Burning Man on Probation


The Burning Man festival (the subject of my first book, This is Burning Man), an experiment in temporary artistic community–and, yes, hard-partying along (and between) various dimensions–occurs on federal land in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, and is thus required to get a permit to operate from the Bureau of Land Management. (Yes, you need a permit to experiment with temporary artistic community in these here United States.)  

This Is Burning Man: The Rise of a New American Underground

It has been an interesting couple of years for Burning Man. Most attendees were unaware that the event could potentially sell out, because its permit from the BLM had and has a population cap–just one the event had never pushed against before.

Last year, mere days before ticket sales were scheduled to end anyway, they sold out, creating a temporary panic among the Burning Man community. Always one to put off to the last minute that which could have been done months earlier, I hadn't bought my ticket yet. But I was able to.

In fact, everyone I know and everyone who everyone I know knows was able to get a ticket as well last year. I strongly suspect that almost no one who was ready, able, willing, and with the scratch on hand, to go to Burning Man failed to last year.

While this first ever sell out brought the event to the radar of professional scalpers, I really don't think there was a big group for them to exploit, though in those last, post sellout weeks, an average price of around $700, around double face value, seemed to dominate the secondary market, though that plummeted once the weeklong event actually began.

At any rate, I and many others thought it would have been best for the Burning Man organizers to just do a p.r. campaign stressing to scalpers and Burners alike that the "sell out" did not cause a horrific problem for that many would-be attendees and do their ticket sales the way they always had. Instead, they nervously instituted a new lottery system that was easily enough gamed by both scalpers and Burners and found themselves with a publicly unknown but likely between 80-120,000 requests. That the event that had been growing by no more than a few thousand attendees a year for years suddenly found itself with 10-15 times that many would-be newcomers seems unlikely, and the event had to invent a complicated system to allocate tickets to ensure that many people considered core to the experience had a chance to go, and an internal system to re-allocate tickets for those who want to avoid scalpers.

But now the BLM has announced that the event had actually overstepped its legal bounds last year anyway, with over 53,000 people on the event's site for two days last year despite a permitted limit of 50,000. See this San Francisco Bay Guardian report.

Burning Man has been placed "on probation," meaning that it can only get permits moving forward on a year to year basis rather than for five-year stints, and slowing down the event's hope of getting the official limit raised to 70,000 after five years.

I first wrote about the complicated relationship between Burning Man's would-be temporary autonomous zone and the forces of government and bureaucracy in a February 2000 Reason cover story. I thought then, and in my book, and now, that the relationship between the event and the Feds and local governments is so mutually beneficial (the event pays off local, state, and federal authorities to be there) that it will take a lot more than a mild permit violation to actually make the Feds kill it.

As I usually put it, I think it would take some singular accident out there that kills a handful of infants and senior citizens, the sort of scandal that will get BLM chiefs called before Senate or House hearings and screamed at about what the hell nonsense they are allowing to happen out on federal land.

This mere bit of overpopulation ain't that, and I'm confident Burning Man will survive it.

Meanwhile, the Burning Man community is trying to get more intelligent about lobbying, as per this FishbowlDC report:

The Burning Hour…[is] condensed version of that booze-filled western orgy that happens annually in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada that they describe as, ahem, "creative innovation." Now they're bringing that free "spirit" to Washington, specifically to Tortilla Coast on Capitol Hill on April 30 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., to introduce Congressional leaders and their staffs to the Burning Man community. 

Quasi-lobbying visits to D.C. and Congress on the part of Burning Man folk have happened before and will keep happening, so this isn't new news, but such a public event certainly comes at a propitious time for the Burning Man community as they are "on probation." But it is one of the glories of representative democracy (I guess) that every interest eventually gets to (is forced to) massage folks in the corridors of power to survive.

NEXT: Ronald Bailey on Whether Censorship Can Stop Bioterrorism

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  1. A book about stoned hippies out in the desert? Wow, how have I made it through life without having read a gem like this?

  2. Everybody should show the fuck up. Screw the BLM.

    1. Flouting government rules is always a good idea if you want to stay in business. And when”the Man” shuts them down, well, I am sure you will take responsibility, right?

    2. “By the time we got to Burning Man, we were half a million strong ….”

  3. Why not an auction for tickets? Also, watch out for Cthulhu.

  4. I’m pretty much a hippy but I never understood the appeal of burning man. $300+ to camp out in oppressive heat with the only real “highlight” of the event being setting some massive contraption on fire. Meanwhile for half the price one can attend a music festival (bonnaroo, all good, gathering of the vibes, etc.) that not only includes art exhibits but also world-class bands and other entertainment.

    1. Isn’t this thing pretty much a masked orgy? 60 bucks a day sounds like a deal to me.

    2. You can never have too many drug connections.

    3. Burning Man is definitely a “good ‘ol days” sort of thing. When I first attended, in ’94, it was free and fantastic. Went a few years later and there was an admission fee and a disturbing number of college kids out for a lark, a harbinger of what it was to become and a clear sign of the beginning of the end.

      Your woefully erroneous notion that the burning of the man is “the only real ‘highlight'” reveals why you never understood it, BTW.

    4. Nothing to see here, move along. Burning Man sucks, you don’t want to go.

  5. This seems appropriate to link here.

    1. That could have been an Ayn Rand article if she had actually gone to Burning Man.

    2. Thanks, now I know what I’m not missing.

    3. Blocked at work. Reason given? One word: Tasteless

    4. Correcting people’s contemptuous misunderstandings about Burning Man is a mug’s game and a business I mostly left about two years after my book came out, but do be aware that Cracked article is a “parody”–that is, a pretty unfunny and obvious pack of lies playing off of the lazy and ignorant stereotypes about the event. Also, Ice Nine, there were tickets in 94 — it was just easy to avoid the gate it you didn’t feel like contributing.

    5. I went seeking a utopian enclave

      That was his first mistake.

  6. BAck in the day, these things were called Grateful Dead concerts.

  7. $350 for a ticket sounds more like a recurring capitalist community. NTTAWWT.

    1. There once was a theme camp named The Capitalist Pigs. I haven’t read Doherty’s book so I don’t know if he wrote about them. They were… unique.

  8. booze-filled western orgy…

    So na?ve…

  9. I truly never expected to see a ‘Burning Man was better when…..’ post on Reason.

  10. “Yes, you need a permit to experiment with temporary artistic community in these here United States.”

    Yes, you do, when you do it on someone else’s land.

    What is Burning Man but an escuse to get drunk/stoned/laid and burn shit up? Who but the federal government would allow you to do this?*

    *Unless you want to pay maybe $1 million up front and post a $25 million bond.

  11. Great burn man to see it from my son. We’d like to see…

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