We talked to a high school classmate of Billy McFarland, the Fyre Festival founder
As we all now know, and a bunch of rich kids found out too late, the “ultra luxury” Fyre Festival was at best a failed endeavor, and at worst, the latest in what looks to be a series of scams from a 25-year-old named Billy McFarland. The tech bro entrepreneur previously cut his teeth selling wealthy millennials on a supposedly elite club called Magnises, which promised tickets to exclusive events and access to members-only townhouses in New York City, but regularly failed to deliver.
Aaron Davis, a first-year law student who used to work in the music industry and was a high school classmate of McFarland’s, confirmed none of this is at all surprising to anyone who knows him. On Friday, I spoke with Davis over speaker phone along with our editor-in-chief Brian Abrams.
Transcript has been edited for clarity.
Drew Salisbury: I had never heard of Billy before any of this stuff today. I think probably most people hadn’t. So you knew him at what age? In high school, is that right?
Aaron Davis: Yeah, in high school, like [ages] 15 to 18, 14 to 18.
DS: And he’s what? Like, 25? So this is seven years ago?
DS: Were you guys friends or more like acquaintances?
AD: More acquaintances, like friendly acquaintances.
DS: What high school was that?
AD: Pingry [School] in Basking Ridge, New Jersey.
DS: I’m curious just what sort of guy he was. The general impression, I think, most people are getting of him is kind of like a hustler or a scammer.
AD: I totally see that. He always kind of toed that line of whether it was a scheme or legitimate. He was always trying [his hand at] enterprising, to say the least. When he came to Pingry, he was already running some overseas server operation, like, renting out server space to various websites. Most of which were porn sites.
DS: Oh man.
AD: This was already [something he] started in middle school, and then he was kind of running various other services of, you know, products in high school that I probably wouldn’t want to go on record explicitly stating.
AD: And at the end of high school, he was trying to start up this website called Spling. He was messaging a bunch of us about trying to get investors into it and trying to get us to invest in it. He personally messaged me about it. I passed. I know a few people did. That was kind of like his first weird endeavor where it was sort of this really half-assed attempt at a Digg or a Chive spinoff. And my friends who had invested had to twist his arm for some kind of payout from it. Or, you know, they would work for him, do some marketing, and then would have to twist his arm for some kind of payout. But in the end there was sort of a legitimate product behind it. And I think he ended up raising a lot of venture capital funding out of it. I think I heard the number of, like, [$500,000] out of it from investors.
DS: Yeah, we can look it up. [Spling received $400,000 in series A funding.]
AD: He was just kind of like always trying to get into — I wouldn’t say they’re “get rich quick” schemes — but just kind of these sort of not really great practices for most people other than himself. And my guess is he sold Spling to get some finance for Magnises. Actually I think he just got more investors as well. And I’m guessing you guys were reading up on Magnises?
DS: We just pubbed a piece that briefly mentioned Spling and then went into Magnises. The whole thing seems like he takes ideas that are already out there and repackages them to give the appearance of “luxury” or “an elite experience,” but most of the stuff you could get by just going to Yelp or something like that.
AD: Oh yeah totally. It was just “social status” if you believed in it. It basically gave upper-middle class kids in New York or Bergen County something that they could flash and show off to their friends for the most part.
DS: Did he come from money?
AD: He definitely came from money. He lived in Short Hills, which if you look up, is a pretty high upper-class neighborhood.
DS: So that, I guess, would be a world then that he could probably be comfortable with and sell convincingly to other people. Going back to the high school days, and not necessarily even related to hustling experiences or endeavors like that, can you think of any memorable experiences that highlight who he was personally? Did you know him that closely?
AD: He was definitely one of the more popular people, but he could also be personable and more friendly in a kind of pally way if you started talking to him. He could definitely very easily talk to you about most anything.
Brian Abrams: So you’re saying it’s like he could be everybody’s best friend.
BA: In a salesmanship-y kind of way.
AD: When he talked to you, it kind of felt like he was trying to sell you something even if he wasn’t.
DS: A good schmoozer.
DS: Do you keep in touch with him at all? When was the last time you spoke with him?
AD: Actually I do have a funny story of bumping into him. I think I exchanged with him a brief amount when he was starting the Magnises thing. He was trying to have some artist or whatever working in those weird little [Magnises] townhouse clubs that he’d set up.
AD: I had some people who were hoping to get a few gigs, so I was trying to see if he’d be interested in having somebody working in those clubs. So I chatted with him once or twice already and then just kind of bumped into him on the street while he was on the phone. It was the first time I’d actually seen him since, I think, graduating high school. Maybe I had seen him once or twice in college. And he was on the phone talking with somebody, and he saw me and then waved and shook my hand very formally in a “How are you doing?” kind of way, and then like turned back around to his phone conversation.
DS: Just ignored you after that?
AD: Yeah, it was kind of funny.
BA: You said he came from money, right?
AD: I wouldn’t say he came from a much higher degree than other kids in the school. It was a prep school so there was kind of a general higher level of wealth among a lot of students there. I don’t know whether it was kind of an old money-type status or just like a general “had money in the family.”
BA: Yeah, I’m just kind of curious what drives someone like that to put together these crazy scams.
AD: Yeah, totally. I’m trying to remember if he dropped out of college, but it’s funny. He always had this gambit to make his own money, which I also find interesting. He came from a place where… He has a sister who definitely didn’t do the same stuff, and she seems to be doing just fine as a high school/college kid coming from an upper-class family. There didn’t seem like there was any need for him to be going about these ways, but that itch to be working on something whether it’s legitimate or illegitimate.
BA: You’re a lawyer, right?
AD: First-year law student, but close enough.
BA: OK, that works for our purposes. How come someone like this isn’t in prison yet?
AD: Um, by being smart and probably having good lawyers too? I mean, everything that you can find on paper really doesn’t violate too many laws. I think the closest you could come to is the people he was working with at Spling. He was taking money from his friends and investors and not really paying them out. Or, you know, hiring them and not paying them. But, in the end, they would press him enough and he basically would settle or pay them something. And they didn’t bring any action. Now I’m sure if one or enough of them did decide to rebut action they probably could have done something. But that’s, as far as I’m concerned, the closest that he really came to getting himself in trouble. Now, as far as Magnises is concerned, I don’t really know what went on there. It seemed, from what I perceived, as being totally legitimate. Just, you know, a shitty business.
[photo: Fyre Festival]