FTP: Now That’s What I Call A Burn

google doodle

Hope Sergei and Larry and Eric and all the rest of the Googlers and Nooglers are having a spiffing time out on the Playa.

For everyone else, there’s this:


Shark-Jumping: OK, VIPs and Music Guides: Not OK

Burning Man’s Founders held a press conference yesterday, for the 360 or so journalists who are attending – some of whom got press tickets.

The topic of discussion was not the tragic death of a Burner. Instead, it was the Anti-Rich sentiment, and the widespread allegations that Burning Man has now jumped the shark. Rather than disputing the latter, it seems the founders are totally cool with it. It’s all part of the plan. How will they cope with gentrification? By re-educating the rich, so that they better conform to BMOrg’s thinking and comply with all their “unwritten” rules.

From TechCrunch:

The stories of billionaires flying into Burning Man on private jets with hired sherpas, body guards turning people away from VIP art cars and private glamp camps going for $25K in dues seems to be on everyone’s lips at the annual festival in the desert. While this is not the norm, it’s a reality and it has many asking if Burning Man has jumped the shark.

A room full of bloggers, reporters and photographers from all over the world gathered together at the center of camp yesterday to ask Burning Man main co-founder Larry Harvey and Black Rock City manager Harley Dubois that very question.

Burning Man has jumped the shark, at least in the sense that it is now much different than the way it started and how it’s perceived, according to Dubois. But she says that’s not necessarily a bad thing, ”Change is inevitable. Our world keeps changing and our event is going to keep changing because our world is changing.” She then joked that Burning Man is actually different every year.

Larry Harvey panel at Burning Man

Burning Man now has cell service. Four towers were set up around Black Rock City this year so that those with Verizon or AT&T can sends texts and call friends from one end of camp to the other…at least most of the time. Some camps also carry in their own Wi-Fi, but that’s mostly available for those just within that camp.

…”the culture does change with the people, but that’s okay”, Harvey noted. “There’s this idea about the celebrities and billionaires but then there’s the other 99 percent. It’s not a quantitative problem it’s a qualitative problem.” He also notes that just a few years ago this event was mostly men. “Now our census says the percentage of men and women, Republicans to Democrats, is at a national norm now.” 

Well, that’s the main thing to be a counter-culture festival, isn’t it – to have both Default World political parties as evenly distributed as they are in the mainstream. Perhaps that’s why they have both Republican and Democrat big names flying in to give speeches this year.

I’m not sure which year Larry is talking about, when the event was mostly men. Maybe it’s the year he wandered into Comfort and Joy for their Circle Jerk?

The Burning Man founders have pledged to get ahead of the news and be more proactive now that there’s been so much coverage, particularly in tech.

“If we just sat back and did nothing it could be a bad thing, but when you get people with greater diversity. If we can change corporate America then we really can have an impact. It’s a dialogue that is happening between the new people that are coming and the old people who’ve been coming awhile,” said Dubois.

Dubois tells me that tech people are welcome and bring in innovation. But she also admitted there was a certain VIP element happening.

“That’s not okay,” she says. “It’s not in the spirit of Burning Man but we try to do what we can. Some people are just misinformed about what this is about. It’s hard for us to reach everyone.”

So a bunch of dusty hippies who throw a party that brings kids and fetish models and hallucinogenic drugs all together at once, are now going to be proactive and change corporate America for good. How? By putting in more cellphone towers, and invitation-only Wi-Fi. By teaching those who can afford to stay in nice RVs, and create employment opportunities for lower-income Burners, that it’s not OK for them to be VIPs, no matter how much Gifting they provide for the rest of us. Err, good luck with that…and be careful what you wish for. Those wealthy Burners might just get in their private planes and fly to Burning Mogul instead.

MoneyIt’s their party, and if BMOrg think that Burning Man will become better by naming and shaming major sound camps who donate international artists to their ever-pricier event, well, so be it. Burners aren’t the owners, and have no say in the direction of the event. If BMOrg think that the way to discourage Plug-And-Play camping is to say it’s OK and make movies about it, what can the rest of us do? It’s not like Burners make the party or anything, it’s solely  BMOrg. What they say is law, and if the law applies one way to their friends and another way to people they don’t know, that’s their prerogative. Stupid Burners just get in the way of the money scooping machine anyway, with all their pesky ideas like gifting the world’s best DJs or spending 6-figure sums on art installations to share with everyone. “Why won’t they accept that it’s BMOrg’s $10k art grants that make the party, not Burner funding?” When the shark gets jumped, Burner funding is no longer relevant, and whatever money Burners want to contribute should be donated directly to their tax-free non-profit, or failing that should only be applied in the way BMOrg dictates.

The Burnier-Than-Thou mantra used to be “if you’re in an RV, you’re doing it wrong”. Now it’s “if you’re rich, you’re doing it wrong”. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you! In my opinion, if someone is successful, it’s a clear sign that they’re doing it right. If one of the world’s coolest parties has jumped the shark, that’s not an affirmation of how great it’s becoming now. If your counter-culture event jumped the shark, you’re doing it wrong.


What Dreams May Come – Part I

Mutant Vehicle at Afrika Burn

Mutant Vehicle at Afrika Burn

When superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold announced the 2014 lineup at White Ocean, I was over the moon – even though I’m not at Burning Man this year. We declared it “victory for ravers”. It seems Burnier-Than-Thous didn’t see it the same way, and White Ocean got slammed. Why? Because they made a flyer with the acts listed, and it looked a little too commercial. Never mind that most of the other sound camps also made flyers, and have been doing that for years. White Ocean had to issue an apology.

From the SF Bay Guardian:

white-ocean-burning-man-2014-lineup“As you know, a few weeks ago the entire White Ocean line up went public, in a relatively big way. To add insult to injury, it also listed ‘Presenting’ parties in the most un-Burner like fashion! We know that this greatly upset each and everyone of you, and for good reason! We agree this is a huge failure, on our part! There’s no excuse!!!”

The post went on to say the camp had hired a mainstream promoter, who “proceeded to create and implement a full promotions campaign, as if he was working for some music festival in Europe. That was his perception of Burning Man, an elaborately modified festival in the desert that doesn’t sell beer.”

I mean, really – they bring Dave Seaman AND Juno Reactor to the Playa – FOR FREE – and they have to APOLOGIZE?

This shit is getting ridiculous.

Hot-Chicks-at-Burning-Man-18burners were forced to confront the question, “Are we actually becoming just a music festival in the desert that doesn’t sell beer?” As a nightlife writer, I’ve been getting emails for years touting different pre-BM fundraisers, innovative theme camp designs, and dance performances. But it’s only been in the past couple that I’ve been getting press releases from record labels announcing artists “appearing one night only!” at Burning Man. DJs routinely brag about multiple BM experiences. (One PR person even accidentally offered me press tickets!)

“It’s true that the current generation does see Burning Man mostly through the prism of music,” Syd Gris of the music-powerhouse Opulent Temple camp told me over the phone. “Most of the draw now may be not for the original communal experience, but the mind-blowing spectacle of seeing so many of the world’s biggest DJs playing on giant fire sculptures.

“Ever since the music festival circuit became such a huge thing in the past decade, there’s been the possibility that Burning Man may end up just another stop on it.”

Even Maid Marian seems to realize it. She goes to festivals all around the world, she knows what’s going on. Her words in the BRC Weekly look like back-pedalling to me.

sound camp lineup ban

They’re “blaming” White Ocean for interest in the OMG sale? That doesn’t even make sense.

Rockstar Librarian’s music guide this year runs to 34 pages. Music is a huge reason why people come to Burning Man. Is Larry really going to “un-welcome” all of those camps? The event is not sold out because of TED talks and the Souk.

Is this why Robot Heart published their yoga schedule, but not their music one?

2014robot heart

2014 robot heart

Why is this allowed, but the DJ lineup isn’t? What fucking “harm” comes from a DJ lineup? Surely “40% Virgins” and a $40 tax is more harmful than knowing where and when the world’s best DJs are playing.

Billionaire Burner (and BMP Director) Chris Bently spent more than $25,000 just on the door to his Nautilus

Billionaire Burner (and BMP Director) Chris Bently spent more than $25,000 just on the door to his Nautilus art car. Did he ruin Burning Man?

Meanwhile we have this “rich people are ruining Burning Man” meme. Where the fuck did this come from? Rich people have always been going to Burning Man. How do you think major camps can hand out free drinks to thousands of people? People spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on Art Cars that only get used for one week out of the year. These aren’t poor people. You know all those flames you see? Every time one goes off, that’s costing someone money. What about the really big flames, shooting high into the sky? They’re costing more money.

Where does this money come from? It’s certainly not from BMOrg, I hope by now we’ve demonstrated that clearly to our readers. Burners fund Burning Man, not BMOrg. Sure, there are Kickstarters for camps and art projects, and people contribute to them. What kind of people give money to a Burning Man Kickstarter art project? People so rich that they can afford to just give their money away, for art and entertainment. They never get thanks or credit for this, and they’re not seeking it. Most of the world does not have enough money to piss away on a party – so how rich is rich?

diddy robot heart insideMore than half of Black Rock City’s citizens make more than US$50,000 per year. That’s enough to put them in the top 0.3% of wealth in the entire world. By definition, Burners are rich – rich enough to affored a ticket, provisions for a week in the desert, shelter and transportation costs, plus drugs. The main thing being burned at this event is money.

What’s really ruining Burning Man is the “Me” generation, and these Burnier-Than-Thou rule enforcers. Larry Harvey is quick to dismiss the anarchists and punks. He and his partner Jerry James brought their kids to the very first Burning Man. The kids radically participated by building an effigy of a dog, which they also burned. It’s clear that Larry is more interested in creating a family-friendly event than throwing the world’s best rave.

Which is a shame, because he’s throwing the world’s best rave.

Can Burning Man continue on its current trajectory? Absolutely. CBS News anchors want to come, now that they’ve heard about the gourmet chefs and sherpas. It’s very succcessful, it’s world famous, and there’s no end in sight. Ticket prices can keep increasing. Now vehicle pass prices can keep increasing too. The secondary market will continue to thrive, and all of the OMGSTEP tomfoolery just fuels it.

Will it continue to be awesome? Probably. There are some fundamental elements to this spectacle that will always make it entertaining. There are also some fundamental elements that mean it will always be a pain in the ass, as the poor souls who took 29 hours to get in from Gerlach can attest.

robot heart speakersWill Black Rock City continue to be populated by the Burners who built it? Unlikely. The population is ageing, and maybe being deliberately disinvited. This year it’s not just me taking a break, many veteran Burners I know are sitting it out. Sure, most of us will return, repeatedly. But some of the spark has gone. The urge to create a cool camp and share it with everyone, is tempered by the Broners and the Takers and the MOOPers and the Haters. The more rules you add, the more creativity you stifle.

Paul Oakenfold said that he first attended Burning Man in the 90’s, and he’s been looking for other Burning Mans ever since. Me too! As one of the world’s biggest DJs, a triple Grammy-nominated music producer who used to be the A & R guy for a major record label, Oakey has been so big on the scene for so long he has a solid claim for being the creator of it. If there are other Burning Mans in the world, he’s someone who would be in a position to know. Being one of the Founders of EDM is quite a bit higher up the totem pole than being one of the Founders of Burning Man, a 70,000 person week-long, three decades old American event. Facebook lists half a billion people who Like Electronic (Dance) Music.

“The Regionals!”, cry the Burnier-Than-Thous and the Kool Aid drinkers. “The future is in the Regionals, they are like Burning Man used to be!” And perhaps that might become true. The event has been going for almost 30 years. Regional burns have been going on for almost 20 years. What will be different about the next 10 years for Regionals, compared to the last 10?

Big Art at Afrika Burn

Big Art at Afrika Burn

It seems like Afrika Burn could be a contender for “another Burning Man”. They have been going for 8 years, and their population has yet to exceed 10,000. Africa is a long way to go for most of the world, all manner of shots are required, and many international visitors are going to be scared off by Ebola now. The Burning Man Australia facebook group is growing rapidly, since many Americans have always wanted to go to Australia, and this could be an excuse for their long dreamed of vacation. Australia already has some well established, awesome parties, that it will have to compete with, like Earthcore and Rainbow Serpent. The promoters who are successful in Australia have been so for a long time, and their talent is at a globally competitive level. It would take a lot for a new festival to usurp them on their home turf. There are logistical and economic challenges in getting art cars to Burning Seed, or to these much larger events, not to mention the extreme climate and deadly fauna. It is not a culture given to excessive volunteering. Australians would rather have a barbecue and go surfing than build a big man in their garage just to burn it. I’m generalizing, of course.

The main problem I see with “the future is in the Regionals” is BMOrg themselves. They are not the world’s most organized organization! Their efficiency, professionalism, and consistency are not up to the standards of, say, Google. The founders are finally getting the chance to cash in on their decades of work, hooray for them. They all seem to be ageing remarkably well, but none of them are dewy-eyed Millenials any more. How much fire and drive do they have left for this new, global start-up? It’s an order of magnitude increase in the complexity and stress of their Project. When their big payday finally comes, will they still be motivated to manage this venture? Maybe they’ll want to kick back and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

burning_man suitsSure, the corporate structure is transitioning, with some of their non-profits merging and new for-profit private companies being formed. New revenue streams like royalties, merchandise and gasoline are being developed. New talent is being brought in. Will the new suits be suit-ier than the old suits? And how does any of this help the Regionals – or, indeed, Burners?

Their web site lists only 20 or so official Regional events. One commenter here said this is an indication of how little most of the Regionals actually depend on BMOrg for.

To put Burning Man’s challenge for the next stage in Silicon Valley terms: can this business model scale?

From the core of this thing, emanates a desire to control. Control seems to trump personal financial gain, or Gifting, in BMOrg’s decision making. Can they grow from 70,000 people contained inside a pentagon in an American desert, to 700,000 people in more than 100 events? Maybe. Can they still maintain the control they’ve become accustomed to, with the organizational structure that got them to where we are today? Unlikely. Will volunteers continue to be motivated to work for free, as the Founders start to pile up the millions, and the media continues to harp on about all the wealth that’s there? That remains to be seen. Maybe there will be a new career path for low-income Burners, in becoming Sherpas to the rich.

Even if you upgrade the entire management team, you’re not guaranteed scaleability. What is it, exactly, that they’re trying to replicate? The Ten Principles were only ever meant as guidelines, and most Burners probably couldn’t list all 10. Their inherent contradictions are confusing even for people who speak English as their first language. If it’s Radical Inclusion, why can’t you wear logos if you want? Why all the hating on successful people and celebrities? If it’s Gifting and Decommodification, how come we keep getting asked to donate more money to them? Is there a point where they Gift something back to us? If it’s Civic Responsibility and Communal Effort, how come so many Broners contribute nothing and have more time to party?

So…what if there were something else? Is the world big enough for more than one Burning Man?

What if there was a party full of art cars, where people could build whatever camps they wanted, but it didn’t have the cult-like 10 Principles? What if “acculturation” and a 20-page survival guide were not required? What if there were trash cans and recycling? What if you could get water if you needed it? What if the layout was different?

I’m not saying that Black Rock City needs to have those things. It’s on its course, it’s changing as it grows, and the bigger it gets the more mainstream it’s going to get.

Next thing we know, Hillary Clinton will be there. Bieber will be live on the Esplanade, all tatted up and ready to rumble.

Burners create Black Rock City. Black Rock City is Burning Man, not BMOrg. If there was another city created by Burners, that had many of the core elements, but was also a bit different, would you want to check that out?

I’m talking something major, with lots of art cars that you can ride around on, not events like EDC or Ultra or Decompression where you might see a couple of art cars, but you can’t ride around on them until you see the sunrise over the mountains in some random location. Something environmentally sustainable, artistic, built on kindness and gratitude – and cool as fuck.

Burners are some of the smartest, raddest, sexiest, most creative, AND richest people on the planet. BMOrg might not be able to scale their organization and their business model to ten times its current size, but there is no doubt in my mind that Burners can. There are far more of us than there are BMOrg volunteers, or indoctrinated Burnier-Than-Thous.

The question is, do people want that? If they build it, will you come?

How Much For That Ranch In The Desert?

The Black Rock Beacon published a story about the Burning Man Founders’ cash out. The $10 million figure they use seems very much on the low side, unless it is per director. See The Great BMOrg Cash Out $28-45 million post – so far, no-one has attempted to dispute the calculations from our guest author A Balanced Perspective. These calculations did not include the estimated $2.5 million per year in royalties paid to Decommodification LLC, a private company owned by the founders which in 2017 will probably be sold back to themselves (ie., another entity in their complex web of for-profit and tax-free companies). This transaction is by no means a done deal, since the directors still have the power to vote against the transfer.

The cash out numbers we have estimated do not include any rent the organization pays for the use of their Nevada work ranch and other properties. This year, just before the announcement that Burning Man had finally “completed” their transition to a non-profit, the ownership of the Gerlach ranch was transferred to yet another private company in their complex, non-transparent corporate web.

Santafemous did some investigation of this property:

Beginning in 1999, Burning Man had a 10 year lease on an 80 acre parcel they called The Work Ranch (80 Jackson Way) and, in 2001,they purchased 200 acres next door (88 Jackson Way) called Black Rock Station.

“…this property originally served as a landing zone for all the stuff left on the playa after every event..the years of stuff now amount to an unorganized tract of land. We will completely remove and relocate operations to Black Rock Station…because Washoe County Community Development isn’t happy with some conditions on the property.”

…Some of the…properties are, “Black Rock Station (a fully functioning work ranch), the Gerlach Office, “Helen’s House”, the Black Rock Social Club and the Gerlach Showers. From these properties, Burning Man uses these properties for administrative operations, supplies storage, and staff support facilities.”

work ranch burning_man2

aerial view burning_man_80_acres

In a 2008 permit application, the ranch at 88 Jackson Lane was owned by Black Rock City, LLC

On January 9 2014, the title was transferred from Black Rock City LLC to Black Rock City Properties LLC for $0. On March 3, 2014, BMOrg announced the completion of their non-profit transition.

Black Rock City Properties LLC was formed at the end of 2013, presumably for the sole purpose of this real estate transfer. It has the same address as Burning Man’s HQ. Black Rock City LLC is listed as the managing member. Will Roger is the only listed director. This is different from Gerlach Holdings LLC, which lists all 6 founders as officers  – does anyone know what that company does?

So just before they announced they’d fully transitioned to a non-profit (which later turned out to be not true), they shifted the real estate holdings out of one company in their group, and into another. Why?

The government valuation information on the work ranch is:

2013/2014 Fair Value

$582,177 taxable

$203,762 assessed

Gerlach real estate is only going one way: down. Dramatically so.

2014/2015 Fair Value:

$487,244 taxable

$170,535 assessed

They purchased the property in 2001 for $70,000. In 2013 the taxable improvement value was $550,177.

Does Black Rock City LLC pay rent to Black Rock City Properties LLC? Although there is no direct evidence either for or against that, I think it is a reasonable assumption. The IRS Form 990 filings from the non-profits show that both Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Burning Man Project pay rent. Since both organizations are housed at BMHQ, this establishes the precedent that BMOrg is cross-charging rent (and other expenses) across its various entities. Occupancy was $5500 in 2012 for BMP, and $12,900 for BRAF. Office Expenses were $9,497 and $26,390 respectively.

The rent charges skyrocketed (62%) at the same time that BMOrg announced their transition plan, 2011. They’ve been growing dramatically every year since.

Rent (from Afterburn reports):

2013    $732,900

2012    $615,944

2011    $444,000

2010    $274,000

2009    $167,000

2008    $236,000

2007    $281,000

In 2013, Burning Man moved its headquarters from 3 floors of a $17 million building in Market Street, to a building in the Mission. Here are the details on that building from LoopNet:


660 alabama

The 2 lower floors are 11,555 square feet each; level 4 is 15,000 square feet. Burning Man’s headquarters address is Level 4, 660 Alabama Street.

Burning Man took up 3 floors in their Market Street offices. The floors there are 4500 square feet each.

Consolidating the work force onto a single floor that is slightly larger seems to make sense. The top floor at 660 Alabama has high ceilings, as you can see in the photos here. There are stairs in the offices, but these seem to go to a mezzanine, rather than to one of the lower floors.

bmhq stairs

bmhq mezzanine

This page from 2010 lists the rent for the upper 3 floors of the building at $65,100 per month.

Assuming the lower floors are priced less than the penthouse, a reasonable estimate for the rent is half the total: $32,550 per month.

Rents in San Francisco have been steadily increasing over the last few years, so let’s factor in 10% growth per year. This brings us to $43,000 per month by 2013, or $520,000 per year.

From the 2013 Afterburn report, total rent of premises was $732,900.

So my estimate is about $200,000 per year goes to rent the Nevada properties. If this ends up in the pockets of the founders, then this is another $1.5 million or so over their 7-year cashout. Presumably this is a revenue stream that will continue as long as the event is held on the Playa.

If the money doesn’t go to the founders, then why would they transfer the real estate holdings out of Black Rock City LLC, before transferring Black Rock City, LLC to the Burning Man Project? If the properties needed to be transferred at all, why not transfer them directly to the Burning Man Project? Why form yet another private, secret corporation?

If all the rent simply goes to the HQ building, then that is more than $60,000 per month. The company claims 30 full time employees and contractors, so they would be paying $2,000 per person, per month. Even in rent-hungry San Francisco, in the hipster Mission District, that seems unfathomably high.

Another possibility is that Burning Man rented the whole building, then sublet the other floors. Revenue data is not shown in the Afterburn reports, all we have to go on is Maid Marian’s claim of $30 million per year. This scenario still does not explain the last minute transfer of real estate holdings to another private company.

As always, if anyone else has other data, or a different take on the math, please share.

ranch burning_man4

Bottle Service Reaches New Heights in NV

If you’re heading into the Playa this year, remember to look up. There are going to be 200 Burner operated drones, and who knows who many integrated local and Federal police, military, and alphabet agency ones. Most will just be filming you in GoPro HD.

Some, though, could be gifting you. Yes, you, not that sparkle pony next to you…