Fyre Festival: How It Should Have Gone Down
Jonathan Emmins takes us through how Fyre Festival should have gone down, with comments originally featured as part of Access All Areas cover feature on 4th March 2019.
When Netflix released their amazing Fyre Festival car-crash documentary in the New Year there was feverish messaging between the Amplify masses. As a nod to the documentary, the Live Team returned from their well earned breaks to find our Head of Production, Richie, had left individual bottles of mouthwash on their desks whilst muttering something about having ‘a can do’ attitude…
As with many in the event industry, this was the second time it captured our imagination – and when I say ‘imagination’ I mean ‘sweaty nightmares’. The first time was back in 2017, when we watched the Fyre hype build in real-time via social channels, after which the bubble burst as debris and accusations flew in all directions.
Beyond Billy McFarland’s elaborate con-trick so much was wrong with the organisation of Fyre Festival that any attempt to write and share learnings feels like a lesson in event organising 101, just on an epic scale. So, here’s a few eggs to suck on…
An Insight + a Vision
No matter the dodgy motives and how badly expectations were mismanaged, there was a true vision in there somewhere. Billy, his cheerleader Ja Rule, and the agencies he brought on board had an insight, intuitively knew an audience, and put spend behind to exploit that. Most festivals fail to break even in the first couple of years, but the hype behind Fyre captured the spirit of the target audience’s imagination and according to various accounts 5,000 tickets sold out in no-time as demand for accommodation quickly outstripped availability. The marketing had worked, but at what cost?
The Right Team + Experience
One of Amplify’s core beliefs is the ‘idea is only as good as the execution’. Don’t sell a dream you can’t deliver. We’re an agency built on creativity and big ideas but with this we have a responsibility to manage the expectations of our clients and those of their target audiences (and, it goes without saying, their safety).
To do this you need to put the right team in place, the right mix of experience, the right level of experience, clear leadership, and a chain of command pre, during, and post event. The creatives and strategists work hand in hand with the producers and live team to make the vision a reality.
Analysing Fyre, there wasn’t an experienced event leadership team at the helm, nor was there support in place to do due diligence and bring specialist expertise to the party. In fact, it seemed that Andy King was given the gig due to producing some wine tastings for Billy McFarland’s previous enterprise. The fact is that anyone else with the right experience or who spoke sense either walked away, was ignored, or exited.
There was a vision but not a firm plan. Too much was happening on the fly leaving the organisers exposed and easily leveraged. Yet they still refused to take control by delaying the event, despite numerous recommendations from those with more experience.
Loose lips and an un-contracted venue put the guys in a tailspin, but beyond that no-one had done the basics; a thorough scope, line budget, and timelines. Instead one of the organisers is reported to have said "Let's just do it and be legends, man". They weren’t wrong. Just ‘legendary’ for the wrong reasons.
Events are expensive and margins are often tight in an industry with huge third-party costs. Some of the most successful events only hit profit when they reach 80% capacity – and that’s when they’ve budgeted correctly.
By launching without a full scope, the team might have been more aware of an $8m shortfall, from the $4m estimate to the $12m+ reality. We often talk about ‘budget versus ambition’. Creative-wise, we think laterally and pragmatically to find ways to crack briefs with maximum impact and cost efficiency. But to deliver a $12m+ event on $4m would need Harry Potter on the team.
It’s a false economy to undervalue expertise. You need to match the team to the complexity of the task, especially when you’re pioneering new terrain and a new site. Doing a ‘first’ is exciting, but it is significantly harder organisationally and the allocation for infrastructure is usually inherently higher. We know that expertise comes at a price whether it’s the team internally, freelancers or specialists we bring in. They deserve to be paid appropriately for the value they’re bringing, their experience, their relationships, and the cost-effectiveness of the speed they get from A to B.
Whilst Fyre may have paid a little more for experienced event organisers, it would have saved them millions in the long run (still not enough to keep the dream afloat, but millions none the less). How do you know the true cost of a stage if you’ve booked it through Google Search? And even the 20-something talent booker was fully aware he was paying twice as much as market rates for talent, but his lack of experience, reputation, and a looming deadline meant the agents had a field day. Maybe the agents too should have been more questioning. If it’s too good to be true, it usually is.
It’s the less sexy end of events but there seemed to be scant regard for health and safety, risk assessments, security, crowd flow, fire assessment, and so on, which should underpin everything. We should be grateful that more people weren’t hurt or there weren’t greater catastrophes beyond thefts and petty crime when the event turned from festival into an immersive re-enactment of ‘Lord of the Flies’ for rich kids. The bad weather immediately before the festival certainly exacerbated conditions, but usually would have been covered by a contingency plan and / or if the accommodation had been as sold rather than refugee tents.
Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Ambulances’ muses on how when we hear the siren of an ambulance we can’t think of others mortality without thinking of our own. Maybe Netflix’s Fyre Festival documentary is the event organisers’ ‘Ambulances’. We can’t help watching without breaking into a sweat by thinking of what would happen if we ever ignored the basics of event management and found ourselves in that position. We should never be complacent but, thankfully, as an industry we aspire to be – and are – better than Fyre.