Biggest Burn Ever — Black Rock City to exceed 60,000

Burning Man is more popular than ever, judging by a demand for tickets that far exceeded supply this year, after selling out last year for the first time in its 26-year history — and now this year’s event will be far bigger than ever.

The Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Nevada desert where burners build Black Rock City every August, has set a population cap for Burning Man at 60,900, an increase of more than 10,000 over previous events.

For Black Rock City LLC, the San Francisco-based company that stages Burning Man, there was mixed news in BLM’s June 12 permit decision. BRC was denied the multi-year event permit it sought, but as it struggles to meet demand for this increasingly popular countercultural institution, BLM honored BRC’s late request for more people than the 58,000 it had sought for this year.

“After further discussions, there were requests for a bit more,” Cory Roegner, who oversees the event from BLM’s district office in Winnemucca, told us. Asked why BRC sought the population bump, he said, “The more people they can have, the better.”

BLM has been processing BRC’s lengthy environment assessment and its request for a five-year permit that would allow the event to grow steadily from 58,000 to 70,000 people in 2016. The cap for this year could have been set as low as 50,000, creating some drama around this announcement, but the agency instead issued a single-year permit with a population cap of 60,900.

BRC was placed on probation last fall after violating its 50,000-person cap by a few thousand people each on Sept. 2 and 3, and BLM rules limit groups on probation to a single-year permit. BRC has appealed the status to the Interior Board of Land Appeals, which has not yet acted on it or answered Guardian inquiries.

“Unless we do hear back from them, Black Rock City would be precluded from a multi-year permit,” Roegner told us.

He also said that if BRC violates the population cap for a second year in a row, it could be barred from holding future events, although the high population cap should mean that won’t be a big problem this year, clearing the way for Burning Man’s steady growth through at least 2016.

“Based on the evaluation [of this year’s event], we will consider a multi-year permit going to 2016,” Roegner told us.

BRC has already sold 57,000 tickets and will give away thousands more to art collectives, staff, and VIPs. But the cap is based on a daily population count and BRC board member Marian Goodell said the event never has all attendees there at once.

She said staying below the cap this year shouldn’t be a problem given that many of those who build the city and work on the major art pieces leave before the final weekend when the eponymous Man burns. “Usually at least 6,000 leave before we hit the peak. Sometimes more on dusty, wet, or cold years,” she told us.

It could have been a lot more difficult. BLM officials had told the Guardian in April that they were considering keeping last year’s population cap of 50,000, which could have presented BRC with a logistical nightmare and/or ticket-holder backlash in trying to stay under the cap.

“The issue between us and the BLM continues to be the population cap,” Burning Man founder Larry Harvey told the Guardian.

Harvey, Goodell, and others with BRC took a lobbying trip to Washington DC in late April trying to shore up political support for the event and its culture, arguing that it has become important for artistic and technical innovation and community building rather than just a big party.

Harvey told us he believes that Burning Man could grow to 100,000 participants, although he conceded that would need further study and creative solutions to key problems such as getting people to and from the isolated location accessed only by one highway lane in each direction.

“We think we could go to 100,000 if it was measured growth, carefully planned,” Harvey said.

On the transportation question, he said, “it’s a question of flow.” Right now, participants arriving or leaving on peak days often wait in lines that can take four hours or more.

“We’ve talked to engineers that have proposed solutions to that,” Harvey said of the transportation issue, although he wouldn’t discuss possible solutions except to say, “You could exit in a more phased fashion.”

Roegner said that was one of the big issues identified in the EA. “We are taking a closer look at a couple items this year, traffic being one,” he said. Another one is the use of decomposed granite, which is placed under flaming artworks to prevent burn scars on the playa, and making sure it is properly cleaned up each year.

BRC was facing a bit of a crisis in confidence after this year’s ticket debacle, when a new lottery-based ticket distribution system and higher than expected demand left up to two-thirds of burner veterans without tickets. The resulting furor caused BRC to abandon plans for a secondary sale and instead sell the final 10,000 tickets through established theme camps, art collectives, and volunteers groups.

“It’s pretty obvious that we’ll do something like that again because we don’t expect demand to go down,” Harvey said of that direct distribution of tickets, which was criticized in some burner circles as promoting favoritism and undermining the event’s stated principle of inclusivity.

Now that BRC has received a high population cap, it could conceivably sell more tickets to this year’s event, something Goodell said the board will consider, weighing that against the imperative of staying under the population cap this year. “The board needs to talk about what the ramifications of that are. There is a lot of demand out there,” Goodell told us.

Harvey emphasized that much of Burning Man’s growth is occurring off the playa — in cities and at regional events around the world. “All of this is by way of dealing with the capacity problem. I don’t know how much we can grow in the Black Rock Desert,” he said.

Another realm full of both possibilities and perils — depending on one’s perspective — is the ongoing development of The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit that BRC created last year to gradually take on new initiatives, followed by taking over staging of the event, and eventually (probably in five years) full control of Burning Man and its brand and trademarks.

“God knows, we have a lot of opportunities before us,” Harvey said, adding that BMP is now focused on fundraising. “It is the objective before we transfer the event to start transferring the regional events, and that will take more money and staff.”

After that, he sees unlimited potential to grow the culture, not just Black Rock City. “We’ve got to focus on the people. We’re becoming less event-centric,” he said. “We think of this as a cultural movement.”

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. Image

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Foreword to “Dancing with the Playa Messiah”

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Longtime burner and photographer George Post has created a beautiful new book of his Burning Man photos from the last 21 years, for which he asked me to write the following Foreword. Check it out and look for the book later this year.

Building a New World

By Steven T. Jones, aka Scribe, author of “The Tribes of Burning Man”

Burning Man was going through some hard times when George Post came by my office to show me this book. The Great Burning Man Ticket Fiasco of 2012 was in full swing, and the Internet was filled with expressions of anger, frustration, condemnation, and despair from the roughly two-thirds of veteran burners who had been denied tickets under the new lottery-based system, threatening the very fabric of Black Rock City.

Demand for tickets had far exceeded anyone’s expectations, and everybody was speculating about why. Had Burning Man just hit a tipping point in popularity? What role did the event selling out for the first time the previous year play? Did profit-minded ticket scalpers game the new system? They were probably all factors, but that February, nobody knew exactly what was going on, what to do, or what it would mean for Burning Man.

I had been covering the event and the vast culture it spawned for almost eight years for my newspaper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. And it had been a year since the release of my book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture. So I was deeply embedded reporter, writing regularly about what was happening and doing interviews with other newspapers that were also covering the controversy.

In fact, this was just the latest in a series of incidents in the last year that I wrote about in a way that was sometimes critical of Black Rock City LLC, aka the Borg, the company that stages Burning Man. I’d known about the plan to turn the event over to a new nonprofit since before my book was published, but I was dismayed by aspects of how that transition would take place once founder Larry Harvey announced the details in April 2011. And that was followed by the ticket sell-out, the announcement of a new ticketing system, and a sales launch that was plagued by the exact flaws many had predicted.

Bashing the Borg is favorite pastime among many veteran burners. I’d covered many of those conflicts in my book and I found myself slipping into that same cynicism I’d heard from so many others: that Burning Man had crossed over into something else, something less cool and authentic, that it had finally jumped the shark, that the six board members who controlled it were only giving lip service to concepts like collaboration and community.

But then George came in with his book, and something inside me snapped back into place. With its colorful, evocative photos spanning more than two decades of these weird and wonderful people building a city from scratch in the Black Rock Desert, seeing this world through George’s lens somehow restored my perspective. Some of those creators are long gone, but there were also countless photos of the board members that I’d been bellyaching about – much younger, a sense of possibility gleaming in their eyes.

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and to second-guess how this grand experiment could have been improved, and to feel frustrated by its shortcomings and missed opportunities. Yet the remarkable fact that Burning Man is not only still around, but that it continues to grow and thrive and morph and send its tendrils out into almost every corner of the globe – that seems almost impossible to believe.

Just that one photo from 1991, of the Man floating out onto a barge on San Francisco Bay, reinforced what a simple yet powerful export Burning Man has been. San Francisco has been incubating ideas, percolating possibilities, distilling decadence, and cultivating culture since its inception, and this was a vehicle for it to travel out into the big wide world.

Somehow, that simple stick figure on Baker Beach, transplanted onto a vast alien terrain with infinite possibilities, became a canvas onto which generations of dreamers and searchers could project a world of their own design. And when that was multiplied by the tens of thousands, and repeated for decades, an entirely new culture, with a unique set of norms and values, could grow.

I’ve been honored by the opportunity to help capture and tell its story, but I was a relative latecomer to the party, attending my first Burning Man in 2001. My contribution was built on the work of others who came before me, on writers such as Brian Doherty and photographers including George Post and Barbara Traub, who amplified the ideas and actions of Larry Harvey and other Burning Man originals, work that drew from influences such as the Dadaists, Bohemians, and the French Impressionists.

There’s nothing new under the sun, everything gets recycled and reinvented, but that’s not the impression one gets from flipping through this book. Somehow, it all seems so fresh and original, these pages and pages of colorful burners inventing a new world for themselves and those that followed. And even though readers can watch the progression and see the art get bigger and more ambitious as the years pass, there’s a comforting continuity to all of it.

From the moment when Borg original Michael Mikel first drew that line in the playa, in the legend telling those assembled that they’d be different people once they crossed over, everyone who goes to Burning Man is indelibly altered by the experience. And that’s something worth celebrating, and reliving again and again, so we can remember where we’ve come from and where we may yet be headed.

Analysis of the Borg’s ticket fiasco solution

ImageBurning Man organizers faced at least two serious problems created by its flawed new ticketing system, and they chose to deal with just one of them yesterday in announcing that the open sale of the final 10,000 tickets would be canceled and those tickets would instead be sold through the theme camps, art collectives, and volunteer groups that make Black Rock City what it is.

But Black Rock City LLC has decided not to address – at least not yet – its other major problem, which was scalpers and ticket agencies gaming the new ticket lottery to snap up tickets and sell them for huge profits. I and many others have long suggested the LLC register tickets to individual buyers and regulate their exchange to prevent gouging, and after announcing the new system last night, the company got such fierce criticism from online commenters arguing that point that it felt compelled to amend the post a few hours later to address the issue.

“If we don’t fill the holes in the social fabric, who cares about the scalpers, because then we’ve got nothing,” Marian Goodell, the LLC board member who authored last night’s announcement, told me this morning, explaining the emphasis on theme camps.

Without ensuring the city’s art, entertainment, and infrastructure gets build, Burning Man could suffer a fatal blow to its reputation, she said, making the theme camp decision a tough but necessary one. But creating what she called “identity-based tickets” is a far more complicated issue, and she just doesn’t think the scalper problem is as big as many burners believe.

But she doesn’t know for sure. “Nobody knows, it’s all speculation,” Goodell said, and that’s part of the problem. All they really know is demand for tickets this year far exceeded anyone’s expectations – Goodell will only confirm that there were 80,000-120,000 requests for the 40,000 ticket allocated on Feb. 1 – and that tickets often sold for double face value last year after the event sold out a month early for the first time in its 25-year history.

“Is it 100 people or 1,000 people that are going to take advantage of the community, and can we just discourage that?” Goodell said of the number of multiple-ticket-buying profiteers, reiterating her hopes that burners will starve out the scalpers by refusing to pay more than face value for tickets, which is part of the culture’s ethos.

And if it’s just 100, or even 1,000, she said it might not be worth it for the LLC to require the 40,000 people whose tickets will be mailed in June to register by name and to try to bar entry to those whose tickets don’t match their names, particularly given the chance for human error and the remoteness of this temporary city. “How do you punish them? What do you do?” she said, noting that the LLC has delayed the decision on registration while it gathers more information.

But what if the profiteers have managed to wrangle 10,000 tickets? Some bloggers out there have demonstrated how easy it is to generate multiple credit card numbers and argued that scalpers must have done so, despite the LLC claims to have ferreted out the obvious scalper scams before tickets were awarded. “There’s no way it’s 10,000,” Goodell said confidently, although she was also confident that this system would work well, and then that there would be enough extra tickets circulating in the community to satisfy most of the demand, which so far doesn’t seem to be true, with most theme caps reporting that less than a one-third of their members have scored tickets, far less in some cases.

Goodell and the LLC are counting on the STEP ticket exchange system whose registration launches on Feb. 29, but the details of that also generated controversy last night and forced Goodell to say it may still tweak the system. It allows people to sell back their unwanted tickets, with the LLC covering the normal $12 restocking fee. They will then be resold to people who register on a first come, first served basis, but they’ve decided to limit purchases to one per person and only to people who registered and were denied tickets on Feb. 1. Couples were irked that it punishes people who tried to buy two tickets at the main sale using only a single entry, so Goodell said they’ll take another look.

“We are trying to make the STEP system be fluid, so if there’s only a limited number of tickets available then more people can get them,” Goodell said. “We want STEP to work.”

But many burners just don’t think it will. Burning Man tickets have suddenly become a hotter commodity than ever, and even community-minded burners who aren’t seeking to make a profit will probably prefer to sell any extra tickets to someone directly, or to hang onto them for awhile, rather than give them up now to some random people who will then be forced to wait at the gate in the long will-call line, which is a new anti-scalping precaution that Goodell announced.

And then there’s the major thrust of yesterday’s announcement: distributing tickets through theme camps. I and most of the online commenters generally support that decision – at least as the best of a bad set of options – even though it’s certainly a controversial one that values one type of citizen over another and seems to fly in the face of the event’s principle of “radical inclusion.”

Yet it seems to be one that creates some difficult decisions ahead for the LLC. The criteria they laid out say the decisions will be made based on a camp’s history (both its longevity and record of leaving no traces of litter, which the LLC monitors in a very detailed way), what it offers to the city each year, and its adherence to the event’s 10 Principles.

Goodell confirmed my observation of how subjective that judgment will be – something that has spurred criticism that camps cozy with the LLC will get favorable treatment – but she said the large team of volunteers that work with theme camps and volunteer crews each year have already made many of those judgments and determined who will get tickets.

“We already did the math,” she told me. “Just because you’re a theme camp on the map doesn’t entitle you to x-number of tickets.”

While there may be about 700 registered theme camps in recent years, Goodell said the LLC is focused on getting tickets to camps that are truly interactive or offer entertainment, transportation, art, or volunteers to key functions such as the Lamplighters or Gate crew. “And we know who they are,” she said.

For everyone else, there are still a couple more chances to get tickets, beyond just the open market. There will be 4,000 low-income tickets (just $160) offered through a process that will likely be more competitive than ever, with registration beginning Feb. 29. And then there are the major art projects that receive grant funding and free tickets for crew members from the LLC, with the announcements of winners expected next month.

So now, burners and outside observers will just have to wait and see – first how the LLC’s solutions work, then this summer to see how the scalpers’ really did – as Burning Man muddles through what is proving to be a pivotal year.

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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