Smoke Signals: Thoughts on the Fyre Festival
I recently watched the Fyre Festival documentary on Netflix. It’s one of those, you-can’t-make-this-up stories about a music festival that was supposed to be the “cultural experience of the decade,” but never happened. It was a total fraud. Looking deeper, it is a cautionary tale about how hollow our society has become. There’s billions of dollars being put into influence and hype, but so much of it has no substance. This festival is the epitome of that.
At the center of the story is Billy McFarland who wanted to live out his best life, not by earning it, but by exploiting everyone around him. There were employees, customers, investors, and contractors who lost money, and suffered real damages because of him. And ended with him in jail.
In the beginning of the film, we see them planning a shoot to promote the festival. On paper it was a dream shoot. The location was a remote island in the Bahamas, with ten of the top influencers/models in the world. They rented boats and jet ski’s, and had parties all throughout the weekend. As a photographer, this project sounds amazing on paper. Everyone else who as a part of it thought so too. Did I tell you that Ja Rule will be there too?
But the production team quickly found out there was no story or vision for the shoot. They were told to just capture everything and needed to get “genuine shots of people having a good time.” The term genuine shots mean nothing. It’s like telling people to act natural. It’s translation for “we don’t know what we want.”
They had all the right pieces, but as Gertrude Stein once said, “...not there, there is no there there.” I learned about that quote from one of my favorite authors Ryan Holiday, in his article “You Have to Find Your ‘There’.” Holiday’s argument is no matter how much charisma you have, how much you can sell or perform, if there’s nothing of substance that’s actually there then what’s really the point? What are you really doing? Nothing.
“It’s essential that we cultivate this ability to stop and look objectively at our own work. One must step back from it and say: Am I really doing good work here? What do I stand for? Am I actually moving towards mastery? Is there any substance to what I am doing?
The marketing strategy was to put up the promotional video, and all those people who had “influence” to post on their feed, at the same time, an orange square. That’s it. A square filled with the color orange. And it worked. They told 95% of the tickets within 24 hours.
But in the end what was the point? Was there any substance to it? So many people spent so much time and energy creating hype and excitement, but it was just a pretty shell with nothing inside.
There’s also the other side of this story: us. We are the willing participants wanting to believe the lie. We pick our phone hundreds of times a day, spend hours on Instagram, for what? We aren’t looking at anything that is helpful or meaningful to us. We are addicted and influenced into thinking our lives aren’t enough. It isn’t like the lives of the people we see on Instagram or this festival and so we have to be a part of it.
Those that bought the tickets wanted to believe it was true. They got on a plane, flew to the Bahamas. It wasn’t until they were on a bus going towards the venue and the bus driver, someone who’s been there from the beginning, told them what they were to expect reality sunk in. That there was nothing there.
None of this is new though. This is how marketing and advertising worked since the days of “Mad Men.” They were scared that there was a TV in every house, but now it has seeped into every pore of our culture. It’s in our pockets, with us wherever we go. And it’s getting harder and harder to not stare at the shiny new object and think that’s what we need to be fulfilled.
As much as I disdain the McFarlands in the world that perpetuate such fraud, I’m also pointing a finger at myself for being a part of the audience.
When I first read Holiday’s article I wondered if I was one of those people who talked a lot with nothing much to say. But it’s the brashness that he warns against, not the lack of knowledge. I don’t remember when all this happened in 2016, but this film rings too true to our current state of affairs.