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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