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Why are so many music festivals total disasters?

It’s not just Fyre Festival — festival season regularly overlaps with scam season, and even the best-laid plans are just betting millions of dollars on weather.

The now-defunct Warped Tour in Ventura, California, in 2014.
Lilly Lawrence/Getty Images

The disaster of Fyre Festival — which was supposed to take place on a barely inhabited island in the Bahamas in April 2017 and involve supermodels, luxury camping, tequila, Blink 182, natural beauty, and “the exploration of the uncharted inspired by and referencing the five elements of the Earth,” but ended up not-at-all taking place on a different Bahamian island covered in disaster relief tents and dehydrated, confused 20-somethings — hardly needs an introduction now. The story was told on Twitter in real time, analyzed at length by bloggers and journalists as a symbol of class stratification and American avarice, and then pulled apart by competing Netflix and Hulu documentaries this January.

Both movies seemed to want to blame Instagram culture and an entire image-obsessed generation with no ability to sort out whether something is too good to be true. Other journalists narrowed their focus to the specific rich kids and chaotically self-obsessed men who were actually involved, situating Fyre Festival in the timeless context of our nation of scammers. “Grifter season comes irregularly, but it comes often in America, which is built around mythologies of profit and reinvention and spectacular ascent,” Jia Tolentino wrote for the New Yorker. Fyre Festival was “a matryoshka doll of empty ambition: The attendees, like McFarland, seemed more interested in conveying a lifestyle than embodying one.”

Fyre Festival is a singularly absurd story, with each detail more surreal than the one before. But it’s far from the first proposed festival to end in disaster, and it’s not the first to collapse under the weight of a scam artist’s false promises either.

It’s not limited to music — there was the notorious tiny-pizza-slice festival in New York City in September 2017, and the very funny failed Tumblr fan convention in 2014 (at which guests were famously offered “an extra hour in the ball pit” to make up for the broader disappointment). Bonnaroo’s food festival, Great GoogaMooga, went so poorly, Gothamist covered it with the headline “$250 VIP GoogaMooga Tickets: You Would’ve Gotten More Full Eating the Money.” But music festivals, in particular, have a storied history of falling apart — getting canceled, descending into anarchy, failing to pay workers, etc.

The reasons are many, and few are Instagram. It turns out huge organized events — at which unsexy things like infrastructure, weather, and insurance are often pushed to the side while dreamers and narcissists trumpet huge promises about a magical “experience” — are often more or less set up to fail.

Fyre Festival’s predecessors are numerous: from the Karoondinha Festival (which was supposed to take place in the caves of Pennsylvania, was financed by local business owners, then sold fewer than a quarter of the planned tickets) to New York City’s Panorama Festival (which is on indefinite hiatus because it … rained last year) to the 50th anniversary Woodstock Festival (which lost its venue and event producer on Monday).

This is boring, but: logistics for a festival are complicated even if you’re prepared

Fyre Festival is helpful in that — setting aside the gaudy specifics, which included Kendall Jenner receiving $250,000 for a single Instagram post — it is a boring laundry list of bad logistical decisions and poor planning.

Vox’s Aja Romano described the chaos that results from winging it, writing about the “viral laughingstock” in 2017:

The “private” island turned out to be a small wedge of public island right next to a Sandals resort. Staff was inadequate or missing altogether, while performing artists didn’t show up. “The disorganization consumed me,” one attendee wrote. Headliner Blink 182 canceled on Thursday. The gourmet food turned out to be cafeteria-level or worse. The bar had no beer. The security lockers had no locks. And the “modern geodesic domes” and “luxury tents” were soggy, wet disaster-relief tents. In fact, the only real headliners seemed to be a cadre of beach pigs that showed up repeatedly, one frustrated attendee reports.

In a retroactive timeline published by Vulture in May 2017, it’s easy to see what went wrong. Six months before the festival, 25-year-old “entrepreneur” Billy McFarland was on vacation with Ja Rule in the Bahamas and decided to throw a music festival there. The first thing he did was hire influencers to promote it. The second thing he did was hire a production company to film a reality TV show about him. The third thing he did was refuse to pay them, and then basically everyone else, because he didn’t have enough money to do so. It’s pretty banal! These guys just don’t know how to assign tasks or use GCal. They did not make a budget spreadsheet. They are the subject of seven lawsuits so far.

Big, famous festivals make it look easy — and super lucrative. For small cities, the opportunity to be a new cultural mecca is hard to pass up.

Festivals are an appealing proposition for a couple of somewhat desperate entities: dying American cities and the music industry.

In 2017, Jezebel’s Hazel Cills reported on the rash of music festivals popping up in former boomtowns across the country. The city of El Dorado, Arkansas, had just spent $100 million to revamp an old car showroom into a music hall/cabaret lounge and build a new 8,000-capacity theater from scratch, writing in a press release that the city was “hoping to join the ranks of Marfa, Texas and Woodstock, New York” as a fledgling cultural center. Similar efforts were popping up in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Missouri, and others.

“The generational love affair with huge, prohibitively expensive cities like New York is a trend that’s ending as young people grow increasingly fed up with high rent and dwindling job prospects,” Cills wrote. “For smaller cities looking to attract these urban expats, there are unmistakable branding and economic benefits to hosting artists like Migos or The Chainsmokers in the town center.” (In 2013, an LA Weekly report on the economics of music festivals found that Coachella’s first decade had brought $254 million to the desert region around Indio, California, and $90 million to the city itself.)

However, St. Louis’s Murmuration Festival lasted only one year. It didn’t have enough staff and didn’t sell enough tickets. “We probably should have started a little smaller,” the primary coordinator told Jezebel.

The Skyy Vodka stage at New York City’s Governors Ball music festival in 2013.
Brad Barket/Getty Images

The music industry, too, is only just starting to bounce back from the end of physical media. Most artists can’t make enough to survive on just streaming, so merch and live shows have become increasingly important parts of the revenue stream. “While it won’t compensate for a 50 percent drop in U.S. recorded music sales since 1999, concert ticket sales filled nearly 40 percent of that loss between 1999 and 2009,” LA Weekly’s Chris Parker wrote. “During that time, North American live music revenues trebled from $1.5 billion to a peak of $4.6 billion before receding a bit during the recession.” (Streaming revenue has also helped, now that it’s finally coming in.)

Now, Eventbrite’s head of global music festival strategy Biasha Mitchell tells me that close to a quarter of Americans are going to at least one music festival a year (citing recent Nielsen data), and they rarely have to travel — every metropolitan area has at least one festival, she says, and in some cases, even towns in the middle of nowhere have one.

But that doesn’t mean the business is risk-free. In fact, it’s yet another industry that’s going to suffer as the climate gets more and more unpredictable. “You really are producing an outdoor event at the mercy of the elements,” Mitchell says. “You’re one major weather event away from failure.”

This is why even successful music festivals can kind of sound like scams. For example, Stereogum’s Julia Gray recently attended New York City’s well-established Governors Ball festival to experiment with a bizarre new Tinder feature and rather placidly described an experience that reads like an utter nightmare:

Gov Ball was delayed until 6:30PM, long after the scheduled start time, because of an impending storm. Just three hours later, a voice took over the speakers and instructed us to move quickly and calmly toward the entrance. A wicked storm was fast approaching the grounds and the rest of the day was cancelled. People started throwing glass and destroying the plexiglass sculpture in what might’ve been the best performance I saw all weekend.

Before leaving Randall’s Island, I matched with “Kabir, 25.” He initiated the chat with: “Are you here?! I’m rolling super hard and I think it might be fun to talk.”

I, too, thought it might be fun to talk. But, on account of the torrential downpour and island evacuation, we never met up. When I checked in later, he said he was “dancing in a tree when the announcement happened.”

(To be fair, Governors Ball announced refund information for Sunday later that night.) Festival organizers who manage to hold on are the ones who buy good cancellation insurance and have deep pockets with a large roster of patient investors, Mitchell says. Gov Ball will be fine. It’s rich!

Street Style At The 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 2
Attendees at Coachella in 2019, photographed by the event’s in-house street style photographer.
Presley Ann/Getty Images

“I’ve seen a number of festivals crop up recently where somebody went to Coachella or Bonnaroo and thought, ‘I’m gonna put up my own festival,’ in a small town or small city,” Mitchell says. “They don’t see the years it took to build it up.” And, like Fyre Festival, if on a much lesser scale, they don’t always know how to deliver on the fantasy they promise. “Audiences are demanding more than just sitting in a field,” Mitchell says. It’s hard to come up with experiences that are really going to satisfy this generation of festivalgoers, who are coming in with brand activation fatigue and a difficult-to-satisfy Instagram sensibility that requires more than ball pits and backdrops. “Gone are the days of calling ‘Hi, I’m at the Honda stage’ an experience,” she laughs.

One problem with a growing industry is homogenization. The New York Times’s music critics announced in 2016 that they wouldn’t be covering music festivals anymore because they’d gotten so big and boring. In 2017, Chance the Rapper was scheduled to headline 14 music festivals, Jezebel’s Cills pointed out, citing this as a reason that “wildly expensive music festivals keep getting canceled.” (Including a couple that he’d signed on for, which went bankrupt due to a lack of ticket sales.)

The landscape is littered with the bones of poorly financed and poorly planned festivals. The people who arranged them were not necessarily scammers but were just not very good at a business that is effectively Russian roulette with weather systems and bathroom lines.

This year’s 50th anniversary Woodstock Festival is either out of money (perhaps because former investors allegedly stole $17 million) or overcommitted to various expensive and demanding headliners, or didn’t get proper clearances from the health department, but won’t be clear about which it is. Last year, LA’s FYF Fest was canceled a few weeks after the lineup was announced, seemingly because it didn’t sell enough tickets to pay for acts like Janet Jackson and Future and compete with Coachella. The pop duo the XX called off their 2017 music festival because the location they’d chosen in Iceland was named an endangered area two weeks before the event was supposed to take place.

Something about the spectacle and celebrity of a music festival seems to attract con artists

CMJ, the college radio and media company that hosted an indie music festival in New York City every year from 1980 to 2015, ended in 2016 with a stack of lawsuits, including one against owner and CEO Adam Klein for withholding $500,000 worth of wages and unreimbursed expenses from his employees.

This May, New York’s Northside Festival collapsed similarly, with dozens of former employees and freelancers alleging that CEO and co-founder Daniel Stedman had withheld their wages or contract fees. Stedman didn’t show up to at least two small claims court hearings and refused to respond to certified mail demanding payment, although, Gothamist reporter Jake Offenhartz writes, “His listed address remains a $1.7 million brownstone in Prospect Heights.” One artist who was owed $1,200 for a mural she painted at Northside Festival in 2018 told Offenhartz, “Danny has taken ghosting to a whole new level and proven he’s a con artist. It’s not shocking that the company has quietly disappeared.”

Oddly, that wasn’t even as bad as it got! When Northside was on the ropes, a man named Daniel Spence — recently profiled in the Observer as “The Grindr Grifter” — popped up out of the blue and offered millions of dollars in exchange for the CEO title. Stedman asked basically no questions and was ready to sign the paperwork when Spence was tracked down by Tennessee police and arrested on multiple charges of theft and embezzlement. (The father of one of his victims told the Observer, “He’s a modern day master scam artist. Period! I’m surprised he’s not dead!”)

Father John Misty at the controversial Great GoogaMooga in Prospect Park in 2013.
Matthew Eisman/WireImage

While that story is, again, extreme, the common thread here is, uh, exploitation. Even South by Southwest, the longest running and largest festival/conference hybrid in the country, would likely not be able to turn a profit if not for some questionable labor practices. Thousands of “volunteers” and “interns” work for free every year, at an event that sells tickets in the four figures and benefits a for-profit company. In 2014, a Salon report quoted Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute as saying, “I can’t see how what they’re doing is legal. They’ve opened themselves up to a class-action lawsuit, which involves attorney fees and could involve liquidated damages, meaning double back pay for everyone.”

Playing at SXSW is a notoriously unprofitable gig for artists too: Industry analyst Bob Lefsetz has said that it “prey[s] on wannabes who will get nothing in return for their trip.”

Even after a festival flops, a scammer can always scam again

Last summer, the XO Music Festival — scheduled to take place in Antioch, California, in July, with 100 artists, a foam pit, and an indoor skating rink — was canceled only days before it was supposed to begin.

Rolling Stone’s Amy X. Wang wrote that several artists had dropped out because of missed payments, while others were worried about the festival’s planning (it had already been threatened with legal action for copying the name of Andy Baio’s internet culture festival XOXO Festival), and the venue pulled the plug with a vague statement about the organizers’ “lack of fulfilling contractual obligations.”

“It’s been nothing but fraud,” the manager of one of the artists who backed out told Wang, citing the February arrest of XO promoter Sabi Habib, who was accused of 40 felonies pertaining to illegally leasing high-end real estate in the Bay Area.

XO Festival released a statement on Instagram the same day insisting that “regardless of all the fake media,” the festival was still going to happen. (“We have worked to [sic] hard! Stay tuned.”) The next day, Spin declared it the “low rent Fyre Festival” and wished it a fond “RIP.” The fake media was right, and it was canceled.

But if we’re getting better at spotting the warning signs of this specific type of scam, it doesn’t mean we’re nearing the end of the age of the scammer.

Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and the author of The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time, told Vox’s Rebecca Jennings earlier this year that social media lowers the “barrier to entry” for con artists. “Things that used to take months, now it just takes days, if that, sometimes hours,” she said. She also pointed out that narcissism is a recurring trait for con artists “because it allows them to not only say, ‘I’m the center of the universe,’ but to also claim that they deserve everything. It’s a really good way for them to rationalize what they’re doing. They don’t see that they’re doing anything wrong; they’re just taking what’s rightfully theirs.”

Earlier this month, Ja Rule announced that he has been asked to plan another music festival, and that he would love to do so. “People know the purity of Ja Rule!” he shouted.

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