National News

Organizer of Failed Fyre Festival Pleads Guilty to Fraud

Posted March 6, 2018 9:24 p.m. EST

The Fyre music festival, planned for last spring, was to be an experience of unparalleled opulence. Held on a private island in the Bahamas, the festival would feature luxury suites, gourmet meals and a series of musical performances headlined by Blink-182.

But instead of the extravagant odyssey they had been promised, hundreds of concertgoers were greeted by a disorganized mess. Soggy tents. Cheese sandwiches in foam containers.

And not only did Blink-182 never perform; the band’s equipment ended up stuck in customs.

On Tuesday afternoon the festival’s main organizer, William McFarland, pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud related to the festival and to his media company that prosecutors said had cost investors $26 million in losses.

He told the judge, Naomi Reice Buchwald, of U.S. District Court in Manhattan, that he had begun organizing the festival with good intentions but had “greatly underestimated the resources” it would take.

“I lied to investors about various aspects of Fyre Media and my personal finances,” McFarland added. “I deeply regret my actions.”

McFarland, who has been free on bail, left the courthouse after his appearance without making any further statements.

Federal prosecutors began investigating soon after the festival collapsed and concluded that McFarland had defrauded investors in Fyre Media as well as a subsidiary that had promoted the music festival.

Charging documents filed by prosecutors said McFarland, 26, had provided investors with false financial reports, including one that listed millions of dollars in talent-booking revenue for Fyre Media. In reality, the documents said, the company had earned only about $57,000 in bookings in the year leading up to the festival.

McFarland was also charged with showing investors bogus financial documents to claim that he owned more stock than he actually did so that it would appear he was in a position to personally guarantee an investment. And, prosecutors said, he used inflated revenue numbers to induce a ticket vendor to pay $2 million for a block of advance tickets for future festivals.

To drum up interest in the festival McFarland engaged in multifaceted, sometimes fantastical, forms of promotion. Along with his business partner, rapper Ja Rule, he got “influencers” like Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski to post about the festival on Instagram, bestowing upon them the title “Fyre Starters.”

Packages included the $400,000 “Artist’s Palace,” with four beds, eight VIP tickets and dinner with a festival performer. The festival’s website identified its location as Fyre Cay, a fictional place that was described as a private island that had once belonged to drug lord Pablo Escobar.

In reality, a few weeks before the festival, McFarland secured some land on the island of Great Exuma and hired workers who scrambled to prepare for the event. But as ticket-holders arrived, McFarland’s scheme quickly unraveled and the festival was canceled.

Caterers and carpenters said McFarland departed Great Exuma without paying more than $100,000 in bills and wages.

And the viral communication techniques that McFarland had hoped would advance the festival’s fortunes were instead turned against him as ticket-holders took to platforms like Twitter and Instagram to post images showing people milling in confusion, searching for lost luggage and dragging mattresses across darkened beaches.

“People are panicking,” one young man said on a video titled “Fyre Festival COMPLETE Disaster. VLOG of Chaos!” and posted on YouTube. “Like tripping out.”

Both counts that McFarland pleaded guilty to carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison, though a sentence of that length seems unlikely. His sentencing is scheduled for June 21.