Saturday, January 26, 2019

FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened … burnt by Fyre: a tale of credit cards and influencers being used to suspend disbelief (Netflix)

There have always been influencers in society. Many years ago, film stars smoking a particular brand of cigarette would assign a coolness to a product that their fans would copy and purchase. People following what a politician says – rather than their strict party policy – is not a new thing.

Nowadays, Instagram is awash with people promoting brands and events. By reviewing theatre performances and films on this blog, I’m often engaging in a small way in the ‘critic’ corner of this universe of influencing. And while that type of work is well-established and well understood – I write critical reviews rather than spouting a sponsored advert or direct marketing (which really require an #ad or #sponsored tag to indicate it’s not natural) – it’s not unreasonable to conclude that I’m more likely to review a film or show that is previewed for free than one I need to spend my own hard-earned freelance pennies to get into. Feel free to click the Buy Me A Coffee link over on the right of this webpage if you enjoy it’s content! (Though sometimes I do independently book tickets and pay to see shows and film … and this year I’m keeping count to see how it balances out.)

FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened tells the story of Billy McFarland, an entrepreneur with an exclusive credit card membership scheme behind him, who moved onto his next big project: building an online platform called Fyre that would allow artists to be booked by mere mortals who had the money to contract them to perform, bypassing the need for agents and needing to know the right person to have a conversation in the ear of someone who could secure the band’s agreement.

In order to promote the under-development platform, the Fyre Festival was dreamt up. An exclusive sunny weekend of music and cuisine on a small Caribbean island. People would pay top dollar to be among the few to experience what others could only dream of attending.

And in order to promote the festival, a small planeful of supermodels were flown out to an island in the Bahamas to be filmed partying for a few days. US Rapper Ja Rule helps front the publicity. Promoted with an orange square that clicked through to a glossy bikini-filled video, Fyre Festival took off.

Meanwhile a team was assembled to meet the demand and the incredibly short timescale to stand up a new event in a remote location. Over 97 minutes, we see the “unflappable and delusional” Billy McFarland hustling to pull together an impossible goal. He’s fabulously calm while all around people are querying the viability of his latest dream.

People who questioned the viability of providing sanitation for thousands of people without existing infrastructure were swapped out. The first island of paradise feel through and eventually a neglected corner of Great Exuma was secured. Emergency tents left over from a hurricane were repurposed as luxury accommodation for people who thought they were booking more lavish.

The nature of the high-volume filming to support the initial influencer marketing and desire to capture behind-the-scenes footage of the festival build-up, along with the fact that so many people did not get paid, means that there was a ready supply of material with which the filmmakers to intercut with the interviews with crew and paying punters.

It takes a message from above – the heavens open and rain falls on the campsite on the eve of the first festival goers flying into the island – for the penny to drop, though it takes another 24 hours for clarity of thought to reach the top of the organisational tree.

In October 2018, McFarland was sentenced to six years in federal prison. If the Fyre Festival pyramid had a fraudster at its top, it had hard-working innocent people – like the hundreds of Bahaman workers who build the site – who were left unpaid. The caterer cries on camera as she explains how she used her life savings to pay her staff. She would continue to live on the island and couldn’t run away from her debt like the festival organiser.

I’ve never been to a music festival – the idea of spending any more nights in a tent does not appeal to me – though I’ve mixed sound for bands at non-music festivals and chaired, facilitated and reported from countless events and conferences. On a tiny scale I’ve an appreciation of the chaos of event management and can imagine how it grows exponentially into a teetering tower of malpractice when very novice heads are in sole charge.

At that level, FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is interesting to watch. It casts judgement on the human nature of both the organisers and those who funded it (the people for whom the greatest party could already be imagined in their heads).

It’s yet another wake-up call to pay less attention to the perfect bodies and perfect lifestyles on Instagram and the right-hand column of the Daily Mail website. While they continue to sell lifestyles that some people can afford, as a population we need to stop aspiring to joining them. We can’t all be trustafarians!

The documentary is also a powerful reminder that in a world that values influencers, what looks organic online is often organised and orchestrated behind the scenes.

And it is an object lesson in why everyone has a responsibility to keep their eyes open, the critical thinking function of their brain active, and to ask questions and refuse to be blindsided, it’s also a reminder that everything that glitters is not gold. Sometimes it’s just glitter poured over a turd and filmed in a good light.

(Hulu gazumped Netflix and released their own documentary Fyre Fraud about the Fyre Festival fiasco four days before The Greatest Party dropped. While Hulu agreed to pay Bully McFarland for an interview, the producers of the Netflix documentary (Jerry Media and Matte Projects) did not accede to his demands for money.)

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