Billy McFarland and the benefits of a media fyre storm
Is the master manipulator a master marketer too? As the Fyre Festival founder seeks redemption with a supposedly sold-out reboot, The Drum's editor-in-chief, Gordon Young, wonders if it’s all just hype once again.
Billy McFarland / PYRT
Over the last few days, the media has been alive with the ultimate business bunny boiler. Billy McFarland, who was infamously jailed for his role in the Fyre Festival, has launched a sequel.
Fyre Festival 2 is apparently coming to a Caribbean Island nowhere near you in December 2024. The first batch of tickets has already sold out – even though there is no program and no specific destination.
The first effort was the ultimate commercial fatal attraction. So much so it became the subject of Netflix and Hulu documentaries. It told how McFarland used slick videos that included the likes of Hailey Bieber, Nella Hadid and Chanel Iman, promises of performances from acts like Blink-182 and Pusha T and assurances of first-rate accommodation to lure a social media savvy audience to a Caribbean Islands.
What they found when they got there were federal emergency tents, no acts and catering that comprised cheese sandwiches.
And the attendees were cheesed off. A class action lawsuit followed, Fyre went bankrupt and McFarland was sentenced to six years in jail (he was released after four) after being convicted of swindling investors out of $27.4m.
It’s a great story and made for great documentaries – and it also meant the Fyre became one of the most famous festivals in the world for all the wrong reasons.
But it also offers some extreme insights for marketers:
Fake it until you break it
There is no doubt about it on some levels Fyre Festival did well in terms of the hype. Billy McFarland and his co-creator rapper Ja Rule (who escaped prosecution) knew their target audience: rich millennials who had a fear of missing out. They understood the power of selling experiences – as opposed to products – and used social media and influencer marketing brilliantly. However, Fyre could never be described as a marketing success as the product was never there. Great storytelling is just talk unless you deliver on your promises.
A brand of thieves
Bill McFarland is proof that sometimes infamy is just the same as fame. At the moment Fyre Festival 2 seems little more than an off-the-shelf website and a press announcement. But it has generated millions of dollars of press comment and hype.
He has several other projects in the pipeline since his release from prison including an Apple TV documentary named After the Fyre which will feature a new venture called PYRT (pronounced pirate), a Broadway production; Fyre the Musical, as well as podcasts.
Even if Fyre 2 is smoke and mirrors it will drive huge interest in these new ventures.
A sorry tale
In his press interviews, including with The Drum, Billy McFarland does come across as sincere and contrite – and determined to pay back his creditors. In jail, he launched a podcast called Dumpster Fyre where he spent most of the first episode apologizing for his mistakes. However, the podcast itself could have been a mistake, for his participation landed him in solitary confinement for months.
His contrition has won him the support of a new investor, venture capitalist John Cerasani, who told The Drum in May: “[McFarlane 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.”
Quite, but nevertheless, McFarland does come across well in the interviews and does not shirk from taking full responsibility. It’s a good comms strategy.
However, the niggle remains that his overall plausibility was a factor in separating so many victims from their hard-earned cash in the first place.
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Despite everything The Fyre brand is still a valuable asset
The media hype around the launch of Fyre Festival 2, shows the name is very much an asset. It will be interesting to see what deals have been done behind the scenes to allow McFarland to continue to exploit the brand.
It was originally trademarked by one of the businesses made bankrupt by the collapse of the festival. Under normal circumstances, this sort of IP would be controlled by trustees appointed to administer the assets of the failed business on behalf of creditors.
In many ways this is a great story that follows the classic narrative arc – man makes a fortune, man loses everything, man fights to win it all back.
Whether the resolution shows McFarland as an inspiration or a fantasist remains to be seen. But you can say one thing for sure – he is certainly someone who knows how to go positively bust.