Seth Crossno boarded a plane bound for the Bahamas in April 2017 with two main motivations: enjoying a beach vacation and seeing what the much-hyped inaugural Fyre Festival was all about.
He never dreamed that he’d soon become a part of history.
“It’s in the pop culture lexicon that this is synonymous with failure,” Crossno says now. “No one really knew it was going to be as bad as it was.”
You remember the Fyre Festival, right? The Instagram-filtered, VIP music festival experience on Grand Exuma that never was?
Event promoters—rapper Ja Rule included—and celebrity influencers combined to sell potential concertgoers on a two-weekend jaunt to paradise, a place where the party would never stop.
Instead, early arrivers found the chaos of a site that was not even close to being prepared to host a company picnic, much less a Caribbean Coachella, then hightailed it back to the airport only to be stuck on the tarmac for hours, with each failure broadcast and amplified on social media accounts.
— Lamaan (@LamaanElGallal) April 28, 2017
The curiosity of the case of millennial nirvana gone wrong—plus the cavalcade of lawsuits that followed—has kept the story of the Fyre Festival alive and well for more than a year.
So why is the Fyre Festival still such an enduring image in the popular imagination? And what could we possibly learn from its brief, tortured existence?
Up in Flames
Looking back on it now, Crossno still feels as though there weren’t any definitive signs beforehand that would have warned him not to take the trip.
Plenty of celebrities had already lent their likenesses and staked their reputations on the Fyre Festival being a one-of-a-kind experience…in a good way. A promotional video released in January 2017, a little more than three months before the event, showed models such as Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin, and Emily Ratajkowski frolicking on pristine beaches and swimming in crystal-clear waters on an island “once owned by Pablo Escobar.”
There were cute pigs that ate food right out of their hands for crying out loud. And all that was peripheral to the music festival itself.
[pullquote align=”center”]There were things leading up to it that seemed, looking back, like they should have been red flags.[/pullquote]
Before Crossno and his three friends got on the plane in North Carolina, they heard that headliner Blink-182 was pulling out. But they didn’t see that as a huge negative. They weren’t going for Blink-182 anyway.
“There were things leading up to it that seemed, looking back, like they should have been red flags,” Crossno says. “But they were more like, ‘Oh, this is the first time they’re throwing something. They’re just getting off the ground, and they’re going to be fine.’ But nothing to indicate, ‘Where’s the actual structure we were told we were going to stay in?’”
That’s because the team of organizers, headed by 26-year-old promoter Billy McFarland, kept the chaos behind the scenes. Those who were working on the festival knew what was coming.
Chloe Gordon, a former talent producer at Saturday Night Live, came onto the project in mid-March. Although she had been led to believe the groundwork was already set for Fyre Festival, she wrote in a firsthand account, the reality on the island was no vendors, no stage, no luxury accommodations, and really no clue how to do it all.
— Trevor DeHaas (@trev4president) April 28, 2017
This, remember, was about six weeks before the start of the event.
“Planners also warned that it would be not be [sic] up to the standard they had advertised,” Gordon wrote. “The best idea, they said, would be to roll everyone’s tickets over to 2018 and start planning for the next year immediately. They had a meeting with the Fyre execs to deliver the news. A guy from the marketing team said, ‘Let’s just do it and be legends, man.’”
Legends, they became.
On Thursday, April 27—a day before the start of the festival—revelers who made it to the island that was never owned by Pablo Escobar found a storm-swept, sandy expanse with tents strewn about instead of the luxury accommodations promised. They were then told to grab whatever tent they could. Their luggage, once it finally got to the site from the airport, was dispersed to them from the back of a shipping container.
As the night wore on and it became increasingly evident that the Fyre Festival was not going as planned—or, like, at all—people started planning their escapes. Soon, they overwhelmed the small island airport and sat on the tarmac overnight before finally getting clearance to fly home.
We know the play-by-play of the disaster thanks in large part to people like Crossno, who live-tweeted the events under his pen name William Needham Finley IV.
The image that still sticks out the most in Crossno’s mind is the organizer’s notebook he found on the island. It includes insightful items such as a to-do list from April 14 saying to head to the site “at some point.”
Also: a cryptic “chips?” on a ledger of foodstuffs needed for the general store that never materialized.
“I wish I could tell people that this was a great thing to learn from, but there really wasn’t any way to know that it would turn out the way that it did,” Crossno says. “Maybe the next time you’re flying out for a music festival, try even harder to find out if it’s fraudulent?”
So why are we all still talking about this? Schadenfreude, basically.
Much of the tenor of the immediate reaction to initial reports coming out of Grand Exuma on that day was disdainful. It was just a bunch of rich, dumb millennials getting what they deserved. Not only the organizers presiding over the mess, but the spectators willing to follow Kendall Jenner down to the island of unfulfilled promises.
— eyeland gyal (@BaddieLambily) April 28, 2017
Crossno says the best reply he got, among the garden variety “you deserve it, loser” messages, was from someone telling him that William Needham Finley IV “sounds like a made-up name for a rich white guy.”
Which it was. For a character that Crossno uses to satirize rich, vapid millennials.
“Man, you really hit the nail on the head there,” Crossno says.
Crossno’s not really asking for anybody’s sympathy. Everybody made it back to the mainland, nobody died, some people are even getting their money back through litigation. He doesn’t care if people think he’s foolish.
But that reductive way of thinking about the Fyre Festival also detracts from the organizers’ role as the true perpetrators in the fiasco, as well as the victims that ended up paying a whole lot more than the disappointed concertgoers.
Namely, the native vendors on the island that Fyre Festival contracted for services, then never paid. Business owners like Elvis Rolle, of Exuma Pointe Bar & Grille, who told Vanity Fair last summer that McFarland still owed him $135,000.
And what about the role that the celebrity endorsers played? Sure, they might have taken a hit or two in the months after the event, but their brands are still intact.
They’re still highly regarded “influencers.”
Tragic Figure or Total Fraud?
And what are we to make of McFarland, the Icarus in this scenario, the one who flew too close to the sun? Is he just a well-meaning event promoter who got in over his head, an unrepentant grifter, or somewhere in between?
Crossno says he used to come down more on the side of “overwhelmed idealist.” Now, he’s firmly in the “grifter” camp.
“After the fact, I was like, ‘That guy was trying. He was down on the island and did want to pull it off.’ He just was maybe too stubborn or detached from reality to listen to people,” Crossno says. “I don’t want to say I felt bad for him because he bit off more than he could chew, but it was also his own fault. Now, knowing everything we know, it’s like, ‘What are you thinking? What’s wrong with you?’”
In March, McFarland pleaded guilty to wire fraud for lying to the festival’s investors. He appeared repentant and apologized to his “investors, team, family and supporters” who he let down.
But as he was bringing this round of legal troubles to a close, he appears to have been participating in another racket. In June, the FBI filed two more criminal charges against McFarland for wire fraud and money laundering, stemming from an alleged jag late last year of selling nonexistent tickets to high-profile events such as the Met Gala, Coachella, and the Grammy Awards.
Crossno and one of his friends are currently engaged in civil litigation against McFarland in their home county. They had filed a suit against Ja Rule as well, but “decided to move on to other business matters.”
They never got the personal apology phone call McFarland promised to each of the Fyre Festival ticketholders in an email after the non-event.
— William N. Finley IV(It’s real. I made it up) (@WNFIV) April 30, 2017
“The story won’t die. Things keep happening,” Crossno said. “That, right now, is starting to eclipse how mind-blowing of a catastrophe the festival itself was. This guy just keeps doing things. It’s like, do you not have an adult or a mentor to tell you not to do that? That just blows my mind.”
Keep the Fyre Burning
The Fyre Festival has a new owner: Seth Crossno. Or William Needham Finley IV. Whichever you’d prefer.
As the trademark for “Fyre Festival” expired in April, and with McFarland and his business partners in no position to renew, Crossno snatched it up. He has sat down for multiple interviews with the team that’s making the Fyre Festival docuseries that Hulu picked up in April. He has gained a fair amount of recognition from his coverage of the festival, and he’s in the process of recording a Dumpster Fyre Podcast series that he hopes to release in the coming months.
Coming soon… pic.twitter.com/L4fhkhpsRf
— Dumpster Fyre Podcast (@DumpsterFyrePod) April 27, 2018
“My original goal was to make it like Serial, but funnier,” Crossno says.
Crossno and his business partners hope to put on their own Fyre Festival in Raleigh now that they have the name. They want to set realistic expectations—“The only thing we’re guaranteeing is we’re not going to defraud you and strand you on an island,” Crossno says—and give the proceeds to a local charity or start a fund for the Bahamians who are still awaiting payment.
He’s running into some complications, though, perhaps unsurprisingly given a brand name that is currently facing a slew of litigation. So he’s got a few more things to figure out before he can bring the next incarnation of the Fyre Festival into existence.
That one day has been a huge part of Crossno’s life for the past 14 months. Knowing what he knows now about how everything has turned out, would he go back and do it again?
“It’s been an interesting experience, but I definitely would not go knowing everything I know now,” Crossno said. “It’s not like I got some awesome movie deal or book deal or big fortune off of this thing. I love talking to people about it because it’s an interesting story now. But I definitely would not go to it again.”