at $499 but quickly went up. One couple reported to CBS that they spent $550 each on tickets. It is reported to be happening towards the end of 2024 in the Caribbean. Are people expecting a genuine festival? Probably not. In fact, it seems most people are hoping for an exact re-enactment of the original, only this time they plan to be more prepared with provisions, and cameras. Ja Rule however does not think it’s funny and when asked if he will be a part of it, gave a flat no.
To say social media is on fire about Fyre 2 is an understatement. In fact, McFarland is running a contest on his social media that the meanest comment about the upcoming festival wins a free Fyre hat. Talk about poor taste. McFarland’s enthusiasm for starting fires was clearly not extinguished by his time in prison, leading many to feel it simply wasn’t enough. Once again the festival seems poorly put together with no official date, location, or lineup.
However at least this time it seems the celebrities are staying far away, with Ja Rule as a “no” and no other celebrities seeming to step up to the social media plate to promote the second attempt at the festival. Of course, after Kendall Jenner’s $90,000 payout for her post, who could blame them?
Billy McFarland now labeled “McFarland Fraudster” certainly has a flare for creating fires, he just seems to lack the ability to put them out. While he did actually go to prison for his actions, it seems to have had little effect on him or his behavior. We guess all that time in solitary he talked about, only gave him time to come up with more schemes. We look forward to the posts from Fyre Festival 2.