Is this the beginning of the end Of Burning Man?
For those who’ve never heard of Burning Man before, it is an annual event held in the Black Rock Desert, in Nevada, US. The event is an experiment in radical self-expression, self-reliance and community building. Basically what this means is that pretty much anything goes, with exception to a few rules for safety.
- Soundtrack of the report
- Mad Max 2
I attended for the first time in 2010 and was lucky to be part of the setup team for my camp The Lost Penguins and also the dis-assembly team, so I was there for 10 days rather than the regular 7 days. 10 days in the desert, equipped with all the food and water we needed.
I watched as over 50,000 people descended on “Black Rock City” and built a city from scratch. I was blown away. In this city, almost everyone was nice and friendly. There were no hidden agendas, just positive energy and love. And there was no commerce! People set up shops but everything was gratis. People would visit the Lost Penguin Café and get wine and chocolate for free. The principles are to only take what you need and share the rest with others.
Everyone there gifted in their own way; either by creating art installations, driving mutant buses equipped with DJs, setting up cafes and bars or providing an assortment of services. The scope of creativity was boundless. This was unlike any other festival I’ve ever attended because everything was provided by the participants, for the participants.
Burning Man has grown rapidly from its humble beginnings with only 20 participants in 1986, to close to 54,000 in 2011. Last year, for the first time in history, all tickets were sold out.
Black Rock City, LLC (LLC), the company which organizes and administers Burning Man, decided this year to create a lottery system for 40,000 of the tickets at the $240-$390 price tiers in January, and an open sale for the final 10,000 tickets at the $390 in March.
The results of the lottery have been posted and they don’t look good. Early reports suggest that many previous participants have been left in the dust, so to speak. More than half of my campmates from the Lost Penguins are without tickets and I’ve heard similar reports from other camps. I was one of the lucky few to get a ticket but does this mean that I have to find a new camp?
Ironically, for a community which eschews greed and profiteering, it looks like they may well be a victim of such things. When people believe there is more demand than supply, they seem to revert to their baser instincts. Simply put, people purchase faster and more aggressively when there’s a perception of scarcity. (Infomercial marketers are excellent at this. They artificially create scarcity in order to encourage people to take immediate action.)
According to the LLC, there were “an inordinately larger number” of requests than available tickets, which suggests a number of factors are at hand here. The most obvious answer is that people asked for more tickets than they needed, in order to game the system (quite contrary to the philosophy of "only take what you need"). Then you’d have new participants or “virgin burners” as they’re called. I imagine there may be a record number of virgin burners this year due to a combination of organic growth, the symbolism of the Mayan calendar rebooting and the impetus caused by the scarcity principle. But what I fear most of all is the proliferation of scalpers. Tickets are already being listed on eBay for up to $1,500 a piece. I hate scalpers in any situation but scalping Burning Man tickets is so contrary to the philosophy behind the event, that it’s absolutely abhorrent. I can only hope that Burners are strong enough as a whole to resist the lure of these unscrupulous scalpers.
It seems like the LLC has unwittingly created a gold rush of tickets without fully considering the consequences. For instance, if there were a policy of non-refundable, non-transferable tickets for the lottery portion of the sale, we would not have been faced with such massive demand. To add insult to injury, the organization is creating a STEP program for people to sell their unwanted tickets at cost to each other, minus a restocking fee. Now, why would anyone use this system if Craigslist is free?
The implications of all of this may be wide-spreading. Will many established theme camps not be able to attend this year? Will they instead start their own alternative event? Will Burning Man be overrun with virgin burners, unsure on what to do or how to act? Or will scalpers succeed in corrupting this non-commercial community, with their capitalist sins of personal greed?
Only time will tell how all this plays out. But one thing’s for sure, things won’t be the same on the playa.
Have you ever attended Burning Man or are you planning on going this year?