BREAKING: Burning Man has already sold more tickets for 2012 than the 2011 permit allows

[updated 11:11pm 2/22/12 to incorporate 1,000 tickets for inner circle, bringing it to at least 58,000 tickets already spoken for. This changes the percentages a little]

[update 4 2/24/12 12:13pm they officially sold 53,963 tickets in 2011, against the permit of 50,000. A 6% increase to that is 3238, which gets us to 57,201. And if the BLM doesn’t mind a 5% overshoot, there could be even more tickets to come
Also in the comments Joe asked me to put a disclaimer on this post to say that it is not news. That’s right people, this is not CNN! ]

After posting today about Burners’ occasional mathematical confusion, it occurred to me that even I was confused about the maths on this whole ticket situation. So I did some more digging, and was unpleasantly surprised by what I found.

Here’s the 2011 Permit Decision from the Federal Bureau of Land Management.

Black Rock City, LLC shall be authorized to conduct the Burning Man event on public lands in Pershing County, Nevada for a one-year period (2011), with a maximum of 50,000 participants…the permit period would extend from August 1 through September 19, with the actual event occuring August 29 through September 5, 2011″.

Uh-oh. Rather than things being sorted out now, it looks like we could have an even worse fiasco on our hands in Gate-gate than just the first lottery debacle, followed by the World’s Biggest Guest List, followed by the potential looming failure of STEP to solve anything.

Worse? What could be worse? What about, even if you have a ticket, you can’t go?

Can you imagine the carnage? You thought you were one of the lucky ones, you got a ticket and said “see ya later suckers” to all the friends back home, spent the rest of the year working on art and costumes and camps, bought a week’s worth of provisions, drove for 12 hours, waited another 5 hours in the line to actually get in – only to have to stay in the line. Sorry, we’re full. We can’t let you in until someone else leaves. Even if you’re on the list.

Paranoid delusions? Well, not according to the maths. It’s really quite simple.

A quick re-cap on the ticket sales so far (for more detail see our series, Exploring the Other)

We had 3,000 tickets go to “early birds” in December, at $420 each. Why did these people pay more than the standard ticket price, to get in early? What did they know that we didn’t?

Then we have 4,000 tickets slated for “low income Burners and friends and family”. This in itself is somewhat controversial – although it is noble to want to help the poor, and the BMorg HQ is located in the Tenderloin, Burning Man may not be the best channel for this type of noblesse oblige. Surely poor people have a much higher incentive to sell these tickets through scalpers? And a much smaller budget for art and goodies to Gift to other Burners? [update 2/24/12 10:10am – these tickets have to be collected at Will Call, in a bid to prevent scalpers getting hold of the low income tickets]

After that, we have the infamous lottery. Although the consensus of Burners.Me voters is They Lied About The Tiers, assuming for a minute that everything BMorg says is true we get:

10,000 Tier 1 at $260

15,000 Tier 2 at $320

15,000 Tier 3 at $390

And now the announcement of 10,000 Guest List tickets at $390.

Yes, Virginia, that makes 57,000 tickets. Not to mention at least another 1,000 for “participants” in the event who are truck drivers, gate workers, Burning Man staff and families, and so on. And thousands of kids 12 and under who get in free.

Now we have the guy who actually makes the decision on the permit, saying he’s not going to decide until June. He’s waiting on an Environmental Impact Assessment report.

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 apopulation 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.”

Here’s some more information on Burning Man’s plans to slowly increase the permit from 58,000 to 70,000 over a period of 5 years, gradually at like 5% a year. This would mean 61,000 this year (or, 52,500 by the BLM’s figures).

Will Roger is one of the board of directors that helps run the event. He spoke about wanting to grow the event recently, but doing so at a slow pace.“For everyone concerned, slow growth is better than big growth. We’re looking for something in the 5 to 6 percent range. That would be ideal for everyone.”

Burning Man, which just opened its doors a few hours ago, gives the BLM a reported 1.2 million dollars in permits each year. That figure accounts for about 3% of ticket sales for the event. In total, it cost somewhere in the vicinity of 5.5 million dollars to make Burning Man happen last year, with “the Man” costing a reported $156,000.

Will seems to have let slip some “real” numbers rather than the reported ones. At 3% Burning Man is making $40 million in revenues, at $5.5 million in costs they’re left with a profit per party of around $35 million. The permit clearly stipulates they have to pay BLM 3% of the gross from the event – boy that is a lot of ice and coffee they’re selling, in addition to the gate.

The cost of $5.5 million is also vastly different from the $17.5 million reported in the New York Times. Both these figures appear in the official numbers for 2010 – although you will notice a gaping disparity between “event costs” and the other administrative overheads. Yep, it costs them twice as much to do all the great things they do during the year as it does to actually throw the party. Including the $1.2 million for the BLM permit. What great things? You know, like coming up with the ticket lottery, thinking of a theme, listening to the community, designing STEP, and deciding which 10,000 names to put on the guest list. Seem like a good use of $10 million+ to you?

I sure hope this Environmental Assessment report is something paid for and driven by BMorg, and not some government bureaucrat with a thousand more politically pressing things on his desk. Unlikely, though – the last report seemed to be written by the BLM. I hope relations are cosy with the Winnemucca Field Office, and no-one over there got jilted by the lottery:

Prepared By

Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area

Winnemucca Field Office

Bureau of Land Management

Do Federal Agencies care about elections? It is an election year after all, and President Obama has been cracking down on potheads – who knows if this has created any additional pressures within the BLM, especially in relation to a single high-profile media friendly event like Burning Man.

One thing we do know is that Burning Man has sold 58,000 tickets already to an event that last year was only allowed 50,000.

This can’t be good news. It’s definitely not good news for anyone holding out hope for a permit increase leading to a whole bunch more tickets coming on the market before the end of August.

What are they going to do if the BLM comes down hard on keeping the permit at 50,000? Or, even worse – what if the BLM do everything Burning Man asked them for? A 5% increase in numbers raises the permit to 52,500. This means the last 5,500 people to get there get knocked back. That’s 9.5% of all the tickets, that are just going to be waiting in a big long line from Black Rock City to Gehrlach. Having their own party on the street.

Either BMorg are lying to the Burner Community, or they’re lying to the BLM. OR – and I’m really stretching now trying to give these guys the benefit of the doubt – they know the BLM is going to approve a 20%+ permit increase, and they just don’t want to tell the community yet in case it messes up the paperwork or gives us false hope. But they’ve gone ahead and sold almost $3 million worth of extra tickets on that basis anyway.

We’ll give the final word to Larry Harvey, talking to the New York Times last year about the changes ahead for the Burner Community:

We’re going to treat Burning Man like what it always should have been: not as a commodity, but as a gift,” Mr. Harvey said, explaining the festival’s multiyear transition strategy during an April 1 speech in San Francisco. Before handing Burning Man over to the new nonprofit, he added, the company’s owners will take an undisclosed payout. And this is where things get complicated

[Update 2, 11:37pm found confirmation straight from the rabbit’s mouth]
Check out this video of Maid Marian answering questions about the ticket lottery. At about 2:33 in, she clearly says “we’ll see 55, 58 this year”. Well, if it’s 55,000, what happens to the other 3,000 tickets? If it doesn’t matter because it gets spread over a number of days, then why can’t we have more? Or why couldn’t some people come early but leave before the Burn – swapping their spot or their tickets with friends and family?
It seems like BMorg have got ahead of themselves in the ticket sales, and they’re asking for it with the BLM. Why oh why didn’t they just sell 50,000 tickets the same way as every other year…and save their magic lottery for any extra spots that might come up in June after the BLM assessment?

22 comments on “BREAKING: Burning Man has already sold more tickets for 2012 than the 2011 permit allows

  1. Looking at the wording in
    you can see that 50K is coming from “average of 50,000 participants per day for the eight-day event” and the peak numbers are provided for “For historical purposes and press inquiries”.
    There is also a line regarding “what if” scenario, like exceeding the “ability to provide adequate infrastructural resources”, but it only calls for promptly notifying BLM and providing “detailed contingency plans for how to handle the additional participants”
    Long story short – seems there is no “hard” cap on number of tickets sold – average daily population is somewhat a stretchable criteria IMHO.
    As for the lottery – it played out exactly as predicted by many – dumb and idiotic… oh, well

    • Thanks everyone for the comments. Here’s how the situation looks to me. They sold 58,000 tickets. Last year’s permit was for 50,000, but it seems like this year more is going ot be OK. They will sell several thousand more tickets at the gate, rather than turn all those people back to Gehrlach. That’s all fine, because the number in the permit is fluid, and BMorg has a great relationship with the BLM. The new permit allows for up to 70,000 (plus the thousands of extras on top of that due to this fluidity). But they will build to that slowly, rather than immediately releasing another 12,000 tickets. For anyone without tickets, to me it sounds like there is still hope. Maybe don’t be running out to be paying Stubhub $1200 a ticket just yet.

  2. Burning Man is preventing scalpers from getting any of the Low Income Tickets by making all grantees of Low Income Tickets pick them up and pay for them on site at Will Call. I suppose the low income grantees could go all the way to will call and try to sell them to people in line or make arrangements ahead of time, but I’m doubtful that anyone would make the trek all the way to will call and not want to go into the festival themselves.

  3. They let in more than 50,000 in 2011. My understanding is that the BLM is looking at average daily attendance (i.e., 350,000 or 400,000 participant days on the playa), not the highest single day population count. At one point, I looked at the 2006-2010 BLM permit, and as I recall, the highest population exceeded the “cap” in several other years.

    Also, keep in mind that tickets sold to the public don’t represent all the people at the event. Various groups of people get free or reduced price tickets that aren’t represented in your ticket count. I’d estimate there’s at least 1000, maybe 2000 more tickets out there. Key volunteers, regional representatives, funded art crews, and fire conclave members all get tickets outside the public allocation. I don’t know if Larry (and the rest of BMOrg) and the DPW even need tickets at all, but that’s another couple hundred people.

    The BLM has allowed more than the “cap” to attend in the past. Turning people away at the gate would likely create more problems for the BLM (traffic, camping elsewhere in the area, etc.) than it would solve. If BRC exceed the cap (however it’s calculated), it would certainly affect permits to hold the event in future years, but I don’t think turning ticket holders away at the gate is a realistic scenario.

    • thanks very much Andrew, I’ve been looking for an explanation for the missing 1000 tickets between 57,000 and the 58,000 mentioned by Will Chase.

      I don’t think turning ticket holders away at the gate is a realistic scenario either! I also don’t think selling more tickets than you have a confirmed permit for is very realistic. They would be better to have released 50,000 tickets on a First Come, First Serve basis, then let people enter a lottery in case any more tickets became available when the permit was approved in June.

  4. Maybe it’s time Burners came to Rainbow Gatherings. I’ve been going to Rainbow for years and BMan for 1. No permit. (of course, no amplified sounds either). It is best described that BMan is externally stimulating while Rainbow is internally stimulating. And you’re all welcome to come. For free.

    • sounds interesting, tell us more. I have been to “Rainbow Serpent” in Australia, which was a great “bush doof”, and I have been to parties with members from the global “Rainbow Tribe”. Not sure if these things are connected?

      • Honestly, the Wiki sums it up nicely. I’m referring to the North American National Gathering on July 4th every year. Most folks arrive about a week beforehand and leave around the 5th. If you do go, there are many resources (just like BMan has) for what to do/not to do and how to pitch in.

      • We do not have dance music or any electronics (and neither are really allowed unless you want to set up in Bus Village on the outskirts of the gathering) everything is acoustic there. It takes place in a different National Forest every year and it’s usually a few miles to hike into from the parking area.

    • I read all the documents I linked to, which gives me some idea of what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the BLM permit being for less than the number of tickets sold, according to But I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert. What do you think is going on then Joe? Pray tell.

      • Your title makes it sound like’ Breaking News’, as if you are presenting facts when in fact you are speculating on details and only have more questions. You should change the title along the lines your are concerned, uncertain and curious. Perhaps offer a leading disclaimer if you are not “expert on the topic”. … What I do know is most people have been using the anecdotal “50K” because they are not involved in the permit process, which is more complicated and the numbers change slightly every year (allotted for growth by permit). You suggest Burning Man is lying, as if you know there are no other options? Whereas you present assumptions, your math is incorrect, and you have far from all the facts.

        • Always happy to hear more facts. Not sure about the flaws in the maths though – I linked to the permit that says 50,000, and linked to the burning man web site which says 57,000. It seems pretty simple to me, what is it that you don’t think I’m factoring in?

      • Just a word that might help a bit. First, there will be no turning away. Although the final decision will not be made until June, BMORG has representatives in nearly constant contact with relevant BLM parties. Your posts act like the BLM folks in Winnemucca are some despotic royalty just waiting to pass down their decree from on high; generally, it just doesn’t work that way. They do have final say, but the ORG works hards to keep ties with them and come up with a plan that works for both.

        Second, as has been clearly stated, the ORG can sell as many tix as they want. The BLM is only concerned with average daily attendance. This is something the event monitors very closely, every hour of the event. So, for instance, if you feel like you had a good handle on the peaks and such of the event, you could sell more tickets, figuring a significant number won’t show up at all.

        Finally, there really isn’t a huge doomsday scenario. If we were to go over pop cap in a single day, there are contingencies for that. It would likely result in a fine paid to the BLM, along with a plan for the following year to prevent it from happening again. Again, like above, the ORG is in constant contact with the BLM during the event as well, so such things are not a surprise.

        Now back to your parsing of the numbers…

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