From “Sold Out” to “Shrinking”: Burning Man attendance down on last year

Last year Burning Man was placed on probation for exceeding their population cap of 50,000, with an official attendance of 53,963. This threatened to jeopardize their plan to increase to a population of 70,000 by 2016, in a desert that could comfortably accomodate 100,000. They were also faced with appeals from Burners themselves, one objecting to the damage that a population increase would do to this tiny section of the Black Rock Desert’s suitability for the immensely popular sport of Land Sailing.

The BMorg and the BLM compromised on this years apparently sold out event, by agreeing to a special permit increase to 60,900.

Well, good news all around. Burning Man’s attendance in 2012 was actually 52,385 – a drop in numbers of 1,572. This means that a total of 8,515 tickets went unsold. According to this great article at the Daily Mail, numbers were even less: 47,000.

BMOrg were promoting this as a sold out event right up to the very last minute. As we drove into Burning Man on Sunday, signs proclaimed “no tickets available. Sold out event”. Ticket prices had plummeted below $200 in the week leading up to the event, many were being gifted away for free, although some valiant Burners were maintaining that they should still be allowed to sell their tickets at face value of $390.

Then, very likely thanks to that sign being shown to the 15,000 people with early access passes, ticket prices suddenly started climbing again above $300 on the secondary market.

What gives, Burning Man? What happened to all those extra tickets? Are there really 8,515 Burners sitting there around the world with unused tickets in their hands? I very much doubt it – if this was the case we would have seen WAY more tickets being offered on the Internet (there were about 800 going the week before the event).

How can Burning Man claim to be sold out, when in fact they are undersold 14%? Here’s three possible explanations:

  1. Someone can’t do maths.
  2. Someone is lying, to Burners, to the authorities, or both.
  3. An enormous number of Burners left early compared to any previous year
  4. Professional scalpers somehow got their hands on an absolutely massive number of extra tickets ( about 14% of all tickets, or 16% of all tickets before the special permit increase) and got totally hosed – losing about $3.3 million at a ticket value of $390.

To me, #4 is the least likely. Given the ticket lottery setup, it would be very difficult for scalpers to get that many tickets. And scalpers must have sold some tickets, so if they were left with 16%, they originally must have obtained 20% or more. There was about a 1 in 3 chance of winning the lottery, so to get 10,000 tickets, the professional scalpers would have to have used fake IDs and buyers to bid on 30,000 tickets.

#1 is almost a given. But doesn’t explain everything.

#3 would be an incredible statistical aberration. Perhaps this years dustier conditions caused an early exodus of thousands of Burners, it was certainly worse than last year but to me it didn’t seem any worse than many other years. Maybe the Virgins couldn’t hack it, and bailed early en masse?

As for #2, Burners.Me broke the news to you more than a month ago that Burning Man was not sold out. This was neither confirmed nor denied by BMOrg, who stayed mysteriously silent on the matter – until we got to the gate, and saw their sign proclaiming “Sold Out Event”.

Word on the street is that the lottery system is being considered again for next year. We are tired of these ticket shenanigans and call on Burning Man to have an open, transparent process. Let’s just be like every other event in the world, and sell tickets on a first come, first serve basis. Link them to IDs, and get the gate staff to match names to drivers licenses. Bring back the system of several thousand physical tickets being available for purchase from selected Burner friendly merchants in San Francisco, so if people don’t get tickets online, there is still a chance they might get lucky and find some. And encourage a healthy secondary market – who cares if someone buys a ticket for $390 and sells it to someone else for $500?

[Update 9/6/12 6:58 pm] – Maid Marian told the Associated Press that a large number of Burners did leave early:

Thousands of participants left the gathering well before its traditional climax Saturday night with the torching of its 40-foot signature effigy. The event officially ends Monday.

“Tons and tons of people decided not to stay through Friday and Saturday,” Goodell said. “I think the reason is we have an eight-day event and some people come early and think four days is enough.”

Other “Burners” leave early to avoid the mass exodus usually seen over the holiday weekend, she added.

28 comments on “From “Sold Out” to “Shrinking”: Burning Man attendance down on last year

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  4. I’ve never been to Burning Man and after reading this, I probably never will.

    Just to be clear, I have had fun at other corporate events, so some suits trying to squeeze every dollar out of their customers is not the only reason. It’s also the massive congregation of doucebags and police that I read about. Those two groups seem to travel together everywhere they go and ruin everything they touch. D-bags and cops roughly translated into LAWS & ENFORCEMENT.

    Thanks to the internet media, I have seen and read enough to imagine that I have already been there and the picture I painted in my mind wasn’t that great. There is something unappealing about 40,000 being fenced in with one single exit, surrounded by sheriffs with night vision securing the perimeter should anyone get out of the cage and decide to go on a hike.

    Some people like the prestigious title of “Burner”, but at the end of the day, it’s just a festival- It costs at least $300 to get there and another $300 more to get in? I think not. I’d go if it was $40. That’s about how much some hipsters, douchebags and cops in a desert are worth to me. I was thinking about starting my own festival in the swamps around New Orleans and call it “Sinking Man”…

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  9. Agree with Sherpa mostly. Burners sat on a lot of tickets and got burned not being able to unload them at the end. Some people tried to benefit and the scarcity was 80% artificial. If the borg had tickets left over they would have sold them to the masses clamoring for them. If they lottery again just not buying a ticket until the last minute. They’ll be there. Hopefully they’re smarter than that for weird spaceship year.

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  13. Good analysis…..
    If you have ever been to a baseball game and see them report “attendance” and then look around the stands and see that there is no conceivable way that there are 33,000 fans in attendance tonight when the stadium looks like there is 15,000 and half empty. This is the little metric that they like to call gate vs. paid. So while the Borg loves to be oh so transparent, I think we need to look at gate vs. paid. Now I will start to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but hey when you don’t have an organization that is transparent, it leads to theories as to why things are the way that they are.
    So, let’s examine the most important FACTS.

    1) Bmorg just transitioned to an LLC for profit company and it has been laid out how the original owners are about to be paid $ over several years.

    2) BMORG only makes money off of tickets, ice, coffee, and (after tickets were long sold they increased fees in) service contracts. And ice and coffee sales are directly correlated as to how many people are in attendance.

    So let me tie in my first theorist point. The Borg doesn’t care about gate vs. paid. Unlike any other festival, where they make money off of sponsorships, concessions, merchandise, etc. The Borg REALLY only makes money off of tickets. So from a revenue standpoint, all it cares about is being in the business of selling as many tickets (also at the highest) prices as possible.

    So if, a lot of “veteran” burners who I know sat on the sidelines during the lottery because they thought it was rubbish, do you think the BORG would honestly report that only 50% of tickets sold? That would have caused concern in the market that BM was going to suck this year causing more people not to buy tickets. (And from a content standpoint they really need as many heads as possible creating it, or the whole castle of cards come crashing down, so they just don’t need to sell tickets as possible, they need to sell tickets to the “right” people )So they created this artificial scarcity. Let’s not forget that this year was a very critical payday year for Larry and crew.

    I also thought it was fishy after lottery tickets were originally sold, hearing from friends as to which tier they got. A lot of higher tier tickets with a few lower tiered tickets sprinkled in(to keep people from wondering) Then when step came around, once again if people were trading in their tickets, how come it seemed like every ticket resold just happened to be at the highest tier. Whose to say that if a 1st tier step ticket was sold back, is there any way to verify that the Borg didn’t turn it around and re-sell it at highest tier?

    The Borg makes no money of the secondary market, so on one hand they want to promote their event as being in demand, yet at the same time not promoting it too much to the point where it encourages scalpers, while at the same time also not employing costly per ticket measures to thwart scalpers.

    Then with the theme camp distribution, it was also an artificial scarcity concoction.

    As to the actual gate, after the reports of them going over the limit last year, I was always curious as to how they derived that. I understand on the way in they can count tickets stubs. But on the way out, is there people standing at the gate with a clicker counting how many cars and rvs are leaving and how are they counting how many people are in those cars? Who is doing the auditing?

    I thought it was fishy that they waited to August 1st to do step again, especially with so many disenfranchised burners and not allowing enough time for burners to build art and projects. Especially when the “step system” had already been created and utilized earlier on in the year. But had they went earlier on, they would have flooded the market with tickets.

    I always thought step was fishy. I knew of so many burners without tickets and vice versa that if I had an extra ticket, why would I go through step? I would just sell it to my friends directly and vice versa. So when step occured and I guestimated based on time I was admitted before they closed it down, I was at the 1,000 person mark. And then in like 3 weeks later, I was given the “option” to purchase tickets. That is like 2% of the market deciding to a) not have any friends to sell their tickets to and b) deciding not to go so far away from the event. (usually people decide not to go about 1-2 weeks away)

    As a veteran burner who likes to think of himself as having some social equity in the burner ecosystem, I knew of no one with an extra ticket, so I don’t buy the excuse that burners were hoarding.

    And it wouldn’t surprise me if the BLM and the Borg are in cahoots together. The BLM is notorious as having the least government oversight of any government agency. Why? Because unlike the USPS which has billions of $ of cost overuns, the BLM is a huge revenue generator for the govt, so it is left alone. (this is coming from a guy who used to work on capital hill) The BLM stands to profit if BM is successful and sells more tickets. If Bm goes the way of a Lollapalooza and has hit its peak and it is on its way down, the BLM has everything to gain by “assisting ” the Borg in the perception of overcapacity sell out (see 2011) number manipulation to hell get the pr out there how “in demand” bm is. Anyone ever seen a nightclub with a line out the door, only to get inside and the place is empty? The doormen employ this tactic call line stacking to create artificial demand. People see the line and think the club is popular.

    I will give a little credence to the thought that perhaps people left early. Across the board, there wasn’t ever really longer than a 3 hour wait on exodus. But it still makes no sense that why would people pay money and leave before the climax on saturday night; just to try and bypass a couple extra hours wait on exodus? Makes no sense.

    Well, just to keep in mind something very important. BM as they like to quote themselves as one giant human experiment. It doesn’t / wouldn’t surprise me that the Borg is just playing scientist manipulating us vairables for their own analyses.

    Sorry for the rant. 😉

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  15. I came early and left late, spending 13 days on the playa. I had a bunch of virgins in my camp that bought tickets less than two weeks before the event from people on Craig’s list, for less than 200.00 dollars. I think, sadly, Burners, horded tickets, purchasing more than they needed, thinking they would sell them later to friends or for a profit. The bottom fell out of the ticket market, leaving many tickets unused. It was a great burn, I loved every minute of it, but I’m sure it will suck next year.

  16. My camp didn’t get tickets en masse, but two of us went (each alone, me on Sunday, him on Monday) and both of us left early (Me on Thursday, him on Friday). I don;t think it’s crazy to think that there were more like us, plus a bunch of virgins who bought with the best of intentions, but didn’t go after all.

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  18. 5. People were stuck with STEP only tickets after the STEP program closed and were unable to go to Burning Man and unable to sell them. And left eating the cost of a ticket that they couldn’t sell or give to anyone else.

      • I know at least 1 person in that situation, I don’t think it accounts for 8,500 tickets. Just something else to help try and figure out how those 8500 tickets added up.

        The STEP program closed a couple weeks before the burn. It had to be a last minute change of plans for them to eat their tickets.

  19. the temple was smaller and appeared as if it would burn very briefly (though it ended up being a beautiful burn anyway) so many people left before the burning of the temple

    • I know at least 1 person in that situation, I don’t think it accounts for 8,500 tickets. Just something else to help try and figure out how those 8500 tickets added up.

  20. I have to say this year’s organization level has been hugely disappointing. I expect this level out of someone throwing a free party for the first time not a 25 year 50,000 person event. We were looking forward to going this year in 2012 but when none of our crew got tickets we giften our tickets away to someone who needed them. We couldn’t wait for 1 month before the event to see if we could get tickets – coming from Canada this is a huge expense, planning required and taking time off.

    Now that they’re thinking of the lottery again for 2013? I won’t even bother, 2 more tickets for someone else. If they didn’t figure out this year that it was a clusterf*ck, then I have no hope for the BORG to be able to organize this event properly. Again.

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