How America’s Luxury-Obsessed Festival Industry Made the Fyre Festival Debacle Possible

Worshippers of Coachella’s golden calf.

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The Fyre Festival may go down as the biggest disaster for a large-scale concert since Altamont—or at least since the widespread rioting and sexual assaults of Woodstock ’99. When attendees arrived on the Bahamas’ Great Exuma Island this past Thursday, they found not an opulent getaway but something closer to a disaster site. Instead of the luxurious weekend promoted by supermodels and set to feature Blink-182, Pusha T, and others, they found sparse food and water, accommodations that were basically waterlogged relief tents, and a distinct Hunger Games vibe. For the privilege of all of this, some groups of attendees paid anywhere from a grand to $125,000. Before a single note was played, the event was canceled.

It’s easy to dismiss the people tweeting and snapping their Fyre Festival misery as wealthy idiots who got their just desserts (or, specifically, their cheese and dry bread). If you took a little bit of joy in their plight, you’re certainly not alone. But these particular rich kids of Instagram aren’t actually to blame, nor really are rapper Ja Rule and the other organizers of the Fyre Festival nightmare (one of whom is also the founder of a “social club” for moneyed millennials that’s been unenthusiastically described as being like OpenTable, but for $250 a year). Festival culture has been careening toward a debacle like this for a while now—and along the way it’s done wrong by music lovers and musicians alike.

The culture and economics of the American music-festival circuit have created an environment in which the exorbitantly priced Fyre Festival is an acceptable concept. It’s taken a decade of steadily rising ticket costs and the advent of lavish VIP packages at most every major American festival to get to this point, where people are now willing to shell out thousands of dollars on an unproven, first-time festival—never mind its plainly illogical mix of luxury perks, complex logistics, and its owners’ now-admitted utter lack of experience in putting on a major music festival.

By my count, high-end tickets to at least a dozen major U.S. music festivals cost close to $1,000 or more—a marked increase from even just two years ago. The price to attend music festivals has gradually climbed out of the grasp of your average music fan for years, to the extent that now the cheapest possible weekend at Coachella costs more than $600, and that’s if you already live in the desert and bring your own dry bread and cheese from home. The VIP version of that same Coachella experience costs almost $8,500, including flights and hotel. It’s a lot of money. Bonnaroo, now owned by the concert behemoth Live Nation, sells its VIP tickets for $1,648.50 and you have to buy two at a time. And that’s just the mid-range VIP price! You want that real VIP experience, with the up-close seating and the Le Bon cabana? That costs $7,000 for two people. And you still have to get there.

So if you’re one of the post-election DSA card holders chuckling at the deserved plight of the wealthy trapped on Great Exuma, you haven’t flipped over the price tag on a regular, non-exotic-island festival recently. While these costs are disappointing for music fans, they’re no longer surprising. Live Nation and entertainment company AEG own almost every major festival in America. When two companies control a multibillion-dollar industry and set prices against one another, it’s logical to expect ticket costs to go up until those companies hit the ceiling where literally no one will pay what they’re asking. This year, 125,000 people attended Coachella, leading to long waits for water and mild claustrophobia. Festival owner AEG hasn’t found its maximum price yet.

So long as enough people pay whatever Live Nation and AEG charge to attend top-tier festivals like Coachella, Firefly, and others, the festivals themselves slip out of the reach of most music fans. And since most artists not named Beyoncé, Adele, or Kendrick struggle to make money selling records, the paydays and exposure associated with the festival economy have made festival invites hard for bands and their managers to turn down. That’s true even with anti-competitive radius clauses that prevent bands from performing in nearby venues around the tour. Why would Major Lazer play just, like, a regular show, when instead it could get paid a kajillion dollars to perform a short set at a living Puff Daddy video in front of a several thousand well-off weekend warriors?

None of this is to say that the concept of a massive music festival can’t be a useful consumer product. Some folks make music festivals their annual vacations, their big weekend away from their jobs and children. If you’re a 30- or 40-something with money to spend and nostalgia pangs to see Radiohead and whatever acts the kids are digging these days, that’s fine.

But every time someone says “yes” to the price of a festival VIP package, they pay no subsidy for the rest of us—they simply drive costs up for everyone the following year, and price out music fans without extensive disposable income. For some bands, the gambit probably pays off. After all, who doesn’t want to do less work for more money and reap the kind of exposure festivals can provide? But the tradeoff can be steep. Not every band is comfortable with the questionable politics of the festival duopolists. And for fans, the ever-rising cost of festivals (and many big-ticket concerts) perform the same filtering act as an unpaid internship: Only people of a certain means can be involved at all.

There are lots of exceptions in the festival world—punk-plus-more festivals Riot Fest and the Fest stand out as good values for the cost, as does Portland’s Pickathon. Indeed, if you can afford it, the festival experience delivers more value for your concert-going dollar than seeing the bands in separate arenas, theaters, and bars whenever they happen to come through your city next. But perpetually testing the upper limits of pricing can lead to a precarious and exclusive economy, one in which fan value and experience tilts against the monopoly-driven economics of the modern music industry. If the festival economy is a bubble, which it well may be, Fyre Festival could mark the tipping point where even VIP festival attendees scratch their heads at the rising cost of admission and ask: For what?