By Terry Gotham
In 2006, out in the Deep Playa, about as far away from the Man as the man was from 10 & 2, there was this piece of art called Uchronia that we affectionately dubbed the “Belgian Waffle.” A massive installation by Belgian artists that we were quite sad never served breakfast. At night, it turned into de facto megaclub on playa cranking out some of the stompiest techno, trance and glitter house I’d ever heard. I found it to be a very interesting alternative to some of the American, non-fully electronicized camps that still played a mix of jazz, house, disco, alternative & live sounds. It was at times a dirty, intoxicated mess of fur coats and tekno music.
I had no idea that installation would be relevant as a metaphor 11 years later, after a Global Leadership Conference & insightful Burn.Life article on how the powers that be see the problems that plague Black Rock City. People are finally realizing that the utopia they took such pride in building has become an unaffordable, elitist, mainstreamed event. The ticketing system, while a noble attempt at solving the “Burning Man is Full” problem that simply didn’t exist a decade ago, continues to frustrate long-time Burners & small/mid-size camps, the true bread and butter of Burning Man.
Does anyone rememberthe Krug/Town & Country debacle from 2012? Everyone threw up their hands and tried to excommunicate a champagne company & an agency marketing manager that already saw the writing on the wall. Let’s be real here, what exactly were the consequences for that stunt again? The petition to get them to stop earned a sterling 66 signatures. From Journal.Burningman.org itself:
Town & Country Magazine contacted us post-event for photo review and permission. By that time, we had found out that this was not a real Burning Man event, but a product placement story, and we refused permission for Town & Country to publish any photographs from the event. Sadly, they sent the story to press anyway, very much in violation of the photographer’s agreement with Burning Man which prohibited any such publication. Unfortunately, the timing was too short for us to file a lawsuit against them enjoining the publication. That’s what BMHQ does to prevent this type of commodification.
So the punishment for the gross invasion of our space and being one of the many tips of the spear attacks on the Burning Man cultural universe in the last decade, was: a. Town & Country reporters got to publish Burning Man photographs under their own name AND b. the profit that Krug/Town & Country got from running the campaign remained unfettered by consequence. Seems like a pretty sweet deal to me. This is one of the problems that utopians run into with capitalists. Capitalists play hardball, utopians built for consensus. Capitalists also tend to show up for the last weekend, not participate in the community, not clean up after themselves and leave so much MOOP you’d think you were at a festival in Glastonbury. I think a lot of people forget that Burning Man doesn’t ban people, at least not at scale/visibility such that it’s a deterrent. Dancetronauts was warned and still caused problems before their Art Car permit was denied. That didn’t exclude them from the event though, it just meant they had to sink their money into a camp instead of their mobile Sternum Rub.
Just because something is popularly known, doesn’t mean it’s accessible or wanted. Plenty of people have heard of datura, salvia concentrates & PCP, but you don’t see piles of people doing them, as most people recognize those 3 drugs as shitty value propositions. Most party people have an idea of a “festival” that involves staying in a hotel and going to South Beach every day for a week, not getting playa dust caked onto everything they own or tolerating a week full of geriatric shirt cockers. Not saying their opinion is correct, just that BM didn’t seem worth it to them, cause it’s a lot of effort for not so much pay off.
Burning Man has, historically, had a lot humps for people to get over. Having to buy their own food, taking care of themselves in the desert & the music not being that great (for the market segment who go to Coachella & other mainstream festivals), kept a lot of people the Conference is concerned about out. Burning Man simply didn’t have the mainstream appeal to attract lazy sparkle ponies. Or, more specifically, sparkle ponies that didn’t have stablehands. A lot of high net worth party people didn’t come to BM because even if you spent a ton of money, you’d still have to do a bunch of unappealing shit in a semi-hostile environment.
With the explosion of turn-key camps, branded experiences and lifestyle/travel bookers understanding the limitless upside of BM-related service/support, that barrier to entry has come down. If I need to be able to operate an RV that I just rented or perhaps even cook my own food or replace my own ice/water, I can’t be fucked up 24/7. If I come in for the weekend, grab my pre-made camp environment key, eat meals cooked for me, and have my party line-up already prepared, I don’t need to be good at surviving on playa at all. All of a sudden, the conditions that allow those people to flourish/not die in Black Rock City, are not only there, but advertised. And then, people are shocked that they showed up?
A lot of Burners have suggested ideas to fix this that would be effective, but many either too unrealistic or unprofitable to make it to testing. Furthermore, some of them directly impact the ability of certain types of people to go (Pro-Tip: Saying that only those who volunteer should get tickets, ensures that people who are too broke to have free time to volunteer after work, won’t ever get to go to Burning Man. But, for some in the community that’s a positive, so your mileage may vary.). Given that the ones provided sound distinctly like they were created in a room with a whiteboard by a team of people who do this for tech companies, I think what actually would work lies distinctly within the realm of smart activism.
- Put more thought into the ticketing system. Seriously. I don’t know how this qualifies as a solution but there are dozens of ways to make this process more friendly to regulars & less exposed to StubHub/assholes. If a ticket was tied to a name and non-transferrable, we could make it such that if you needed to sell it/couldn’t go, you’d sell it back to BM, who would then issue it to the next person on the waiting list/low-income list and you’d be charged a handling/processing fee to keep the marketplace running. This isn’t rocket science y’all, plenty of regionals are doing innovative things when it comes to ticketing, maybe listen to them.
- While restricting the BM airport to single/double Prop planes or removing the airport entirely could greatly reduce weekend douche-cannon numbers, the non-DOA solution would be a massive (1000% ticket cost) fee increase to land a private jet at the Burning Man airport. If Zuck wants to fund 20 more art installations or 500 low-income tickets to land his Lear Jet at BM, I’m kind of ok with that.
- If we really wanted to get creative, MOOP ratings could be collated with gate entry day. If we confirm that the lamewads always show up on Thurs/Fri/Sat (a long-standing belief among some circles), then just charge an increasingly obnoxious gate entry fee for late arrivals and tech bros out for the weekend.
- Prioritize tickets for camps with 100% MOOP ratings. Since all the tech people are hanging out here, let’s borrow an idea from Uber. Create tiers of MOOP ratings for camps (100%, 91-99%, 81-90%, etc) and then designate more tickets for cleaner camps. Furthermore, camps that produce participatory events, add value, or offer unique services should not have to cancel/scale back attendance because they didn’t get enough tickets. Plug & Play camps are extra, in every sense of the word. Contributing camps & teams that make the playa what it is should be taken care of before the billionare sparkle ponies get their chance.
- Seriously consider restricting internet access to logistics & event staff. If we are truly in a place where you don’t need to bring your own internet access and internet will be truly pervasive before 2020, drop the issue entirely and focus 100% on the culture and people at the event. Unless you want to put a Faraday Cage around Black Rock City, this is a battle BMOrg will lose decisively.
- Start a discussion about requiring attending a recognized regional burn (if you live within range of one). This would be a very controversial first step, one that could place undue burden on first timers or burners of modest means. However, the easiest way to tell whether you’d prefer to participate at Burning Man or party at EDC Las Vegas is going to Transformus, Firefly or Flipside. However, regional burn directors may not want to be Rush Coordinators/Pledgemasters for a bunch of newbies, so this idea could very well be DOA.
- Assess the potential to monitor delivered/pre-constructed lodging. This is a problematic suggestion because there will always be people arriving earlier than others to do prep work at even the smallest camps. But, if major plug & play services didn’t have a business model anymore, that could slow their creeping growth.
To be clear, I have no, I repeat NO problem with luxurious camps, cavernous, air conditioned spaces, or party tents that rival most bars in SoHo. If the elite want to roll up their sleeves, get there a week early, build the shit out of something, and share it for all of playa, more power to them, and I’ll tip my hat in public recognition of their contributions to Black Rock City. But if they want to pay peasants to build a Vegas day club 3 hours from Reno with a velvet rope and a dude wearing a security ear piece, maybe they should just hang out at Vegas day clubs 7 hours in the other direction from Reno. To pretend this is just starting to happen, is to pretend the money changers haven’t been hanging out in and around the temple selling t-shirts and poppers for years now.