FYRE festival documentary: Forget the influencers, the film throws up questions about hubris, corporate culture and the very concept of reality itself as the conflict between private and public realities is exposed in our digital world.


Last night I finally watched the Netflix documentary FYRE: The greatest party that never happened.

I'm late to the party, I know. An ocean of digital ink has already been devoted to this documentary since it first aired on 18th January. In honesty, I wasn't planning to watch or write about it. I remember the headlines surrounding Billy McFarland's ill-fated music festival at the time some two years ago. But, many people have asked me for my opinion on this documentary, so here goes … . This post captures and shares my thoughts - if only as a reference point for future articles.

Much of the FYRE festival media coverage has centred on the use of influencer marketing to promote the aborted music event. Yes, influencers were part of the issue. I will explore this point later.  But influencers played only a minor role in this modern tragedy. The larger villains of the piece were three-fold:

  1. Hubris

  2. Macho organisational culture

  3. Corporate governance

FYRE festival and hubris

Hubris - McFarland's delusional self-belief that motivation and positive mental attitude could trump ability, experience and the construct of time itself. FYRE music festival as a concept made sense. The documentary, however, pays testament to its appalling execution and the contemptuous way in which event-goers, suppliers and advertisers were treated.

Macho organisational culture

Macho culture - Dissenters aka anyone with a different point of view were removed by McFarland from his sphere of influence. Those who remained were expected to take 'one for the team'. That meant either to work around the clock on basic pay or to be prepared to prostitute themselves for the good of the cause. Andy King was asked to fellate a government official in order to get around importation taxes for a consignment of Evian water.

Lack of corporate governance

Corporate governance and access to cheap money -  McFarland was able to raise tens of millions of dollars for the festival. Some of the money was siphoned from his other companies, some from advertisers, some from festival goers. Corporate oversight appears to have been absent, throughout.

There are bit-players in this tragedy, too.

  1. Fear of missing out

  2. The United State’s litigious society

  3. Media’s backlash against influencer marketing

Fear of missing out

FOMO - The documentary showed that the fear of missing out cult was experienced by festival goers, advertisers models and Instagram influencers. It's this scarcity model which drove sales as much as anything else. The festival became a study of society’s compunction to stay ahead of one's peers and competitors - the hedonic treadmill in action.


Litigious society - As he left Exuma Island festival attendee Seth Crossno was shown in the documentary calling back - presumably at McFarland - “you’ll be hearing from my lawyers”. Crossno and his friend won the empty victory of being awarded a $5m judgement against Billy McFarland. I don’t know the ins and outs of his lawsuit. But $5m for being inconvenienced over a long-weekend does not appear proportionate. It is an empty victory because there is slim chance of them picking up any money from McFarland; the queue of creditors is just too long.

Media’s backlash against influencer marketing

Media's self-serving backlash against influencer marketing as a whole - I'll come back to this point, too. It is how the FYRE festival articulates our current interpretation of reality that I will begin with.

FYRE festival and modern interpretation of reality

Towards the end of the 90-plus-minute documentary, one of the interviewees looks down the barrel of the camera and says: "Fyre was basically Instagram come to life." It wasn't. But, those were its aspirations.

Instagram isn’t us. It’s the aspirational us. It’s just a digital version of us; one reality. Online there’s a tendency to show only the positive, successful side of our life. Instagram is the platform of choice for this form of self promotion. All the images posted to the photo-sharing platform could share the same tagline as the effervescent vitamin supplement, Berocca: “You, but on a really good day.”

We have learned to use lens filters and editing apps. Our Instagram feeds have professionalised. If we fail to get sufficient engagement in the first half-an-hour we remove the post. We agonise over creating the perfectly crafted caption and selecting the most suitable hashtags.

Instagram's #liveauthentic with its 27 million posts has become the most inauthentic of all hashtags: a study in same-same sunrises, sunsets, Tolix bar stools, furniture hewed from scaffolding boards and pictures of flat white coffees.

In the fag-end of the second decade at the dawn of the third millennium, what has reality come to mean? The concept is on our minds all of the time. We talk of augmented reality and virtual reality. But what does reality mean as a concept? Can there even be a universal understanding of reality?

Writing at the start of his book: Picnic Comma Lightning Laurence Scott writes "Cognitive science proposes that we have evolved to build mental maps of the world not according to its actual, physical nature, but according to what allows us to thrive. In other words, our individual and collective realities are fictions – carefully constructed to enable us to maintain our particular perspectives."

Billy MacFarland was delusional. He both succumbed to this notion of reality on a personal level but understood this power to influence others, commercially. He had made money (at least on paper) through Magnises his Millennials-focused credit card which offered customers a sense of belonging through community events and unique access to experiences.

Social media platforms understand this too making fictions of our realities. Laurence Scott asks of us what happens when our private realities - our inner worlds, our memories - are atomised becoming part of a public reality. Social media platforms encourage this dismantling of the boundaries between a private reality and a public reality.  The business model of social media platforms is founded on nudging us to share ever more of our private lives publicly - to turn these private moments into public events. A commercialise-able event. A data-rich event which can be sold on to advertisers.

The aspirations of FYRE Festival demonstrate the blurring of the lines between private and public and our (in)ability to moderate the two. Marc Weinstein FYRE’s musical festival consultant explains how, even though “he was going through the hardest experience of [his] life” by working at the festival, he was still posting idyllic beach shots to his Instagram account. For Weinstein “FYRE shows what happens when you take that [blurring of private and public reality] to its extreme.”

Media’s self-serving backlash

I gave a keynote speech last month at the PRCA trends conference. The talk covered current and future trends within influencer marketing. To set the scene I explained that:

  • The discipline is forecast to be worth $10 billion a year by 2020.
  • More than $5 billion was spent on Instagram influencer marketing last year. 
  • The platform’s influencer marketing usage had experienced 39% growth year on year.

Yet I noted, we are experiencing a media backlash against the nascent discipline. I then offered four reasons for this backlash.

Four reasons for the media backlash against influencer marketing

  1. Tall poppy syndrome. There is a tendency to knock down what has previously been built up. So the media is now looking for negative stories about influencer marketing. This has come following four years’ spent my media mastheads eulogising about it.
  2. Loss of advertising revenue. Established media and influencers are often chasing the same ad revenue. There's both a degree of schadenfreude and financial incentive for the media to knock the discipline.
  3. Conflating Terms. Largely, when the media covers influencer marketing what is describes is influencer advertising. A similar conflation occurs with platforms. Instagram - and by default Instagram influencers - are discussed as though digital influence only occurs on this single platform.
  4. An element of truth! Influencer fraud. Questionable ethics. Lack of understanding of how to measure and evaluate all fuel news stories.

This leads us on to the final point about FYRE festival -- and its utilisation of influencers as part of its promotional campaign. I have seen both for and against arguments for influencers in building buzz for the festival. Those positive note that following FYRE festival’s influencer push 95% of tickets were sold within 48 hours.

Those against working with influencers point out that these influencers should have undertaken more due diligence into what they were promoting.

This is unfair. The FYRE Festival was the first-of-a-kind event. There was no yardstick by which to measure. Those approached to help promote it could only look to the success of McFarland’s other business interest - Magnises, his business partner, Ya Rule, the three-time Grammy nominee with over 60 million records sold worldwide - and the promotional video.

FYRE festival video promo

It was the Instagram picture-perfect idyl of the promotional video which offered the proof of concept for the event. 

The promo video featured catwalk models rather than influencers.  The documentary shows these models diving into cobalt-blue waters from a private yacht moored off the white sands of Norman’s Cay. This wasn’t faked. This was a celebrity’s reality; a reality that FYRE festival promised middle-class Americans for a long weekend.

Once the promo video was broadcast and  Kendall Jenner had been secured for $250k (way below her usual ratecard by the way) it was easier for other Instagram influencers to fall in behind.  These people were duped along with workman, advertisers and party-goers. Many of the ‘Grammers were gifted access to the festival in return for posting festival promo orange tiles to their accounts.

One of the gripes about the influencer campaign was that many influencers failed to disclose there was a material commercial connection between them and the festival. This is true and the failure to effectively disclose breaks both ethical and legal codes. What is often omitted from the gripe is the work undertaken since by regulators to raise awareness of disclosure rules and to threaten sanctions against those who flout them.

The Federal Trade Commission has done much work in the United States, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Competition and Markets Authority have done likewise in the UK other countries have followed suit - notably Germany, Austria and Australia.

One of the interviewees to this documentary recalls how the FYRE festival debacle had been described as “an elephant of a cluster fuck”. It was. But not through working with influencers.

Scott Guthrie is a professional adviser within the influencer marketing industry. He is an event speaker, university guest lecturer, media commentator on influencer marketing and active blogger. He works with brands, agencies and platforms to achieve meaningful results from influencer marketing. That tells you something about him but it's not giving you a lot of detail, is it? So, read more here.

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