Organiser of failed Fyre Festival pleads guilty to fraud

William McFarland, organiser of the Fyre Festival, exiting the United States Federal Court in Manhattan with his lawyer, Ms Sabrina Shroff, in July last year.
William McFarland, organiser of the Fyre Festival, exiting the United States Federal Court in Manhattan with his lawyer, Ms Sabrina Shroff, in July last year.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • The Fyre music festival, planned for last spring, was meant 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.

However, instead of the extravagant odyssey they had been promised, hundreds of concertgoers were greeted by a disorganised 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 organiser, William McFarland, pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud related to the festival and his media company that prosecutors said had cost investors US$26 million (S$34 million) in losses.

He told the judge, Ms Naomi Reice Buchwald, of the United States District Court in Manhattan, that he had begun organising 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," he 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 US$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 US$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" such as models Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski to post about the festival on Instagram, bestowing on them the title "Fyre Starters".

Packages included the US$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 once belonged to Colombian 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 unravelled and the festival was cancelled.

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

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 such as Twitter and Instagram to post images showing people milling in confusion, searching for lost luggage and dragging mattresses across darkened beaches.

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


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2018, with the headline 'Organiser of failed Fyre Festival pleads guilty to fraud'. Print Edition | Subscribe