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Social Media Rebrand Influencer Marketing

Billy McFarland wants you to invest in Fyre Festival 2 – why should any brand trust him?

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By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

May 22, 2023 | 17 min read

In a parallel universe, Billy McFarland is hailed as an influencer marketing genius for pulling off the party of the millennial era. In the real world, the architect of the disastrous Fyre Festival is a figure of ignominy after spending nearly four years in prison for defrauding investors to the tune of $27.4m. Undeterred, he tells us he’s returning to right his wrongs. You be the judge.

Billy McFarland headshot

Billy McFarland is cooking up new plans / PYRT

Billy McFarland is back at it.

It wasn’t long after his release from federal prison last spring – where he served nearly four years of a six-year sentence – that the convicted fraudster was promoting his next venture.

The 31-year-old behind the ill-fated 2017 Fyre Festival took to TikTok in October to share his plans to launch something “crazier, but a whole lot bigger” than he’d ever done. The promo, which teased a ‘treasure hunt’ designed to market his new venture Pyrt (pronounced ’pirate’), signaled the beginning of what McFarland presumably hopes will be his redemption story.

McFarland, who partnered with rapper Ja Rule to produce the luxury-music-festival-turned-nightmare when he was just 25, defrauded investors out of $27.4m. In the aftermath, he was convicted on charges of wire fraud, bank fraud and lying to authorities.

After his time in prison – during which, according to the New York Times, he was placed in solitary confinement for participating in a podcast using a prison phone – he reportedly still owes upwards of $25m to ticket-buyers, vendors, former colleagues and Bahamian workers.

Now, he claims, he’s turning a new leaf with a series of projects that he hopes will help “fulfill the original vision of Fyre Festival – while paying everybody back.”

But some recent collaborators have already flagged his current business dealings to authorities over concerns that he’s repeating history.

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Inside his plans: Fyre Festival 2, a new documentary, a musical and more

More than anything, it would seem McFarland‘s dream is to put on a music festival similar to the one he originally envisioned. Now, he says, the plans are in motion. Whether in an effort to cling to the initial vision or for want of a better moniker, he’s calling it Fyre Festival 2.

McFarland has also just wrapped filming on a new documentary tentatively slated for release later this fall. He did not appear in Netflix’s 2019 film Fyre – director Chris Smith told Vanity Fair that McFarland requested $250,000 to appear in the production before saying he’d be willing to participate for $100,000 cash, but that the production team ultimately felt it would be “ethically wrong.” Hulu, on the other hand, paid McFarland to license footage of him for its Fyre Fraud documentary.

McFarland claims he hasn’t seen either film. “I’ve heard, obviously, they’re terrible,” he says. The new production will, he says, “hopefully [offer] a better glimpse into what we’re actually doing.” He also stresses that he has “no creative control” over the film’s direction, but that he hopes he “got a fair shake on this one.”

Another new McFarland project will come as a surprise to most: a Broadway musical. The show, he hopes, will be “a really fun way to combine a music concert with the storyline of the past events” (that storyline presumably encompassing the trainwreck that was Fyre Festival).

Called Fyre the Musical, the production has been given a roughly 18-month timeline. McFarland expresses confidence in the project’s viability and suggests it won’t suffer from the poor planning and execution that Fyre Festival did.

“This time around, what’s different is getting experts in their different areas to actually make sure we do this right – and then of course having the funding and a realistic timeframe… not trying to schedule a festival on an island in three months, [but] making sure we do all this properly,” he says.

That first point – tapping trustworthy leaders and building a team of “experts” – appears to be a top priority for McFarland. When asked about what he’s learned from Fyre Festival, he doesn’t jump to take full accountability off the bat (though later in our conversation he admits “there’s no excuse for the fact that I lied… and let down a lot of people”).

Instead, he primarily places blame on his circle of former collaborators. “Quality relationships are probably the biggest issue. I was certainly looking for shortcuts in my life for Fyre 1 to make the event happen in four months. And I think I was certainly the most guilty, but I was attracting other people who were looking for shortcuts – whether that was to fame or wealth or to a private island… bad intentions just create, like, a bad circle of people.”

That circle included not only Ja Rule, but also Andy King, McFarland’s mentor and the co-founder of experiential marketing firm Inward Point; Mick Purzycki, the head of content and marketing company Jerry Media; Brett Kincaid, the founding partner at Matte Projects, who was tasked with promoting the festival; Luca Sabatini, who was responsible for heading up technical production; and others.

Now, McFarland says, he’s focused on “finding people who are experts in their field, finding people who are fine to put in the hard work for a number of years and kind of allow me to operate where I’m good at and then take the reins where I’m not good.”

One of those people, he says, is John Cerasani, whom he calls “a good new mentor.” Cerasani is a Chicago- and Los Angeles-based venture capitalist. Outside of investing, Cerasani has penned two books, has made a handful of TV appearances and currently hosts a finance and business podcast. He’s also one of McFarland’s newest investors.

The two met when McFarland appeared on Cerasani’s podcast in April.

Cerasani is sympathetic to McFarland’s past intentions, if not his crimes. “[McFarland made] one of the mistakes that entrepreneurs make – especially younger ones. You’ve got to remember Billy was only 25 years old when [the Fyre Festival fiasco happened]... There is a very fine line between optimism and lying as an entrepreneur – especially one who’s raising money,” he says.

He claims that McFarland was merely engaged in “what a lot of entrepreneurs do: everything that they possibly can to save their company and not have to go tell investors, ‘This failed; we screwed up.’” Holding his thumb and forefinger mere centimeters apart during a video conference, he goes on, saying: ”I mean, he was this close from [Fyre Festival] being a success.”

McFarland admits he “was so scared to fail” and says that he “totally fucked up.” He suggests that perhaps he could have maintained “continued support” had he failed “honestly” – rather than lying and defrauding investors.

As part of their partnership, Cerasani has agreed to cover most of what McFarland owes to Bahamian workers who helped to fund and build the infrastructure for Fyre Festival but were never paid for their efforts. It’s a sum of around $350,000, McFarland tells The Drum. “It’s going to be so cool if we can sit back here sooner rather than later and be like, ‘We just paid back the 200 workers who are owed, and really tried,’” he says.

McFarland says he’s in “deep talks” with a range of other potential investors (he claims that, after teasing his plans for Fyre Festival 2 on Twitter a few weeks ago, he received 512 emails from people asking to invest). But in particular, he’s seeking partners who would be willing to “pay back the restitution in full in exchange for them being involved for Fyre Festival 2.”

Fyre Festival 2 – with a virtual element that’s ‘definitely not a metaverse,’ but might be a metaverse

Bringing his original vision for Fyre Festival to life in this second incarnation would appear to be McFarland’s driving goal. But what exactly would a Fyre Festival 2 look like?

The entrepreneur-cum-scammer is largely sticking by the original concept of the experience. “The initial vision of taking people to a place they can’t usually go and to partake in experiences and adventures that aren’t part of their life is more relevant now than it was six years ago,” he says. Where he fell short then, he says, was on “the logistics.” He also makes the case again that he “didn’t have the ability to find the right team.”

This time, McFarland also envisions there being a virtual component. That’s where Pyrt – the mysterious new venture McFarland began promoting on TikTok last fall – comes in.

McFarland describes Pyrt as a two-pronged project. One side of the business – which he says is helping to “pay the bills” right now – is engaged in what he calls “marketing work,” focused on enabling venture capital-backed tech companies to “break through the noise and get attention.” He doesn’t clarify exactly what’s meant by this.

The other side of Pyrt, however, is a more experimental branch that McFarland hopes will bring a “virtual aspect” to “eventual festivals or events.”

In a TikTok video promoting the company, McFarland explains that Pyrt involves “a technology [he’s] been working on for the past couple of years” – a statement that implies he was focused on engineering the tech in prison. He describes it as a “virtual immersive decentralized reality.” He envisions that the tech will bring together virtual and physical experiences by replicating a real-life event – like, say, a music festival on an island – in the digital world. He says it will be delivered in a way that “allows people to affect real-world change” and “own the real-world adventures,” though what he means by this is unclear. In the TikTok, McFarland assures viewers it’s “definitely not a metaverse.”

In his conversation with The Drum, however, he contradicts this last point directly, saying: “If we’re having these creative ventures or having these great festivals, how can we open it up to everybody with technology? I think there’s elements of the metaverse or AI entertainers that can make that a reality.”

It sounds like a vision akin to Meta’s Horizon Worlds, but many social media users have interpreted his TikTok explanation as a clusterfuck of tech buzzwords devoid of much substance. Users flooded McFarland’s video with over 1,000 comments such as, “You said it’s not a meta verse [then] described in part a meta verse,” and ”So a livestream?”

Yes, he knows he’s got a trust issue

When it comes to bringing the joint visions of Fyre Festival 2 and Pyrt to life, McFarland acknowledges that there are trust issues surrounding both his name and the Fyre brand.

The most challenging part of regaining trust, he says, wil be maintaining patience and faith that the tide will turn in his favor. “The only way to rebuild trust is time. Like, I wish there was a magic button or something that I could build tomorrow that would do it. It’s just going to take a lot of years.”

One tactic that may help, he suggests, is leading with a more trusted brand name. “We’ve got some data this week [that found] that since 2016, on just Twitter and Facebook, between ‘Fyre’ and my name, we’ve had over 32bn impressions from 2 billion unique people, which is a massive, massive audience. And for better or worse, we’re in an age now where attention is becoming the new currency. So if we’re able to drive that attention to a partner who has the trust and has the execution ability, I think that’s the best way for me to accomplish my goal over time of rebuilding trust.”

McFarland is therefore not only courting potential investors, but also claims to be “speaking with the major festival companies,” which he refrains from naming but hints, “I’m sure you could guess.” He also claims to be in talks with “a couple of countries that have sizable investment funds” as well as “music-focused” companies that could potentially handle logistics and production.

Time to ditch the influencers

Even if he’s able to successfully bring on a slate of trusted names, questions of brand trust and marketing still remain. How will McFarland and his team be able to promote events in a way that creates consumer interest and genuine trust, rather than just eyerolls?

A key driver of the cultural fascination with the original promise of Fyre Festival – as well as its spectacular downfall and the man behind the scam – was the manner in which it was marketed.

With the help of a range of production, marketing and advertising partners, McFarland, Ja Rule and the Fyre team went big – like, insanely big – on selling the dream in 2016 and 2017. They tapped the world’s most popular influencers to post a mysterious orange square to their Instagram accounts to amp up intrigue. They released a high production, music video-like promo film that went viral, featuring models and influencers including Bella Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Emily Ratajkowski, Chanel Iman and Alessandra Ambrosio partying on yachts and striking sultry poses on white-sand beaches. The advertising that followed promised performances from top acts like Blink-182 and Pusha T, luxury beachfront accommodations and gourmet dining.

McFarland and his team were selling a dream. And it was effective at first: the team sold around 8,000 tickets, some of which were ‘VIP’ packages with a price point of around $12,000 each. Of course, the dream never materialized.

This time around, McFarland plans to take a different approach to marketing. He says he recognizes that the tactics he used to promote Fyre in 2016 and 2017 would no longer be effective. “Marketing has changed so much in the past six years. You know, TikTok was not a thing. [We were] still in the infancy of influencer marketing, where if you saw hundreds of these highly followed people post something, you actually paid attention.”

“What’s so different now is that we are more automatically tuning out a lot of the larger talent because everything is so ad-focused and ad-based,” he says. “I don’t think a Fyre Festival could succeed tomorrow if you had 400 Kardashians posting an orange tile at the same time, because you’d immediately understand it’s a brand post.” As a culture, McFarland says, “we kind of changed the trajectory and killed the vibe” of over-the-top influencer marketing.

Instead, McFarland implies that he’s interested in teaming with micro-influencers and niche creators with dedicated followings to build a more organic appeal. “Marketing now is more about, ‘How can people find a smaller number of more impactful relationships?’... I’m super against the large-scale influencer campaigns, and more about trying to connect a smaller number of people and showing how their life will change through those connections.”

Already back to scamming?

Despite being just over six months into his various new ventures, McFarland has already run into new allegations.

“Unfortunately, he is up to his old tricks again,” Eric Bratcher, a former collaborator of McFarland, told the Daily Beast in December. He claimed the fraudster owes him nearly $100,000 for work he did in 2022.

Bratcher and another ex-associate of McFarland’s told the publication that they’d spoken with New York investigators about the entrepreneur’s new ventures.

When asked about these reports and any insinuations that he’s up to no good again, McFarland again deflects blame and even suggests that Bratcher and others were themselves untrustworthy. “I had a pretty challenging time when I got out of jail. There were a number of people I met in jail who I think viewed me as a quick opportunity, where their crimes may have been worse than mine and they [thought they] could use me to drag them up a little bit. It took this halfway house period – like, literally and figuratively – to really get back to society and get a proper team… It just took a moment to transition from jail back to quality business people.”

Today, McFarland says, he has a team of 10 that he views as “good, honest” people. “I’m proud of where I've come and what we've assembled.”

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