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.
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:
- Someone can’t do maths.
- Someone is lying, to Burners, to the authorities, or both.
- An enormous number of Burners left early compared to any previous year
- 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.