One of the few truthful things that Billy McFarland says in either of two recent documentaries on his disastrous Fyre music festival—Fyre Fraud (Hulu) and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened (Netflix)—is something along the lines of: “If we hadn’t succeeded so big at the beginning, we wouldn’t have failed so spectacularly at the end.”
Billy, a small-time grifter with a true gift for self-promotion, is the dog that caught the car. According to family lore and Billy himself, he was pulling small time cons as early as grade school. He hit the big time with a black metal credit card (sort of) called “Magnises” which supposedly entitled its holders not only to make purchases but also to gain entry to exclusive celebrity events, elite musical concerts, swanky restaurants and the like. The scam garnered enough financial investment and favorable press to allow Billy to launch his next big idea—Fyre, an app that would enable customers to directly reach out to celebrities and hire them for their private events. Book Billy Crystal for your bar mitzvah. That sort of thing.
As his employees worked away on the app, Billy got the idea of hyping Fyre by hosting a music festival in the Bahamas. In a stroke of genius salesmanship, Billy partnered with a famous rapper (Ja Rule), filmed a promotional video featuring super models, and promised great bands and a venue on an exclusive island formerly owned by drug lord Pablo Escobar. He paid Kendall Jenner $250,000 to send a single tweet about the festival. She, and other “influencers” stirred something in the breast of Millennials suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out), which enabled Billy to gain investors, borrow money, and sell tickets and other packages for a festival that he had no idea how to execute in the impossibly brief time line that he established.
Although it seems clear that the festival was doomed from the beginning due to poor planning, inadequate experience, and suspect financing, the combination of hype, sold tickets, and baseless, overconfident enthusiasm created a momentum that made it impossible for Billy and those around him to tell the truth, which was: “This concert is not going to happen.” As most of you readers know already, Fyre Festival was a disaster. Billy and his crew never built the infrastructure to house and feed the thousands of people who had bought tickets. The bands all pulled out at the last minute. The few thousand fans who made it to the island (not the one originally promised) had only crappy FEMA-like tents to stay in and cheese sandwiches to eat—hardly the luxury digs and meals they’d been promised and had paid for.
Billy is now in jail for fraud relating to the Fyre Festival and for an additional scam he pulled after being indicted for Fyre.
One cannot watch these videos or read about Billy McFarland and Fyre without drawing parallels to Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, which we have blogged about before (”Elizabeth Holmes: Scamming Silicon Valley”– https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/elizabeth-holmes-scamming-silicon-valley ). In addition to the fact that Billy is in prison and Elizabeth will likely go there, they have many other things in common.
Billy and Elizabeth both have otherworldly confidence. Both are so certain that they are meant to accomplish special things that no practical hurdle ever registers as significant on their radar screens. And that overconfidence is so spellbinding that it draws others along with them.
Both Billy and Elizabeth are on a mission. Billy’s is to help people of his generation enjoy what he views as the experiences of a lifetime—which mostly involve luxury goods, expensive services, and hanging around with beautiful people. Elizabeth’s is to radically improve healthcare. Elizabeth’s is obviously nobler, but both Billy and Elizabeth are happy to be the faces of their ventures, just as they are happy to live egregiously excessive lifestyles as long as the music is still playing.
Both enjoyed wild success at the beginning of their adventures. Influencers, investors, lenders, employees, contractors, and potential concert goers all seemed to share Billy’s enthusiasm and to believe, against all odds, that the Fyre Festival was actually going to occur. Elizabeth used her youthful, blonde good looks and her affected voice and style of dress to wow rich, elderly men (mostly) into fronting her $900 million or so to pursue her dream. It was indeed the early success that both enjoyed that enabled them to create huge failures rather than small ones.
This success created a situation where the natural loss aversion of individuals (see our “Loss Aversion” videos), coupled with their supreme overconfidence, made it seemingly impossible for either Billy or Elizabeth to admit that they were at the helm of what had evolved into giant fraudulent enterprises. Both probably began with relatively good intentions, and their mantra of positive thinking convinced Billy, Elizabeth, and their poor employees to keep plugging away against all odds, creating more and more collateral damage that snowballed over time (see our “Incrementalism” videos as well). Billy never came close to pulling off the promised concert. Elizabeth never came close to creating the promised device that could accurately perform an important range of medical tests cheaply and from a single drop of blood. But both seem to have felt justified in telling lie after lie to keep their dreams alive for just one more day.
It remains unclear whether Elizabeth and Billy are sociopaths and pathological liars, or merely idealistic youths who got caught up in forces larger than themselves from which they did not know how to escape. Billy’s attorneys have floated the idea that he has an untreated bipolar disorder. In either event, it’s one thing to be told that you can accomplish anything if you set your mind to it. It’s another thing to act as if you believe it when reality is screaming a contrary message.
Those of us who are relatively normal must monitor ourselves carefully. Yes, there can be rare situations where lying is permitted, or even encouraged. Think of the German family asked by the Nazis if they are harboring Jews in their basement. But because humans are tremendous rationalizers (see our video “Jack & Rationalizations”) and continuously influenced by the self-serving bias which makes those things that advantage us seem to be the right thing to do (see our “Self-Serving Bias” videos), we must be very, very careful to ensure that we are not lying for bad reasons and with harmful impact.
Books & Articles
Lindsey Bever & Amy Wang, “The Fyre Festival Was a Total Disaster. Its Founder Is Going to Prison for Wire Fraud,” Washington Post, Oct. 11. 2018.
Nick Bilton, “’She Never Looks Back’: Inside Elizabeth Holmes’s Chilling Final Months at Theranos,” Vanity Fair, Feb. 20, 2019.
Leigh Blickley, ’Hell Has No Wrath Like a Millennial Scorned’: Lawyer Suing Fyre Festival Gives Updates on Case,” HuffPost, Jan 18, 2019.
Kenzie Bryant, “The Fyre Festival, Built on Instagram, Dies by Instagram,” Vanity Fair, April 28, 2017.
Kenzie Bryant, “The First Fyre Festival Fraud Suit Is Here and Asking for $100 Million,” Vanity Fair, May 1, 2017.
John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup (2018).
Joe Coscarelli et al., “Ín Wreckage of the Fyre Festival, Fury, Lawsuits and an Inquiry,” New York Times, May 21, 2017.
Hunter Harris, “Fyre Festival Was Terrible Before It Even Began,” Vulture, May 5, 2017.
Amanda Hess, “Fyre Festival, Theranos and Our Never-Ending ‘Scam Season,’” New York Times, Jan. 30, 2019.
Alice Lloyd, “Welcome to the Golden Age of Grift,” The Weekly Standard, June 14, 2018.
“Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” (2019)(directed by Chris Smith) (Netflix).
“Fyre Fraud,” (2019) (directed by Jenner Furst & Julia Willoughby Nason)(Hulu)
“Incrementalism,” available at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/incrementalism
“Jack & Rationalizations,” available at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-rationalizations.
“Loss Aversion,” available at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/loss-aversion.
“Overconfidence Bias,” available at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/overconfidence-bias.
“Self-Serving Bias,” available at https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias