by Whatsblem the Pro
A nice civilized chat — IMAGE: Mount & Blade
Ah, the sugary cloy of kool-aid.
We tend to get a lot of comments when we criticize the corporation that runs Burning Man, and our recent article calling for the Board of Directors to make good on their promise to transition the corporation to a non-profit and step down to make way for new leadership has certainly been no exception.
One commenter who calls himself “Buck Down” was quite verbose about it; I’ve chosen to answer some of his questions and comments here, in a new article, as I think the discussion is important enough to draw the attention of our readers. This isn’t the conversation as it occurred; I’m quoting Buck and giving expanded answers in greater detail.
Buck Down wrote:
I think it’s pretty funny that anyone who dares contribute anything to this conversation other than overblown indignation is instantly an “Org shill.”
The bottom line is that Burning Man has every right to allow coverage of its event as well as disallow it in some cases (see: Girls Gone Wild) – and the media has every right to ask for access. I’d like to think we’re all smart enough here to understand the nuanced difference between allowing coverage of the event vs. profiteering. Should the event have to micromanage the media even farther than they already do? What’s an acceptable overall profit margin for a news entity to be allowed to report on the event?
Whatsblem the Pro:
You think it’s funny that Org people come to Burners.me and slam us and try to discredit us in the comments? It happens all the time. Given the gigantic straw man arguments you’ve just constructed — the “overblown indignation” is exactly what we get from people leaping to the defense of the Org, not the opposite, and this isn’t about the Org allowing media coverage — I have to wonder if it’s happening again. The Org has a vested interest in countering our criticisms; on top of that, we have thousands of starry-eyed kool-aid drinkers to contend with who have drunk deeply of the propaganda the Org itself creates and spreads.
If you had actually read the article (and assuming you didn’t come here to be disingenuous about it), you wouldn’t have to be told that it has nothing to do with the Org allowing coverage or not allowing it. . . the issue is that they make large amounts of money by allowing it, yet deny burners any commercial use of their own photographs of their own art, just because it’s on the playa. This clearly puts the lie to both the decommodification principle they push on us, and to their protestations to the effect that they only want to protect us from entities like Girls Gone Wild.
You asked the question “what’s an acceptable overall profit margin for a news entity to be allowed to report on the event?” The answer is that any overall profit margin is acceptable, provided that the transaction is transparent, and that burners themselves aren’t being excluded from making similar profits.
This is in fact a public event on public land, and a culturally significant, globally newsworthy event, to boot. What I think some of you may not realize is that the numerous agencies the event has to pay to allow the event to continue (ie: the BLM, as well as local and state agencies) have constantly (and in some ways arbitrarily) jacked up the price of holding the event in the Black Rock desert, while simultaneously regulating the amount of tickets that can be sold. The cost curve of these increased fees, as well as the amount of money it takes to cover the staggering cost of the infrastructure needed to stage, throw, and then completely erase this event all but insures forever that this event will barely limp into the black from year to year. rest assured – the only people stacking paper off of this event are the BLM and local law enforcement agencies.
Whatsblem the Pro:
You have definitely made some very bold assertions. If you know so much about how much they take in and how much everything costs, then perhaps you’d like to reveal all that to the rest of us, and explain why there is such a lack of transparency in Burning Man’s financials. You seem so certain that they aren’t hiding anything, yet you claim to be nothing more than a concerned burner speaking truth to media.
Only a fool would believe that the Afterburn Reports are any kind of comprehensive, transparent accounting, and you simply asserting that we’re wrong because we don’t know to the penny how much it costs to produce the event is just obfuscatory hand-waving that seems intended to cloud the issue. We do know that ticketing revenue alone has increased by more than 600% since the year they managed to scrape up enough extra cash from ticket sales to buy 200 acres of land and build a working ranch on it. We also know that the Board has revenue streams that are far less transparent to us, like charging giant media conglomerates — excuse me, “boutique cable channels” — large undisclosed sums as site fees. They have many such hidden revenue streams; for instance: did you know that when an approved vendor rents an RV trailer to the Org so that they can house DPW personnel in it, the vendor is required to pay part of the fee back to the Org?
If the Board wants to complain that we are misjudging them when we say they pocket an unreasonable amount of money from the event for their personal gain, then all they have to do is stop pretending that the Afterburn Reports are any kind of comprehensive accounting, and start providing full transparency. The only reason not to do so is that they have money to hide.
I think a lot of the noise here about the LLC “taking credit” for anyone’s work is a pretty subjective opinion that does not square with the media narrative they push. There are A LOT of artists that have seen the value of their work escalate as a result of having made big splashes at Burning Man – and many who have parlayed that fame into dollars by taking that self same work to massive commercial events such as Coachella and Insomniac throw.
Whatsblem the Pro:
As a writer, I have to say: that sounds a whole lot like offers that many artists – writers among them – get all the time: “the gig doesn’t pay, but think of the exposure you’ll get!” It’s a bullshit offer that no seasoned artist even contemplates accepting unless it’s for a friend or something. . . and you want to point to artists making money at other events as compensation for that, in the same screed in which you call for other events to start following the Burning Man model, really? What happens when every event out there is telling artists to expend their own money and labor unpaid, so the event organizers can rake in ticket money charging people to see their art? The whole thing is simply not germane to the point that the corporation that runs Burning Man is profiting mightily in both cash and reputation from the work of unpaid artists. You think the exposure is pay enough? What about the burner artists who don’t need the exposure?
As for “taking credit,” all you have to do is go to burningman.com and read what the Org themselves write about the event and their roles in it to see what I’m talking about. The language they use is very consistent in portraying the art at the event, and the culture in general, as something THEY created and continue to create and maintain. They don’t do that; burners do that, usually on their own dime and with their own labor. . . not the Org, and certainly not the Board. Tossing a tiny pittance (~3% of ticket revenue) to largely their buddies and sycophants in the form of arts grants does not give them cause to assert ownership or any creative role in providing that art, and sure the hell doesn’t give them cause to assert same about arts projects that get no funding from them, which is most of them. Grading some roads, arranging for porta-potties, and dealing with the various government agencies involved is nothing compared with the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the vast number of art pieces we get to enjoy on the playa that they have nothing to do with.
While I certainly understand some people’s wish to have their very own private little club that’s their little secret – i think it’s pretty obvious that Burning Man stopped being that by the mid to late 90′s. I cannot imagine any other 60,000 person event in the world being expected by its participants to shroud itself in some sort of self imposed media blackout to all but a few blogs (or whatever the expectation is here).
Whatsblem the Pro:
Please stop with the straw man arguments. Yes, Burning Man began as what Hakim Bey called a “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” but nobody is calling for a return to that; as you’ve noted, the event is too large for that to be at all practical.
We’re also not calling for any kind of media blackout; where did you get that idea? What we’re calling for is simple: we want the Board to make good on their promises to step down, and to transition the LLC to a non-profit organization with new leadership that adequately represents contributing burners. As a partial rationale for that demand, we have cited the hypocrisy inherent in the Org brainwashing people with the principle of oh-so-sacred Decommodification while simultaneously failing to adhere to that principle themselves. Again: allowing the media in isn’t the issue there; forbidding burner artists to make money from their own work – including photographs of their own work – while raking in cash from giant media outlets in exchange for the right to do just that – is the issue, or one of the issues.
If you don’t like how big Burning Man has become, and all that goes with it – PLEASE STOP GOING AND START YOUR OWN EVENT. There’s lots of folks that would love to recapture that starry eyed idealism from the days of yore – just be ready to loose an ocean of money in the process – and know everyone is still going to probably hate you in the end for “selling out.”
Whatsblem the Pro:
You can blither and bluster all day about starting our own event if we don’t like the way this one is run, but I have little patience for such talk, for several reasons. The whole idea smacks loudly of those bumper stickers you used to see on vehicles belonging to ignorant jingoist pro-war rednecks in the ’60s and ’70s, the ones that read AMERICA: LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT. It’s wrong thinking, at its very foundation, and diametrically opposed to the ideas of civic pride, personal responsibility, and “do-ocracy” that are part and parcel of burner culture.
You clearly have no idea how strenuously the Org discourages such attempts (or do you?); maybe you should talk to Corey Rosen about his trials and travails with getting his event, the DIgital Renaissance Faire, off the ground. In fact, I’d like to invite Mr. Rosen to give us an interview specifically about the ways in which the Org has actively countered his efforts in that direction.
Fuck “start your own event.” This one is perfectly good, aside from the corporate predators running it. All it needs is some representation for all the people who actually make it what it is, and some financial transparency. If you don’t like people trying to make Burning Man better, maybe you’re the one who should go find (or start) another event.
Could you please site me this epidemic of artists not able to use of photographs – because a simple Google search produces millions of pictures, and every artist I know from burning man has a Facebook page jammed full of photos of their shit, and I know that virtually NONE of them had to be run through the org for approval. . .
Whatsblem the Pro:
The Org’s rules state clearly that they have an ownership stake in all those millions of pictures you mention. We haven’t been talking about people simply posting pictures taken at Burning Man, though, as you imply; we’re talking about artists being harassed and intimidated by the Org for using the pictures they’ve taken – of their own art, even – in any sort of commercial fashion whatsoever, including the use of pictures taken at Burning Man on Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other crowdfunding sites.
There’s a link in the article to a direct account of the Org interfering with someone using a picture of their own art car for a fundraiser campaign if you’d care to look. . . and I personally have experienced intimidation attempts from the Org’s legal people for daring to use the phrase “Burning Man” for a purpose that serves burners and makes no money. . . so instead of getting mired in your disingenuous comments about photos taken at Burning Man, maybe we should talk more about the transition to a non-profit, the police presence on the playa, the lack of rape kits, the tiny slice of the pie that actually funds art, financial transparency/secretive profit-taking, and the Org’s habit of co-opting the unpaid work of others for their own profit and glory.
What is absolutely true is that the sort of financial purity that people on this thread demand would be the end of the event as you know it. I will concede that the organizers of the event probably brought this upon themselves by espousing all this new age anti-corporate hoo ha, but at the end of the day, the demand to keep the event going and keep pace with the amount of people who want tickets, while still finding ways to cover the costs of this expanded demand, while getting pinched by the government is what it is. Any other event and the world can just sell vendor space or get corporate partners. Burning man is not perfect, but if you compare it to every single other counter culture event – you are getting about as pure as it can be done at this scale.
Like I said, I think people need to start other, much smaller events so that they can return to this sort of purity a certain segment of our community so lustily desires.
Whatsblem the Pro:
“Financial purity,” my ass. All we’re asking for is financial transparency; that and a transition to non-profit status with an accompanying change in leadership is no more than what the Board themselves promised us. Since then, they’ve back-pedaled on stepping down. Since there are many ways for the Directors of a non-profit corporation to line their own pockets while complying with the rules regarding non-profit status, it doesn’t seem unreasonable at all to ask for transparency and representation.
Again, if you really know so much about the costs of the event and the revenue taken in, then you must be pretty high up in the Org yourself, and are probably on the Board. . . how else would you know so much about it? Since you very plainly discounted the idea that Org people come to Burners.me to slam us and try to discredit us in the comments, this makes you either a liar who does actually have that inside information, or a person who is making completely unfounded and unjustified claims regarding your knowledge of the event’s financials. Which is it?
In so very many ways that we have documented here at Burners.me over the last year, the Board has proven their incompetence, their greed, and their lack of concern for the problems that rank-and-file burners face. Your counter-arguments are weak, and derived from talking points put forth by the Org at burningman.com. Your dog won’t hunt, sir. . . and given that the transition to a non-profit is our best (and perhaps only) shot at a regime change, it is URGENT that burners start talking realistically about how to effectively demand that the Board stick to the original plan and STEP DOWN, rather than blowing smoke up our collective nethers about how much we need their supposed expertise.
[Burners.me welcomes relevant comments to this article.]
Help others find Burners.Me