Shark-Jumping: OK, VIPs and Music Guides: Not OK

Burning Man’s Founders held a press conference yesterday, for the 360 or so journalists who are attending – some of whom got press tickets.

The topic of discussion was not the tragic death of a Burner. Instead, it was the Anti-Rich sentiment, and the widespread allegations that Burning Man has now jumped the shark. Rather than disputing the latter, it seems the founders are totally cool with it. It’s all part of the plan. How will they cope with gentrification? By re-educating the rich, so that they better conform to BMOrg’s thinking and comply with all their “unwritten” rules.

From TechCrunch:

The stories of billionaires flying into Burning Man on private jets with hired sherpas, body guards turning people away from VIP art cars and private glamp camps going for $25K in dues seems to be on everyone’s lips at the annual festival in the desert. While this is not the norm, it’s a reality and it has many asking if Burning Man has jumped the shark.

A room full of bloggers, reporters and photographers from all over the world gathered together at the center of camp yesterday to ask Burning Man main co-founder Larry Harvey and Black Rock City manager Harley Dubois that very question.

Burning Man has jumped the shark, at least in the sense that it is now much different than the way it started and how it’s perceived, according to Dubois. But she says that’s not necessarily a bad thing, ”Change is inevitable. Our world keeps changing and our event is going to keep changing because our world is changing.” She then joked that Burning Man is actually different every year.

Larry Harvey panel at Burning Man

Burning Man now has cell service. Four towers were set up around Black Rock City this year so that those with Verizon or AT&T can sends texts and call friends from one end of camp to the other…at least most of the time. Some camps also carry in their own Wi-Fi, but that’s mostly available for those just within that camp.

…”the culture does change with the people, but that’s okay”, Harvey noted. “There’s this idea about the celebrities and billionaires but then there’s the other 99 percent. It’s not a quantitative problem it’s a qualitative problem.” He also notes that just a few years ago this event was mostly men. “Now our census says the percentage of men and women, Republicans to Democrats, is at a national norm now.” 

Well, that’s the main thing to be a counter-culture festival, isn’t it – to have both Default World political parties as evenly distributed as they are in the mainstream. Perhaps that’s why they have both Republican and Democrat big names flying in to give speeches this year.

I’m not sure which year Larry is talking about, when the event was mostly men. Maybe it’s the year he wandered into Comfort and Joy for their Circle Jerk?

The Burning Man founders have pledged to get ahead of the news and be more proactive now that there’s been so much coverage, particularly in tech.

“If we just sat back and did nothing it could be a bad thing, but when you get people with greater diversity. If we can change corporate America then we really can have an impact. It’s a dialogue that is happening between the new people that are coming and the old people who’ve been coming awhile,” said Dubois.

Dubois tells me that tech people are welcome and bring in innovation. But she also admitted there was a certain VIP element happening.

“That’s not okay,” she says. “It’s not in the spirit of Burning Man but we try to do what we can. Some people are just misinformed about what this is about. It’s hard for us to reach everyone.”

So a bunch of dusty hippies who throw a party that brings kids and fetish models and hallucinogenic drugs all together at once, are now going to be proactive and change corporate America for good. How? By putting in more cellphone towers, and invitation-only Wi-Fi. By teaching those who can afford to stay in nice RVs, and create employment opportunities for lower-income Burners, that it’s not OK for them to be VIPs, no matter how much Gifting they provide for the rest of us. Err, good luck with that…and be careful what you wish for. Those wealthy Burners might just get in their private planes and fly to Burning Mogul instead.

MoneyIt’s their party, and if BMOrg think that Burning Man will become better by naming and shaming major sound camps who donate international artists to their ever-pricier event, well, so be it. Burners aren’t the owners, and have no say in the direction of the event. If BMOrg think that the way to discourage Plug-And-Play camping is to say it’s OK and make movies about it, what can the rest of us do? It’s not like Burners make the party or anything, it’s solely  BMOrg. What they say is law, and if the law applies one way to their friends and another way to people they don’t know, that’s their prerogative. Stupid Burners just get in the way of the money scooping machine anyway, with all their pesky ideas like gifting the world’s best DJs or spending 6-figure sums on art installations to share with everyone. “Why won’t they accept that it’s BMOrg’s $10k art grants that make the party, not Burner funding?” When the shark gets jumped, Burner funding is no longer relevant, and whatever money Burners want to contribute should be donated directly to their tax-free non-profit, or failing that should only be applied in the way BMOrg dictates.

The Burnier-Than-Thou mantra used to be “if you’re in an RV, you’re doing it wrong”. Now it’s “if you’re rich, you’re doing it wrong”. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you! In my opinion, if someone is successful, it’s a clear sign that they’re doing it right. If one of the world’s coolest parties has jumped the shark, that’s not an affirmation of how great it’s becoming now. If your counter-culture event jumped the shark, you’re doing it wrong.


Poppycock! It’s Punks, not Hippies

Chris Taylor at Mashable has responded to this week’s press that Burning Man has jumped the shark and rich people are one-upping each other with $25,000/head camps and sherpas. In Chris’s opinion, Burning Man is run by punks, and always has been.


DPW Crew. Photo: Jessica Reeder

DPW Crew. Photo: Jessica Reeder

…Every time I read one of those articles — they are legion at this time of year and invariably seem to miss the point — I feel a bile rising, a furious urge to defend the festival I’ve attended, on and off, since 1999. This week’s New York Times style section story is a case in point. The author, Nick Bilton, is a smart guy, and he’s been to the event. He should know. But here he is telling one of many old and cliched untruths about the place:

If you have never been to Burning Man, your perception is likely this: a white-hot desert filled with 50,000 stoned, half-naked hippies doing sun salutations while techno music thumps through the air. A few years ago, this assumption would have been mostly correct.

Poppycock. That assumption has never been even close to correct…It is, and always has been, ruled by all kinds of techno-smart futuristic punks rather than nostalgic hippies or dippy ravers.

Consider: this is a week-long art party in a handmade city in an environment that is doing its level best to kill you. Either the sun is baking dry ground that is blinding white, leeching water from your body, or the wind is blasting mile-high storms of dust across this enormous barren plain at ninety miles an hour, or a starry desert night is damn-near freezing you to death…

punks headdressesWho thrives in that environment? People who are a little bit crazy, quite a bit determined, and a whole lot of wiry and smart. People with an Iggy Pop-style lust for life. Here are punks of all stripes: cyberpunks, steampunks, biker punks, punk punks. People who do what it says on the ticket — voluntarily assume the risk of death. People who are brought roaringly to life in this killer of a desert, and fight fiercely to build an all-inclusive volunteer-driven civilization that lasts for as long as a mayfly.

…Burning Man is crawling with law enforcement and officialdom; they’ve just gotten very good at blending in. The notion that you have complete freedom to openly flout federal or Nevada state law is a dangerous myth. The idea that, as Bilton suggests, “drugs are easier to find than candy on Halloween” is what leads the guy carrying the “I Need Drugs” sign to his inevitable arrest on the city’s main drag, the Esplanade.

…Leading the charge is the Department of Public Works, or DPW — the roughest, toughest, hardest-working punks of all. These are the men and women who come out to this hostile environment literally months in advance to drive the golden spike in the ground that marks the dead center of vast concentric horseshoe-shaped boulevards, to construct the vast public spaces of Center Camp and the (completely nondenominational) Temple, to build the Man just so you can watch him burn. It’s no wonder the DPW is famous for roaming the streets during the event demanding beer from unsuspecting strangers because “we built this city” (to which the only appropriate response, if you’re daring enough, is “on rock and roll.”)

…But what about the plates of sushi, the ridiculously decadent desert food the billionaires are bringing with them? Hundreds of camps do exactly the same thing — ridiculously overspend, beyond their means, on ridiculously decadent food that they keep in a series of coolers just so they can be ridiculously generous to friends at unexpected moments.

I have attended fabulous and random four-course dinner parties during sunset on the playa. I’ve seen camps bring tanks of liquid nitrogen just so they can make ice cream for anyone who stops by. One year I had the ridiculous notion to take Chinese food delivery orders from my camp long before the event. For those who took me seriously, I ordered, vacuum-packed and froze their meals the day I drove out, then heated and delivered the results to their tent doors in their original containers the next day. That sort of thing happens all the time. Bilton’s notion that nearly all Burners are eating ramen noodles is the column’s other tired cliche.

…The ultimate misconception about Burning Man, though, is that it’ll be around forever. The whole idea is that it won’t. The event is a celebration of impermanence and change — the clue is in the title, and in the vanishing city that gets packed in and packed out.

Larry Harvey, Burning Man co-founder, has long said he’s preparing for the day when it will be no more. Eventually the crush of extra people at an event that’s adding up to 10,000 new attendees each year will get too much, the culture will collapse, it really will jump the shark. It doesn’t matter, Harvey insists — the spirit of Burning Man burns brightly in dozens of what are known as regional Burns, held around the year.

For many grizzled veterans who no longer go, that day has already come. It doesn’t matter. People are always on the edge of phasing out of Burning Man; that’s why “it was better last year” is one of the most common memes on the playa, right up there with “leave no trace.”

So far, however, Black Rock City has absorbed far more immigrants than it has spat out emigrants. There’s healthy stream of new attendees (and yes, new tech billionaires) to replace the old. For all its sham, drudgery and imperfect visions, Burning Man the event, not just the spirit, is still gaining strength.

It’s high time we started seeing it for the phenomenal jerry-rigged punk-built human achievement it is — rather than the oft-ruined hippy fest of media legend — before it leaves no trace one last time.

One commenter here has pointed out that Happy Days went on to its highest ratings ever after Fonzie jumped the shark. Henry Winkler (Fonzie) and Ron Howard (Richie) also went on to hugely successful careers after that moment.

Fred Fox Jr, who wrote that episode, told the LA Times:

HiREs Fonz croppedIt aired Sept. 20, 1977, and was a huge hit, ranking No. 3 for the week with a 50-plus share (unheard of today) and an audience of more than 30 million viewers…All successful shows eventually start to decline, but this was not “Happy Days'” time. Consider: It was the 91st episode and the fifth season. If this was really the beginning of a downward spiral, why did the show stay on the air for six more seasons and shoot an additional 164 episodes? Why did we rank among the Top 25 in five of those six seasons?

What’s the difference between Happy Days and Burning Man? Happy Days never claimed to be changing the world. It was just something fun, for the purpose of entertainment.