4 Lessons From the Fyre Festival Catastrophe
The talk of the town, or at least the music and festival industry is the recent release of two films documenting Fyre CEO Billy McFarland and the colossal disaster known as the Fyre Festival. It came to me as no surprise when the Netflix version “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” brought back so many memories of hard-learned lessons from my time in the music festival industry.
I left a well-run and positive energy production team based in Colorado to join a production company on the east coast (that I eventually partnered with). What had its seemingly instant highs slowly morphed into constant lows, manipulation, and investments I know I’ll never get back. I was young and naïve and at one point, based on the way they handled “business,” I even felt like there was no way out. But, that story is for another day.
When I watched the Netflix documentary, I never felt so heard when Fyre Product Manager, Shiyuan Deng said during her interview that McFarland:
“... really leveraged your existing emotional investment in this team and in this product to extort you to invest in even more. This was Billy’s charm.”
There are plenty of Billys out there, but you can’t let that stop you from creating a meaningful experience. I truly believe that conscious artists and the power of music can create a movement, spark ideas and catalyze peace – but only when done with honesty and the best of intentions. Yes, you have to bust your tail, network and “know” people. Yet contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to screw people to get to the next level.
With that out of the way, I thought it best to review four key takeaways from the Netflix documentary to keep you in check as you organize your next event.
BEWARE OF “FOMO”
From a producer standpoint, there were times when I felt like I only had one chance to book X artist at X venue, or to take advantage of X opportunity. I stressed myself out, racked my brain over how to come up with more money, and basically lost all sense in order to make my vision a reality. Let me tell you, if you already have a solid plan in place, you worked out the numbers and you’re ready to execute, the added ish isn’t worth it. This is an ever-changing industry that thrives on trends, so trust that there will always be other opportunities. When they do come around, you’ll be ready.
KNOW WHAT’S REQUIRED & HAVE THE ABILITY TO MANAGE EXPECTATIONS
You thought festival planning ended at securing the venue and booking artists? Um, no young buck. You also have to factor in what you’re promising artists, patrons, the staff, sponsors, vendors, and all interested parties, and the level at which you’re promising them. For instance, are you serving ham and cheese sandwiches with water, or gourmet entrees and organic, locally-farmed ish with champagne? Will you be flying them in on first class, or will they be on standby with Spirit Airlines? Do you get what I’m saying?
You should assess your capabilities - including resources and personnel - from the get-go. Consider anything that can be reasonably added to the experience will be a bonus, which will help you exceed expectations. I’m not saying to shoot for the lowest standard – always strive for excellence. However, stay within reason and do your best to keep others happy and maintain your sanity. Failure at this makes way for a domino effect of disappointments, failures and an overall shit show.
DON’T GET LOST IN THE FANTASY
Billy McFarland got sucked so deep into a fantasy over his importance and the idea of fame and excess, that he strived to maintain his obsession and lies at any cost. I kind of get it though. But let me explain...
The entertainment industry is very seductive. Once you’re in it, you'll want more of it. Reaching a certain level in the industry can make you feel like "somebody,” especially when you’re rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite. Please remember, you have an actual job to do. Your main duty is to be a leader and there are people who depend on you. When something goes wrong, you know whose ass goes down? Yes, mainly yours, but you’re also taking others down with you.
MAINTAIN A GOOD ATTITUDE, BUT STAY REALISTIC
I don’t know one event that hasn’t had its set of hiccups along the way. That goes for events and everything in life in general, really. But when big decisions need to be made, don’t lie about what you can deliver. It’s one thing to be confident in your abilities, but it’s another to flat out deceive people. One lie naturally leads to another, and eventually you’ll get caught. It never fails.
Even with the inevitable event hiccups, you should always stay positive, because negativity won’t help any situation. It’s great to have big dreams, and you should always shoot for them - but not at the cost of the people who support you, who work with you, the artists who believe in you, and the people who invest in you and your vision. Just as the documentary showed, the people dedicated to the vision were also duped, had to pay and may still be paying for the results of a faux leader’s lies, greed and ego.
Producing a big event like a music festival can be some scary sh**. I still love it, and I’ll once again put together a memorable show for you fine folks one day. Know why? When it does work out, even with all of the stress and hiccups in-between, it’s such a high to be a part of creating these experiences. The camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment after a successful event is what makes it thrilling and fulfilling, especially because I truly believe that the arts have a significant place in society. When used with the best intentions - from ideation to output - it can have a lasting and meaningful impact.
Just don’t be a Billy McFarland.