Posts by sfscribe

After two full decades writing for and editing newspapers in California, I'm now the City Editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, my dream job. But I'm still not content, not with the world and my profession in such disarray. So we keep striving and working to build a better world. For more on me and my philosophy, visit www.steventjones.com

Last thoughts before the Borg reveals all

Burning Man participants are anxiously awaiting tomorrow’s (Wed/15) announcement by Black Rock City LLC about how it will solve this year’s ticket fiasco that left most veteran burners – those who work through theme camps and art collectives to create the event’s infrastructure, entertainment, and artistic offerings – without tickets.

As I reported last week, sources say all or most of the remaining 10,000 tickets will likely be distributed through these theme camps and collectives, and representatives from many of the major ones have been invited to a meeting at Burning Man’s mid-Market headquarters tomorrow to discuss the new system.

Sources say the LLC is also trying to implement a system of having those who were awarded tickets on Feb. 1 register those tickets to specific individuals before they are mailed out in June and to create a regulated aftermarket ticket exchange in order to prevent scalpers from charging more than face value. The LLC has resisted creating such a system, which many burners have suggested since the event sold out for the first time last year and scalpers gouged buyers.

LLC board member Marian Goodell still has not returned my repeated calls for comment, so we can’t say exactly what the new system will look like, or how the LLC will decide which of the hundreds of theme camps that have registered over the years get tickets. Or how the registration system will work, or to sort out many of the other tricky details associated with this mess.

Hopefully, much of that will become clear tomorrow, and I’m sure there will still be many issues to explore then. But for now, I’d like to do a bit of a notebook dump to air a few of the interesting bits from the voluminous input that has been coming my way since I started writing (and being interviewed by the Sacramento Bee and New York Times) about the snafu a few weeks ago:

 

CHICKEN THE SCALPER

The LLC has been urging burners to freeze out ticket scalpers and refuse to pay more than face value for a ticket, urging the community to stick together. “You’re really hurting your community if you’re treating this like a commodity,” Goodell told me in late January, a message that I helped to convey.

As hundreds of burners commented on my stories and others, I was a bit surprised by the silence of longtime burner Chicken John Rinaldi, who has been a regular vocal critic of the LLC’s leadership since I first started reporting on Burning Man for the Guardian in late 2004 and who then became a major character in my book.

Chicken had predicted the new ticket lottery system would fail and be gamed by scalpers, so when I finally talked to him late last week, I asked about his relative recent silence. “I really don’t think I belong in this conversation because I’m the scalper,” he told me. “I got dozens of tickets and I’m planning to make tens of thousands of dollars.”

Chicken said he used confederates and multiple credit cards to game the system, just like the scalpers. And to justify his mercenary approach, he cited last year’s announcement by event founder Larry Harvey that he and the other five LLC board members are in the process of cashing out their ownership interest over the trademarks and logos for significant sums of money before turning control of the event over to a new nonprofit.

“They want capitalism. Larry wants to make millions of dollars off of this, so I’m going to make some money, too,” Chicken said. “I deserve that money.”

Now, I don’t know whether Chicken is telling the truth or just making a provocative point, but he does say that he’s only taking this tact because the LLC has commodified Burning Man and failed to heed community input and guard against scalpers. “If I ran Burning Man, I wouldn’t let people make tens of thousands of dollars off my members,” he said. “Our community needs some leadership.”

 

SERVING THE DISABLED

Many theme camp members have publicly said that their camps won’t be able to attend this year because so few of their campmates got tickets, making it impossible to pull off large scale projects, thus diminishing Black Rock City. But there was one story I found particularly poignant, and one that the LLC might be forced to help.

For the last six years, the Black Rock Department of Mobility (formerly known as Hotwheelz) has been providing shuttle services and electric wheelchairs to those with disabilities, helping them to get around a city where private cars aren’t allowed to drive during the week and where dusty, uneven terrain can to be problematic for the disabled.

But this year, camp founder Wayne Merchant told me, the Southern California-based camp scored just three tickets for its 27 active members. Already, he said they lined up almost 10 golf carts to do shuttles, nine electric wheelchairs for people to use, a few art cars with lifts, and at least 10 clients with disabilities have signed up for their services.

“I have the best core team that we’ve ever had on this camp,” he said, “but this is totally putting us out of business.”

He also raised the specter that without the voluntary services that this camp provides, the event itself might be out-of-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), possibly exposing the LLC to legal liability: “It will basically dump all the ADA compliance on Burning Man.”

“Depending on what happens tomorrow,” said Merchant, who plans to the attend the meeting at BM HQ, “I could be totally be done with Burning Man.”

 

WAITING ON THE FEDS

Many burners have suggested the LLC deal with this year’s ticket demand issues by simply increasing the city’s population, but organizers have said that’s not really within their power. Not only are there transportation and other logistical constraints, but determining the population cap is at the sole discretion of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Black Rock Desert.

More precisely, it is at the sole discretion of Rolando Mendez, the BLM field manager for the region, who I interviewed last week, along with assistant field manager Cory Roegner. And one of the things I learned that I found most interesting is that the population cap won’t even be set until this June, after all the tickets have been distributed.

“Black Rock City LLC is free to sell as many tickets as they’re inclined to,” Mendez said. “That’s a calculated business decision on their part, but I would expect Black Rock City LLC to live by the population cap that I set.”

Right now, both the LLC and BLM are awaiting completion of an Environmental Assessment (EA) report on the LLC’s request for a five-year permit that seeks a population cap that would gradually increase from 58,000 to 70,000. A draft report is expected next month, after which there will be a public comment period, with the final report expected in June.

“I have not determined how to allocate that population cap over time,” Mendez said, expressing concerns over limited highway access to the site and other factors. “Too sudden of a change at too great a level could overwhelm the system.”

Both Mendez and Goodell say the two entities have a good working relationship. “We work together at problem solving and brainstorming,” Mendez said. “But right now, I’m depending on the EA.”

While he did indicate that Burning Man will probably be allowed to maintain at least its current size, as the LLC is relying on, even that isn’t guaranteed. It all depends on what the report says. So what happens if the LLC sells too many tickets now? Mendez said that’s not his call: “I don’t know the business strategy Black Rock City LLC is using or what their contingency plans are.”

 

CHANGING NUMBERS

When Goodell and Harvey called me on Jan. 27 to let me know that requests for tickets had far exceeded supply and to enlist my help in spreading the word that people should remain calm, rely on those in the community who had most of the extra tickets, and avoid buying from scalpers, I asked how many ticket requests there were.

They refused to tell me. I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, so I’m used to corporations denying me financial information that I’ve sought. And it wasn’t even a surprise from this LLC, which claims financial transparency but which has refused to disclose lots of information that I’ve sought over the years.

But as it became clear that their initial beliefs about how many tickets would be available within the community proved overly optimistic, and as pressure grew from both the Burning Man community and other journalism organizations, the LLC went into damage control mode and started to be a little more forthcoming.

So, how many ticket requests did they actually have? Well, it depends on who you believe. Goodell told the New York Times and other outlets that it was about 80,000 requests. But longtime event spokesperson Andie Grace – in a post that was widely lauded for a frankness and contrition that had been lacking in earlier communications from the LLC – wrote “we had nearly three times the number of tickets requested than we had available tickets.”

So, was 80,000 or 120,000? That’s a pretty big difference, particularly given that all the official posts so far have claimed that scalpers gaming the new system wasn’t as big a factor as is widely believed, although few have offered convincing evidence for that self-serving belief (after all, if it was scalpers gaming the system, than its creators made a mistake).

Personally, I’ve long believed that the LLC should be more transparent. As I discuss in my book, the LLC reveals general expenditure data (sometimes belatedly), but no information on revenues or current balances. The most recent report, for 2010, shows total expenses of $17.5 million, which includes a payroll of $7.3 million and fees to BLM and other agencies of more than $1.5 million.

Harvey has said that everything will be opened up once control is turned over to the nonprofit Burning Man Project in two to five years, but Chicken and others have complained that the board members will already have made off their their payouts by then and that those have contributed their sweat equity for decades have a right to know how much that is.

Maybe a bit more consistency in numbers and transparency now would help quell some of this restive community’s concerns, but clearly we’re not the ones making those kinds of decisions.Image

Burning Man ticket fiasco creates uncertain future

Is it the end of Burning Man as we know it? That’s certainly the way things are looking to thousands of longtime burners who didn’t get tickets when the results of a controversial new ticket lottery system were announced on Tuesday evening, particularly as big picture information emerged in online discussions yesterday.

Personally, I was awarded the maximum two tickets I requested at the $320 level (my sister already claimed the other, so don’t even ask), but I’m feeling a little survivor’s guilt as I hear from the vast majority of my burner friends who didn’t get tickets. And if it wasn’t already clear that scalpers have effectively gamed the new system, that became apparent yesterday when batches of up to eight tickets were listed for as much as $1,500 each on eBay and other online outlets.

As I’ve attended Burning Man since 2001 and covered it for the Guardian and my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, I’ve become involved with many camps and collectives over the years. So over the last couple days, I’ve been privy to lots of online discussions and surveys, and it appears that only about a third of burners who registered for tickets actually received them (organizers have refused to say how many people registered for the 40,000 tickets sold this week, so it’s tough to assess whether scalpers were more effective than burners at buying them).

The huge number of burners without tickets is a big problem for theme camps and art collectives that rely heavily their members to pay dues and work long hours to prepare often elaborate camps, art cars, or installations, some of which are now in doubt. Many people are so frustrated that they’ve pledged not to attend this year, and even those of us that did get tickets are questioning whether we want to go if some of our favorite people aren’t – particularly if they’re replaced by rich newbies willing to spend a grand on a ticket.

Theme camps are the basic building blocks of Black Rock City – a central tenet of my book and regular claim of event organizers – and the work they do to build their camps and plan fundraisers to pay for them has already begun, only with far more uncertainty than usual this year. And that will also exacerbate a tension that already exists between grant-funded art projects (which usually get free tickets for their volunteer builders) and big camps that don’t qualify for tickets, such as sound camps or independently funded art projects.

For now, most burners seem to be willing to wait a beat or two – as Black Rock City LLC is urging, a message that I willingly helped disseminate – to see whether enough extra tickets purchased by community-minded burners are offered for sale at face value using an aftermarket ticket exchange the LLC is hurriedly setting up right now. Some camps and projects have created internal ticket exchanges to try to take care of their own first. And there’s still the secondary ticket sale with the last 10,000 tickets coming on March 28.

But the frustrations are palpable, and there is widespread concern that Burning Man has jumped the shark and will be changed by the series of official missteps in the last year. Dozens of people have independently asked why, after the event sold out last year and scalpers made a killing, the LLC didn’t require each ticket to be registered to an individual and transferred only through a regulated aftermarket system, which would prevent gouging by scalpers. I’ve asked organizers that same question each of the last two years, and was only told that it seemed like too much trouble and that things would work out.

Well, most burners don’t think things are working out very well. Many are still willing to wait and see, and this certainly is a resourceful community, so perhaps things seem more bleak now than they will in a month or two when playa preparations really kick into gear. But if not, the LLC could be facing a real crisis of confidence in its leadership of an event that we all help create, and perhaps even an open rebellion of its core members.

Many longtime burners are already making other vacation plans for this year, some are even pondering plans to create alternative events, and there are a significant number of them who have tapped the spirit of these political times and suggested it’s time to “Occupy Burning Man” or “Occupy Black Rock City.”

Whatever happens, the Year of the Dragon seems to have brought with it the old Chinese proverb: may you live in interesting times. I’ll continue covering new development in this most interesting of years, so stay in touch.

Don’t panic if you don’t get a ticket

Burners’ worst fears are about to come true: they’ll be denied tickets to Burning Man when the results of the new lottery-based system are announced on Wednesday. But organizers say if everyone stays calm and relies on their community then they’ll probably still get tickets.

Substantially more people registered for tickets than organizers expected, so much so that they believe burners and their allies ordered way more tickets than they’ll need this year because of concerns about the new ticketing system and the fact that the event sold out early for the first time last year.

“It’s big enough that we believe that all the demand for tickets is not new folks,” Larry Harvey – chair of SF-based Black Rock City LLC, which stages the event – told the Guardian. He refused to say how many people registered for tickets, but the LLC did say each registrant ordered 1.7 tickets, indicating a higher than usual number ordering the maximum of two tickets.

If it’s true that most burners bought more than they needed, that also means there will be lots of tickets circulating through the Burning Man community, so Harvey and fellow board member Marian Goodell are urging everyone to not overreact, don’t buy expensive tickets from scalpers, and take advantage of the LLC’s new aftermarket ticket exchange program that will go online in a few weeks.

“If someone is looking for a ticket, we don’t want them to go to eBay or Craigslist, we want them to turn to their community,” Harvey said. “We think the community is a better distributor than anyone.”

Goodell emphasized that the burner ethos calls for people to only sell tickets for face value – which is $240-390 for the 40,000 tickets going out next week – and she said she believes there will be enough tickets to satisfy demand if people don’t panic and feed the scalpers’ market. Those who don’t follow that advice could also end up with counterfeit tickets, whereas the LLC will verify tickets it swaps.

“The secondary market is the community, and we don’t want people to feel they have a commodity in their hand that will help them make the rent,” she told us. “You’re really hurting your community if you’re treating this like a commodity.”

But the unknown factor is how many ticket buyers are more profit-minded than community-minded, particularly after tickets were selling for almost double-face-value on average after tickets sold out last year, according to a study by SeatGeek. Goodell said only burners can keep the scalpers’ market in check.

“We’re being optimistic, but we were able to get more than 50,000 people to remove their trash [from Black Rock City every year],” Goodell said. “We know we can train people to behave in ways that are more community-minded.”

Many people criticized Burning Man for replacing the usual Internet ticket sales with the lottery system this year, but Harvey and Goodell both said they think the over-registration problem had more to do with tickets selling out last year than the new system.

Still, Harvey told us the transition could have been handled better: “If we had it to do over, we might do some things differently.”

As for whether the new system will end up being OK, Goodell said, “We won’t know how it’s working until we get to the event and see if people are happy.” But in short run, she said, “I’m going to have a lot more unhappy people than I was counting on.”

In addition to managing ticket exchanges through its website, BRC does still have one more ticket sales session planned for March 28, when 10,000 tickets will be sold online in a first come, first served system, like first day sales used to be.

As I chronicle in my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture, Burning Man has grown from a small gathering on Baker Beach in 1986 to a thriving year-round culture that builds a temporary city of more than 50,000 people in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in late summer. Burners build the city and its art from scratch with their own resources, almost everything in this gift economy is offered for free, and everyone is encouraged to participate in its creation, enjoyment, and cleanup.

The event doubled in size since I started covered it in 2004, and it has spawned a network of regional events around the world, as well as offshoot organizations such as Black Rock Arts Foundation (which funds and facilitates public art off the playa), Burners Without Borders (which does disaster relief and other good works), and the Burning Man Project (a newly created nonprofit that will take over operations of the event in coming years).

The LLC is currently negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for permits that will allow the event to grow up to 70,000 people within five years, but Goodell cautioned against those who might see growth as an answer to this year’s problems.

“Honestly, I don’t want more people until we do a little tweaking to the departure process,” Goodell said, noting that people waited as much as nine hours this year to get off the playa and onto the two-lane highway that leads to the Black Rock Desert.

I asked whether they were entertaining any big new ideas for managing the growth of the event, such as how the popular Coachella music festival this year created two events with identical lineups to handle demand. Harvey didn’t say specifically that was an option, but he did refer to his essay discussing this year’s art theme, Fertility 2.0, which just belatedly went online.

“If you read my theme,” he told me, “it’s all about the expansion of the culture.” Among other sentiments, Harvey wrote, “We are living in an age of mass production and consumption that is unsustainable. But culture, as a living system, has the power to create and recreate itself.”

Thanks for asking, Burning Man, I’m kinda neutral

When Burning Man asked me how I feel about its new system for buying tickets – as I applied for mine today, the first day of registration – I chose the multiple-choice answer: “Kinda neutral. Doing what I can and hoping for the best.” Not either of the “not too worried” answers, or the ones that began “Not too thrilled” or “Think you guys are nuts.”
I’ve understood both the criticisms and the rationale since I first covered the issue last month, and they’re each pretty reasonable, so I’ve long since decided just to wait and see. I didn’t even register for the top tier price of $390, even though it would probably improve my odds. Again, I’m cool with fatalism this year. It’ll all work out and if I can’t easily get a ticket for $320 or less, so be it. But I did order two tickets, because I know I’ll have friends in need.
Frankly, I liked how chill it was to apply for tickets this time, rather than the usual frantic scramble to get in line online by noon. It allowed for a leisurely chat rather than just battling through computer farts and crashes to begin the countdown from the 8,739th place in line.
What we think of the new system wasn’t the only question that Burning Man asked us this year. There were an even dozen, asking about our past attendance and participation and current involvement, and they assured us that “your answers will in NO WAY affect your likelihood of receiving tickets.”
I hope Burning Man will make the answers to the survey public, and I can’t see why they wouldn’t. The organization is to be commended for seeking this kind of feedback and information, so share it with us, because I think we’re all curious how it’s going to work out.
Registration continues until January 22nd and then we all find out February 1st. Good luck, everyone.

And while you’re waiting for word from Burning Man, read my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. Read it a second time if you’ve already done so, remember the magic…and maybe catch some typos for us before the next printing. What, you’ve not even read it once yet? C’mon, people should read more, and you’ll dig it so buy one here or here or anywhere. I was kidding about the typos, it’s perfect! All the cool kids are reading it, and you want be a cool kid, right? Or at least to read about some? And to help a poor starving writer buy a couple expensive tickets? Okay, okay, I’ll stop now.    
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Burning Man attendees anxious over new ticketing system

ImageBurning Man attendees are feeling anxious over a new lottery-based ticketing system set up this year to address the growing popularity of the event, so much so that an unprecedented number of them are now registering for pre-sale tickets – which were originally intended as holiday gifts – that are being sold at the top-tier price of $420.

Black Rock City LLC, the San Francisco-based company that stages the annual late-summer event in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, announced the new system last month, setting off a cascade of online denunciations and expressions of anxiety over whether burners will be able to secure enough tickets for their friends, family, and project partners.

“There’s been a strong reaction for all the reasons we thought would happen,” said Marian Goodell, one of six LLC board members responsible for the decision, who said they searched in vain for a better label for the new system. “The word ‘lottery’ is highly charged and unfortunately people equate a lottery with one in a million odds to win a fortune.”

But she said they needed to try something new after last year’s problems, when strong demand for tickets on the first day of sales repeatedly crashed the online ticketing system, and when the event sold out in late July for the first time in its 25-year history, causing scalpers to sell tickets for double-face-value in many cases.

The first round of ticket sales aren’t likely to ease people’s concerns – it could make them more nervous. As in previous years, the LLC is selling 3,000 tickets in December, and their high prices have previously kept demand at around that level. But not this year, as several thousand people have already registered for a lottery-based sale whose registration period ends Dec. 11.

“If 10,000 people apply for 3,000 tickets, I’ve got more unhappy people than I want,” Goodell said.

Those who don’t get tickets will automatically be registered for the main ticket sale in January, when everyone else will register at either the $240, $320, and/or $390 tiered pricing levels to buy up to two tickets from the 40,000 being sold then (10,000 at the lowest tier and 15,000 each at the next two). Notifications will go out on Feb. 1.

Then, in March, about 10,000 more tickets will be sold on a first come, first served basis. Goodell said the exact number of tickets sold then will depend on the permit that is issued by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for next year’s Burning Man. The LLC has been seeking the negotiate a five-year permit that will allow the event to gradually grow up to 70,000 people.

“We’re looking at a five-year permit and the five-year permit has the potential to grow bigger. What that looks like in the first year isn’t clear yet,” Goodell said.

There are mixed views in the Burning Man community to growing Black Rock City far beyond its current size of just over 50,000 people. It would open the event to more people, but that presents challenges to acculturation and the logistics of getting people to and from a far-flung locale accessed only by a narrow highway with one lane in each direction.

Earlier this year, the LLC moved into a more high-profile headquarters space on mid-Market and set up a nonprofit called the Burning Man Project, which will eventually supplant the LLC in running the event and which is intended to pursue more projects off the playa.

“We’re all for Burning Man culture continuing to grow, and fortunately we have other avenues to grow, including the nonprofit and the regional events,” Goodell said. “The city has all kinds of other constraints.”

Critics last year complained about scalpers reselling Burning Man tickets at high prices, something frowned on in the community and discouraged by the LLC, although it did little to address the problem. An analysis done by the online ticket site Seat Geek found that the average resale price of $350 before the sellout increased to almost $700 afterward, with the highest price ticket going for $1,120.

Goodell said that the only way to minimize the scalping of Burning Man tickets would have been to create a system in which all buyers were identified by name and after-market ticket sales were regulated by the organization, “and that’s more than we were willing to do.” Instead, the LLC will be creating an online system for reselling tickets and guarding against counterfeits, with details to be announced later.

But she predicted the new system will work better than the old one and that most people’s anxieties are unfounded.

“Most people who think ahead are going to get a ticket,” Goodell said, later adding, “It’s a lot less scary than people think.”

Bay Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture (2011, CCC Publishing)

Burning Man announces new ticket sales lottery

How will we get our tickets?

After letting this blog go dormant for a couple months, I’m back! Just in time to try to promote my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, for the holidays. Just kidding, sort of. Because you know it’s the perfect gift for your friends and family. OK, okay, I’ll move on.
I’ve been absorbed in covering politics, from the San Francisco election to the exciting Occupy Wall Street movement, but I’m ready to reengage with writing about Burning Man just in time from some big developments in our culture. And the noteworthy lack of developments, otherwise known as the Case of the Missing Art Theme.
Black Rock City LLC yesterday announced a new policy for ticket sales, a lottery system for which registration begins in just a few weeks. Details and ticket prices are yet to be announced, but the basic idea is that people register to buy a ticket at the highest level they can afford, give them your credit card number, and wait to see whether you’re a winner. That process will then be repeated several times until, presumably, everyone who wants a ticket has one.
The reactions in online forums so far have ranged from panic to bewilderment to support, most expressed with healthy doses of sarcasm. The new system does address a couple of real problems, starting with the clusterfuck we all experience when online ticket sales begin at noon on a January day, with crashing servers and irritating glitches, a situation that promised to be even worse after this year’s early ticket sell-out (the other problem the new system is designed to address).
The new system has a deviously clever aspect to it as well, one that might not sit well with many burners once they experience it. If we have to bid on tickets at the price level of our choosing, obviously the odds of getting one will go up if we choose to bid on the more expensive tickets. And by the time bidders get into the later rounds and desperation creeps in (“Shit, I might not get a ticket this year!”), people might be willing to dig deep and go for the expensive tickets.
This system will certainly help the LLC’s cash flow earlier in the year. And if I was cynical and distrustful, I might even be concerned about how the six LLC board members are currently in the process of cashing out before control of the event is turned over to the nonprofit Burning Man Project, coupled with the fact that the LLC refuses to disclose the revenue side of its budget, raising the prospect that the new system could be used to pump up revenue from ticket sales.
Yup, good thing I’m not cynical and distrustful. I’m certainly willing to just wait for them to unveil the details of this new system, both for how it will work for us and whether they will create enough transparency to mitigate such concerns. But rest assured, dear readers, I’m on the case and willing to ask tough questions when that time comes.
Speaking of which, I must admit to falling down on that job and having no real insights into why Burning Man founder Larry Harvey hasn’t yet named an art theme for 2012, which he usually does on the final day of the previous year’s event. Maybe there won’t be an art theme, which really wouldn’t be so bad. And I need to follow-up on the status of the LLC’s negotiations for a new five-year permit from the Bureau of Land Management, which I hear are still ongoing.
But first, I need to finish writing my post-election wrap-up for the Guardian, followed this week by heading down to Mexico City with some of my Shadyvil campmates to visit a group of Shadies from down there who are throwing the Festival Ometeotl, which should be a blast.
But I’ll be back and on the case starting after Thanksgiving, so check back then. And buy a book. You can even get a signed copy direct from me on the evening of Dec. 3 at the holiday party of my beloved Flaming Lotus Girls over at SomArts in San Francsico. OK, that’s it, let’s talk soon.

Burning Man enters a deliberative new phase

I, Scribe, was among many speakers on the playa this year. Photo by KelseyWinterkorn.com

I didn’t see SF Sups. David Chiu and Jane Kim on their brief tour of Black Rock City last week, but I did get the chance to participate in a more authentic political awakening at Burning Man this year, one marked by an increasing number of well-attended public discussions about where this strange and vibrant culture is headed.

And they are discussions that will continue back here in the default world, at events ranging from those sponsored by the new Burning Man Project to the readings that I’m doing for my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, including tomorrow evening (Fri/9) at True Stories Lounge in the Makeout Room, where I’ll appear with writers Joyce Maynard, Adam Hochschild, Gary Kamiya, Alicia Erian, Tyche Hendricks, and moderator Evelyn Nieves.

I was invited onto four different stages (although I regretfully missed one gig due to a miscommunication) at Burning Man this year, and most had capacity crowds of engaged burners who were eager to discuss what’s next and offer their ideas, many of them very insightful and well-developed.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether people would want to take time out of their vacations in this fun-filled city to attend lectures and discussions, and the fact that so many did – in venues and stages that popped up all over the playa – shows just how much widespread interest there is in transforming Burning Man into more than just an annual party.

“We were overflowing and people would come back days later and say it was the best discussion we ever had out there,” says D’Andre of Revolution Camp, which hosted talks all week (including the one I missed, for which he said a crowd of about 50 people showed up, about the same size crowd that showed up for my talk on Sunday at Center Camp Stage – which I mistakenly had conflated with my Revolution Camp booking…again, my apologies).

Burning Man board member Marian Goodell said they had similarly great turnouts for the daily public availabilities of the 17 board members of the new Burning Man Project, the nonprofit that will shepherd this culture into its next phase. “There was quite a lively discussion and usually people waiting to talk to the board members,” she said. “It was super successful.”

I had my own private session with new board member Chris Weitz (a longtime burner and film producer and director) in between the presentations that we each gave at the GER Talks, a speaker series hosted by the venerable theme camp Ashram Galactica, where he is the former head concierge.

I urged him to use this opportunity to create a more inclusive and representative governance structure for the 25-year-old Burning Man event, which has always been run by a handful of key players with little by way of checks-and-balances, belying the hyper-collaborative nature of this culture. It was the same message that I had for each of my crowds out there, there this is our culture and it’s up to us to determine its future direction and initiatives.

And if the interest and engagement levels that I saw on the playa this year are any indication, burners are finally ready, willing, and able to start taking this thing to the next level. Or as founder Larry Harvey said in my book, a quote from 2008 that I cited in each of my talks, “That city is connecting to itself faster than anyone knows. And if they can do that, they can connect to the world. That’s why for the last three years I’ve done these sociopolitical themes, so they know they can apply it. Because if it’s just a vacation, well, we’ve been on vacation long enough.”

The Borg’s Rite of Passage

Larry Harvey (right) and San Francisco city officials launch the Burning Man Project.

Check out this piece I wrote for BRC Weekly, a on-playa newspaper, which draws from articles I’ve written on this blog and in the Guardian:

The Borg’s Rite of Passage
Burning Man’s leadership structure is changing, so what does that mean to you?
By Scribe
You might know who Larry Harvey is, but how about Marian Goodell? Or Harley DuBois? Do you even know who’s running Burning Man, the people who took your money and made sure you have toilets and a basic civic infrastructure and a website to learn stuff? Black Rock City LLC, aka The Borg. Ring any bells?
I imagine the spectrum of answers to these inquires, even just among all the burners reading this story on the playa, stretches roughly from “duh” to “who?” Honestly, you don’t need to know anything about the leadership of Black Rock City – or its eponymous LLC – to connect with Burning Man and become a valuable citizen, right in this moment or into the future. You can forge your own role in this world of our own creation.
But I’ve always been a political journalist, so I like to know a little something the system I’m living under and to share what I’ve learned. I’ve now been reporting and writing on Burning Man for the last seven years, first in my newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, then in my new book, The Tribes of Burning Man. And let me tell you, this particular moment is a big one when it comes to the governance of Burning Man.
It’s a little complicated, but let me briefly break down the Rite of Passage that the Borg is going through right now, and then we’ll get into how it affects you.
In 1996, a tempestuous, turning point year for Burning Man, there was a falling out among the three people in charge of the event: Larry Harvey, who burned the first Man in 1986, and the Cachophony Society guys who brought it to the desert in 1990, John Law and Michael Mikel, aka Danger Ranger.
With serious injuries and a crackdown by the authorities that year, Burning Man would need rules and an infrastructure to continue. Law didn’t want it to become that kind of event, he clashed with Larry, and ended up walking away while Danger Ranger stayed. They divided control of the Burning Man brand and trademark three ways, under an umbrella called Paper Man LLC. Larry and Michael formed their own LLC to run the event, adding Larry’s then-girlfriend Marian Goodell and burners Harley DuBois, Will Roger, and Crimson Rose to the Black Rock City LLC Board of Directors, the same six who are there today – leaders of the Borg.
Every year, the Borg paid Paper Man a licensing fee to use the Burning Man images, until 2006 when Larry tried to dissolve Paper Man, prompting Danger Ranger – who had joined the dissident Borg2 rebellion the previous year, despite his continuing role with original Borg – sued Larry and his Borgmates to protect his Paper Man rights.
Law followed suit and eventually settled for a secret amount of cash while Michael dropped his and rejoined the team. But as Larry explained during a poignant speech in San Francisco in April, “It triggered a series of cascading events, and those began a rite of passage.”
As Larry told the story that evening – in candid and confessional tones – the Borg was torn apart by infighting after the Law settlement as the six board members discussed what their severance packages and the event’s future might look like. “It looked like the band was breaking up,” Larry said.
Corporate appraisal experts were brought in to try to value the corporation and the Burning Man brand, and Larry talked about taking that worth and dividing it up by the six board members, rather than settling for the mere $20,000 each that departing board members are now entitled to, which he scoffs at as ridiculously low. But the whole process drove him into a deep depression.
“It was against everything we stood for, everything we had practiced,” he said. “How could we sell our life’s work like a commodity?”
Finally, the Borg arrived at the solution that many burners thought they should have started with in 1996: turn the whole thing over to a nonprofit. And that’s what the Borg has started to do, taking the initial step in early August by creating The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit controlled by the six Borg members and 11 new members that they selected, a group with business and nonprofit experience that they know well and have worked with before.
“Our goal is to bring the culture of Burning Man back to the world,” Larry told a large group gathered in United Nations Plaza in San Francisco on Aug. 5 for the project’s official launch.
But there are lingering questions and troublesome issues surrounding the transition. Larry, Marian, and Harley all told me that the plan is to turn control of the Burning Man event over to the new nonprofit in about three years, assuming that The Burning Man Project evolves to their liking, and then to liquidate their control of the Burning Man name and trademarks three years after that, dissolving the LLC at that point.
Then – and in the run-up to that point, while the LLC’s finances are still largely secret – the six board members will get their payouts. How much they receive and how the organization and event will be governed are still matters to be determined by The Burning Man Project board, whose new members will serve initial terms of just one year.
In my stories about this transition, I quoted longtime burner and Borg critic Chicken John, who criticized how the Borg ignored the sweat equity of the people who have contributed so much to Burning Man over the years, as well as the idea that the Borg will literally sell Burning Man to The Burning Man Project.
“What they’re saying is it’s going to take years to pass the torch over, and they’re saying this to a room full of people who have been involved in Burning Man for decades,” Chicken told me. “They’ve turned Burning Man into a commodity. They’re selling the event.”
When I confronted the Borg members with the criticism that they’re prescribing how this transition will take place without taking any input from the larger community or allowing us to feel invested in this decision, they initially bristled at what they perceived as an attack, but then came around to saying they will welcome input.
“We’re going to have a conversation with the community,” Marian said, while Harley added, “There’s still time for all of that. We are in the nascent stage…There’s so much time for community input.”
And they say that process will begin right here, on playa, with daily appearances by Burning Man Project board members from 1-2:30 on Everywhere Lane just off the circle around Center Camp.
So, if you have any thoughts on this transition, ideas for future governance structures, thoughts on the current plan of allowing Black Rock City to grow up to 70,000 citizens within five years, fundraising ideas, or off-playa projects that you’d like to see them pursue, stop by and let them know.
Scribe, aka Steven T. Jones, is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. He will be speaking at the Center Camp Stage on Sunday at 4 pm, as well as at the Clever Conversations and Ashram Galactica stages this week.

Why we do it?

I’ve received some really nice feedback on the Editor’s Note that I wrote for the current issue of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which also includes my Scribe’s Guide to Playa Prep, so I thought I’d reprint it here:

When a crowd of less than two dozen people watched an eight-foot wooden man burn on Baker Beach during the Summer Solstice of 1986, could any of them have possibly imagined that the ritual would repeat itself 25 years later in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert before a sold-out crowd of more than 50,000 people?

Even if man-builder Larry Harvey could have dreamed that big and strangely — and, most assuredly, he did not — it’s even harder to imagine the dimensions, staying power, and creativity of the massive temporal city that has formed up around the Man, Black Rock City, or the impact that it’s had on the hundreds of thousands of people who have cycled through it.

I first attended Burning Man in 2001, when the event was half its current size and when the country’s sociopolitical landscape was about to undergo a profound and lasting change, with 9/11 and the launching of a war in Afghanistan that continues to his day. It is against that backdrop that this culture — with its core values of self-expression, communal effort, and rejection of commodification — has flourished.

I’ve had the privilege of closely covering Burning Man and its many leaders and luminaries continuously since 2004, when I launched a long series of Guardian articles that later evolved into my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture (2011, CCC Publishing), so I’ve had plenty of time to ponder what has always seemed to me the central question: Why?

Why do so many people devote so much of their time, energy, and resources to preparing for the pilgrimage to the playa? And we’re talking months worth of work, in drab workspaces around the Bay Area, sacrificing other social and economic opportunities and sometimes even their sanity. Why do they do it, and why do so many burners find that experience so transformative?

There are, of course, the obvious answers. There’s the mind-blowing art pieces, which seem to get more ambitious and innovative each year. It’s also the greatest party on the planet, a truly 24-7 city with engaged citizens exploring endless options, all offered for free. Then there’s the surreal setting, the DIY spirit, the gift economy, the experiments in urbanism and community, its smoldering sensuality, and an endless list of other appeals.

And that’s all great, but I’ve come to believe that there’s something else at the core of the question: Why do we do this? We do it because we have to, because we can’t think of any sane way to respond to the insanity of modern American life. So we pursue our mad visions, and organize our lives and social circles around that pursuit, collectively building a fake, doomed city in the desert that seems to us so much more real and authentic and purposeful than anything the default world is providing.

We do it because it’s become our home, a place that is now an important part of who we are. And we at the Guardian hope the burners among you find some useful tidbits in our first-ever playa prep guide.