When Daniel Jung paid $2,000 for tickets and airfare to Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, he likely expected the type of experience the festival’s promoters promised. The event was advertised as a kind of luxury Coachella, an upscale iteration of the style of music festivals that have cropped up in the past several years. A video promoting the event featured celebrities such as Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski, and artists as different as Rae Sremmurd and Blink 182 were scheduled to perform. But Jung’s experience, according to a lawsuit he filed against the festival organizers this week, couldn’t have been further from that expectation. Instead of luxe cabanas, disaster relief tents littered the campground, and guests reported meals of lettuce sandwiches.
In a statement posted to its website, Fyre Festival’s organizers — 25-year-old technology entrepreneur Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, who founded the millennial nightlife app Magnises together in 2015 — admitted to “getting in over their heads” in the planning, marketing, and execution of the festival. But according to a report by VICE, organizers actually spent most of the funds raised for the event on social media campaigns, including sponsored posts on Kendall Jenner’s Instagram urging fans to attend. (In a separate class-action lawsuit filed by a group of Fyre attendees this week, Jenner and others are named and accused of having deceived fans).
The chaos that unfolded at Fyre Festival is particularly outrageous, but the ordeal is emblematic of an encroaching new normal in live music: Multi-stage festivals aimed at young music fans have become commonplace and virtually indistinguishable. And the more that are launched, the more room for error exists.
According to a report from Goldenvoice, Coachella generated $700 million for the local economy surrounding Indio, California last year. Its success, and that of other legacy festivals like Glastonbury in the UK, has inspired other promoters to enter what appears to be a lucrative market, and for existing promoters to expand their portfolios.In just the past few years alone, massive, big-budget festivals have cropped up across the country: Panorama in New York; Tyler the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw and Soulquarius in L.A; D.C.’s Broccoli City Festival, and on and on. All of these new festivals feature extensive line-ups including the biggest acts in music as well as buzzy emerging artists. Of course, there are visible brand activations and sponsored stages, too.
According to a 2015 Nielsen study, 32 million Americans — nearly half of them “millennials” — attend music festivals each year. A 2016 “Festival Demand Report” by the events start-up Aloompa suggested that 51 percent of Americans attended a live music event (that is, any type of concert or festival,) in 2015, up from 44 percent the year prior. According to a report from IEG, brands, notably alcohol and beverage brands, spent more than $1.34 billion sponsoring music venues, festivals, and tours in 2014. Festivals offer new opportunities for brands looking to market directly to a young demographic with disposable income. Tech brands like Samsung and Google can set up VR tents to show off new products, while apparel and lifestyle brands like Converse can gin up interest in new gear.
“Festivals have taken off ... because they are the live equivalent of the way people are consuming music now.”
It wasn’t always this way. When Coachella started in 1999, the festival attracted roughly 37,000 guests; last year, nearly 100,000 people attended the festival each day. The festival’s popularity grew so much over time that, in 2012, Coachella announced a second identical weekend of events (a strategy Fyre Fest tried to emulate). Last year, the event raked in $95 million in just two weekends, according to a recent New Yorker story. Coachella’s success can in part be attributed to the diversity of its stages: This year’s festival saw headlining sets from Kendrick Lamar as well from the 80s rock band New Order. The internet has helped blur genre borders, and has expanded music fans‘ areas of interest. Music festivals today represent a closer expression of that than they ever have. (And it’s a boon for artists, too, many of whom command a higher rate to perform at festivals than they would at a club or theater.)
“Really, festivals have taken off in the way they have in recent years because they are the live equivalent of the way people are consuming music now,” Zach Fuller, an analyst at Midia Research, a music media analytics firm, told The Outline over the phone. “People are now listening to playlists more than they listen to albums, so they’re becoming invested in a whole range of artists rather than a single act.”
The organizers of Fyre Festival were somehow at the nexus of music festivals, branding, and technology. According to Bloomberg, the festival’s parent company, Fyre Media, was in talks to receive funding from a venture capital wing at Comcast for an app that would help musicians book performances; Comcast reportedly pulled out of the talks days before the festival. A Fyre Festival pitch deck uncovered by Vanity Fair paints a picture of a company adept at the marketing of an event but wholly unprepared for the responsibility of making it happen.
“You could almost say it was a case of the influencer tactic working too well,” Fuller said.
Pulling off a large-scale event requires a lot more than just a social media strategy. The music festival boom offers opportunities for fans and artists, but its attractiveness to entrepreneurs also means that more incompetent promoters and Fyre Festival-style shitshows could be on the horizon.