The Burning Man Ticket Debacle

Plenty of leg room on the playa

The international community of freaks, dropouts, artists, and sundry appreciators of the bizarre and unconventional known as “Burners” — attendees of the annual Burning Man Arts Festival, which takes place the week before Labor Day — are up in arms this week thanks to a predicament that, unlike 110-degree days, 30-degree nights, dehydration, dust storms, 60-mph winds, torrential downpour, food shortage, and severe serotonin deficiency, is one they have never faced before: The event has sold out for the first time, leaving thousands (possibly tens of thousands) of people who had fully planned on attending but had not yet purchased tickets out in the cold.

Given that this event is held on a massive expanse of perfectly flat land — the Black Rock desert, a dried-out lake bed in Northern Nevada, to be precise — space is not a problem. The event has been growing exponentially every year since it began in 1986, and last year it topped 50,000 attendees, but Black Rock City has never come anywhere near overflowing the space it’s allotted every year by the Nevada Bureau of Land Management (BLM). But the BLM has imposed restrictions on Burning Man’s population growth on a year-by-year basis, and the festival is not legally allowed to sell more than 50,000 tickets, or its permit will not be granted next year.

I have attended Burning Man six times: five in a row (1998-2002) and then one for old times’ sake (2009). Although parenthood and geography have made it very unlikely that I’ll go back anytime soon, I can stipulate without reservation that Burning Man is an amazing experience. If you’re the least bit weird, or interested in weird things (mainly art), you should go. But it’s not cheap: you have to bring literally everything you need to live for the duration of your stay in a very inhospitable environment (the desert) — food, water, shelter, toilet paper, shiny pants — and the expenses add up quickly. I don’t think it’s possible to go to Burning Man and spend less than $1,000 (and believe me, I’ve tried).

And that $1,000 does not include the ticket for admission, which goes on sale every January at one price and then gradually increases in price as the event grows nearer. They start pricey and get even pricier: this year they started at $210 and went up to $360. So it behooves anyone who’s planning to attend the event to buy their tickets as soon as they decide to go, and to make that decision as early in the year as possible.

Why do the tickets go up in price? I’ve never seen or heard this from any official source, but the prevailing theory among Burners is that it discourages people who aren’t dead serious about attending the event from showing up at the last minute. In other words, it’s meant to minimize the “yahoo factor.” 

Reasonable people can agree: This is cool.

What is the yahoo factor? Well. Most of the press attention and thus the popular perception of Burning Man seems to center on the boobs. Black Rock City exists mostly outside the norms and mores of society: You can pretty much do anything you want there, so long as you don’t hurt anybody. The most serious Burners use this freedom to erect insane giant sculptures and transform school buses into full-size pirate ships and whatever radical art you can (or frequently can’t) imagine, that building codes and vehicular safety laws and spatial considerations would make impossible in any other environment. These people start thinking about their projects for next year’s Burn the moment the last one is over, sometimes even sooner.

A lot of Burners, but by no means all, also use this freedom to shed their clothing. It’s really hot in the daytime, after all. And of course a lot of people use this freedom to take a lot of drugs. So whenever people see footage of Burning Man on TV, what they see is a bunch of naked people walking around, and this attracts a certain subset of attendees who show up looking for nothing more than a naked party with unlimited drugs — yahoos.

So the theory is that the folks who best understand what the event is about, and are most motivated to contribute to it, are also the most likely to have their act together and know whether they’re going well in advance, so they pay the least, while the people who don’t know what’s going on and don’t much care may think twice about shelling out 70% more, in the absence of a deep commitment to what the event is all about.

But even the cheapest tickets aren’t cheap, and as I said they are only the tip of the iceberg of your expenses. However, Burning Man has always been a San Francisco-centric event. After all, it was originally held on SF’s Baker Beach, and it’s the closest big city to the Black Rock desert — you can theoretically get there in about six hours, though in my experience it was always closer to eight. Compared to what it takes to get there from most any other part of the country, or the world, San Franciscans have it easy.

The Church of Funk. 2002

To go to Burning Man from the East Coast, for example, you have to either drive for 2 ½ days — not really an option for the employed — or buy a $350+ plane ticket. Of course, the plane ticket will be cheaper the farther in advance you buy it (are the airlines also trying to discourage the yahoo factor?) and prohibitively expensive two weeks out, so you’ve got to have your ducks in a row well in advance.  Then you have to rent a car to drive the 3-4 hours from Reno to the desert. (You will also have to clean this car extensively, inside and out, to rid it of the alkali dust that gets all over everything in the desert before returning it, or double the cost of the rental in cleaning fees.) But you’ve also got to get an awful lot of crap out there with you — tent, sleeping bag, flashlights, shiny pants — so you’ve got to either bring it all on the plane with you (which I did in 2009 and got raped in extra baggage fees) or buy it in Reno. In all, quite a bit of hassle, though certainly worth it.

Whereas, if you live in San Francisco, you can feasibly decide to go after the event has already started: throw all that dusty crap that’s been in your garage the last 51 weeks into your car, gas up, and you’ll be there by midnight to buy a ticket at the gate.  This convenience is certainly is to be envied — if I still lived there, I’m sure I would be preparing for my 14th consecutive burn — but I think it may have bred a certain complacency in the people who enjoy it, as I have observed an interesting phenomenon over the last several years: dedicated Burners who have attended multiple times and are part of large communities, playing coy about whether or not they’re going. “I don’t know,” they’ll say, “I’m not sure I can really afford it. I’ve got a lot going on.” But you know, and you know they know (even if they haven’t yet admitted it to themselves) that they’re going to be there with bells on (perhaps literally).

Chain Lady, 2009

To the true Burners, the Burn is more addictive than any drug they could take there, and you can spot an addict a mile away. (I know — I was deep in its grip for five years.)  Just like a coke fiend can easily say he’s done with coke when there isn’t any coke around but caves the second the razor and the mirror come out, so too the Burner can say they’re taking a year off all through May and June, but come mid-July, when the people around them are deep in preparations for whatever slice of awesome they’re building, they start asking around if anyone’s got an extra seat in their car because *maybe* they *might* be *thinking* about going.

And now those people, and apparently quite a few DJs, have been bitten by their own snake, left without the last-minute option that so many have grown accustomed to, so I bet we’ll see a lot less of this kind of dithering next year. At the risk of hyperbolizing, the fate of the whole event seems to hang in the balance.

Now that it’s clear that Burning Man can in fact sell out and that there is an extremely lucrative market for scalped tickets — I have a friend who was offered $700 for hers, which seems to be the low end of the price scale — it seems obvious that scalpers are going to buy up all 50,000 tickets as soon as they go on sale next year, which will leave the event at the mercy of people who can afford to pay north of $1,000 for a ticket. (That’s not a category that includes a whole lot of dyed-in-the-wool Burners.)

Or, maybe the true Burners will lock arms and make sure that that doesn’t happen — they’ll start planning their projects way in advance, even before the tickets go on sale, and buy those tickets before the scalpers can get them. Hopefully it will result in an explosion of cool art and an overall rejuvenation of the event as a whole, which I’ve got to say, felt slightly (slightly) stale the last time I went (2009).

I mean, come on, Burners: if there’s even a 50% chance that you’re going to go next year, just buy tickets. What’s the worst case scenario? You decide not to go and you’re stuck with a $250 ticket that will take you all of five minutes to get rid of. At face value. Because you are not a scalper, and you have about a dozen friends that need a ticket.

But that’s next year. This year there are a lot of people freaking out because they are being denied their God-given right to dance outside to crappy rave music in the nude, and I would be very surprised if there aren’t several hundred (or even several thousand) people showing up ticketless and crashing the gates. I can’t wait to see the headlines:

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK
Nevada National Guard battles army of wild-eyed free expressionists
wielding el wire, shiny pants

2 Responses to The Burning Man Ticket Debacle

  1. DaBomb says:

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. DaBomb says:

    Well written post documenting the sturm und drang of the jaded veteran.

    As you may (or may not know) I track media coverage of Burning Man on social and mainstream media outlets. Stories were very few and very far between this year and this is atypical. Just compare an this time on Twitter a year ago to today and the stories and tweets are down.

    It wasn’t until the Burning Man Ticket Crisis of 2011 did my newsfeed and reader subscriptions spike. It seems to be th-e-e only story out there. That would be OK except that the news broke two weeks ago and people are still talking about it? Usually I see dozens of stories about art projects or prep daily. But all I’m getting today are tickets being sold out and Kickstarter projects seem to be it.

    I have a theory that this sold out issue — while in fact is true — has been made into a story because perhaps, maybe, the tickets were dumped on the market to scalpers to create buzz.

    I find it interesting that BMorg shuts down almost every listing on eBay for copyright infringement (except of course legitimate ticket auctions) however they allow this one to remain: http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=220820525350

    Yes, it’s entertaining, and yes it’s a ticket sale. But it also is scalping and is offered and a ludicrous amount over face value.

    So, that’s my theory: fabricated scarcity. But in this economy, like you said: even the cheap tickets are expensive. With scalping starting @ $700 I think I just might to have to find a cheaper alternative than trying to logistically swing it to that thing in the desert this year.

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