Selling Out Part I – Wrapping The Gifting

Burning Man is partly the story of a half-dozen eccentrics—an unemployed landscaper (Larry Harvey), an art model (Crimson Rose), a struggling photographer (Will Roger Peterson), a dot-com PR gal (Marian Goodell), an aerobics instructor (Harley Dubois), and a signmaker (Michael Mikel)—who made good. Less charitably, it’s the tale of a group of slackers who grabbed hold of the one thing that brought them notice—and, eventually, a paycheck—and have ruthlessly ridden it for all it’s worth. The truth contains elements of both, of course, but one thing’s for sure: it’s never boring.

…so said Brad Wieners in the excellent Oral History of Burning Man at Outside Online.
Let’s say that you’re the dirty half-dozen mentioned above. You’re a partner in an LLC, a corporate structure designed to distribute profits to the partners over many years. You’ve been running this LLC for nearly 20 years, and the event it owns the rights and permits to has grown to one of the biggest and most famous in the world. The contract you signed with the LLC says that you’re on the Board of Directors, and if you ever leave – voluntarily or involuntarily – you will get only $20,000 – or a share of the profits. Whichever is lesser, which gives you an idea of the sort of profits they were looking at when this contract was drafted. [see agreement at the end of this post]

Of course, you’re not going to leave. It’s worth more than 20 grand. It makes $30 million a year, it’s gotta be worth at least 1x sales. Bloomberg called it “Silicon Valley’s Hottest Startup”, maybe it’s worth $100 million. Whatever, the growth is capped in the near term, unless you can monetize the Regionals, or increase the ARPU – Average Revenue Per User, or how many things you can clip the ticket on selling to the people. When the population is capped, your options for revenue growth are limited to raising ticket prices, and finding new things to sell. Vehicle passes, coffee, ice, gas, scarves, DVDs and soundtracks, and whatever other revenue streams the owners can come up with – 44 licensed vendors in 2013.


is that an ironic ATM I see behind the ironic suit guy?

The event is clearly immensely popular, demand is growing and so is global awareness. They are pimping the thing out like crazy in the media, with Presidential candidates and political pundits and all manner of journalists and tech stars and celebrities.

This festival of Giving and Self-Expression has become the Selfie Destination for the Selfish Generation. It’s about as radical as Malcolm in the Middle, CNBC and Taco Bell.


Here are our profit estimates for the past couple of years:

2014 sep cost calcs

We’ve highlighted just some of the expenses to show you how much money goes to the Art and charitable donations, versus how much goes to BMOrg’s 6 Directors. If you want to see the full list of expenses, and how we calculate the profit estimates used above, see our detailed analysis for 2013 and 2012. Every expense number is taken from Burning Man’s Afterburn reports; if there are hidden expenses not listed there that would make the profit figure lower, we’re not aware of them. There are definitely revenue streams that would make it higher (like gas, exception tickets, and merchandise sales), but it is hard to estimate those. BMOrg do not officially disclose their revenues, they’ve never explained to us why. The 2013 revenue number came from a TEDx talk CEO Marian Goodell gave in Tokyo this year. The 2012 estimate is from ticket sales + ice, there could well be more sales and therefore more profits.

In the last 5 years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) the total amount spent on art was $2,918,210. 5 incarnations of the Man cost $1,068,636. Call it $4 million for both.

In the last 5 years BMOrg have spent $6.6 million on lawyers and accountants – $1.1 million for each director. This is clearly more than the profits they are taking out. To make an investment like that, they must have something bigger in mind. Something worth more than saving up 5 years of profits.

When they announced their “transition to a non-profit” in March this year, we also found out about Decommodification, LLC – a company set up to earn royalties from the Burning Man name, licensing of the logo, and the intellectual property – which includes every photo and video ever taken by a Burner, which they can license without having to share the money with the original owner of the copyright. All the images and videos and other intellectual property that we assign them the rights to when we attend the event. The 6 directors also own Decommodification, LLC. We can estimate the size of the royalty payment by the difference in payments to BLM and “Other” from 2013 to 2012.

2012: $1.9 million

2013: $4.5 million

Difference:  $2.6 million

Per director: $442,486

That’s assuming they split it evenly.

Putting two and two together, adding the royalties to the profits, we get about $1 million a year per director – PLUS salaries, travel, and costumes.

golden parachuteWe know the directors are getting a bit old for a rave EDM festival. They’ve been doing this for 30 years, and they’re looking to retire. They’re thinking about the legacy they’re going to leave for the future, and the “Golden Parachutes” they’re going to take for themselves when they bail out of this thing.

As it stands, over 5 years, they might get $5 million each. A nice little package, enough to retire on, but these days, with San Francisco Real Estate prices, hardly a fortune. Paris Hilton makes that DJing in Ibiza in about a week.

But what if they could sell it? What if someone wanted to buy it?

If it was worth 1x sales, $30 million, they’d still get the $5 million – but straight away. They don’t have to wait for years, and risk that something could go wrong to fuck up their cash cow. Something like a Virus Outbreak or a Child Predator or Weather Closing the Event.

If someone wanted to pay more, though, maybe it could be worth $10 million per director. Maybe the Directors could draw out the sale, transition the community into it, and pull a few million extra out for themselves along the way.

first bank of black rockHow could someone just buy it? Wouldn’t all the Burners leave, pack up and go, fuck off out of protest at the Founders “selling out” their event? Wouldn’t people who’ve spent more than 10 years slaving away in the hot sun for months at a time to make this happen – DPW who actually do the work to build the city instead of doing the panel discussions and entertaining of dignitaries –  wouldn’t they walk out in protest if they saw the 6 who took over the event taking the money and running, while they get left with no pension plan, no savings, and fewer prospects for involvement in the future?

It certainly would’ve been a risk – in the old Burning Man structure, circa 2009.

Looking at it now – after they spent that $6.6 million on accountants and lawyers and created new non-profit and for-profit companies and merged bank accounts and transferred assets amongst them, and enabled plug-n-play camps with VIP wristbands and paid servants – That Thing In The Desert is a very different beast.

suits scott london

Today, you could buy Decommodification LLC, and thus own the value of the event – the brand, and the royalty streams from monetizing the intellectual property. You could buy Black Rock City, LLC – the operating company of the event. If someone did that “The Burning Man Project”, the charity, would still exist, doing unspecified, vaguely Burner-ish things with a “Philosophy Center” and Larry hanging around as Chief Philosophy Officer. The Burner cult would still be there, drinking the Kool Aid and spouting the Principles as Rules like good little Burnier-Than-Thous. Paying for the $650 tickets and thinking it’s not scalping because it’s from BMOrg and “the money supports charities and the artists”. The only thing that would change from a legal basis would be the ownership of the shares

The “network of Regionals” could be something of great value to an acquirer, if they were in the events business and looking to develop new markets around the globe.

ashram galactica burning-man-tiny-house20

the first hotel on the Playa, Ashram Galactica, was ironic. Now non-profit and for-profit hotels are both there, a whole category of theme camps. Some preserve the irony, some sell rooms and keep the riff-raff out

2014 has proved to potential acquirers that BMOrg can introduce new things for sale, change the box office, ticket mailing can be fucked, they can screw around with STEP, Will Call can be a total cluster fuck, the gate can even close for 2 days, and still Burners will come. In droves. The event will be sold out, and covered worldwide by mainstream media. The potential to monetize the event has now been carefully crafted to be the strongest it has ever been, with AirBnB selling rooms in camps (ironically, of course) and Billionaire Burners bringing 120 guests to commodification camps with $13,000 camp dues and fully-stocked, camp-only private bars.

New things can be sold, hell you can put a gas station out there if you want. Merchandise can be sold year round.

Looking back at the last few years through this lens, with this perspective, a lot of the decisions seem to make sense. Why do you need a massive media blitz, when you’re already sold out? Why mess around with the ticketing so much? Why such a strong focus on Virgins, on bringing new people in to the event? Why bring aboard Directors from the worlds of hospitality, hospitals, and home shopping? Why spend so much more on accountants and lawyers than on the art?

It seems like, compared to 2009, the event now is less counter-culture and much more mainstream. It has been packaged nicely for a sale, wrapped up in a neat little bow, just waiting for someone to come along, snap it up, and give the Founders a Golden Parachute they can really retire in style on – as well as a global network of festivals they can travel to, probably still on the *cough* non-profit’s dime.

Who would want to buy Burning Man?

Now we get into the realm of speculation. Where we have to consider some clues. This I cover in Part II  – Who Could It Be Now?



2012’s Burn Wall Street featured bank tellers and ironic advertising for Bank of (un)America, Chaos Manhattan, and Goldman Sucks. There was a report online that a JP Morgan exec wrote a $100k check for the installation, which distracted a couple of hundred occupiers for months and had a budget over $200,000. Hard to substantiate, but JP Morgan’s name was not mocked. Photo: Curious Josh


Hilarious? photo: Hiker Carl

Hilarious? photo: Hiker Carl


walmart playa supplies beer

where the heck

from (note: our commenter A Balanced Perspective has pointed out that this agreement was superseded in 2011. If anyone has a link to the current one please post)

Black Rock City LLC Operating Agreement

The below owners and incorporators of Black Rock City LLC, a Nevada Limited Liability Corporation, hereby declare this as their operating agreement. This agreement shall take effect as soon as signed by all owners.

There are 6 owners of Black Rock City LLC (hereafter referred to as the “LLC”). Each shall have an equal interest in the LLC. All initial owners of the LLC shall sit on the Town Council on and are referred to as Managers, one of whom is also the Director. Additional owners may be admitted by a unanimous vote of the Town Council on such terms and conditions as unanimously agreed. Unless otherwise agreed at the time of admission, all subsequent owners admitted by managers of the LLC shall have an equal interest in the LLC and the right to sit as Managers on the Town Council.

The management of the affairs of the LLC shall be by and through the Town Council which shall function as a board of directors. The Town Council shall consist of all the managers one of whom shall be called t he Director of the LLC. Meetings of the Town Council shall be called and presided over by the Director or his designee. The initial Director shall be Larry Harvey. All Managers must agree to any subsequent Director of the LLC.

The Town Council shall have and exercise all management rights, powers, and authority over the business, affairs and operations of the LLC. Such powers shall include without limitation all powers which may be exercised by the directors of an LLC including: the making of expenditures; borrowing money or guaranteeing indebtedness and other liabilities; conducting and compromising litigation; the acquisition or disposition of the assets of the LLC; the negotiation of contracts binding on the LLC, the selection and dismissal of employees, volunteers and independent contractors, with and without cause.

The Town Council shall indemnify and hold harmless the Director and Managers, for all liability they may incur as a result of their involvement in the LLC except for intentional tortious or fraudulent conduct. The Town Council may indemnify and hold harmless employees agents, independent contractors or volunteers for any liability they incur as a result of their involvement in the LLC except for intentional tortious or fraudulent conduct. Only the Town Council acting unanimously may dissolve the LLC, distribute assets, dividends, earnings or property to owners.

Compensation of Managers and employees of the LLC shall be as set by the Town Council.

Members of the Town Council may not be removed from office except for cause. Cause for removal must consist of either a breach of fiduciary duty, intentional tortious misconduct, or being inactive in the operation of the LLC for a significant period of time. In the event of removal or resignation of a member of the Town Council, the LLC must redeem the ownership interest of an owner and the owner must surrender his ownership interest as provided in this agreement. The Town Council shall meet periodically to manage the affairs of the LLC. One Manager shall keep a record of all decisions of the Town Council. The books and records of the LLC shall be kept at its corporate office and each member of the Town Council shall have the unlimited right to inspect and copy such books and records. Decisions of the Town Council shall be made by consensus. In the event of a deadlock, the Director of the LLC may call for a vote of two thirds of managers when in his discretion a vote is necessary for the LLC to operate.

Title to all of the LLC’s property, assets, and accounts are to be held in the name of the LLC and no owner, manager, employee, or volunteer can claim any interest in the property, assets, or accounts of the LLC. The Town Council may designate one of its managers to sign such documents necessary to purchase, transfer, or encumber real or personal property.

Except as provided herein, no manager, the director or owner of the LLC may transfer his interest in the LLC. Any attempted transfer shall be void ab initio. To the extent the law requires the managers and LLC to recognize any involuntary transfer — such as an attachment, seizure, lien, garnishment or court order, etc.– the transferee’s rights shall be limited as provided herein and to the full extent of NRS 86.351.

No transferee of an interest in the LLC shall have the right to participate in the Town Council or management unless all other managers, the director, and owners have consented in writing and the transferee has agreed in writing to be bound by this agreement.

All owners of an interest in the LLC agree that their ownership interest may only be transferred to the LLC which may purchase the interest of an owner. In the event of an involuntary transfer, death of an owner, resignation of a manager, or a manager’s termination by the Town Council for cause, the holder of an interest shall immediately transfer the interest to the LLC pursuant to this operating agreement.

The interest of all owners of the LLC shall be valued at $20,000 plus 10% a year after 2000, or the average book value of the owner’s interest in the LLC measured over a 12 month period, whichever is less. If the pro rata average book value of the LLC is negative, the value of the member’s interest shall be $1.00. In the event of a voluntary or involuntary termination of any manager or the director, the LLC shall promptly purchase the interest from the holder. No other form of transfer, redemption, or cancellation shall be valid.

In the event of the dissolution of the LLC all remaining owners of the LLC agree that debts and obligations of the LLC shall be determined and satisfied prior to any assets being distributed to any manager or owner, further unless unanimously agreed by the managers in writing, any remaining assets shall be utilized to further artistic expression and community formation.

This agreement replaces and supersedes all prior written or oral agreements of the owners on subjects covered by this agreement. This agreement is binding on all successors, heirs of owners of an interest in the LLC. Each party to this agreement agrees to execute such additional documents as may be necessary to carry out the terms of this agreement. This agreement may not be amended except by the unanimous written consent of all the owners of the LLC. This agreement shall be governed by the law of the State of Nevada. Dated 5/19/00.


St Art Ups Posing as Playa Art [Update]

Burner Anarchist Jim has brought this to our attention:

An interesting tidbit that might be worth a blog post… the Honorarium art piece Dreambox, is a front for a startup called Dreamus. They’ve got a profile on Angelist saying ‘they’re launching at Burning Man 2014″

There are many startup folks at burning man, some of which do subtle promotion. If you want to call your camp at 7:15 and H ‘My Startup’ Camp, alright, lame, but whatever. However, slapping your brand on an honorarium art piece (which was funded by BM and part of the price you paid for your ticket) and then using participant’s emails and videos to seed your startup website is incredibly offensive, IMO, and completely against the ethos of the event.

I’m all for supporting burners. If I meet someone in SF at a coffee shop, I’ve got an instant connection, and, sure, I’m more willing to support their art project or startup or whatever. But someone that’s blatantly promoting their for-profit company on playa? That’s someone that doesn’t get the event or anything about it.

Of course, there’s enough other people out there now that don’t get the event, that promoting a company probably won’t be seen as a big deal. So maybe a blog post about it will just give them additional promotion. Who knows… but there’s the story.

Sure enough, Dreamus are trying to raise money on Angel List, on the back of their Burning Man honorarium art grant. Their business model is to take 5% of all donations.

Is it time yet for us to stop saying “the only commerce at Burning Man is ice and coffee”? is a social platform for you to share your life-long dreams, goals, ideas and intentions with others. On Dreamus people follow each others dreams so that they receive notifications as new goals are created and old goals are completed. The platform allows you to comment on each others dreams, donate to each others dreams, share each others dreams and soon enough, join each others dreams. We are monetizing it by taking 5% of all donations.

We have built a Solar Powered Video booth called The Dreambox and brought it to Burning Man twice, capturing HD video of thousands of people stating their life-long dream to the camera. This summer we are showing these dreams to the world for the first time ever, on

This summer Dreambox 3.0 will also be back to Burning man, but this time it will be LIVE, with an internet connection, and a video feed of people’s dreams. We expect to go viral, but we know its silly to even say that.

Here’s what Burning Man said about the Art Honorarium grant for this project:

The Dreambox is a video booth that allows you to input your email and record a statement of your life’s dreams, goals and intentions into a HD camera. Your video will then be linked to your own private account on a brand new web platform specifically designed to allow other people to follow and support your dreams. It also includes an outdoor theater, where your dreams can be watched by other burners during the week.

They also promoted the project on their Ignite Channel affiliate.

Digging a bit deeper, we find that this project has been going since 2012 – and is brought to us by the creator of the famous “Oh The Places You’ll Go” Dr Seuss-themed Burning Man video.

From the Huffington Post, 2012:

Six months ago, filmmaker Teddy Saunders posted the inventive short film, Oh! The Places You’ll Go At Burning Man, and received nearly two three million hits on YouTube… Oh! The Places You’ll Go at Burning Man scored a well-deserved Best Short Film Award at this year’s New Media Film Festival in Los Angeles

…The DreamBox is a solar-powered video booth that the public can walk into and speak about their greatest dream, or aspiration in life. Using the power of film and social media, Saunders believes those dreams can and will come true.

Custom designed from the ground up featuring an interactive touch screen interface allowing the dreamer to see himself or herself, rehearse their dream, and type in their contact info needed for others to be able to reach out to them. The DreamBox contains an intricate lighting system with LED soft boxes and back lighting, making the dreamer look flawless on camera. Behind the dreamer is a green screen, which will be swapped out with cinematographic time lapse video that thematically supports them.

Saunders says, “Basically, it’s designed so the dreamers look as epic as possible when speaking their dreams.”

During the day the DreamBox is covered with shiny rainbow-colored mylar. At night, it will glow with high-powered LED lights, allowing it to be seen from a half a mile away.

When the project appears online as a web series, anyone will be able to watch the “dreamers” share their life goals. As each dreamer speaks, their Email address will be embedded into the video allowing viewers to contact them to help make his or her dreams materialize into reality.

Their first installation captured almost 300 dreams. No word on how many of those it helped to come true. There are only 17 listed on their web site – how do they decide “What Dreams May Come”?

From Reddit:

It was out there. Teddy didn’t catch as many dreams as he wanted to, some sort of technical problems (somebody said it was dusty or something).

They managed to record 284 dreams, although the goal was 3-5k recordings.

As I watch the dreams now I see how powerful a single voice can be. We are all united, each with remarkable ideas to make the world a better place. All you have to do is share your dreams and together we can change our destiny.

Cheers and thank you again for making this dream possible.



[Update 8/18/14 7:51pm]

I’ve watched a couple of their videos and thought about what they’re doing. I kinda like the idea. Use Burning Man and the Internet to make peoples’ dreams come true. I would contribute to one of the projects (the Give Wildlife Rights dream). The cute girls will probably get a disproportionate share of funding, that would be interesting to follow. Different things resonate in different ways in different networks. Providing a consistent format for absorbing and replaying the data makes it easy to see a variety of dreams and choose which ones you support. Burning Man is probably the world’s greatest collection of dreamers, but they could do this at Comic Con or Glastonbury or Oracle World. The Dreambox could be the next kickstarter and change the world, or it could be a clumsy attempt from the tech industry to link themselves to Burning Man – like Intel SiMan.

While I agree with many of Anarchist Jim’s comments, my personal opinion is that this party has grown up to become one big money fest now, it’s time to stop denying that and just embrace it. BMOrg should do everything they can to help startups, including using the money we provide them with to give small amounts of funding to a small number of them. Hell, they should use more of the money to fund more startups with larger donations! For $30 million a year, the Burner community ought to be able to spin off a few startups. Maybe then raving really could change the world.


[Update 8/17/14 8:58 PM]

They’re a to-do list for your entire life, according to Dreamus themselves. If it was a charity asking for a donation, it would be slightly cuter than a startup looking for investors on angel list and monetizing other peoples money in the meantime:

Project Dreambox was first created on Kickstater as Teddy Saunders and Paola Baldion raised $29,277 to build a solar powered video booth that allows people to record 30-second statements of their life-long dreams, goals and intentions into an HD camera.

They called it The Dreambox. They then brought this Dreambox to Burning Man, where they collected dreams from people all over the world. Now, with the addition of lead programmer, Nicholas Juntilla, they have built a place for these dreams to take shape online…

Dreamus is a place to collaborate on dreams with others.

We’ve all heard the term, thoughts become things. The Secret is about the Law of Attraction. The idea of manifesting your own destiny by painting a picture of the specific goals necessary to be building your dream project, working your dream job, and living your dream life.

We feel that identifying your dreams is the most important thing you could do in life because it creates a motivational drive and direction in your day-to-day actions.

By puting your life’s intentions online and allowing others to follow, you make a promise to yourself and your peers. We believe that this promise can improve your destiny.

We like to think of Dreamus as the to-do list for your life and we hope that it will enable us to live better lives, together.

Saving the world with Burning Man, Dreamus, and The Secret. One dream at a time, hopefully the 5% cut on each dream – whether fulfilled or not – is enough to pay for all the data storage required to record everyone’s dreams (condensed into a few minutes).

300 dreams, that’s got to be at least $10 for a memory stick.

I bet this data, when linked to dreamers Facebook profiles and Yahoo or Gmail accounts, phone numbers – is a dream indeed, for electronic marketers swimming in the lucrative sea of Big Data. It would appear their business model gives them a 100% cut of revenue from that, quite independently from any dream manifestation.



From Build to Burn

East Bay CORE have published a documentary about their journey to the Burn.

A bit more talk-y than the videos you occasionally feature, but a good behind-the-scenes look at what happens off playa at NIMBY in Oakland.  Does feature some art car action, including the Bleachers and BAAAHS (Big Ass Amazingly Awesome Homosexual Sheep) and a fire-fighter walking you through a burn protocol. More gritty than Spark!