U.S. News

The Changing Face of the Burning Man Festival

Jessica Bruder |The New York Times

TENS of thousands of volunteers are gathering to build a city in a Nevada desert that is notorious for triple-digit temperatures, high winds and blinding plumes of dust.

Source: burningman.com

Their organizer is a for-profit company that has collected millions in revenue over the last decade, largely because of this donated labor. At a distance, it’s easy to wonder: why are these people working so hard — in the blazing heat, no less — for a company they don’t own?

That’s one of the paradoxes of Burning Man, the annual arts festival whose attractions include colossal art installations, all-night dance parties, marathon kite-flying sessions, off-kilter fashion shows, and classes where revelers can learn things that range from Hula Hooping to playing the ukulele to making absinthe.

The short answer is simple: the company behind Burning Man doesn’t act like a traditional business. Although it derives its revenue from ticket sales, festivalgoers don’t see themselves as customers. Rather, they are Burners, part of a cultural movement governed by 10 principles that include communal effort, self-reliance, gift-giving and fostering a social environment that is “unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising.”

You say you’re a counterculture organization, but then you’re funding your retirement on the backs of attendees.
Brianna Camarda

Tickets for this year’s festival, from Monday to Sept. 5, have sold out in advance for the first time. In a situation that doesn’t seem to mesh with the principles, some participants have been left at the mercy of scalpers. While many community-minded Burners are selling their spare tickets to one another at face value or even giving them away, eBay vendors have hawked them for more than $800. One prankster asked for a cool $20 million.

How much money has the festival made over the years? Its organizers don’t disclose revenue figures on a year-by-year basis. Burners know little about the finances behind the event they work so hard to create, and that bothers some of them.

The company has made expenditures of $102 million over the last 10 years, according a list posted annually on the festival’s Web site. These annual reports do not include any money retained or invested by the event from year to year, and Burning Man does not take out any loans, according to its organizers. Last year, the company spent $17.5 million.

It’s clear that most of the money collected by the company goes back into financing the festival: paying for land-use fees, fuel, artists’ grants, medical services, infrastructure, insurance, wages for a full-time staff of 37, along with eight part-time employees and several hundred seasonal workers. Whether cash is left over each year, and how much, has always been a matter of speculation.

That speculation has intensified as Burning Man prepares to become a nonprofit, a transition that includes an unspecified payout to the company’s partners.

Burning Man’s origins are decidedly noncommercial. In 1986, a handful of passers-by gathered to watch a landscape gardener named Larry Harvey burn an 8-foot stick figure on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. The event became a summer ritual. In 1990 it outgrew the beach; the following year it moved to the desert. After a freewheeling and anarchic period in the mid-’90s, Burning Man changed direction: It started selling tickets, giving rise to a small company to manage it all. Mr. Harvey, 63, is now the executive director of that company, Black Rock City L.L.C.

The annual festival now takes place in Black Rock City, the temporary encampment of more than 50,000 people, built by and for its citizens in the Black Rock Desert, about 120 miles north of Reno. Tickets this year — the ones that weren’t scalped, anyway — sold for $210 to $360, with the least expensive ones available to the earliest buyers. Unlike most commercial festivals, there’s no hired entertainment here. Rather, Burners partake in the cultural equivalent of a potluck supper: everyone is expected to create the meal.

(Disclosure: In addition to writing a book on Burning Man, I have helped a group called the Flaming Lotus Girls install their art pieces at the festival on several occasions.)

Big Art, Big Money

Many Burners pour thousands of dollars into elaborate artworks they have been building all year. Strolling through the dusty metropolis, you might encounter a 124-foot-long fire-belching dragon on wheels, a field of robotic, solar-powered sunflowers, or an elaborately filigreed wooden temple.

Burners are expected to arrive with everything they need to survive a week of desert camping, including food, water and shelter. Vending and advertising are forbidden. In a limited concession, coffee and ice are available to buy, but that’s it.

Rather than using money, Burners rely on a gift economy, which encourages sharing and free exchange. The metropolis lasts for just a week and culminates over Labor Day weekend with the burning of a 50-foot wooden man. Then the city disappears, scraped from the face of the earth by volunteers who aim to “leave no trace.”

While the festival is flourishing, its financial structure is changing. Mr. Harvey announced several months ago that he and his partners were planning to liquidate their ownership interests in Burning Man. As part of a three-year plan, the company’s six owners plan to cash out their stakes, then hand control of the festival to a new nonprofit called the Burning Man Project, where they will constitute the minority on a 17-member board.

That new group will run the festival, encourage Burning Man-style creativity worldwide and develop urban revitalization projects around the Central Market Street corridor of San Francisco, where the company opened new offices in May. It will also work with existing entities such as Burners Without Borders, a disaster relief group.

“We’re going to treat Burning Man like what it always should have been: not as a commodity, but as a gift,” Mr. Harvey said, explaining the festival’s multiyear transition strategy during an April 1 speech in San Francisco. Before handing Burning Man over to the new nonprofit, he added, the company’s owners will take an undisclosed payout. And this is where things get complicated. For the past decade, Mr. Harvey has stated on the festival’s Web site that if any one of the company’s owners decides to leave, “he or she will receive, as sole compensation for many years of service, a golden parachute of $20,000. Their share will then revert back to the group.”

“We have annihilated equity,” the statement adds. “Millions of dollars may stream into Burning Man each year, and millions may flow out, but Burning Man is not for sale.” To bolster this claim, the Web site also includes that statement of the company’s annual expenses.

(These financial reports are limited in scope, however, and do not include fine-print details, such as one that Mr. Harvey revealed in a recent interview: Burning Man lost a chunk of its nest egg in the market crash of 2008. “We won’t do that again; we’re not going to play the stock market," he said ruefully.)

The original $20,000 payout figure, Mr. Harvey concedes, was largely symbolic. “It was just to make a point that we weren’t in it for the money,” he said in an interview this month. And though the $20,000 figure is written into a formal company agreement, it referred to what individual owners could receive for leaving the partnership. In this case — with everyone leaving at once and dissolving the company, that provision is moot.

THOUGH the new payout is larger, Mr. Harvey said, it won’t make him and his partners rich. And certainly, the partners show little sign of courting a lavish lifestyle. Mr. Harvey, for one, lives in a modest rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco.

“Listen, all of us could probably in the future just live the life of millionaires,” Mr. Harvey said. “We’d have money pouring in because of our rights of ownership. We will surrender that,” he said, referring to the nonprofit plan. He would not, however, give the amount of the owners’ payout, though he said a figure had been determined. His colleagues say the amount is unremarkable.

Mr. Harvey said recently that “Burning Man’s not anticapitalist.” Rather than hewing to the corporate imperative of maximum profit, he said, he’d rather aim for “profit enough.” But what does this kind of capitalism look like, anyway?

“I feel like transparency is always the best, and when you move from being very open and transparent about something to being vague, it always seems like the intent is nefarious,” said Brianna Camarda, a Seattle undergraduate student in creative writing and member of a Burning Man camp that for many years built a colossal space-age funhouse in the desert.

“Especially when you see the economy tanking on a worldwide scale, it seems very self-serving,” she added. “You say you’re a counterculture organization, but then you’re funding your retirement on the backs of attendees.”

Some Burners believe their participation entitles them to an active role in governance. “I think that your ticket buys a little piece of the rock when you go,” said Bill Keller, 46, of San Francisco, who went to his first festival in 1996. “I believe your wanting to be there and paying to be there gives you some modicum of ownership, like a credit union.”

Others disagree; they think Mr. Harvey is entitled to run Burning Man’s financial matters with a bit of privacy. “I don’t care if he takes a quarter of a million. If it’s there, let him take it. There’s people who make $2 million a year and work for DuPont and all they do is pollute the planet,” said Helen O’Neill of Ventura, Calif. On matters of liquidation, she said: “It’s his baby and that’s his prerogative.”

Many Burners’ opinions fall somewhere in the middle. “I’m a capitalist at heart,” said Sven Liden, an entrepreneur from Seattle who started traveling to the festival in 1999. “I believe in the free-enterprise system. But when you go to Burning Man, it’s different from the state fair, where even the juggler has his hat out. The lack of commerce gives it this almost outer-worldly kind of feel.”

“I would applaud Larry Harvey for going to a nonprofit, because it will in the future take the money motivation out of the equation, but I think there probably should be some transparency even on the for-profit side,” Mr. Liden said. “Trust is a foundation for any kind of organization, and transparency is a key to trust.”

MARIAN GOODELL, one of the six owners of the company behind Burning Man, and its director of business and communications, addressed Burners’ concerns over transparency in an interview this month. “I’m a big fan of more information. I’m the Mistress of Communications,” she said, referring to her informal job title.

Asked about the payout, she said, “When you’re in the middle of a storm, if you’re going to explain all of how you got there, and how you’re going to get out, it often sets more panic among the survivors than if you just sail the boat out of the darkness.” (In her analogy, that storm is the transition to nonprofit status.)

As the debates simmer on, Burning Man’s owners are negotiating with the federal Bureau of Land Management for a permit that could allow the event to grow to 70,000 people by 2016. As it continues to expand, fresh fault lines will inevitably emerge; Burners are an opinionated lot. Newcomers will arrive to work and revel in the desert for the first time; some old-timers will depart to explore other countercultural pastures.

But even outside of Burning Man’s regional network — a group of local, Burning Man-affiliated groups in cities on five continents — independent Burners are already taking matters into their own hands. Rather than attend Burning Man this year, Ms. Camarda, the Seattle student, is planning a small, ritualized gathering with Burner friends at a rented cabin on the Oregon coast. In New York City, Burners who missed out on buying tickets are planning a Saturday get-together in Central Park.

And one anonymous fellow, a Bay Area resident calling himself Guy Fawkes, started issuing calls on Facebook and Craigslist this month for ticketless Burners to join a parallel event, the Smoke Creek Gathering, at the Squaw Valley Reservoir, a short drive from Burning Man.

“I would have used the Black Rock Desert, but a massive corporate event is already being held there,” he said in a phone interview. He declined to be identified, citing fear of harassment. Officials from the Bureau of Land Management, he added, have already e-mailed him a warning against holding a large event without a permit; he replied with a message invoking freedom of assembly.

“We’re not a corporation,” he said. “Our goal is simply to get people to come out and fend for themselves.”