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

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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.

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.