The spectacular failure of the Fyre Festival became the biggest cultural joke of 2017. Onlookers used social media to watch in amused horror as what was promised to be a new paradigm of luxury experience turned into a nightmare scenario filled with roving dogs, FEMA tents, and pathetic cheese sandwiches. Now, Billy McFarland, the disgraced entrepreneurial mastermind behind the massive music festival disaster, has come under scrutiny in a pair of documentaries from Netflix and Hulu.
McFarland, depicted in the films as an archetype of millenial hubris, pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud to defraud investors and a second count to defraud a ticket vendor in March 2018, reports NBC News. A plethora of lawsuits taken out against him, which have yet to be resolved, are seeking more than $100 million in damages from the young upstart, according to SPIN.
The subject of McFarland's criminal intent is a question in both films — is McFarland a pathological liar or was he simply in over his head? Who exactly is McFarland, anyway?
To try to answer that question, we're taking a look at McFarland's life before and after the festival kerfuffle.
William Z. McFarland was born in 1991 in New York City. According to The New York Post, he was raised in a small, affluent New Jersey suburb outside Manhattan. The child of real estate developers, Billy showed signs of high intelligence at a young age when he began exploring the early internet. He claims to have founded his first web-based company at the age of 13. In Hulu's "Fyre Fraud" film, McFarland even said that at this age he already had several employees working for him remotely from India.
McFarland would go on to drop out of Bucknell University during his freshman year to help invent a startup called Spling. Early tech demonstrations of Spling, an application used for sharing media, were fraught with bugs and relatively non-functional.
Although it's unclear how, considering the relative failure of Spling, McFarland proceeded to found Magnises: a supposedly exclusive credit service described by The Post as "the hot new way to spend money among NYC’s young elite."
“It’s less a calling card and more of an on-demand experience platform," McFarland said in statements, according to a Forbes exposé on the company.
Imagined as a Black Card for trendy 20-somethings, the company also emulated a lifestyle brand with its own chic headquarters that was advertised as a gathering spot for influencers and celebrities.
From left, Carola Jain, Billy McFarland, Jason Bell, and musician Jeff Atkins aka Ja Rule at the 23rd Annual Watermill Center Summer Benefit & Auction at the Watermill center in Water Mill, New York, U.S., on Saturday, July 30, 2016. Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
This Magnises venture would ultimately fall apart. The headquarters, which was illegally located in a residential space, was "trashed" with lavish parties, and the owner would sue McFarland for the damages. McFarland maintained his innocence and settled in January 2016 for an undisclosed amount.
The company remained riddled by problems after moving to a new location, often citing allegedly inflated statistics about Magnises successes to potential investors amidst ongoing customer complaints.
McFarland allegedly continued offering his users exclusive experiences including tickets to the Broadway show "Hamilton," which he could not — in reality — afford. Demands for refunds when he ultimately could not deliver went unanswered. Eventually, the site became riddled with unresolvable error messages, meaning that new subscribers could not sign up for the service.
Magnises is now essentially a non-functioning, non-operational entity. In August 2017, many of the company’s executives and employees had departed, according to Bloomberg. The website has vanished from the internet. It is unclear how much of the company remains to be sold off.
While Magnises was falling apart, McFarland began investing in a yet another project focusing on luxury. The extent to which the infamous tropical party was intended as a cover or publicity stunt for the creation of McFarland's Fyre app, a service that could be used to book celebrities and influencers for private events, remains unclear.
Sold as an ultra-hedonistic celebration of art and music for the beautiful and hyper-wealthy, Fyre Festival became the subject of media speculation as high-profile bands like Blink 182 pulled out of the party shortly before the festivities were scheduled to begin. Attendees arrived at the Bahamian island on which the festival was set to occur only to find the opulent accommodations they were promised were nowhere in sight. People had paid thousands of dollars for tickets only to find damp tents as lodgings — and some were unfurnished with no beds. Attendees were promised activities like massages, yoga, sound healing, henna tattooing, and guided meditation, none of which came to pass. High-quality, authentic cuisine was also promised, but attendees were instead given bread and cheese. There was a lack of staff, food, water, and medical personnel.
As the situation proved to be increasingly inhospitable, attendees attempted to flee, according to The New York Times.
In the wake of this snafu, attendees and investors alike took out a plethora of suits against McFarland and other organizers.
McFarland was arrested on June 30, 2017.
“The defendant’s actions reveal a profoundly greedy, self-absorbed man focused exclusively on himself,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristy Greenberg, according to The New York Daily News, while advocating for a harsh sentence for the alleged conman. “He betrayed and deceived his investors, customers and employees while he was living the high life at his luxury apartment, traveling to exclusive locales, staying at luxury hotels, being chauffeured in his Maserati, and entertaining himself and his friends at restaurants, bars, and casinos. Whenever he needed more money, he lied to investors to get it.”
McFarland ultimately pleaded guilty in March 2018. He was sentenced to six years in federal prison, according to The New York Times.
“The remorse I feel is crushing,” McFarland said, according to Vice News. “I lived every day with the weight of knowing that I literally destroyed the lives of my friends and family.”
After The Trial
Even after pleading guilty, McFarland would continue to be caught in similar luxury scams. While he awaited sentencing from late 2017 to March 2018, McFarland began covertly offering access via fake identities to exclusive events like Burning Man, Coachella, and the Met Gala (which is not a ticketed event) through an email list.
Billy McFarland attends ONE.1 Hosts Dinner to Celebrate the Opening of the Magnises Townhouse at Magnises, 22 Greenwich Ave on March 6, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
"In March of 2018, William McFarland pled guilty to defrauding investors and vendors of the Fyre Festival, but it is apparent that he did not stop there," FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said in June 2018, according to Gothamist. "McFarland allegedly went on to sell fraudulent tickets to many grand events, totaling almost $100,000."
The "Fyre Fraud" documentary claims that local Bahamian workers are still owed thousands of dollars for their work on the festival.
McFarland is currently serving his six year sentence in federal prison. The "Fyre Fraud" documentary shows McFarland's girlfriend, model Anastasia Eremenko, reading a letter from him describing taking a shower in a sink.
At the prison, McFarland is teaching a class on music entrepreneurship for fellow inmates, according to the film.
Eremenko claims to still be very much in love with McFarland.
[Photo: Billy McFarland by Patrick McMullan / Getty Images]
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