Saturday 19 January 2019

Inside Billy McFarland's Greatest Party That Never Was

It was supposed to be the party of the century.

Billy McFarland and Ja Rule's Fyre Festival was billed as the music festival to beat all music festivals. With its gorgeous deserted island setting in the Bahamas, its high-profile line-up of talent, its promotional blitz that included the likes of Bella Hadid, Hailey Bieber, Emily Ratajkowski, Kendall Jenner and many more A-list influencers—not to mention its luxury price tag indicating that attendance was the ultimate sign of status—these two weekends in April of 2017 were meant to be FOMO-inducing days that would make Coachella look like mere child's play.

And then with one unappetizing tweet involving cold slices of cheese on some bread, Fyre Fest quickly became the schadenfreude of the century. The scam to end all scams. A cautionary tale of the power of influence in the social media age that left thousands robbed of their hard-earned dollars, stranded some in nightmarish conditions in what was essentially an undeveloped parking lot outside of a Sandals resort, and led to jail time and lawsuits galore.

But as we're learning this week with the twin releases of Hulu and Netflix's competing documentaries—Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, respectively—there was so much more to this story than we originally knew. And all of it is stranger and more wild than any fiction.

To understand how Fyre Fest went so horribly wrong, leaving unfortunate attendees in refugee camp-like conditions upon arrival and Bahamian locals deprived of wages owed for back-breaking work in direct sunlight—and to know how it should've seemed so painfully obvious that this was the only possible outcome for this story—it's important to go back to McFarland's past.

The son of real estate developers with a preternatural obsession with making money—his first get rich quick scheme, so he claims in his interview in Fyre Fraud, came in grade school when he told a classmate he could fix her crayon for a dollar and then hacked into his classroom's handheld computers, placing an advertisement for his services where all the children would see it—McFarland claims founded his first company at 13 before dropping out of Bucknell University in his freshman year to launch a content-sharing site called Spling. Shortly thereafter, he launched a new venture, a "black card" service for NYC wannabes called Magnesis—"Latin for absolutely nothing," McFarland quipped to the New York Post in 2014—that would give members access to perks across the city, including access to the members-only townhouse in the West Village, while duplicating the member's pre-existing debit or credit card's magnetic strip on a sleek matte black stainless steel card, for the annual fee of $250.

By 2017, the company had expanded to Washington, D.C. and San Francisco and had nearly 40,000 members, had 25 employees and, according to McFarland's claims, had raised $3.1 million in venture capital, including investments from the late Aubrey McClendon, co-founder of Chesapeake Energy, who was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of conspiring "to rig bids for the purchase of oil and natural gas leases" in March of 2016 and died the following day in a single-vehicle collision.

But by 2017, the company had already moved away from its black cards in favor of a digital app that focused on getting its members tickets to the hottest events in town. Luring members with the promise of access to things like Hamilton performances and Jay Z and Beyonce concerts, Magnesis began failing to live up to its end of the bargain, with members complaining that specifics relating to their purchases would be held from them until, they were told, the day of the event, before their purchases were simply canceled outright just days prior.

According to one former employee who appears in Fyre Fraud, McFarland would allegedly list these tickets for sale before ever having any in hand, going out and purchasing them the day of, using funds raised from sales for a future event, with the implication being that each new batch of tickets for sale were offered simply so the entrepreneur could fulfill the orders for the event that was quickly coming up. 

Despite the growing concern that McFarland's ability to follow through was clearly outmatched by his enticing promises, he continued to garner attention. Enter: Ja Rule.


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