Billy McFarland, the founder of the ill-fated Fyre Festival, has been put behind bars for fraud
Remember the Fyre Festival, which took place, in the loosest sense of the term, in April 2017? Oh how we laughed.
It was billed as the luxury festival for the Instagram generation: huge acts like Major Lazer, Disclosure, Tyga and, er, Blink 182 playing a private island in the Bahamas, organised by Ja Rule, promoted by a gaggle of supermodels in bikinis, with ticket packages costing anything from $450 for day passes up to $12,000 for a VIP package.
On its official site organisers described it as “a cultural moment created from a blend of music, art, and food”, with partygoers whisked on to a hyper-exclusive resort on Great Exuma on “a custom, VIP configured Boeing 737” and staying in “modern, eco-friendly geodesic domes”. You could rent a yacht for a mere nine grand extra per day.
Of course, the reality turned out to be somewhat different.
The island did not have enough water, food or accommodation, with wild boars running around terrorising expectant partygoers and various descriptions of events being summed up most appositely by “Rich Kids of instagram meets Lord of the Flies”.
Once everyone was safely evacuated from the island, the recriminations and investigations began and it soon became clear that one man, Billy McFarland, was the ‘brains’ behind the operation.
A picture emerged of an inexperienced, overconfident egotistical charlatan, with a team to match, who just assumed that everything would be alright on the night. Chloe Gordon, a talent producer, worked on the festival for just four days - having originally signed up for two months - after it became clear to her what a complete disaster the whole thing would be. She described, to The Cut, a meeting, when it was commonly agreed that the site, nor logistics, would not be ready in time and that the best idea would be to roll tickets over to the following year, where someone from the marketing team simply ignored the advice and said: “Let’s just do it and be legends, man.”
Needless to say, it was done, and it did not turn out to be a legendary idea.
McFarland, 26, duly pleaded guilty to fraud earlier this year - Ja Rule was not arrested or charged, with lawyers successfully arguing that McFarland simply used his name and connections to promote what was his event - and was sentenced in Manhattan on Thursday to six years in jail.
The judge described him as “a serial fraudster” who had been dishonest for “most of his life”.
The US Attorney for Manhattan, Geoffrey Berman added: “Today, McFarland found out the hard way that empty promises don’t lead to jet-setting, champagne and extravagant parties - they lead to federal prison.”
Addressing the court, McFarland said he knew he had “betrayed the trust of my investors, my customers, my family” and added that the sentencing was an “extremely bitter reality”.
McFarland pleaded guilty in March to two counts of wire fraud related to the festival, but then in July admitted two further counts of fraud relating to another ticket-selling scam that he had set up while on bail. Probably not the wisest of ideas to have done that Billy, if we’re being honest.
Prosecutors had requested that he serve between 11 and 14 years in prison, describing him as “the consummate con artist”.
Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald said McFarland was “unique in this court’s memory”.
She added: “The defendant is a serial fraudster and to date his fraud, like a circle, has no end. Mr McFarland has been dishonest most of his life.”
The event also led to questions about the role that influencers, paid to promote the event without seemingly any concern about whether their promises were real, play but so far there has been no concrete action against them.
Meanwhile, sympathy for McFarland came from an unlikely source in the form of Radio 2 DJ Jeremy Vine, who tweeted: “I simply don’t understand how this adolescent con artist gets six years for the “Fyre Festival Scam” but the 2008 bankers walk away from the crash as free men. Is it because this guy was an amateur?”
A fair point. So perhaps don’t be surprised if Billy winds up on Wall Street in a few years’ time.