On a remote Bahamas island, an aspiring writer named Seth Crossno was wallowing in misery.
He had just been shuttled on a yellow school bus to a dry, desolate stretch of Red Cross tents under a blazing sun. His first meal consisted of a sad slice of orange cheese smooshed between white bread. A sweaty mob of guests erupted in anger around him. All in all, his decision to plunk down $4500 to attend the Fyre Festival already seemed like a mistake of epic proportions.
About five hours later, he realized that thousands of strangers of all ages from all corners of the world were taking glee in his despair. “I tweeted that the Fyre festival was a complete disaster and included a video of the bus driving by in the background,” he recalls. “Then I started tweeting more updates. People picked up on it and made fun of the situation.”
The acidic responses were so voluminous that when Crossno made it home to North Carolina, he comprised a spreadsheet of all the interactions. Two summers later, he reads off a few with a matter-of-fact evenness: “We’re all laughing at you”; “Add a hurricane and Battle Royale set-up please”; “Survivor: Rich Person’s Island Festival Hell”; “Thanks for being an idiot.”
“As the event became more chaotic, people started becoming more captivated,” he says. “People liked that it was a failure.”
Crossno wasn’t the first unsatisfied customer at a music festival. But what he experienced is a curious “schaden-fest” phenomenon, in which bystanders -- people who didn’t willingly shell out big bucks to put up with questionable sanitary conditions and hang out on a muddy field over a long weekend, and thus should have no financial or emotional stakes in a festival’s success or failure -- metaphorically rub their hands together, and take maniacal delight in witnessing the collapse of a music festival. Symptoms of schaden-fest include devising snickering punchlines at the unconfirmed rumor of a STD strain at Coachella and bingeing the dueling Netflix and Hulu documentaries about the doomed Fyre Festival.
“I get messages all the time from people alerting me to a festival gone wrong,” says Crossno, who was featured in both documentaries and ended up getting a $5 million verdict from now-jailed Fyre festival organizer Billy McFarland. (He says he’s yet to see a dime.) “They’re seeking out other dumpster fires! I’ve learned disasters come in all shapes and sizes.”
The most visible and recent schaden-fest characteristic involves cackling about Woodstock 50, which purposes to commemorate the golden anniversary of the groundbreaking festival. From the moment the lineup was announced in March, critics beat the drum that the event at at the Watkins Glen International Speedway in New York was a crass money grab designed to capitalize on a beloved brand. Particularly after the mud-drenched Woodstock 94 and bonfiery rage of Woodstock ’99 failed to live up to the cultural impact of their predecessor, there was no reason to think this festival could recreate the original event’s magic. As a May article in The New York Times noted, “From the start, Woodstock 50 drew skepticism throughout the music industry.”
No wonder when officials with Woodstock’s chief investment group announced in late April that they had pulled funding and the festival was canceled, public giddiness could not be contained. Popculture.com even posted a story with the headline “Woodstock 50 Cancellation Has Twitter Sounding Off with Fyre Festival Jokes.” (At press time, original Woodstock investor Michael Lang remains intent on raising the $30 million himself and insists the weekend event will go on in August as scheduled.)
If you’re going to point a finger at the root of the problem, look at the advent of a forum that enables any critic to sit behind a laptop and pontificate with a few clicks. The 24/7 social media whirl also allows for the drama to unfold in real time, leading to a more dropped-in audience and more instantaneous blowback. A communal pile-on commonly ensues. “Negativity is not new, but the Internet has given negative people a voice,” veteran event promoter Donnie Estopinal says. “When I first started, people would literally write me letters and complain about things like the prices. Then there were message boards, and I’d hear about the venue and problems with Ticketmaster. But now you have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. You can’t not pay attention.”
But the snipers aren’t just targeting festivals because they’re overjoyed that they’re not a part of the chaos. Few would readily admit it, but before the chaos sets in, a high-profile, highly publicized event splayed out on the Internet creates a palpable sense of FOMO among those not in attendance. “There’s jealousy in a real very sense,” says Lori Majewski, a journalist and host on SiriusXM’s Volume channel. “There were warning signs with Fyre, but people still wanted to go just to be a part of it. And if you couldn’t be there, you wished you could afford it. Even if it had gone well, I promise you that people still would have been critical.”
To that end, monitoring a festival’s ticking time bomb from afar is no different from being secretly happy that a Facebook friend’s vacation in Tahiti has thunderstorms in the forecast. “You know that saying that we hate it when our friends become successful? It’s no different with festivals,” she adds, “It’s so in-your-face. You’re not pretty enough, rich enough or privileged enough. These feelings of resentment never existed [in the same way] before social media.”
The feelings are amplified when the photographic and video dispatches consist of VIP passes, an appropriately boho wardrobe, backstage selfies, party-hearty group shots, merch and empty alcohol containers. You know, everything but the music. “It’s no longer good enough just to go to a festival because of the bands,” Majewski says. “It’s an entire scene. Sure, every once in awhile you have Beyoncé at Coachella -- but by and large festivals are about, my experience being better than your experience, and my lineup being better than your lineup. Who’s really there for the right reasons? Festivals aren’t for the masses anymore. So the masses sit back and judge.”
And underneath the spectacle is the perceived whiff of fat-cat corporate handlers, organizers and performers ripe for a downfall (all of whom can afford to take the hit). “People like rooting for the underdog, so there’s a thinking that if a top player goes down, they’ll still be fine next year,” Crossno notes. “If Fyre were a grass-roots festival, or people were raising money to cure cancer, then I’m sure people would have thought that what happened was terrible and would have offered help.”
After all, as Majewski notes, the all-day 1985 concert fundraiser Live Aid was beset with organizational issues (“They ran of out of toilet paper!”), yet the belly-aching was minimal because of its noble intentions. “When you look back at George Harrison’s concert for Bangladesh [in 1971], or the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert [in '92], there was a sense that we were coming together for a purpose,” she says. “Festivals at their best can be a religious experience and being part of something bigger than ourselves. The original Woodstock seemed pure. Performers were there for the greater good.”
Estopinal cautions that scapegoating a behind-the-scenes villain such as McFarland or Lang is too reductive. “As long as money is changing hands, there’s going to be a certain section of people making the claim that we just want the money and don’t care about the fans,” he says. “But we really are trying to put on the best show possible and make attendees safe and happy. And when I read complaints, it does motivate me to fix things and make the experience better. Unfortunately, some people will never be happy.”
He also suggests for viewers that ate up the Fyre festival documentaries and are currently reveling in Woodstock 50’s possible demise to take note of the difficulties in staging a festival: “No amount of money or powerful friends can make success happen. There are a lot of moving parts. It takes a lot of hard work and not everyone can pull it off.”
No schaden-fest cure is on the horizon, at least not anytime soon. “This is the world we live in now,” he sighs. “I have a 17-year-old son and he lives on a beach and everything sucks. I’m not sure why people can’t enjoy things.” Seconds Majewski, “We’re a product of our times. There’s always going to be a jury sitting home and contributing to the negativity.”
Still, perhaps it’s worth wondering if social media were around in August 1969, the masses would have sneered about how the three-day all-star music festival in upstate New York promoting peace and love also featured just three overflowing Port-a-Potties for every 10,000 attendees and filthy campground conditions -- not to mention a swath of naked Hippies dropping acid and climbing the fences to get in for free. Says Majewski: “History has a way of rewriting itself.”