Condemn the poor planning of some recent music festivals
Imagine spending several thousand dollars to attend a music festival in the Bahamas, only to be greeted upon arrival by disaster relief tents, cold sandwiches and no music. While there are easier things to imagine than having that kind of discretionary income, that is exactly what happened to many music fans — primarily millennials — who shelled out up to $12,780 for tickets and lodging at Fyre Fest, a luxury music weekend on an island previously owned by Pablo Escobar, according to an April 28 CNN article. Dreamt up by early-2000s rapper Ja Rule and social entrepreneur Billy McFarland, Fyre Fest was marketed exclusively on social media and promoted by the likes of Instagram icons such as Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, according to an April 28 New York Times article. On Thursday, April 28, the commercialization of music festival culture and the exponential rise of social media’s influence collided in the Exumas, and there was not an Instagram filter that could make it look good.
In 1999, the inaugural Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival set the standard for the modern music festival as we know it. With a consistent location, multiple stages and an immersive weekend-long experience, Coachella acquired a sizzling reputation in the Los Angeles area within a couple years, recounts a April 27, 2006 Los Angeles Times article. Word spread, and in 2002, The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival began as a yearly event in Manchester, Tennessee, according to the ticket website AXS. Three years later, AXS wrote, Lollapalooza, which had previously been a touring show, settled down and became an annual staple of the Chicago music scene, since expanding into five other countries, proclaims the Lollapalooza website. Since then, the number of annual festivals has ballooned, Coachella has expanded from one weekend to two and music festival attendance has become a social must for many high school and college students.
According to an April 14, 2015 Nielsen report, 32 million people in the United States go to at least one music festival per year. According to an April 22, 2015 Billboard article, 14.7 million of those people are millenials. Those numbers are likely higher now, and with a 2017 Coachella ticket ranging from $400 to $900 — according to a April 6 Time Money article — it is no surprise that entrepreneurs like Billy McFarland are eager to get in on the action.
Newer festivals trying to break into an established market rely on big-name headliners, exciting venues and social media campaigns to generate interest. With performances by Blink-182, Migos and Major Lazer scheduled and an island to work with, Fyre Fest made its marketing push on social media. An April 28 New Yorker article described the campaign as “a series of swimsuit shots” featuring Kendall Jenner, among other Instagram celebrities. As the most prominent celebrity featured, Jenner has nearly 80 million followers on Instagram, many of whom are young and likely to be interested in a music festival. McFarland used her status to tap into a market of young upper-middle-class and upper-class young people without an obvious advertising effort.
Music festivals live and die on Instagram and Snapchat, because these platforms make them destinations not just to see but to be seen. The bragging rights of attending a festival are now defined by photo opportunities and quantified by Instagram likes. As festival-goers will tell you, there are often more video-recording phones in the air these days than naked hands in the crowds swarming the stage. Farther back, you will find groups posing for pictures by palm trees or art installations. In the words of many, “If you didn’t Instagram at [insert music festival,] were you really there?” Photo and video-sharing app Instagram was released to the public in 2010, and as of April 26 it had 700 million unique users according to an article in Business Insider from the same day. This means that Instagram’s user base has doubled in the past two years. During the same time period as Instagram’s stratospheric rise, LA-based promoting company Goldenvoice doubled the price of 3-day Coachella passes, eliminated affordable single-day passes, according to a Jan. 27, 2010 LA Times Blog piece, and created a second festival weekend, yet tickets sold out nearly instantly in 2017, according to a Jan. 4 piece in LA Weekly. The festival’s Instagram account has 1.2 million followers.
For those who knew where to look, clues that Fyre Fest was half-baked were there from the beginning. Organizer and backer Billy McFarland’s primary business venture, Magnises, touts itself as a social group for “elite” young professionals, but as of January, members had demanded refunds, claiming little return on their $250 annual investment, according toa Jan. 24 Business Insider article. In addition, details on Fyre Fest were dodgy even as partiers boarded planes in Miami. Maude Etkin, a 23-year-old interior designer from Manhattan, told the New Yorker in an April 28 article that “leading up to the event, [Fyre Festival] had stopped answering e-mails” and “wouldn’t provide pictures” of luxury accommodations. Headlining alternative band Blink-182 even backed out of the festival ahead of time, citing poor concert conditions, according to an April 27 article from Billboard.
Despite dodgy details, people booked tickets and boarded flights to the Bahamas for a festival primarily marketed on Instagram. This shows businesses around the world both the reach of social media as well as a darker side of our susceptibility to advertising when we are not aware we are being sold. As festival season hits its stride, Fyre Fest is a sobering reminder to research not only who is performing but also who is backstage, pushing the buttons that make a music festival run smoothly. We must also learn to be skeptical of social media. As with most things in life, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.