Andy King Finds Himself At Center Of Social Media Fyrestorm

By: Tim Wood

With Stage Harbor as the backdrop, Andy King talked recently about his role in the failed Fyre Festival and his appearance in the Emmy-nominated Netflix documentary “ Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.” TIM WOOD PHOTO

Chatham has always been the “center of the universe” for Andy King, who grew up here and graduated from Chatham High School in 1979. But his appearance in an Emmy-nominated documentary now has King in the center of the social media universe.

In “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” King's story about how he would “do whatever it takes” to help save the doomed music festival became one of the most talked-about segments of the Netflix documentary, which was released in January. It didn't take long for Andy King to go viral.

And he's taking advantage of that, speaking to large groups of mostly young people in Europe and the United States, imparting a message of social responsibility—especially regarding the environment—and encouraging his audiences to find their passion and follow it, wherever it leads.

“There's a huge amount of responsibility” with the new notoriety, King said, adding, with just a little sarcasm, “I have almost as much power as the Kardashians.”

But he's not far off the mark. Just Google “Andy King memes” to see his social media reach, even though, as the documentary illustrates, he was involved in one of the most epic failures in music festival history.

“I am one of the biggest failures in pop culture today,” King said in an interview at a friend's Stage Harbor-front home recently. “But guess what? You learn more from failure than you do from success.”

King, 58, made a name for himself in the 1990s in the business and entertainment worlds as a “corporate concierge,” a concept he developed and launched at Pepsi Co. He began to plan events for the company and soon founded Andy King Events. “I became the event planner for Wall Street,” he said (he also helped start the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Association's Hooker's Ball with his mother Wendy). Changes came after 9/11; companies didn't want all their corporate officers together in one place. And King's life changed “very quickly” when when the economy crashed in 2008. He ended up owning and running a small hotel in Hudson, N.Y.

“I did every job myself to make it successful,” he said. He enjoyed being “off the grid,” but eventually he was lured back into the event business. After a climate march concert in Central Park, however, he had an epiphany.

“I saw the litter of plastic water bottles after this concert that was supposed to highlight climate change,” he said. “That was a turning point for me.”

He founded Inward Point with business partner Brendan Doherty, a friend from Chatham. Focused on sustainability, the zero-waste event planning business eliminated plastic and other waste from events and sourced food from local farmers. The business was successful; King said he organized a climate change fundraiser for actor Leonardo DiCaprio in Sonoma, Calif., that raised $8 million and produced next to no waste.

Then Billy McFarland called.

King had worked with McFarland before, organizing events to promote the young entrepreneur's credit card company Magnises and his later Fyre Media. McFarland told King he was sending a jet to pick him up and fly him to the Bahamas, where the much hyped Fyre Festival was in trouble.

Organized by McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, the Fyre Festival was supposed to be two weekends in April and May of 2017 featuring luxury accommodations and music by top entertainers, including Blink-182, on a private island in the Bahamas. By the time King arrived, six weeks before the festival was scheduled to begin, it was clear the event was in trouble.

“I've always been able to fix something. And I just said I can fix this,” King said. He tried to get the organizers to change their messaging immediately, to tell those who had paid thousands of dollars to stay in luxury accommodations that they would instead be staying in tents on the beach. But they wouldn't follow his advice until it was too late.

At one point customs was holding up 175,000 plastic water bottles needed for the event, and McFarland asked King to perform a sexual favor for a customs official to get the water released. King prepared to do so, but the official just laughed and signed the papers to release the water (that story, told in more colorful and explicit language, is King's standout moment in the documentary).

Ten days before the event, McFarland fired the caterers, and King used his connections and skills to partner with the Bahamian tourist board and others on the island to organize food for the expected 6,000 people. But when the first group arrived, they were kept away from the festival village while work continued (a rain storm had set work back considerably); by the time they arrived many were drunk. The evening's dinner was not yet ready and King suggested some of the attendees get sandwiches from the staff kitchen. “Suddenly there were 600 kids in line for cheese sandwiches,” he said. Photographs of the cheese sandwiches, not exactly what the guests were promised, went viral on social media.

“That, the irony of it all, is what brought the festival down,” King said. “The damn cheese sandwich.” Also ironic, he said, was the fact that not far away chefs were preparing the dinner of shrimp, mahi mahi and other dishes more in line with the festival PR. After the cheese sandwich photos trended on Instagram, bands began to drop out.

“And then it got bad,” King said.

The first night with just a few hundred of an anticipated 6,000 guests was a disaster, and organizers realized they had to cancel the festival. King worried that he might be held liable for the vast amount of money owed to local workers and officials. He was the oldest by far of the organizers and “the adult in the room,” so he made a quick escape. He called a lawyer in Florida and arranged a jet to fly in to pick him up; he traded clothes with an employee and hid behind a port-a-potty. He was spirited out of the Fyre village to a villa where he'd been staying, packed and drove to the airport lying in the back of a pickup truck covered in palm fronds. When the jet touched down, he jumped out of the truck and into the plane.

“I'd probably still be in the Bahamas today,” he said. “They'd have taken my passport and said no big deal, but until you pay everybody back, you're here.” He eventually helped organize GoFundMe pages to help raise money for island workers who hadn't been paid.

Did he ever have doubts about the festival?

“I was doubtful at the end of every day,” he said. But, he added, “we were this close.” Fatally, he trusted McFarland. “What I didn't know was that Billy had made so many promises to so many people and he controlled every penny. He was in so deep that he couldn't not host” the festival.

“He's an amazing entrepreneur, but at the end of the day, he's a sociopath,” King said. “I certainly learned the hard way, that's for sure.” McFarland is now serving a six-year term in federal prison for mail and wire fraud.

After Fyre, King was advised not to mention his role in the failed venture. Even though his story about the water was not meant to be included in the documentary, director Chris Smith said King's delivery perfectly encapsulated the disaster. “What Chris was able to do was to say that was how crazy it got,” King said.

Four Emmy nominations raised the profile of both the documentary and King. He recently did a commercial with Ryan Reynolds for the actor's new Aviation Gin company. King is in talks for his own TV project and will be hosting a podcast called “Mouthwash.” He's also launching a social media campaign, hoping to have one million followers by the Emmy Awards in September.

King lives on a farm in Chatham, N.Y., and makes it back to his hometown a few times a year to visit friends and family, including his brother John, a wildlife photographer who captains the shark research vessel used by Dr. Greg Skomal and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. At some point, King said, he'd like to buy a house here. But right now, he's concentrating on trying to use his newfound fame to make a difference by reaching young people through his speaking engagements and social media.

“I'm able to drive positive change, and I am able to inspire young kids and create awareness,” he said. “I tell them to embrace failure, and do your best, follow your heart, be passionate about it and help me drive positive change.” Kids seem to trust him, he added. “I'm a gray haired guy who speaks their language. They're looking for a role model.”