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Why a Music Festival Let the World Believe a Harambe Hologram was Part of Its Lineup

A last second joke addition to a lineup exposed a ton about meme culture, clickbait, the state of journalism, how news is shared, and affection for a dead gorilla.
September 16, 2016, 10:30pm

Day for Night festival.

When the Day for Night Festival announced its stellar lineup Wednesday there was lots to be excited about, especially for a young operation in only its second year of existence. This little independent crew of promoters in Houston, Texas, had somehow booked Aphex Twin for what will be his second show in the last 20 years. They'd somehow convinced Björk to add Houston to the very short and exclusive list of cities she would be bringing her new digital art show to. And they'd managed to reunite Texas art-punk heroes the Butthole Surfers. But the big newsmaker was down the bill. Way, way down. The last performer listed, in fact. Harambe. A hologram honoring Harambe, to be exact. Day for Night producer / co-founder Omar Afra and his tiny team of "knuckleheads from the neighborhood" listed the homage to the famously dead gorilla and very alive meme as an afterthought, a joke to see if anyone would even notice. They did. Though "Harambe Hologram" was only listed for half a day at the bottom of the Day for Night website, Afra began receiving inquiries from media outlets about the suspicious addition to the lineup. He mostly told the truth. But after fielding a number of calls about it, decided to tell one reporter an outrageous story. Read: [A Weekend at Houston's Inaugural Day for Night Festival.](A Weekend at Houston's Inaugural Day for Night Festival) He couldn't have predicted what followed. After his story was taken at face value by Daily Dot, many others (including Popular Science) aggregated their own stories without so much as a phone call to Afra. SPIN editorialized in a piece, "Day for Night to Ruin Perfectly Good Music Festival with Harambe Hologram," and others followed suit. So many outlets falsely reported the Harambe Hologram they believed was real it threatened to overshadow the actual lineup. So Afra copped to it being a hoax, and the retractions began rolling in. In doing so Afra (who also founded and owns Free Press Houston, a free monthly paper in the city) exposed a bit about meme culture, the nature of the internet, the state of journalism, and how information is shared, disseminated, and absorbed. We talked to him about what the last 48 hours have been like, if he could've expected what came to pass, and what he thinks about it now that it's mostly over. So walk me through the idea to include the Harambe Hologram on the website as part of the festival lineup. How did this come about?
It's funny. Obviously, as people who put on a festival and publish a newspaper, we've got a pretty wide range of age groups. From the film editor here [who is] in his early 50s down to the interns who are fresh out of high school, we've got a really wide selection of people who work here with very different perceptions of pop culture. And Harambe is one of these things that reminds me of—you know how they have these cell phone rings that only young people can hear? They're acoustically designed so older people like teachers can't hear them ringing in class. No. Is that real?
Yeah. I've read about it before, these cell phone rings that…basically, at a certain age you can't hear certain frequencies anymore. That's kind of the analogy I use to describe the Harambe joke and Harambe memes around the office. We discussed whether or not we should put a joke in the lineup or not. That would come up and someone would sarcastically reference Harambe. The older people around the office were like, "I don't fucking get it. I don't understand." Early on it was a gag we used to underscore the differences between the young people in the office and old dudes like me. Once we were finalizing the website we thought, you know we've got everyone and the kitchen sink on this lineup, let's throw Harambe there at the very end and see if anyone notices. Do people even dig that far into a lineup, past the headliners and the middle card? We kind of laughed about it and we weren't really sure how people would react. Early on no one really noticed, but soon enough I started getting inquiries about it. The first three or four journalists that reached out to see if this was true we were just honest with. I said, "Look, this is a joke. Get over it. Let's move on." But then they kept coming and we started to think, "Let's see how far we can take this. Let's see what little due diligence these guys will do." The answer was clearly "very little."
Yeah! I got an email from the Daily Dot. They asked about it and I just told them a preposterous story about how we'd tried to get Harambe the year before, but we couldn't agree to his terms or provide the 37 crates of bananas he wanted on his rider. They printed it! I said the hologram was going to be 72 feet high and 34 feet wide. Just ridiculous. They actually have that reported as 72 feet high, 34 inches wide, which seems even more insane.
Do they? [Laughs] Either way, it's very clear you were trolling.
Right? After that article, SPIN published that nasty headline "Day for Night to Ruin Perfectly Good Music Festival with Harambe Hologram." Thing is, all they saw was the Daily Dot headline. Because if they'd read your quotes…at the very least it warranted a phone call.
Yeah. And we'd already taken Harambe off the website. He was only up half a day. My favorite was the article from Fact Mag, because, Fact Mag. They published a story without ever reaching out to us for a quote. So this surprised you.
Look, we're in the festival business, but we also operate a newspaper. I think we have an interesting insight into all this because we sit at the intersection of it all. And I guess what I see is just the danger in this is—obviously, nowadays, people are just seeing headlines, outlets included. They have to crank out so much content that due diligence has become an antiquated concept. SPIN didn't write about how we got a very rare show from Aphex Twin or Björk or the Butthole Surfers reunion! I think it underscores how meme culture and clickbait have created this very interesting climate where journalists are foregoing their areas of expertise (with SPIN, music) and writing, not about the big splashes, but about whatever could get the click. Right.
And oftentimes it's not even a click. When we look at our own analytics here at Free Press, sometimes people share articles more than they're read. A story may have 3,000 shares, but only 1000 people read it. They're endorsing a headline. It's like a song having nothing but a hook. Which, I guess is where things are headed in music too, come to think of it. All the things you just mentioned that you learned from this, was that the intent? Or was it just to get a laugh?
A little bit of both. I can't lie and say we didn't get a huge laugh out of doing this. I would be full of shit if I said that. When you're launching something like this, there's a lot at stake, it's high stress and everyone's looking for some comic relief. We didn't realize how newsworthy this small gag would be. But once we saw the way it was being treated it was an interesting phenomenon that meets right at the intersection of stuff we mess with every day. Is there a fear, since so much attention was paid to this, that it detracted from the lineup?
Nahhh, I don't think it's gotten that bad. We had a fucking amazing launch. I've launched nine, ten festivals at this point, and I'm very happy with the way this one rolled out. I think this could very well sell out. The day before all the Harambe stuff we dropped the Aphex teaser, and that was just insane. Is there any chance you're trolling us now by saying there's not going to be a Harambe Hologram, and that there's actually going to be a Harambe Hologram?
What we probably should have done is announce that we were excited to have the Harambe Hologram be part of the festival, but alas, he's been shot. Follow Brian McManus on Twitter.