This is a tale of two music festivals. The story begins all the way back in November 2016, as Sara and three of her girlfriends were discussing their plans for the next year’s concert season. Sara and her friends, then still undergrads at Georgia State University, had made the trek to Gulf Shores, Alabama for two previous incarnations of the Hangout Music Festival.
Both years were a blast. “The time of our lives, both times,” is how Sara describes it. Sara and her girlfriends were already planning to buy tickets for Hangout 2017. The four-day event traditionally lands on the weekend before Memorial Day, and with this being the girls’ senior year at GSU, Hangout seemed like the perfect way to celebrate their graduation.
But when the new Hangout lineup hit social media back in November, some of the girls were underwhelmed. Mumford and Sons, Twenty One Pilots and Weezer topped the bill. “At first, (this year’s lineup) didn’t grab me like the last couple years,” says Sara. “So for a minute there, we started looking at other festivals.”
One day in early December, one of Sara’s friends threw out the idea of scrapping their Hangout plans to attend Fyre Fest. “Which one’s Fyre Fest?” somebody asked. A moment later, everybody was gathered around a cell phone, watching the same tantalizing video that has since been devoured by the nightly news. The ad features supermodels on a tropical beach, supermodels on jet skis, supermodels on a yacht, and a few quick shots of live music. Welcome To Fyre Festival, goes the ad. The Best In Food Art Music and Adventure. On A Remote And Private Island, Once Owned By Pablo Escobar…
Note that both events, at first glance, seem to offer a similar package: A few days and nights of live music on a beautiful white sand beach. But right off the bat, Sara thought Fyre Fest seemed a little dubious. Not that she had any reason to suspect false advertising, but live music is supposed to be communal, whereas those Fyre Fest ads seemed pretty ostentatious. Coupled with the whiff of sexism- with an ad campaign so heavily reliant on supermodels, were they even trying to sell tickets to women?
And then, the price. Tickets for Fyre Fest started around $1000, which included flights from Miami to the Bahamas, where the festival was being staged. VIP packages were going for $12,000.
Meanwhile, in New York City: A 33-year-old professional named Charlie was looking at the same tantalizing video. One of Charlie’s friends, a guy with whom he’d planned prior vacations, had just sent a Fyre Fest link to their group text.
“I thought, this looks fucking awesome,” Charlie tells me. “The pictures made it look really luxurious, but my need for luxury is actually very low. I’m into camping, I’m into the outdoors, and this looked like everything I love.”
Charlie is an avid sailor who already knew the Bahamas pretty well. He’s a team leader kind of guy, the type of friend who makes the reservations, books the flights, collects money later. So in late December, Charlie booked three Fyre Fest lodges. The lodges were advertised on the festival website as “expansive, stunningly appointed with exotic decor.” Charlie’s friends were quick to commit. Slots filled up fast. That made 24 people in Charlie’s party, committing roughly $1000 a head.
Meanwhile: As winter turned to spring and graduation drew near, Sara and her girlfriends had a choice to make, and half of them were leaning toward Fyre Fest. One friend started working overtime to save money. Another asked her parents to pay for the trip in lieu of a graduation present.
But ultimately, Sara and her friends were determined to go somewhere together. Fyre Fest was further away, and for some of them, just plain unaffordable. Hangout was within driving distance, with three-day wristbands starting at $269.
Plus, Sara had discovered Hangout’s Spotify playlist. “I started checking out the smaller bands, and I realized, Warpaint is awesome, LP is awesome, The Head & The Heart is awesome… I told my friends, this lineup is secretly awesome. Crisis averted.”
Speaking of crisis: On Thursday April 27, Charlie and eight of his friends boarded a 6:30AM flight out of Miami, bound for the Bahamas. Once the plane was boarded, the pilot informed the passengers that a storm had disrupted power at Exhuma International. Takeoff was delayed. Everybody sat on the tarmac for a few hours.
“And these charter planes were shit,” says Charlie. “Absolute shit. Baking hot, uncomfortable, not what they’d advertised.” (For the record, Fyre Fest had been advertising customized Boeing 737s.)
When the plane finally landed in Exhuma, a Fyre representative told the crowd that the festival grounds were not yet ready for guests. So with nowhere to change or shower or drop their bags, guests were rounded aboard a big yellow schoolbus and shuttled to a bar on the beach.
Now, at this point, most guests were still riding high on great expectations. The weather was nice. Lunch was served. Tequila was unlimited. People started changing into their bathing suits.
But through it all was a creeping sense of chaos. Checked luggage had not yet arrived. The Fyre website had stopped answering e-mails. Festival reps were hard to find and short on answers.
Finally, around 6PM: “We took the bus to the ‘campground’, and that campground should be in quotes, because actually it was more like a dump site. Just a sea of white disaster tents.” Some of the guests immediately took to social media, describing the conditions as rickety, hectic, disgusting.
Charlie and his friends scouted around for the lodges they’d reserved. They were directed to a guy standing on a box at the center of the crowd- supposedly,“the guy in charge of the lodging.” The guy on the box pointed toward a hill and told Charlie, “Those are your tents.” Charlie told the guy that he’d booked three eight-person lodges. At $8,000 a piece. The rep told him, “No, those are your tents, and they’re first come first serve, so go get one.”
The guy on the box, Charlie has learned, was Billy McFarland himself, the founder of Fyre Media, a 26-year-old college dropout who had partnered with rapper Ja Rule to usher the whole entire event into existence. To summarize, if you’re not already grasping what a monumental clusterfuck the inaugural Fyre Festival turned out to be: Imagine that you’ve arrived in Chicago to attend Lollapalooza. You’re attempting to check into your hotel suite, when Perry Farrell himself directs you to a vinyl disaster tent, and he’s a real dick about it.
By this point, you’ve probably seen some of the memes. Guests had been promised gourmet catering by celebrity chefs. They got cheese sandwiches in styrofoam boxes. Headliners originally included Blink 182, Disclosure, and Major Lazer. Charlie watched a local Bahamian group perform for “three or four people who looked strung out on drugs.”
Even as tension mounted, Charlie and his friends made the best of things. They went swimming, drank tequila, made friends with some of the locals and festival staff. Most of the Fyre staff, Charlie tells me, were just trying to help, hired hands who were equally over their head, devoid of proper guidance or professional infrastructure. And by some accounts, many staff members were either underpaid or stiffed altogether.
By sunrise of Friday April 28, mass exodus was already underway. Guests fled the campground and swarmed the airport. All incoming flights were cancelled. Performers were bailing. Blink 182 had been first to pull out; other headliners quickly followed suit. By Friday afternoon, just when Fyre Fest had been scheduled to kick off, the whole thing was officially cancelled- via Instagram, of course.
In the midst of that chaos, Charlie managed to pull together an actual party. He and his friends gathered some DJ equipment, rounded up bottles, popped up a makeshift bar and turned the beach into their own little mixer. “About 25 percent of the people there were being human. We realized we’re in this together, so let’s make the best of it, and eventually they’ll get us out of here.”
That actually sounds pretty fun. But then I ask, what about the other 75 percent? “Those people freaked out. People were super pissed off, throwing hissy fits, yelling at workers, yelling at each other.”
Meanwhile, in Georgia: Sara and her friends were following the whole story online. “I felt like we’d dodged a bullet,” Sara tells me. “At this point in my life, I can afford maybe one trip a year. If (my friends) had dragged me to Fyre Fest, I seriously would have killed these bitches.”
Three weeks later, Sara and her friends arrived in Gulf Shores, Alabama. They checked into an Airbnb that they’d booked only 48 hours earlier, which they discovered was only half a mile’s walk from the show. Their host had stocked the refrigerator with sushi and cold cuts. “Everybody you meet down here is so happy to have you. It’s like the easiest, chillest concert ever, and the whole town is behind it.”
Over the next three days, Sara watched about twelve different artists, went crowd-surfing in the Boom Boom Tent, got her picture taken with LP, found a pair of Ray Bans in the ocean, and watched the sunrise with a med student that she’d met in a foam party. “I seriously don’t want to leave,” Sara tells me on Sunday afternoon. “We had the time of our lives, for the third year in a row. I’ll be the first one to buy tickets for next year.”
Speaking of: Preparations for Hangout 2018 begin this month. But don’t expect any major announcements just yet. Long before the hype hits social media, this festival begins with good solid due diligence by a team of public officials and community leaders.
That team includes Grant Brown, director of recreation and cultural affairs for the city of Gulf Shores. Naturally, Grant had been following the Fyre Fest headlines. I ask him what advice he might have for any entrepreneurs who are thinking about starting their own music festival, just in case any future Billy McFarlands or Ja Rules happen to be reading. “First off, you better have deep pockets,” he tells me. “Because you will lose money at first.”
Hangout got off to a particularly rocky start back in 2010. The first year had the terrible misfortune of landing only weeks after the BP oil spill, which crippled the local economy. Hangout’s first iteration sold less than 15,000 tickets.
This year, Hangout sold upwards of 45,000 tickets. And that doesn’t happen by accident. Grant Brown credits the success of Hangout Festival to a true partnership with the community. That partnership includes the entire Gulf Shores police department, as well as 150 law enforcement agents from neighboring communities, not to mention the propitiators of 17,000 available lodging options. And perhaps most importantly, the Hangout festival doesn’t just commandeer some remote and undeveloped plot of land; it’s erected in between and around existing resources like restrooms and water stations, and local businesses like bars and restaurants. Massive recycling crews work through the night, during every night of the show, to ensure that the festival leaves the lightest possible footprint.
Basically, it boils down to common sense. Big magical music festivals don’t just happen out of nowhere, the way they did back in 1969 or at the end of Wayne’s World 2. All those high-priced models might sell tickets, but they’re not going to put on a show. Even the performers themselves don’t guarantee a show, as bailing on Fyre Fest might be the best career move Blink 182 has made in years.
Putting on a show- and try to follow me here, Messrs Rule and McFarland- requires respect and understanding of the local community. Maybe invest in some local businesses before you blow your budget on the so-called Instagram influencers. You can’t just put tents where there’s no larger infrastructure- and if you do pop up that tent, you definitely don’t call it a lodge.
Naturally, Fyre Fest has inspired a whole mess of lawsuits. Charlie tells me that he’s personally down about $27,500. The masterminds behind Fyre Fest have offered to compensate all their dissatisfied customers with VIP status at next year’s Fyre Fest, which they’re threatening to stage somewhere in the continental United States.
In all likelihood, a second Fyre Fest will never happen. And if by some miracle it does, remember: Don’t be swayed by the women of Instagram. You do have a choice.
Both Sara and Charlie requested pseudonyms. Charlie is pursuing legal action against Fyre Festival organizers. Sara called in sick to be at Hangout.