Monday, Jun 17, 2019

Up in flames

The first glimpse I had of the Fyre Festival site looked more like a bomb had gone off than an ultra-luxury music festival.

It was about 9, 9:30 p.m. on April 27, 2017, and I was driving an old, beat-up sports utility vehicle, along with three other people from the Ministry of Tourism’s communications team, up to the only home on Rokers Point on Exuma. I was working for tourism during the time.

As we got out the SUV, a group of senior ministry officials greeted us. The most senior person looked exhausted. We spoke briefly before they got into their SUV and drove off.

That was the first sign that something wasn’t right.

Where was the party? Why were hundreds of people wandering around the winding road of Rokers Point, the small community development that was hosting the festival?

I saw the familiar white tents from earlier that day. I saw the cruise ship off in the distance, and I saw the stage.

This was supposed to be Fyre Festival, a music festival meant to rival Coachella — so they told me.

I knew it was over when a group of attendees, walking in a throng of people in the street, started planning their trip to South Beach, Florida.

“We’re going back to the airport,” one woman said.

“Let’s go to South Beach,” a man said. “I want to party.”

Those phrases are etched somewhere in my brain from that night.

There were tourists lined up on the lawn of the blue home that served as Fyre’s base of operations on the island. They were seeking refunds.

They told me that this was not what they were promised. One woman said they were taken to a beach when they arrived on Exuma and plied with alcohol all day.

I went inside the home looking for any familiar faces. I glimpsed Billy McFarland, the festival’s co-founder, in a room on the phone. When he saw me, he closed the door.

I had to make a call.

“Hey, it’s me,” I said. “This is a disaster. It’s not happening.”

At that point, I went to one of the stalls to get a drink.

“Jack and Coke,” I said.

The guy behind the stall said, “I need to scan your wristband.”

Turns out my press band, which I had picked up earlier that day, had no money on it and Fyre Festival was a cashless event.

“Whatever,” the guy said. He handed me the drink and laughed.

I began to wander the site. A woman was sitting on the curb of the street, sobbing. One of the people with me asked her if she was okay and we sat with her for a while.

After making sure that she was not hurt, we headed for the stage.

There were around 10 to 15 people dancing at the front of it as well-known Bahamian musician Nehemiah Hield performed.

The first night of Fyre Festival was billed as “Bahamian Night”, when Bahamian musicians were set to perform. Hield was doing his best, but he really didn’t have an audience.

One guy jumped over the barricade and rushed the stage. If I remember correctly, he made it.

The attendees who were not trying to get refunds were trying to get to the airport, and everyone else was either getting food or getting drunk.

Across the street from the stage was a food tent filled with Fyre guests.

The tourism team decided to grab a plate. I must have lucked out because I got baked chicken, salad, pasta and a bun. Was it the food Fyre advertised? No. Was it bread and cheese and a dried-up salad? It wasn’t.

Earlier that year

The first time I heard about Fyre Festival was in the boardroom at the Ministry of Tourism sometime in January or February 2017. A group of Americans and a local government representative from Exuma had scheduled a meeting with the minister, then Obie Wilchcombe. Several other executives from tourism attended the meeting and I was there also, for some reason.

Among the group was Billy McFarland. At the time he was quiet, dressed for the beach and weird-looking.

Some guy named Grant Margolin did most of the talking. He was the chief marketing officer.

Grant talked about how Fyre Festival was going to be the greatest music concert The Bahamas, and specifically Exuma, would ever see. He talked about these people called “Fyre starters”.

I thought, “Who?”

He said the musical acts featured the likes of Major Lazer, Migos and the Good Family.

Again, “Who?”

Kanye West was supposed to come by, he said.

Then there was talk of the Fyre squad and the Fyre food and the Fyre something else.

The meeting was an introduction of sorts.

“Here are these good old boys who done come down to have a giant music concert.”

Grant explained that this festival was going to be an annual one. It was going to involve thousands of people working behind the scenes, including natives of Exuma. Apparently, the Fyre team loved Exuma and her people. They wanted to create jobs and give back. I wondered if they were also considering running for office too.

Grant talked a lot about Instagram and a marketing company in the U.S. called F**k Jerry.

Apparently, F**k Jerry was the best. So Grant said.

I wondered how the tourism executives took to hearing that – F**k Jerry. He said it again. I distinctly remember looking down the table of tourism executives. At least one person looked alarmed.

But I digress.

I don’t remember much about Billy from that meeting because he hardly spoke.

The major debate was when to hold the festival.

Should it be held the weekend of the annual George Town regatta, the last weekend in April or later in the year? There was concern about holding a music concert for 2,500 people on the weekend of the regatta, a time when every hotel room and car had already been booked.

No decision was made during the meeting.

The Fyre squad, as they called themselves, also wanted help with exemptions.

They asked for several things: “Proper endorsement of the Fyre Festival; pre-clearance of guests in Miami in consort with Bahamas customs and immigration; reduced valued-added tax; waiver of import duties; fast-tracked government approvals; reduced or waived immigration fees and work permits for technical experts and Fyre Festival employees”.

I went back to my office and told a colleague about the meeting and she immediately pulled up the Fyre Festival website and told me that they had already sold all their tickets and that the festival was slated to take place on Norman’s Cay.


April 28, 2017

I spent most of the night after the Fyre debacle, as most people did, on Twitter.

The day after the festival imploded, the tourism communications team visited the Fyre site one last time, around 11 a.m. to be exact.

Some of the attendees were enjoying tequila shots or whiskey and lounging on the beach.

One guy took a mattress into the water and began to sunbathe. Other Fyre visitors were flocking to the airport, trying to get out.

The last I heard, Billy and Grant went into hiding. I was told that they were in fear for their lives or something like that.

It’s funny how, after the Netflix and Hulu documentaries were recently released, new light has been shed on this tragedy.

Aside from the thousands of people who bought tickets to Fyre Festival and were defrauded of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the natives on Exuma had nothing to show for their hard work in assisting with the event.

But I hate talking about Fyre Festival.

Travis Cartwright-Carroll

Assistant Editor at The Nassau Guardian
Travis Cartwright-Carroll is the assistant editor. He covers a wide range of national issues. He joined The Nassau Guardian in 2011 as a copy editor before shifting to reporting. He was promoted to assistant news editor in December 2018.
Education: College of The Bahamas, English

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