Lessons Learned From Fyre Fest (Or, What Makes A Great Music Festival)


Ja Rule
Organizers of the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas, produced by a partnership that includes rapper Ja Rule, have canceled the weekend event at the last minute Friday after many people had already arrived and spent thousands of dollars on tickets and travel. (Photo by Christopher Smith/Invision/AP)

By now the news of the failed Fyre Festival, a concert fest set to occur in the Bahamas over two weekends, has spread around the world. The super exclusive event, which many said was created for rich millennials who could afford the five-figure price tag, promised concerts, VIP dining and a festival experience in a ultra luxury location along a beautiful beach. None of that happened, of course, as bands such as Blink-182 pulled out of the “experience,” and festival organizers realized they did not successfully build enough infrastructure or account for the numbers of people who would be coming into the tiny Exumas airport at one time.

Entrepreneur Billy MacFarland (who created the $450-a-year Magnises credit card for millennials who were 30 years and a couple million short of getting an Amex Black Card) co-sponsored this event with Ja Rule. The latter issued an apology via Twitter to the hundreds of people stranded on the beach in the Bahamas without a place to sleep. Many of those stranded folks tweeted and Facebooked their dismay. These images led some to compare their experience – sitting on the beach with a piece of fresh bread, two slices of cheese and fresh lettuce, to that of “refugees” who are forced to leave wartorn Syria. I don’t agree with comparing bikini-clad rich young kids on a failed vacation – albeit with bread and cheese – to Syrian refugees. That is a horrible and inept comparison, but let’s get back to the task at hand: teasing out the elements of a great music festival.

What Lolla, Coachella and heck, even Chicago’s Blues Fest all have in common is infrastructure. Now, whether that infrastructure includes a city full of high-end hotels, mass transit that is already built or an empty stretch of parkland or desert that can be fenced in and cleaned up after the fact, is all part of the success factor. I live in Chicago, and let me tell you, the folks that put together the city’s summer music festivals are geniuses. First of all, putting on these fests — which attract millions of visitors from around the world over the course of a summer — is their full-time job.They plan years ahead to garner the best talent to perform and ensure the comfortability of their talent with special riders and access to hotels that partner with the fests. Plus, the airports in and around Chicago are more than large enough to handle the volume of traffic that comes through. This is a situation unique to big cities that smaller venues just cannot compete with.

The nearby Summerfest, which takes place just outside of Milwaukee, is the world’s largest music festival. It’s a two-week extravaganza of a little bit of everything and everyone. What’s intriguing about Summerfest is that it has a permanent home with permanent infrastructure. The bathrooms aren’t tents, they’re buildings. The larger concert spots are designed and built for concerts. So yes, you lose a bit of the freewheeling nature of out in the desert fests, but you gain some stability. The parking lots are ample, security is not a part time thing and the festival is affordable for the average American.

I recently talked with Don Smiley, the CEO of Summerfest, about what it takes to put on such a massive festival. In part, he said that it takes a full year to plan a fest and that the playing field is super competitive. Smiley was not referring to Fyre Fest when he talked to me, but this particular quote seems appropriate to bring up now.

It’s difficult to start up a new festival and actually survive this very competitive situation that we work within, ” Smiley told me. “Everyone would love to operate on sod and grass all of the time, except for when it rains because then it’s just a mess. Our grounds are more permanent, there’s more asphalt. We do provide more greenspace. But our 75 acres won’t turn into a mud pit when a torrential summer storm flies through there.”

When you look at Fyre Fest, the idea seems great at the outset. An intimate, super exclusive, white sand beach type of music fest experience. If it rained, you wouldn’t be knee deep in the mud like you can be at Lolla or Pitchfork. And when you aren’t enjoying the sounds, you can rent a boat or a jetski or just sit on the beach and take in the sun.

The organizers of Fyre Festival admit that infrastructure was their main issue. “[Ja Rule and MacFarland] simply weren’t ready for what happened next, or how big this thing would get,” the organizers wrote in a note on their website. “Suddenly, they found themselves transforming a small island and trying to build a festival. Thousands of people wanted to come. They were excited, but then the roadblocks started popping up.”

It’s good that Fyre Festival fessed up, but that’s of little comfort to the disappointed festival goers.

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