Armchair detective: the case for skullduggery

It seems like we’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest, with members of BMOrg feeling “besmirched” by our speculation that something more has gone wrong with the ticket lottery than simple ineptocracy could explain.

While I enjoy the Burning Man party, and appreciate the efforts of both the organizers and the participants to put it on, I don’t always buy every single party line that ever comes out of BMOrg. For example “this is not about money”, when there’s $20 million plus at stake. Or “this is about radical inclusion”, when they’re running the World’s Biggest Guest list.

We’re not making accusations about anyone in particular. However, we’re not the only ones who think something is not right with the ticket lottery process. It’s not Burners.Me that’s fucking up Burning Man.

So, let’s review all the pieces of information, which in our opinion, suggest something untoward is going on – then please vote your own opinion at the end of this post.

The evidence is circumstantial, only because that’s all we can do: speculate. Only a few people know the truth, and they’re not talking, or if they are, they’re denying it til they turn blue in the face.

#1. Burning Man is changing from an LLC to a non-profit. There has been a clause in the LLC agreement, which restricts any of the 6 founders from pulling out more than $20,000. Over the next 3 years, as part of the transition, they will be cashing out of the LLC, and handing things over to the non-profit.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_Man

An earlier agreement stated that each member of the LLC would only receive “sole compensation for many years of service, a golden parachute of $20,000”. But the board members all agreed to an out of court settlement in which each member of the board would receive undisclosed sums.

Marian Goodell, board member and head of communication, addressed concerns about the lack of transparency with this statement: “When you’re in the middle of a storm, if you’re going to explain all of how you got there, and how you’re going to get out, it often sets more panic among the survivors than if you just sail the boat out of the darkness.

Is it just a coincidence, that the first year the founders want to cash out, they change the system? Not only that, they change it to a radically new one that screws the community around but appears to maximize ticket value?

#2. Some of the original founders are disgruntled by these moves, and have openly said that they will be scalping every ticket they can get their hands on: “why shouldn’t we cash in like Larry is?” This week we saw a high-level resignation of a key BMOrg player.

#3. There was not a problem looking for a solution. Last year, tickets sold out for the first time ever – just over a month before the event. This year, numbers have increased from 50,000 to 58,000. If they had just maintained the status quo, maybe it would have sold out again – so what? Events on a first-come, first-serve basis sell out all the time. There does not seem to be a compelling reason for the change in the ticketing system.

#4. When BMOrg first outlined plans for a ticket lottery, the Burner community voiced their disapproval. Many accurately predicted that it would be a debacle, and play into the hands of scalpers. BMOrg ignored this, and are still ignoring it.

#5. BMorg had an early release of tickets, in December, for $420. Why would the earliest tickets have the highest price? Who would pay almost double for a ticket? There were obviously some insiders, who had information about how scarce (and therefore valuable) tickets were going to be.

#6. BMOrg implemented a survey, asking people how many times they’ve been to Burning Man. The details of this have not been shared with the community. What did they do with this information? Did your answers to questions in the survey, have any bearing on whether or not you won tickets? How many applied for high-price tickets, versus low and mid price? A Burner created their own survey, with more than 1600 responses – it is quite enlightening.

#7. 40% of applications for tickets were from newbies. This would presumably include all scalpers. Someone had to make a decision about this 40% – or are we supposed to believe that the lottery was purely random, and the answers to the  questions didn’t affect your chances in any way? Choosing 40% to newbies, is the same as saying that 20,000 of last years Burners can’t go.

#8. After the ticket lottery, only a minority of Burners had tickets. Most theme camps only got 20-30% of the tickets they were chasing. I know hundreds of Burners, but I don’t know anyone who won tickets in the lottery, although I know some hot girls who got tickets offered to them by winners shortly after. Our poll shows 40% in the same position. If 40% of tickets were for newbies, then 60% should have gone to Burners.

The numbers don’t add up – there seem to be 20-30% of the tickets that went neither to Burners, or newbies.

#9. BMOrg’s first response was to point the finger at the Burner community, for getting friends and family to order more tickets than they needed. If this was actually true, we would have seen way more than 1% of tickets getting washed through STEP.

#10. BMOrg’s next response was to plead ignorance, and blame it on a Dr Seuss themed viral video. This doesn’t make sense to me, given the MASSIVE amount of media coverage Burning Man has received over 25 years. Books, films, Vogue, Autoweek, the New York Times, Malcolm in the Middle, Workaholics. Do you really believe that none of these could bring Burning Man to the attention of people who would like to go, compared to a single YouTube video? What about all the other YouTube Burning Man videos, with far more hits in aggregate?

#11. BMOrg’s next response was to cancel the release of 10,000 secondary tickets, thus ensuring that NO-ONE could get tickets except through scalpers and STEP – unless they were on the guest list. BMOrg ignored all calls for some kind of transparency to be attached to this process. The tickets supposedly went to theme camps, but who got them is still a mystery.

#12. Burning Man sold 58,000 tickets before the permit has been approved. They were obviously very confident in the 58,000 number. Now that the tickets are sold, what do they have to lose? Why not go to the BLM and ask for 60,000? 62,000? All the calculations have been done, they show that the event can easily grow to 70,000 without major changes. Why prefer “slow growth“, if that means a “swiss cheese effect” decimating the community? This opportunity seems to be COMPLETELY RULED OUT by anyone to do with BMOrg, even though there is extensive data in the Environmental Impact Assessment about the population cap increase, local newspapers are interpreting the EA as “increase to 70,000“, and the BLM is saying “there have been very few objections to the permit increase to 70,000″. It’s easy to tell us “you’re stupid, didn’t you even read the report, it says growth over 5 years”. Yeah, I read it, I linked to it, I quoted it. But if you have the Feds saying “we would approve 70,000”, isn’t it worth a try to get some more tickets out there? Would it really be that hard to just ask?

#13. Despite the crisis, and repeated calls to link IDs to tickets, BMOrg refused. The excuse was “it would be too difficult to implement” and “it would be against gifting”. I don’t buy either of those excuses – other festivals do it all the time, all round the world; and why couldn’t I specify what ID I wanted to associate with each ticket I bought? They already send people into your vehicle, checking for stowaways. How hard would it be to ask people to produce IDs during these inspections? To me, it seems not hard at all.

#14. The argument that scalpers got a lot of tickets just by entering the lottery like everyone else, doesn’t make sense. They would have to make 3+ entries for every ticket they won. Each entry would have to be from a different address and credit card number.  This would create a huge risk that they ended up with ALL of the tickets to the party – if the scalpers did not know in advance what the lottery application vs. allocation rate would be. They would be risking a huge amount of capital, for an unknown potential gain. The amount of time this would take would require large teams of people, entering and filling in the survey. Each application took minutes to complete, the lottery was only open for 2 weeks. These false entries would be easy to detect, since there would not be a large variety of IP addresses hitting the servers.

#15. We (and many others) have been speculating on these matters publicly since the start of February. When did BMOrg come and comment on the speculation? As soon as the price of tickets on the secondary market looked like it was going to drop below $1000.

Burner Raftin has prepared this useful graph of Stubhub prices. Our post More Ice, More Exodus, More Tickets was published on March 19. April 13 is when Will Chase posted in the comments that they would not try to get any more people to the Playa this year.

You could over look any one, or two of all the above points, as coincidence, incompetence, bad luck, or all of the above. Take all fifteen together, and it shows what we believe to be a consistent pattern. Lack of transparency, lack of care about the Burner community who has made the party what it is today, and decisions that play perfectly into the hands of scalpers.

What do you think? Where there’s smoke there’s fire? Or does everything seem completely kosher and above board?

28 comments on “Armchair detective: the case for skullduggery

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  15. You are right about one thing at least, this is a bunch of speculation and conjecture. And maybe the people you metioned who are denying everything are doing so because, well, you have nothing but speculation and conjecture. It sound more like an Illuminati conspiracy than any serious reporting or responsible questioning. Get back to me when you have something to back this up. Until then I suppose rumor and inuendo will win the day.

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  16. Your blog entry is mis-titled, it should be “Armchair Quarterback.” If you’re really a fan of spinning conspiracy theories, fine, go for it, but don’t mistake it for how things actually workED, or how they work in general. The thing with conspiracy theories is that they don’t actually have to be true, they just have to match up the available “evidence” to create the story (conspiracy) desired. The big question is WHY people spend so much time cobbling them together.

    There’s so much to this post to which I can only say: go do your homework, and talk to some people who know. I’m not sure where to start.
    1) If you worked your heart out and your ass off for 20 years on something that made hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people happy and changed their lives, wouldn’t you want more than $20,000 to retire on? What’s wrong with being compensated for creating a cultural and artistic revolution? It’s still work, and the senior BORG members have been doing a lot of it for a long time. Even though they are also characatures at this point, they are also people– a little empathy and appreciation for their effort over the years is not too hard to muster, is it?
    2) Take some time to familiarize yourself with Burning Man’s ticketing website– many of your questions are answered there. Why let people have a crack at tickets at the highest price level ($420) first? Because there’s people who are willing to pay that price, and based on previous ticket experience, it made sense to do that. If Burning Man can be faulted for anything here (and I do think they can be faulted on this, and believe me it’s a lesson worth learning for anyone), it’s for creating a ticket system that was based on past history, and assumptions based on past history– their system did not acknowledge or try to deal with changes that come when you go from an event where tickets are available whenever you want them (you just have to pay more for them) to a system with limited tickets. Selling out was anticipated, but selling out that fast was not anticipated. Then, no one thought about how that change of state affects peoples’ behavior– people behave differently in the face of scarcity (anticipation, early action and hoarding) than they do in the face of abundance. Now, we ALL have the benefit of that 20/20 hindsight. But even with that, there are still changes that are rippling out from that– for example, Regional events that have never sold out ever, selling out in 3 hours. I’m on a BOD for a regional event where we are “getting the opportunity” to re-envision our ticket sales system, and we are greatly benefitting from everyone else’s experience here. I think. Our ticket sales start up in 2 weeks; ask me about this again in 3 weeks. But the point is that we can all be Monday morning quarterbacks regarding how BMOrg did their ticket sales, and STILL be just as wrong. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a lot closer to rocket science than you’d think.
    3) Spend some time understanding the BLM permitting regulations and system before you say “they could have just gone to the BLM and asked them to (told them they were going to?) increase the participant number.” That number is set by the BLM, and based on an environmental analysis of the “carrying capacity” of the environment the event takes place in. Burning Man just turned in a new EA that will be good for the next 5 years, with a higher population cap, but it’s not really that much higher. You wanna know why? The whole thing is limited by exodus, i.e., how to get that many people OFF the playa within 48-72 hours, when all you have to work with is a 60-mile, winding, 2-lane road.
    4) A lot of Burning Man’s decisions about tickets (e.g., not having names on tickets) were based on previous years (and years!) of input and feedback. As I mentioned above, the biggest problem they had was realizing that their world had changed, but not thinking through how those changes would play out with ticketing. In conclusion, I think you hit the nail exactly on the head as to why the “fiasco” came about: “coincidence, incompetence, bad luck, or all of the above.” But that’s nowhere near as sexy as a good conspiracy theory. Good luck with that.

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    • I don’t know anything about American football. In regard to point 2, I would like to ask you again in 3 weeks, please keep us posted. Are you also implementing the lottery system and STEP? With regards to point 3, I agree, hence our more recent post on Air Burners. In regard to point 1, sure they should be able to profit from Burning Man; so should plug-n-play camps, companies providing Playa provisions, people booking art cars to certain camps, and the rest. Burning Man is more than the BMOrg, it is a community. The BMOrg definitely needs to look forward, not backwards, when planning the community’s involvement with their party in the future

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  17. Your poll is AFU.
    First three points are not mutually exclusive, in fact most of them could all be true without excluding the others.
    That simplistic error shows poor performance at logical thinking, and thus undermines your whole rant.

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    • I added the poll to get a sense of the community’s views on this matter, rather than just solely promoting my own opinions and conclusions – is this accident, incompetence, or something more sinister? Yes, it could be a combination of any or all of these factors. I suggest the best way to deal with this, is vote for the MOST likely of all factors in your opinion. If it’s too difficult to pick one, you can vote more than once.

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  18. If he is so wrong and off base. Provide real information on situation. Even simple things like place in STEP waiting list are being hidden for unknown reason.

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  19. I really don’t like that you are spreading such false info to anyone that believes this crap. Yes there are facts in there but you cloud they up with your conspiracy filled ideas. I can tell you are jaded you did not get a ticket but let the fact be that…FACTS…stop bending it to some negative energy within…just let the evolution happen as the Playa grows…and yes…even more will want to go next year…and the early tickets are not for sale because someone had info about the rare tickets situation…it’s at the top tier because they are meant to be the $390 plus a fee for the early release just before the holidays…been that way for years and will continue to be that way I bet…Bottom line…EVERYONE…this website is nothing but political propaganda to worry and confuse the community. Just consider it as “That crazy guy down the street” when you read it.
    –)'(-

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    • I’m offering my opinion, you’re offering your opinion. Thanks for at least acknowledging that I am providing more than a few FACTS to back mine up. Maybe I am crazy, and this all went really well. Maybe no-one connected to BMOrg is making any money at all selling tickets on the secondary market. Maybe when Burning Man fully transitions to a non-profit, we can go back to the way things were and ditch the lottery. Readers please vote, what do you think?

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      • Buddy the facts I referred to are the ones you quote from the BMORG. Anything you say is purely haggard and depraved and just totally wrong…you are like a color blind person trying to explain the color orange to a rainbow.

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