Sunday, February 12, 2012

Burning Man doesn't scale

The Burning Man festival, where artsy pyromaniacs, techno-hippies and wealthy hipsters converge in a faux-counterculture desert festival each year in Nevada.

But as the event has attracted more attention, it's run into a major problem on how to choose who gets in. Emphasis added in bold:

The problem has left perhaps 75 percent of the longtime participants who traditionally provide the creative spark for displays and activities without a ticket. The event is held annually at a remote site in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada.

The crisis resulted from attempts to solve issues from last year, when, in addition to the normal problem of computer servers crashing as thousands of people rush to buy tickets online, the event sold out for the first time.

With the event increasingly becoming a bucket-list activity, organizer Black Rock City LLC set out to create a more egalitarian method for distributing tickets and thwarting scalpers.

Black Rock's solution was to distribute 40,000 of the 58,000 tickets through a lottery. Applicants had two weeks to apply for up to two tickets. Demand far outpaced supply.

The result: "A full-on fiasco," said Steve Jones, author of "The Tribes of Burning Man."

The new system made it easier for folks not willing or able to sit at a computer for hours. But many say that same convenience also made it easy pickings for scalpers...

It's unclear how many tickets are in the hands of scalpers and how many are in the hands of new participants. What is clear is that many longtime participants, or burners, are ticketless.

"Nobody knows where all these tickets went. But since they didn't go to regular burners, the thought is they must have gone to professional scalpers," said Jim Bowers, who spearheads the Placer County-based collective of burners called The Tribe.

"It's a fiasco. They don't have any idea what they are going to do," said Bowers.

"Of the 80 people in our theme camp, five got tickets. Everyone else got rejection letters," said Bowers, whose group helped build a precision laser light clock tower and decorative hour markers last year.

Unlike music festivals like Coachella, Outside Lands or South By Southwest, Burning Man depends on participants to provide the entertainment, erect the art projects, operate free bars, lead parades and host forums. Most of the major offerings are created by clusters of people called "theme camps" or "tribes..."

The organizers' published plan is to sell the final lot of 10,000 tickets through an open sale (first-come, first-served) in March, but there are rumblings that they will give the leaders of major theme camps, artist groups and performers first crack.

That would be welcomed by established groups, but would likely infuriate participants who attend regularly but aren't part of a group.

"It would be essentially saying they value one type of Black Rock citizen over another," Jones said.
What's happening here is that tickets to Burning Man are priced too cheaply. The lottery winners paid $420 and the open sale tickets go for $390, but they're already listed on eBay for $700 to $5,500.

Burning Man didn't have a problem when only a few people wanted to attend, but now that it's become such a trendy destination, organizers have to choose between several possible solutions to distribute the limited admission slots. Lotteries are never a good solution, and organizers seem too stubborn to consider raising prices to reflect the true value.


  1. I'm guessing the organizers aren't interested in inadvertently out-pricing people of lesser means from attending.

    Do you have suggestions on how they would accommodate people who cannot afford $1000 tickets?

  2. No, that's the problem. You can't let everyone in.

    Should I ask how they could accommodate someone who doesn't win the lottery, or who doesn't have time to log in the split second tickets go on sale?

  3. They used to let you in for free if you helped with setup and clean up.