Burning Man: Love It or Leave It?

by Whatsblem the Pro

IMAGE: Whatsblem the Pro

“If you don’t like the way it’s run, go start your own event!”

When people start talking about the negative aspects of Burning Man – whether they offer solutions or not – it’s a good bet that others will cite the inevitability of change, and say things like “if you don’t like what Burning Man has become, go start your own event!”

It’s a sentiment that recalls a bumper sticker often proudly displayed on redneck pickup trucks during the Vietnam War era, that read “America: Love It or Leave It.” Like that bumper sticker, it expresses an idea that is strongly counter to the culture it pretends to support. Burning Man, like America, is supposed to be a participatory place where you take enough pride in your citizenship to actively criticize what needs criticizing, and try to fix it.

In more specific terms, “go start your own event” ignores and clashes with at least three of the much-vaunted Ten Principles – Civic Responsibility, Communal Effort, and Participation – as well as some of the most deeply-held unofficial tenets of our culture, like the idea of a ‘do-ocracy’ in which you are expected to refrain from merely complaining about problems you see in favor of actually getting involved in solving them. What’s behind “if you don’t like it, go start your own event” is a deeply jingoist attitude suitable only for insufferably flippant spectators who are assuming you are a spectator too. . . and a spectator is one of the worst possible things you can be at Burning Man without committing some kind of actual crime.

Even the corporation that runs Burning Man seems to put a lot of effort into encouraging burners to spread the culture around and start new events rather than trying to change the existing one. . . but what they don’t mention is that they insist you move forward only with their approval and their trademark licenses. In other words, you can go start your own event if you don’t like the way they run Burning Man, but you have to do it the way they — the people who run Burning Man — tell you to.

Corey Rosen, aka ‘Endeavor,’ hasn’t left Burning Man; he loves it and still works as a Greeter each year. He is, however, currently in the process of spreading the culture around by starting his own event. . . the Digital Renaissance Faire, a gathering that in spite of the name has everything to do with burner culture and burner values, and nothing whatsoever to do with the Renaissance Faire.

Since he — like nearly all burners — is creative and has ideas on how the Burning Man model could be improved, Rosen is doing it his own way instead of slavishly following the example set by the Burning Man organization’s decisions.

Possibly the biggest difference between Burning Man and the Digital Renaissance Faire is that, at Burning Man, only the corporation that runs the event — known as “the Org,” or “BMOrg,” or even “the Borg,” — is allowed to make any money. On the plus side, this means that nobody is trying to sell you drinks or t-shirts. . . but a miserly three to four percent of the ticket revenue is paid out as arts grants, while hordes of participants build and transport their art to the event without any remuneration at all, often spending huge sums to do so. In recent years, even the art projects lucky enough to get grants from the Org have had to turn to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise the rest of the money necessary to build and transport the mind-blowing creations that are a large part of what makes Burning Man so popular and successful.

In contrast, the Digital Renaissance Faire issues shares to all active participants, in proportion to their level of participation. At the end of the week, any profits generated are distributed to the people who actually build the event, bring the art, put on performances, organize workshops, and otherwise contribute.

Corey Rosen and his Digital Renaissance Faire are not a threat to Burning Man; the DRF doesn’t take place the same week as Burning Man, for one thing. . . and the DRF is actually designed to facilitate Burning Man, by providing large art and theme camps with both a testbed where they can shake the bugs out of their projects before taking them to Black Rock City, and a convenient spot to store their gear year-round that is not terribly far from the playa.

Since Rosen practices transparent accounting and shares the event’s take with the artists, performers, and workers who actually build it and operate it, it would be seriously unjust to say that he’s trying to commercialize the aspects of the event that are inspired by Burning Man. If Rosen was trying to cash in on Burning Man’s cachet and ethos, he’d do it just like the corporation that runs Burning Man does it: by keeping the accounting secret, and keeping the lion’s share of the profits for himself. Instead, he directly facilitates the art, theme camps, performers, etc. by cutting them all in for a percentage. Meanwhile, at Burning Man, only three to four percent of the ticket revenue – which is not the only income generated by the event – goes out as art grants; furthermore, those grants only go to those few projects hand-picked by the people clutching the purse strings. . . and as for the workers who build all the infrastructure, most of them don’t get paid at all.

Corey Rosen, acting in good faith on the constant exhortations from the corporate heads of Burning Man, is trying to spread the culture. . . but he’s also trying to play fair with the money, and his transparent business model that shares the revenue equitably with the participants who build everything presents a serious threat to Burning Man’s Board of Directors. If Rosen succeeds and proves that his business model is sound, the tiny group of amateur oligarchs that own Burning Man will no longer be able to claim that such a business model is an unworkable pipe dream. If that happens, they may very well come under pressure to follow Corey Rosen’s lead, and finally step down from the back of the cash cow they’ve been riding for decades.

Rosen has a lot to teach us about what actually happens when you act in good faith by taking the Burning Man Org at their word, and do what they tell you to do.

[NOTE: As you read Rosen’s account of his dealings with Burning Man, keep in mind that most of the Ten Principles were not written by anyone at Burning Man. . . for instance, “Leave No Trace” began as an ad campaign by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, and came to the playa via the Cacophony Society.]

Corey Rosen speaks:

My first interaction with the Burning Man organization about the Digital Renaissance Faire was back in October of 2012. I got in touch with my main contact over there to tell him we were planning a co-op festival, and he said Burning Man could not sanction the event because the participants were being paid. He then explained to me that Burning Man is working on another way to work with events similar to theirs that are more profit-driven. I came to find out that certain events given approval by Burning Man do pay talent, so I didn’t understand why an event that pays all the participants based on the profit of the event would be a problem. I also found that asking that question might cause problems, so I chose not to.

For over a month, I reached out to my contact at BMOrg to work with him on making sure we were in compliance with the event we were inspired by, with little response. Most of the responses I did receive were to tell me that he was too busy to contact me.

Once we launched our website, I received this email from him:

You are not a sanctioned event and did jump the gun to modify the Ten Principles and list them as if they were your own invention and writing. For trademark purposes it is better to not alter something and instead link to the original thing in a way that is clearly not plagiarized.

I think you should actually take them down because the Principles can be misconstrued to be something you originated and they are not. They are clearly derived from Burning Man’s Ten Principles.

Right now my understanding is that it is better to say you have been inspired by the Ten Principles of Burning Man and link to them vs. change them and make them seem like they are your own. I think you should also say “this event is not related or affiliated with Burning Man or The Burning Man Project, but we have been inspired by the guiding Principles of Burning Man.”

I am uncertain at this point if you should even directly link to the Ten Principles. So I guess the safest thing you can do right now is remove the plagiarized ones you have on your site and simply say “we have been inspired by Burning Man and it’s guiding principles” and then we can talk again.

I’d rather you not promote your event at the Artumnal Gathering until we have had the proper time to review this. I am sorry, but these things take time to properly vet. As I told you on the playa we have about fifty official regional events a year and what you are doing does not fit into the process we have in place at the moment. What you are doing is not something we have done before and we are not prepared to recognize it as official or sanction it at this time.

I enjoyed talking to you about it on the playa but I also told you then that the “profit sharing” model and this not being originated through the regional network made it something that would require careful consideration and we cannot directly affiliate with it at this time. I am truly sorry I could not get complete clarity and meet with you when you wanted. To be perfectly honest I feel you rushed the process and even now at a time when I must focus my energies elsewhere you are being a bit demanding. I realize you don’t mean to be so, but I need to be clear that I gave you no permission on behalf of Burning Man to take the steps you took.

I immediately changed the text on the website accordingly, and received this follow-up e-mail later that same day:

Thanks and forgive me if I am a little edgy right now. It has been a very busy Fall and I am in final production mode for Artumnal Gathering.

Yes, it is fine for you to talk to people about your event and fine to tell them about your unusual concept and that you are a burner and are inspired by Burning Man.

I received no more contact until I reached out to him about my not getting on the list for the Burning Man Summit in April, which I found out three days before the event. Nothing malicious there, just someone forgetting to submit my name and getting no help from the Burning Man organization.

Some time after my last contact with the BMOrg, we decided to put together a decompression event. We even called it DRF Decompression. Less than twelve hours after posting the event details on Facebook, we received a message from Burning Man sent to my partner’s e-mail address, saying that we had to change the name of the event because Burning Man owns the name Decompression. I had multiple people telling me to fight it, but I chose to let it go, be cooperative, and change the event name.

The most recent interaction I had with Burning Man was right before the event. Since we are creating the Digital Renaissance Faire as a participation-funded co-op festival, we have been given many things to make this event successful. I had the idea of creating a Digital Renaissance Faire token to give out as a gift to the community that inspired us. I found a token company and we were going to buy a thousand of them and give twenty each to the DRF community members going out to Burning Man. When I told the owner of the token company what we were doing and what our event was all about, he decided to donate 10,000 tokens so I could give a hundred to each of our community members, to gift out at Burning Man. I thought this was a generous offer and graciously accepted.

Unfortunately, the tokens could not be shipped and in our hands until the Monday the event started. I posted on my page for help looking for a place to have them shipped to, and someone coming to the playa Monday night or later to receive them. Instead, I received a phone call from my partner saying she received a cease and desist order from Burning Man telling us that we were not allowed to bring our “promotional material” to the event.

I contacted their intellectual property attorney and spent almost two hours on the phone with him explaining that they are not promotional material, but gifts for the community that inspired us. Once he understood what our non-corporate community-based entity was all about, he said I could bring them out but only give them to campmates and close friends. 

If you’re in Northern California and you’d like to learn more about the Digital Renaissance Faire and maybe show a little support, you have a golden opportunity coming up on November 11th, when the DRF Synchronicity Celebration takes place simultaneously in three separate California towns: Vallejo, CA; Nevada City, CA; Lake Tahoe, CA.

16 comments on “Burning Man: Love It or Leave It?

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  4. Thank you for your blog and these discussions. With the LLC’s and the LLC supporters’ attitudes toward constructive recommendations being, “If you don’t like what we are doing, don’t come”, I wonder how much of the veteran Burner population has taken this message to heart and stopped coming to the playa?

    Why did so many cool Burners who helped throw this party for so many years stop coming to the playa? This year, there were about 29,000 newbies and about 43,000 people with 1 or fewer previous burns, overwhelming the only about 18,000 people with more than 2 previous burns and only about 10,000 people with more than 4 previous burns*. Were the formerly contributing Burners pissed at the LLC making millions of profits off participants’ contributions? Ticket fiascos? Life changes? Lack of respect and cred given by the org for their contributions? Too many rules? Not willing to deal with such overwhelming numbers of newbies and spectators? Their friends stopped coming due to the above so they stopped coming also? No effective voice or representation in decisions that matter? All of the above?

    What I heart about Burning Man is everyone pitching in together to throw an incredible party! Whether it be theme camps that do incredible stuff for others, artists providing beautiful and thought provoking art, art car builders showing off their unbelievable vehicles, or participants making it an insane party. As well as all the volunteers that gifted their time and effort to keep this party going: from the BRC Rangers not caring about the rubbish rules and just helping people get along and picking up ones who failed at basic survival, the psychos at DPW building whatever’s needed, the awesomely good medical people, and Gate verifying that participants make the contributions necessary to allow the event to happen. So many cool Burners doing so many insane things to throw this party!

    But now, the culture on the playa has changed dramatically. The culture has changed with Larry and Co. trying to make Burning Man for everyone, with their ticket distributions, by embracing the huge Plug & Plays for spectators, by bending over too far for the wankers at BLM and in Nevada with all their rules, and bending over for the LEOs with all their abusive behaviour. Which is a great strategy if the LLC’s goal is to get their massive salaries and payouts without respecting the Burner community’s opposition to this by saying, “If you don’t like what we are doing, don’t come.”

    Burner culture on the playa has changed dramatically. The City, almost everywhere behind the Esplanade, is now dead in the evening and night except in small pockets, with minimal lights and almost no music as per the new sound policy – which is unfortunately going to be tightened for next year per AARP ticket buyers’ demands and one of the LLC’s old-timers freaking out about sound, trying to make Burning Man for everyone. Never mind that every good party has music, when was the last time you were at a good party that didn’t have the music going? The LLC doesn’t want non-Esplanade theme camps to throw good parties?

    Burner culture on the playa has changed in that few camps now offer food to passer-bys, whether it be burn-barrel bacon, grilled cheese sandwiches, hotcakes, or tacos, where it used to be common. Did you see a flame thrower or even a burn barrel on the playa this year? It used to be normal. Most attendees walked right past our dance music with their defaultia stare and without shaking their bootie; walked right past the wankers with bullhorns without interacting with them or jokingly telling them to f-off; and walked or rode right by camps trying to attract them into their events while seemingly wondering why the camps were trying to interrupt them in their travels. It was sad to have to card people when so few under 21s are on the playa, and even sadder still that they normally had their cards at the ready. The rule book, or Survival Guide as they like to call it, is now overwhelming at 18 pages, which doesn’t even account for all the rules that theme camps, art cars, and anyone sharing food or trying to volunteer need to follow. Dramatic changes to the basic Burner culture, most of which aren’t necessary. Is this part of the reason why so many cool Burners have stopped coming to the playa?

    It used to be most everyone figuring out how and what they would like to gift to others, and everyone trying to Participate in throwing this party rather than just Spectate. Most everyone pitched together on how to build and transport their theme camps, or participate in their theme camps’ gifts to others. But now, you have the Takers at the LLC getting huge and continuing payouts without any transparency, the Takers running the large Plug & Plays making significant incomes, the Takers in some governments trying to get as much as they can from the org and from participants, and the takers-lite who are in the desert just for spectating at a cool festival. All off others’ work. Why should the Givers building theme camps, art, incredible art cars, and volunteering their heart & soul do so when Takers are taking advantage of the gifts that the Givers give? There’s a word for Givers in situations like that. It’s called: Suckers. Is this part of the reason that so many cool Burners have stopped coming to the playa?

    In Defaultia, business schools write papers about how to get workers and others to give and give for the profit of business owners and management. We come to the desert to get away from that rubbish, away from others telling us what to do, away from others making a profit off of our efforts.

    The question is: “Why should we continue to gift all this when others are taking advantage of our contributions?” Is this part of the reason so many cool Burners have stopped coming to the playa?

    But, it’s not too late to reclaim the Burner culture. We need leadership that will include contributing Burner voices in the non-profit’s ownership and provide transparency on the community’s financials. We need leadership that doesn’t try to make Burning Man for everyone – people that don’t like to participate in a wild, dusty, noisy, nearly 24 hour a day party that requires one to figure out how to survive on their own in a nasty environment need not be catered to. Place the large Plug & Plays out by K and L, instead of in prime locations, and without early entry passes. Get the tickets to contributing Burners and their friends, and to ones that contribute to regionals around the country and around the world. Fight back hard against bureaucracy and all their rules, and against the LEOs with all their nasty borderline-illegal behaviour. Restore the old principle, “There are no Spectators, only Participants”.

    LLC, please stop saying, “Burners, if you disagree with our policies, rules, and massive payments, don’t bring your contributions and stuff to the playa”. LLC, instead, please listen to them and stop changing Burner culture on the playa to accomodate nearly everyone so you can sell more tickets at higher prices.


    * 2013 Gate Census, which ran from Friday of build week through Wednesday of event week:

    Number of Previous Years:
    0: 42.0%
    1: 20.2%
    3-4: 13.2%
    5-7 6.3%
    8-10: 3.4%
    11 or more: 3.5%

    Age: Under 20: 2.5%; 20-24: 10.8%; 25-29: 22.1%; 30-34: 21.8%; 35-39: 12.8%; 40-49: 15.1%; 50-59: 10.4%; 60+: 4.4%

    • thanks for this excellent comment. You’re spot on IMO. “Too many rules” and “too many cops” are the main reasons I hear why old-time Burners don’t want to go any more. That, and as the community ages, they start having young families, priorities change. The people you partied with ten years ago probably won’t be the same ones around you today – even if you manage to keep friendships that long in the party scene, people move, new ones come in. And not everyone can make it to Burning Man, every year for ten years. So change is part of it, and that’s a good thing, I like meeting new people at Burning Man. Sometimes it’s great seeing the excitement in the shiny eyes of the Virgins, sometimes they’re a pain in the ass and need to be slapped in the face with an explanation of what “radical self reliance” actually means in a hostile desert.

      I agree with you that the city planners could do more to structure the change and shape the evolution in a way that is conducive to the prosperous growth of the culture; instead, it seems like their strategy is “get all the old ones out because they complain”. Which is working, either by design, by luck, or by a big “fuck you” statement on the part of the Burners who’ve seen all this develop over the years. There is an endless supply of fresh newbies who’ve heard about the party and want to come. Now that P.Diddy is there, it is going to be much, much bigger. There is no problem with demand. My prediction is we will see ticket prices go above $500 in the next 3 years, and I would not be surprised if they were more than $1000 by 2020. People would pay, on a daily basis it’s still not unreasonable for what you’re getting – and for most people, the ticket price would still be one of their smaller expenses related to the party, less than the transportation costs to get there, costumes, booze and accessoires. Even if the number of art cars and art projects and major sound stages there dropped in half, the product being offered would still be huge, the largest dance party and art festival in the world. Burning Man is here to stay, like Coachella and Electric Daisy and Ultra. It will continue to have unique elements, guaranteed. Can they keep the magic there, as their “petri dish” fills up with dicks?

      Burner culture is a precious thing, and up to all of us to nurture and preserve. It’s too precious to leave in the hands of corporate interests, even if they were very competent. The value they place on profit is measured in dollars, not the rich cultural tapestry that should be shared with humanity as The Pirate Party espouses. Even if the individual founders and managers of BMOrg don’t think that way, it’s a machine now. It’s beyond any one person’s control. How do you direct the evolution of a culture? Inspiration works better than restriction.

      Where do old Burners go once the pastures are too full of Takers? Hopefully somewhere with a pool and a luxury day spa.

  5. There are serious problems with how co-op festivals like DRF separate participants into creators and spectators. At minimum, all those expecting to receive money back feel they must engage in bullshit to optimize that. I’d agree that BM exploits all participants more than DRF, but BM succeeds in creating a decomodified environment while DRF falls short of real decomodification.

    I camped with a big BM sound camp this year, absolutely lovely people, but I won’t camp with a BM sound camp again. Why? Big BM sound camps are not a decomodified environment. Important personnel like DJs and builder are given tickets and/or comped camp fees, which absolutely does create drama. Some camp members are annoying because they feel they’re buying a service. Some helpers annoy organizer or whoever by not doing their job. etc. Why deal with that?

    I’m happy that BMOrg protects the burner ideology for the regional events, even if they themselves are financially incompetent and/or corrupt. I won’t actually contribute to BM art projects, because I’d rather all my contributions go to regionals that follow the principles better, but Ill enjoy it more than a co-op festival.

  6. Cery wrote; “I contacted their intellectual property attorney and spent almost two hours on the phone with him explaining that they are not promotional material, but gifts for the community that inspired us.” = thank goodness the attorney recognized the bs you were spewing and the rest of us were relieved from having to see you promotional campaign.

  7. There are tons of regional groups where people have successfully “started their own events” with no interference from BMOrg. Half of our local events aren’t even seeking official BMOrg approval, even though they espouse the ten principles and adhere to them just as much as any “official regional”.

    You don’t like having people at the top profiting off the work of others? Me either. I also don’t like that Burning Man has free tickets for those who “participate” hard enough (though I understand the necessity). DRF distributes the profits, but reinforces the divide between compensated participants and spectators.

    I like the regional scene. At most of them, everybody buys a ticket. Nobody profits or receives compensation (and lots are organized through a non-profit rather than an LLC). We’re all participants. The community selects the theme, and anybody can build the effigy. I just saw the financials for an unofficial regional that spent 55% of their production costs on art grants.

    The culture HAS spread. We don’t need BMOrg, and we’re doing it better than BMOrg. Come visit more regionals and write about them.

    • one thing I love about going to Envision in Costa Rica, is seeing all the local vendors happy because they make more in the one week with this party than they do the whole rest of the year.

  8. We have a love it or leave it issue here in GA for Alchemy and Euphoria. We’ve been in and out and in the good graces of the Borg form some time. Of course, this article makes the Borg look to me, like they are commodifying my fucking burn by profiting but, that’s another rant. Here in Good ole GA, we have a load of or, at least a few VERY LOUD participants who constantly demand additional principles. I forget what most of them are but, the big betty of bitching is ::drum rolllllll:: CONSENT! I do tell these people to start their own event because, it seems like a very personal issue, what with them being indecisive. Consent to me is akin to Radical Self Reliance and Civic Responsibility; if you count both parties involved. I mean, these people go so far as to say, “Get consent during the day when everyone’s sober so you don’t question the dirty at night.”

    Being a girl, I sympathize with the one’s who were “kinda” raped. It’s kinda like you weren’t sure you wanted to but, went ahead with it because it seemed like an ok idea at the time out of horniness or, you did not want to disappoint your partner. Believe me, I’ve been getting some and, like 5 minutes in, decided I really didn’t want to do it anymore but. It’s mean to be like, “hey dude… Sorry bro you get blue balls… by the way you just raped me.” I let them finish or, accelerate their finishing and LIVE WITH MY DECISION.

    Believe me I can’t post that last paragraph on our page because it will lite a flame 1,000 posts long before girls get vicious and then the mod deletes the whole thing.

    • I find it sad that you feel you have to settle for such poor communication in sexual situations, and that in the past you’ve felt obliged to carry on with sex even though you were no longer into it. Personally I think the consent issue is very important, and one which I sincerely hope everyone thinks about and discusses in good faith at regular intervals.

      Why? Because just imagine how cool it would have been if your ex-partners had genuinely cared about about whether they were having sex with someone who was fully and enthusiastically consenting. Imagine they genuinely cared about your safety and your pleasure. Imagine that instead of going on with unwanted sex, putting aside your own needs and desires and comfort out of fear of disappointing them / because you felt pressured, you had felt at all times that you were allowed, nay encouraged, to speak up about how you were feeling, and that you would be heard and your desires respected. Imagine that not content with giving you the chance to express your feelings, your partners had actually looked out for you, and reacted considerately to physical and non-verbal clues that you were not into it, and given you a real chance to express how you felt.

      That’s how sex should be, right? But it can’t be that way without informed consent. Informed consent is what prevents non-consensual sex from happening (and non-consensual sex SUCKS. I’ve been there, and I ain’t going back), sometimes despite the desires of both people involved (or more). Give it a try – it really works. (A quick Google suggested http://www.doctornerdlove.com/2013/03/enthusiastic-consent/ as a good starting point, and there are a lot of good resources out there. Seriously – don’t settle for bad sex. Life’s too short, and you are worth more than that.)

  9. I haven’t been to Burning Man since the ticket fiasco a couple years ago and all the politics involved all the negative stories bout the core group of people running burning man makes me sick to my stomach and second guess ever going to another burn. Personally speaking I’d be more likely to go to an event like DRF over the burn as they seem to be a bit more upfront about their actions and haven’t screwed over people left and right. burning man is no longer what it once was and I for one will be taking another year away from the playa as it is no longer home to me. last week I watched 3 people get their burning man tattoo’s laser removed. obviously there’s people out there that feel the same way yet stronger about it than I do as they’re willing to go through that due to the sham that has become the burning man organization. to say that burning man isn’t about profit is ridiculous the actions of the organization prove this.

    • After going five years straight, I also stopped going once the ticket fiasco surfaced. One of the constructive criticisms I offered MANY times was that, to avoid scalpers, they could first offer tickets to those that had attended before. After all, they have our email addresses, and we are often people who participate ion the theme camps. But this was never taken seriously, and instead they came up with this ticket gauntlet, subject to their caprice.

      As I have also suggested, since they seem to be amazingly concerned that anyone scalp a ticket for a $10 profit, when their gross profit is over 50%, they should just find a bigger venue that will not sell out. But, no, that might be some work and make them have to earn the $10-$15 million the BOrg pays itself to run the event.

  10. Interesting that you had the same reaction to the “love it or leave it” mentality that is offered to even constructive criticism. (That led me some months ago to create the image I have uploaded to the Burner.me post on FB.) What is interesting is that the BOrg wants to spawn “your own event” but wants to maintain control. I doubt that the Ten Principles could not stand a re-write, and any attempt to claim rights to a re-write would only make money for the BOrg lawyers – which I am sure is a major item in their annual budget.

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