Fyre Festival documentaries on Hulu and Netflix highlight a sad truth about music festivals generally

As our cultural relationship with music evolves, gatherings like Fyre and Coachella are becoming little more than playgrounds for the most entitled.
Illustration of musician using selfie stick while singing on stage.
Watching me, watching you.Richard Chance / for NBC News
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Jeff Slate

The two competing documentaries out this week on 2016’s calamitous Fyre FestivalHulu’s brutal, superior “Fyre Fraud” and Netflix’s more self-serving “Fyre” — both tell stories of hubris and entitlement, and of the farcical overreach by Billy MacFarland, the “brains,” such as it was, behind the ill-fated gathering. MacFarland and his team of erstwhile con artists swindled thousands of mostly young, wealthy marks who believed they were buying tickets to an exclusive island adventure — but found only dirt lots, disaster tents and wilted lettuce (though, of course, plenty of booze) when they arrived.

SIGN UP FOR THE THINK WEEKLY NEWSLETTER HERE

The story of the Fyre Festival fiasco isn’t really about MacFarland. It’s the much sadder tale of the state of the music business in 2019, writ large.

It’s easy to chuckle at MacFarland’s epic failings as both a businessman and a human being as the films document one collapsed con job after another. As my “Esquire” colleague Olivia Ovenden wrote earlier this week, “McFarland is the perfect millennial villain, a remorseless narcissist on a hover-board who promises you the world then worries about it, well, never.” He is perhaps the perfect millennial allegory for the Trump era — no wonder he was the subject of dueling profiles.

Get the think newsletter.

And, of course, mostly rich, mostly white kids being duped into parting with thousands upon thousands of dollars for “worse than coach” flights, as one Instagram influencer puts it in Hulu’s documentary, followed by bumpy school bus rides to an unfinished, monsoon-drenched Bahamian festival site, only to find that Blink 182 (insert Blink 182 joke here) and every other act allegedly booked had cancelled, will elicit a self-satisfied “harrumph” from many viewers. With everything going on in the world right now, the fact that some millennials were promised gourmet food and Kendall Jenner only to get processed cheese on bread in Styrofoam containers, feels at best like an amusing blip in the news cycle. But from an entertainment industry standpoint, the story of the Fyre Festival fiasco isn’t about MacFarland. It’s really the much sadder tale of the state of the music business in 2019, writ large.

Large-scale gatherings like Fyre — and to a less dramatic extent, Burning Man and Coachella, where unless you’re a V.I.P. or ultra-rich, you may find yourself a mile away from the actual stages — have rightly become a punchline. Sure, they may continue to draw big crowds and deliver record paydays for the corporate organizers and name-brand acts who play them, but music is becoming less and less the focus. The thing that really brings people together at gatherings like Fyre is the allure of the experience, albeit a highly commodified, corporate and class-stratified one.

Pop culture and rock music festivals got off the ground in a big way with Woodstock, in 1969. But much like the music America invented, that so many English bands co-opted, perfected and sold back to us in far superior form, it took the Brits — with Glastonbury and so many others — to turn festivals into an annual, well-oiled and creative gathering. In the process, perhaps a bit unwittingly, these have also become a tremendous money-making venture.

Leave it to the Americans, though, to reclaim the thing they’d invented, and effectively destroy it in the process.

In fact, it wasn’t until nearly the turn of this century that U.S. audiences got a regular dose of large-scale music festivals, first with Lollapalooza, and eventually with Burning Man, Coachella, Bonnaroo and so many others. Leave it to the Americans, though, to reclaim the thing they’d invented, and effectively destroy it in the process.

While a host of U.S.-based festivals have come and gone since the late-90s, the big, corporate-backed ventures have mostly survived. But they’ve also often faltered along the way, suffering numerous identity — not to mention financial — crises over the past two decades. And as the years have passed, and social media and celebrity-driven culture has supplanted music and the arts as the things that bind many of us together, mass gatherings of young people, reveling in the sounds of the biggest artists of the day seems an almost quaint, and certainly outdated, idea.

More significantly, the appeal of legacy acts like the Rolling Stones and Neil Young, who’ve long been the big draw for such events, is on the wane. And scant younger acts seem able to step in to fill that void. As a result, festivals are becoming more about status, with attendees increasingly focused on sharing who they were there with and how they looked, rather than who they heard. This means that unless something changes, festivals like Fyre are never going to be anything more than an empty photo op, attended by the increasingly homogenous audience that can afford them.

In other words, Fyre is really nothing more than the extreme endpoint of a pattern that’s been developing for a while. For much of the last two decades, as downloads and then streaming platforms and social media came to dominate the way we listened to music and interacted with our favorite artists, the music business looked the other way. All the while, our culture became more diverse and diffused and disparate. Not surprisingly, the sort of must-see acts that used to draw people to festivals have become increasingly rare.

In the wake of that de-evolution, festivals like Live 8 — probably the last great gathering of its kind — have ceased to be relevant, and gatherings like Fyre and Coachella have become little more than a playground for the most entitled in our midst.

Fortunately, smaller, artist- and audience-friendly, genre-centric festivals have taken the place of the massive gatherings that drove the cultural conversation during the Golden Age of rock and roll. Big Ears, in Tennesse, Hangout, in Alabama, the Clearwater Festival, in New York, Moogfest, in North Carolina, FORM Arcosanti, in Arizona, Sasquatch, in Washington, Pitchfork, in Chicago, and even granddaddys like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Newport Folk Festival will continue to grow and attract the lesser-known, diverse and interesting acts that have always been the life-blood of music festivals, anyway.

And, of course, Glastonbury rolls on, consistently drawing a painstakingly curated list of the best and most interesting acts of our time. Then again, our U.K. counterparts have always put art ahead of commerce.