Why is Burning Man still selling tickets at all?

Some crazy ideas are being put out there, as a result of Gate-gate. Like:

Why is Burning Man still selling tickets at all? : Dale Larson.

This guy talks a good game, but doesn’t care much for logic, or thinking through the consequences of actions.

“the “Gift Economy” was introduced to a great deal of fanfare, with much explanation and evangelizing. Blogs were posted, lectures given, movies made, until everyone attending the event was sufficiently indoctrinated. Political correctness required militant correction of anyone who didn’t “get it.” The transition was completed and forgotten within a couple of years, and Burning Man has worked well this way since.

Whether you think saving barter would have been more interesting, or much prefer gifting, the amazing thing is how quick and complete the transition. Larry Harvey, the LLC and the org did an amazing job. This is the kind of organizational change that’s tough anywhere. Corporations spend millions of dollars on lesser change initiatives supported by the best expert consultants and fail all the time. They can’t convince their own salaried employees to do what they want. Yet Burning Man pulled this off with a bunch of anarchists.”

…exactly. When they want to implement change, they can. Which only further serves to convince me that something about this ticket lottery situation is not right.

“Burning Man, stop using commerce as a way to pay your bills and solve your entry problems. The better solution to both is to stop charging for tickets.

It’s hypocritical anyway. Especially now that you’re becoming a non-profit. You’ve always been anti-commerce at the event. Eschewed logos and advertising and sponsorships. You did such a fantastic job of explaining the gift economy inside the gate. It’s time to do the same amazing job of explaining the gift economy to those you give tickets to. Yes, I said “give” as in for free. It’s time to put your trust in participants. Show the world how your talk isn’t idle idealism, but is a real working vision for how a gift economy is a real sustainable alternative with advantages that can’t be ignored.”

I love it! But, just because it sounds good, doesn’t mean it makes sense. It costs them $17 million dollars to put the event on. How the fuck are they going to do it if they don’t sell tickets? If it’s free, more people would go (duh). That would have to increase the costs.

My main problem with Dale’s argument is that it completely ignores the investment in Burning Man made by the participants each year. For almost everyone, this is higher than the ticket price. You’ve got to get to the US, you’ve got to get to Reno, you’ve got to get to Gehrlach, and you need to buy food water glow and all the other fine stuff. And so do all your peeps.

I have met several people who personally contributed more than $50,000 just to art projects, not to mention their own travel and accomodation costs for their camp. I know some camps whose annual budget is over $300,000. Ashram Galactica provides a 200 room hotel, complete with concierge. I heard of a guy paying $5000 to get a room on the Esplanade that came with its own personal serving and bathing wenches.

These are the people who are doing the gifting. If the party was free, well we already know 120,000 people want to go and pay hundreds. So it would be fair to assume that number would at least double. That means more expenses and more hassles for the organizers – but WAY more problems for the people investing in the camps.

Like it or not, Burning Man is an event for rich people. Rich, from “I’m going to drop $1000 and take a week off work, just to go to a party” – all the way to rich, like “I’m going to fly into the middle of the desert in a private jet to attend a party where I gave away $50,000 to build a Circus just to entertain a bunch of people I’ll probably never even meet”. Rich people spend a lot of money to put this on for everybody else. The ticket price keeps the poor people out, the rich people are less likely to commit petty crimes because they have a different set of priorities in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In today’s current economic climate, when there are more poor people than ever, rich people’s behavior at Burning Man is more ostentatious than ever. There is a GINI Index at Burning Man, but it’s calculated differently. It’s the gap between Larry and Sergei and the sparkle pony who scored a free ticket because she looks cute and showed up with no tent and 3 different outfits. Not the gulf between the Fortune 500 CEO and the 50 million Americans on food stamps.

The economic reality of all this might not be obvious if you haven’t been there. In fact, most of the Burners I talk to don’t really get it. It took me 8 Burns until I really grokked onto the amount of money that private individuals contribute to make this happen. All the art, art cars, theme camps, everything you’ve ever seen or heard about at Burning Man – this is paid for by the people who attend. Not the Burning Man organization that sells the tickets.

Some of the larger stages and art installations, are built by teams of dozens of people who work on the Playa for months building them then tearing them down. This stuff costs big bucks. The amazing 40-ft high Bliss Dance, by San Francisco artist Marco Cochrane, was on sale at Burning Man 2010 for $16 million. I heard the price from the guy camped next to me who was seriously considering buying it, as a gift to the people of one of the cities he owned a sports team in. It is now on public display on Treasure Island, and Marco’s working on an even bigger one in a Burner enclave nearby.

Burning Man has nothing to do with socialism, and the idea that capitalism doesn’t play a part is a well crafted illusion.

Giving away free tickets might make the lottery mess go away, but it would only create a much bigger mess. It would be the death of the event.

Having said that, I think there is much merit in having free Burner events off the Playa – in a place that is family friendly, has all the necessary facilities (like water), and is easily made safe for the public by local officials. Let’s make it eco friendly so we don’t all have to drive 12 hours+ in RVs to get there.

One of the comments to Dale’s post had the idea “Why not make it a membership organization?”. This to me is a brilliant idea – get 50,000 people, each paying $500/year to be a member. Any members who aren’t attending in a particular year, can gift their spot to anyone they choose, or put it back into the general pool in a STEP-like system. There would always be 5-10,000 tickets for newbies, they can be sold at auction for the highest possible price. Then they could have a couple of thousand low income tickets for volunteers.

2 comments on “Why is Burning Man still selling tickets at all?

  1. thanks Chicken J, I agree. Thousands of people have invested their hearts and souls in this community. It has outgrown the capabilities of its marshals. We need something open, transparent, and inclusive (in decisions) but somewhat exclusive (to keep it participative)

  2. Tickets should not be sold. Participants should be members of a private club. The event should be open only to members. And only members. There should be a constitution that gaurentees rights, priveledges and responsabilitys to members. People should vote on some certain things, like the art grants. Maybe some civic structures.

    or something else that makes sense and is fun and new. There are million things that could be done. I’ve been talking aobut this since 1996.

    chicken j

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