The Fyre Festival was a failed luxury music festival, intended to take place in the Bahamas on the island of Great Exuma over two weekends in April and May of 2017. Created by co-founders Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, yes that Ja Rule, the Fyre Festival was a complete and utter scam. It left attendants stranded on an island with little housing and even fewer provisions despite being advertised as wildly different.
With tickets ranging from $950 to nearly $100,000, it is clear attendees did not pay for canceled acts, leftover tents from Hurricane Michael, and some cheese sandwiches. Now, nearly a year later with McFarland serving jail time and Ja Rule facing down lawsuits, two documentaries were released by Hulu, Fyre Fraud, and Netflix, Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, following the aftermath of the event or lack thereof.
Both documentaries addressed the main fascination I have with the festival: Fyre Festival’s utilization of Instagram, primarily, to boost buzz around their event. It began initially with the release of a promo video in coordination with various Instagram influencers, comedians, artists, and models, including Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, posting a burnt orange square that simply linked to the Fyre Festival video. The use of visual disruption from Jerry Media, the founders of the famous Fuck Jerry Instagram meme account and the marketers of the event, was brilliant. The Hulu documentary, Fyre Fraud, touched heavily on then employee Oren Aks‘ idea behind the campaign.
For clarity, it is important to note that I work in marketing. In addition to being an editor, contributor, and social media manager for But Why Tho?, I also am a marketing coordinator in real life. I watched these documentaries with a very unique perspective on the industry. While I might not be marketing for a company that asked me to reach out to Kendell Jenner and pay her upwards of $250,000 for an Instagram post, I do have training and understanding of the logistics and more importantly the ethics of social media marketing.
Today, great social media marketing, particularly towards millennials, utilizes the concept of FOMO, fear of missing out. Millennials more often than not are more interested in experiences than physical products. It is why more and more brands are using social media to less to sell something physical and more to reinforce an idea.
Outside of Fyre Festival, a great example is Wendy’s. Wendy’s social media isn’t selling hamburgers, but they are selling the idea that Wendy’s is cool. Wendy’s social media is similar to the Jerry Media/Fuck Jerry’s outlook on marketing. It is focused on humor and memes. Now, they’ve gone as far having a Twitch presence.
This also means a lot of companies rely on influencers to advertise. Advertising with an influencer who already has a trusting audience creates a level of authentic marketing that is much harder to produce from more traditional advertising means. As per FTC regulations, influencers must disclose they are being paid to say the things they say which is also why the YouTube description of a lot of videos have long legal jargon or even contain a link in the corner that states “includes paid promotion.”
Using influencers to promote a product isn’t unethical. What is unethical, is for Fyre Festival and Jerry Media to mislead influencers as well as their audiences. It also raises questions about the ethics of influencers who do not to fully investigate the product they are selling or promoting. Ironically, Jerry Media is jumping further into the murky ethics of this Fyre situation with Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. One of the executive producers of the Netflix documentary is Elliot Tebele, creator of Jerry Media.
While I didn’t dislike the Netflix documentary, it is difficult to not see the blurry ethical lines it draws. It is also important to note that Jerry Media is currently a defendant in a class action lawsuit regarding the Fyre Festival and their involvement. A very visible conflict of interest.
Now, Jerry Media does not hold complete blame for the failures of the festival but their claim that they knew nothing about the situation in the Bahamas because they were working in New York is baffling to me.
All of the Fyre Festival’s social media posts were taken from the initial promotional video. There were no posts featuring pictures of the accommodations, food, or even the artists performing. As a marketing coordinator, part of my job is securing pictures from field employees of jobs the company is currently working on and promoting it accordingly. I cannot imagine how different and opaque my company’s communication would look if we did not have pictures of our product in action, not just promotional footage.
In an interview with The Ringer, Hulu documentarian Jenner Furst addressed the ethical concerns saying, “We have emails that prove that people knew months in advance what was going on and we have a whistle-blower from inside that social media company [Jerry] who says that he knew months before that this wasn’t going to be what it was sold as,” disproving the claims of ignorance from the media group.
Similarly, Hulu is also in some murky ethics. The director of the Netflix documentary, Chris Smith, also told The Ringer that Billy McFarland, co-creator of the Fyre Festival, was paid upward to $250,000 by Hulu to appear in their documentary. That being said, Fyre Fraud did not go easy on McFarland. The Hulu documentary was unafraid to ask hard-hitting questions about his ongoing legal battle as well as the where his delusions began and the con artist ended.
Overall, Fyre Fraud focused on the legal ramifications of the festival as well as the difficulties employees, particularly contractors hired within the last weeks of Fyre Festival’s set-up. The employees all suffered from McFarland’s reckless disregard for planning while trying to put together this impossibility of an event. Fyre Fraud also brought in more journalists and experts on various topics to discuss the failures of the operation, as well as some former employees, most notably the former Jerry Media employee.
While Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, focused more on insider information and former employees working directly on the project, which is understandable seeing who it’s producer credit included. But, the Netflix documentary did also bring light to a major issue that was overlooked by Fyre Fraud.
The island of Great Exuma in the Bahamas was promised unprecedented economic growth from this festival that never happened. In fact, the festival’s failure hurt the local economy and many people still remained unpaid. With McFarland being an American citizen, the legal battle is complicated for Great Exuma’s residents.
Additionally, Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened has a lot more “lost footage” from conference calls, meetings, and employees. How the information is being presented in regards to Jerry Media/Fuck Jerry is heavily debatable but it is clear that most people working for McFarland in New York knew of the lack of planning and tried to warn him multiple times.
The Fyre Festival was an event initially created to promote the Fyre app, a phone app that allowed users to book talent and celebrity appearances at events with ease. The developers of the app were caught in the middle of the scandal despite not having any part in Fyre Festival. Blaming employees for a companies negligence is complicated, to say the least. However, given the extent of this “lost footage” and the accounts of Oren Aks’ it is clear to me that Jerry Media knew what they were doing.
Overall, both documentaries do a good job of bringing light to the unethical and illegal nature of the festival but Hulu’s Fyre Fraud did a better job. While Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened has a fascinating “found footage” vibe, the fact it is produced by Jerry Media who is so close to the operation of the Fyre Festival and currently in legal proceedings regarding the operation it has to be taken with a grain of salt.
The Netflix documentary isn’t bad but it is clearly biased showing Jerry Media as just as much of a victim as the Fyre Media low-level employees or even the local Bahamian workers. That being said, both documentaries adequately showed that the main victims of this festival were not the attendees but actually the employees and contractors McFarland hired. Additionally, Hulu picked up last year another Fyre Festival centered documentary, this is due out later this year, which is being produced by Billboard, Mic, and The Cinemart that will chronicle the events leading up to the festival.
Fyre Festival: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is now streaming on Netflix while Fyre Fraud is streaming on Hulu.