BM ticket gouging raises tough issues

In the wake of yesterday’s announcement that Burning Man tickets have sold out for the first time, scalpers have been offering tickets online for several times their face values – some for as much as $5,000 each – frustrating burners and raising difficult questions about what the laws of supply and demand are doing to a community that eschews “commodification” as one of its core principles.

Members of Black Rock City LLC have been worried about this problem since back in January when tickets first started selling briskly. When I asked BRC board members Larry Harvey and Marian Goodell about the possibility of its selling out early, they each asked me not to publicize that possibility because they were worried about scalpers making runs on tickets.

A few months ago, they announced that tickets wouldn’t be available at the gate, and they began to put out word through registered theme camps and occasional notices in the Jack Rabbit Speaks newsletter that selling out was a possibility and that that those planning to attend should buy their tickets now.

“I feel bad if anyone was caught unaware, but they should have known,” Goodell told me yesterday.

But if the high prices being asked for Burning Man tickets on sites like eBay and StubHub are any indication, it seems that those looking to profit off the event were just waiting for the announcement that tickets had sold out. High ticket prices are also likely to add incentive to the regular ticket scams that occur, resulting in the likelihood of people getting stuck outside the gate at this far-flung locale.

BRC spokesperson Will Chase addressed that possibility in a post on the Burning Blog yesterday: “For those considering venturing out to Black Rock City without a ticket to ‘try your luck’ purchasing one at or near the entrance to Burning Man, we ask that you do NOT do so, for your own safety and the well-being of the surrounding communities. The Black Rock Desert is an extremely remote, inhospitable environment with limited resources, minimal facilities, and few camping opportunities in the vicinity.”

Longtime burner Chicken John Rinaldi, who has turned into a staunch critic of the way BRC is governed in recent years, said burners who don’t have much money will be tempted to sell their tickets if they really start going for thousands of dollars and he said BRC should have consulted the larger community about the issue.

“They don’t have a plan. They knew it was going to sell out and they didn’t have a plan,” said Rinaldi, who has also been critical of BRC’s plans for converting to a nonprofit with little input from the community about process or potential new governance models. “It was another missed opportunity for Larry to engage with his community…This is going to be a fucking disaster.”

As for what steps BRC is taking to discourage price gouging by scalpers, whether they are beefing up security to better fight off gate-crashers, and responses to criticisms rippling through online discussions among burners about “gentrification” of the event and related concerns, we’re still waiting for responses from BRC members who we expect to interview over the coming days.

So check back for updates on this blog and in next week’s special Guardian issue on Burning Man, which celebrates its silver anniversary this year.

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Burning Man tickets sell out

Reprinted from my post at SFBG.com

For the first time in the event’s 25-year history, tickets to Burning Man have sold out. With more than a month left to go before the gates to Black Rock City open at midnight on Aug. 28, burners have already started a mad scramble for spare tickets through various message boards and online networks.

Shortly after tickets started selling at the fastest pace ever on Jan. 20, officials with Black Rock City LLC, the SF-based company that staged Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, privately warned that they may sell out this year. The event, which last year peaked at almost 52,000 attendees, is limited by its permits with the US Bureau of Land Management and BRC’s own desire to control its ever-growing size.

A couple months ago, the company announced that tickets would not be available at the gate (which had happened only once before, in 2008) and urged burners to get their tickets because it could sell out. Then, over the weekend, that’s what happened.

BRC board members had privately been trying to dampen public speculation that the event would sell out, worried that scalpers would make a run on tickets. It’s illegal in California to sell tickets for more than their face value, and it has traditionally been a strong part of the burner ethos not to profit off reselling of the tiered-pricing tickets (which ranged from $210-360 this year). But that will be tested this year by the laws of supply and demand. There have also been counterfeit ticket scams exposed recently, and that will be an even greater concern now that legitimate ticket outlets are no longer an option.

Meanwhile, BRC has been settling into its new headquarters in Mid-Market Street area, and it has recently announced an Aug. 5 launch date for The Burning Man Project, the new nonprofit organization that will slowly began taking over control of the event over the next several years, with a kickoff party in United Nations Plaza starting at 5 pm.

For more on Burning Man during this important transitional year, look for the Guardian’s special Playa Prep issue hitting the streets on Aug. 3; grab a copy of my new book, The Tribes of Burning Man; or attend one of my upcoming book-related events. And, if you can manage to get a ticket, I’ll see you on the playa.

Why you should choose me over Larry

As I sit in my hometown of San Luis Obispo this week, recovering from knee surgery under the loving care of my family, I’ve had some time to ponder what’s next. Burning Man will dominate the rest of my summer – between promoting my book (The Tribes of Burning Man) at more than a dozen events and seeing to my own playa preparations – so I’ve been thinking about what I want to say about it during this interesting point in its cultural evolution.
Particularly once I learned that my next book-related event (Tuesday night at the venerable Mechanics Institute) is on the same night as Larry Harvey’s appearance at the Commonwealth Club, I’ve been contemplating why people should come to see me instead of the event’s founder and working to develop a program that will validate people’s choice.
I have a lot of respect for Larry, and I’m thankful that he was so gracious in sharing his time and insights throughout the seven years that I worked on my book. His comments and perspective pepper The Tribes of Burning Man and help make it a definitive look at this culture’s modern era when combined with my other reportage.
But there’s a reason that I’ve had a hard time getting Larry and the Borg’s help in promoting my book and events, and it’s because my book isn’t really about them, much to the chagrin of some of its board members (including one who told me she is “ambivalent” about my book and has blocked previously promised access to even regional promotional lists).
My book isn’t about Burning Man per se, but about the wonderfully vast, infinitely creative, remarkably resourceful, and well-developed culture that has formed up around the event. That has always been more interesting to me than what happens on the playa or in the Borg’s headquarters, and that’s where I’ve spent my time and energy since 2004.
Between embedding myself with art crews like the Flaming Lotus Girls and Flux Foundation, working with Burners Without Borders during its evolution on the Gulf Coast, delving deeply into Opulent Temple and other nightlife tribes, and interviewing the ground level builders of myriad other camps and collectives, I guess you can say that I’ve developed a populist, bottom-up view of this culture.
I can peer through the top-down view that Larry and the Borg have, and they certainly do understand the culture they’ve helped spawn. But there are unmistakable blind spots and biases to their perspective that regularly cause problems, frustrations, and unnecessary defections among the burner masses, as I and others have chronicled over the years.
It’s a common problem for institutions of all kinds, as I’ve learned over 20 years as a newspaper journalist covering political, corporate and nonprofit organizations. Even those that derive their power and influence from representing great masses of people tend to develop groupthink and hubris, believing they know better than the people they are supposed to be serving.
But Burning Man is a culture formed directly by the volunteer efforts and the communal ethos of myriad groups and individuals, moreso than any I’ve covered. And as the Borg begins a transition of control over Burning Man to a new nonprofit with a hand-picked board, I’ve been publicly urging the Borg to seek and heed input from the greater burner community about governance and other issues, so far to little avail.
So, why should you come see me on Tuesday night, rather than Larry Harvey? Well, if you’ve never heard Larry’s perspective, maybe you shouldn’t. He’s an interesting guy, a big thinker, and a good speaker. But there are parts of this culture he simply doesn’t care to understand, such as sound camps, which he proudly says he has never visited.
If you want to understand what drives people to devote months of their lives each year to building Black Rock City, and to learn how they and their communities are affected by that experience, that’s a good reason to come see me. It’s what interests me the most, it’s what I’ve studied, and it’s what we’ll talk about on Tuesday (in a 150-year-old institution created by the builders of cities) and at my events thereafter.
I’ve developed some good insights into what makes this culture tick, and more importantly, I know that there’s still so much that I don’t know. So I hope that you’ll come and offer your thoughts, experiences, and perspective. Because the best cultures deserve the best conversations.

Burning Man delays nonprofit board announcement

This year's Burning Man theme is appropriately Rites of Passage.DESIGN BY ROD GARRETT; IMAGE BY ROD GARRETT, ANDREW JOHNSTONE

My previous posts on plans to convert control of Burning Man from Black Rock City LLC over to a nonprofit entity called The Burning Man Project generated lots of attention, controversy, and page views, but since then there hasn’t been much happening publicly with the effort.

Initially, the plan was to file the paperwork and announce the new nonprofit board members by the end of May, but BRC’s Marian Goodell (who was traveling through Europe with BRC head Larry Harvey) recently told me that it’s been more complicated than anticipated to create the new structure and that the plan now is to file the paperwork and announce the new board members in early August.

Sources say the seven new board members (who will join the LLC’s six board members on the new nonprofit board) have all been selected and the initial crew has been chosen mostly for its fundraising abilities and past support for burner initiatives. Some names have already started to leak out, and the ones I’ve heard reinforce that approach, but I don’t need to steal the Borg’s thunder, so I’ll wait for the official announcement like everyone else but revealing names.

But the criticisms that I’ve aired about the need to get more input and buy-in from the larger burner community on this transition really hasn’t been addressed by the LLC yet, although Larry did tell me back in April that the organization does intend to have some public meetings at some point on how burners are represented in the new nonprofit and how it operates.

Larry has been talking about this conversion to a nonprofit for a couple years now, and that plan is included in the conclusion of my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. Given that the event’s future governance structure is now being created behind closed doors, it would seem that now is the time for these public conversations to start happening.

If they aren’t going to happen in a formal process created by the Borg, they can start happening informally in the community. And they will certainly be discussed at some of my upcoming book events, starting July 19 at the Mechanics Institute in San Francisco and continuing through August with 10 scheduled events, including panels at the SF Main Library, Oakland Public Library, and Jewish Community Center, and various bookstore events.

So come on out and join the discussion.