Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
To avoid the next Fyre Festival-style debacle, organizers should heed these five lessons.
When the first wave of attendees arrived at the Fyre Festival in the Bahamas last night, they encountered a scene that didn’t seem to square with the five-figure entry fees some had paid. Instead of a weekend of beachside music, luxurious private-island glamping, and highly Instagrammable gourmet food, attendees were confronted by half-built tents, sad cheese sandwiches, and a general air of menace and chaos. Many took to Twitter to fire off disgruntled missives and photos—setting the stage for tone-deaf comparisons to refugee camps. Soon, guests started bailing for the airport. Then the festival was canceled entirely.
If there’s a lesson here, perhaps it’s that (shocker) you can’t trust everything you see on Instagram. That said, the internet delighted in watching the festival—the brainchild of Ja Rule and technology entrepreneur Billy McFarland—descend into dysfunction. The whole set-up—rich kids flock to an exotic island festival shilled by tastemakers like Kendall Jenner and headlined by Blink-182—stank of everything wrong with Kids These Days.
Free idea: Tweets from #fyrefestival dramatically read like Civil War letters in the Ken Burns documentary.— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) April 28, 2017
Fyre Festival’s Twitter-fueled schadenfreude may be the most spectacular megafestival meltdown in recent memory, but it’s hardly the first. The logistical challenges involved in housing, feeding, and attending to the bodily functions of hundreds of thousands of festivalgoers are often beyond the capacities of those who organize these events. These are, after all, essentially pop-up cities, often sited in impractically remote locations and architected by young visionaries with little feel for such infrastructural necessities as toilets, transportation, and tents. Fyre co-founder McFarland appears now to understand this, somewhat belatedly. “We were a little bit ambitious,” he told Rolling Stone. “There wasn't water or sewage. It was almost like we tried building a city out of nothing.”
Yeah—almost! Indeed, some of the most memorable moments in festival-debacle history offer would-be organizers lessons that city leaders know all too well.
Altamont, 1969: Avoid overpolicing
The Rolling Stones wanted to headline a bigger, better Woodstock when they led the effort to scrape together a Bay Area megafestival in the wintry waning weeks of the 1960s. But when the location was moved from bucolic Golden Gate Park to desolate, toilet-deficient Altamont Speedway in Livermore, California, things went south fast. The weather was cold, the vibes were bad, and the Hell’s Angels got hired as “security. (Also, they were paid in beer.) The hippies did not mix well with the sloshed-up bikers, and violent spats erupted all over the grounds. Altamont attendees, in a sense, were both overpoliced and underprotected—a tragically familiar story for many communities in American cities now. By the end of the night, a teenager had been stabbed to death near the stage, a pregnant musician had her skull fractured, and the Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin had been knocked unconscious. “A day when everything went perfectly wrong,” Rolling Stone concluded at the time. But the Stones did get a great movie out of it: the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter.
US Festival, 1983: The tech lords will not save you
Much like Fyre instigator Billy McFarland, back in 1982 Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was a young technology tycoon with a vision and a limitless budget when he hatched plans for the US Festival, a three-day tech-music-mash-up-fest in the California desert. Wozniak imagined a kumbaya-style gathering that rejected the 1970s “me” ethos for “us.” Instead, he ended up demonstrating the limits of cutting-edge technology and the corrupting power of consumerism at the dawn of the Greed-is-Good decade. The 1982 version of the festival consumed a year of planning, featured tents laden with Apple computers so attendees could play Choplifter!, and lost $12 million. Undaunted, the Woz doubled down on US for the second and last 1983 edition, a four-day festival with a banger line-up of period stars. Wozniak decided at the last second to lure David Bowie off his world tour with a $1.5 million booking fee, angering headliners Van Halen, who demanded an extra half-million on top of their fee. That really angered the Clash, who’d only made that much to begin with, and let the audience know onstage. Both concerts bled money, and Wozniak was tens of millions in the hole by the time he decided to go back to the computer business.
Woodstock, 1999: Beware the urban heat island effect
This crass 30th anniversary money-grab showcased any number of terrible ‘90s things, from the music of Creed to the creepiness of the World Wide Web (the festival’s website delighted in posting photos of topless female festivalgoers). But for our purposes let’s focus on the festival’s inability to properly mitigate the urban heat island effect. Unlike the ‘69 original’s woodsy dairy farm, Woodstock ‘99 made its home on an old Air Force base in Rome, New York, where more than 200,000 attendees broiled atop acres of treeless tarmac in the late-July sun. Hundreds were treated for heat-related illness and dehydration, compounded by a lack of water, inadequate security, shitty music, and general atmosphere of rap-rock-addled idiocy that climaxed in fires and rioting as the show closed.
Isle of Wight, 2012: Invest in walkable infrastructure
Too many people, too much rain, not enough road: That was the story of the 42nd edition of the U.K.’s flagship countercultural festival, held on an island off Wight County. A recurring theme in Brit festival fails involves a lack of weather resiliency (see also perpetually soggy Glastonbury), but this one was particularly spectacular. Nonstop downpours turned the island’s dirt roads to slurry, which caused such a back-up of cars stuck in the mud that ferry service from the mainland had to be suspended. Roughly 600 people spent a night stranded in their vehicles on the boat, with thousands more unable to enter the concert grounds at all. Organizers urged festivalgoers to ditch their cars, and use the alternative ferry for foot-traffic only—perhaps that should have been the message all along.
TomorrowWorld, 2015: The painful price of sprawl
An astonishing lack of contingency planning led to the undoing of North America’s largest electronic dance music festival, which drew tens of thousands of revelers to a rural corner of unincorporated Fulton County, Georgia every year. In 2015 torrential rains caused campgrounds to flood almost immediately, forcing attendees to seek alternative accommodations—which was tough, since the shuttle stops were literally miles from the mud-soaked 8,000-acre concert grounds. Then concert organizers told everyone who had managed to flee that they weren’t allowed in the next day—a particularly unbecoming look for a festival whose slogan was “Unite Forever,” since many of those who’d stayed were VIP ticket-holders whose plush accommodations hadn’t turned to sludge.