A couple of weeks ago, Burning Man, the temporary community and arts festival that springs up each year in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, announced a change in its ticket policy.
The new rules are a response to last year’s event, in which demand exceeded supply for the first time in Burning Man’s 26-year history. That left some would-be Burners stranded in the non-desert, unable to participate in an experience that many have come to view as essential.
On Monday, the registration period for the new lottery system for buying tickets opens. But not everyone is happy about the new rules. Last week I asked Andie Grace, communications manager for Burning Man, which is based in San Francisco (and indeed started on Baker Beach), to explain the new policy and to address some of the concerns expressed by those in the Burning Man community.
An edited transcript of our conversation…
So explain the new ticket policy…
During the main sale, there will be a random selection process that people enter into for their chance to purchase tickets. There are four different ways that people can access tickets. We’re doing a pre-sale before the holidays, which is also via random selection; a main sale in January during which we’ll sell 40,000 tickets at 3 different tiers via random selection; and then finally an open sale in March of anything that remains after that random selection round. Then there’s also a low-income process that will be announced after the main sale. That’s a hand-reviewed application process for folks who need to pay below face value.
It used to be first-come, first-serve. What prompted the change?
We had an annual experience of a whole lot of people trying to get their tickets on the first day, trying to gain access to those lower tiers. Last year was the first year we actually reached capacity and had to cut off ticket sales. That was coupled with the first-day buying experience of so many people trying to get at the tickets that it tended to bum-rush the servers and make for long wait times. This new process will spread out the same number of people having the same access to the same number of tickets over the course of two weeks.
Some of the concerns I’ve read about the new policy: People are worried they won’t be able to get tickets for all the members of their party, or the system will exclude those who have helped build the event over many years.
The same number of people will have access to the same number of tickets they need. A camp that has four people in it will have a pretty good chance of getting four tickets if they enter into the random selection in January. We don’t believe that demand outstrips supply by all that much; this is just a more organized way to approach the sale of the tickets.
Some people are concerned about ticket scalping that’s cropped up. Can you talk about that?
We didn’t do this to eliminate scalping. We have some things under the hood to help attend to that. But with this new system, we are at the same risk as before of being flooded by scalpers. One thing we’re doing this year is running an after-market ourselves. So if you have a ticket you decide you don’t need, you can sell it centrally on the Burning Man web site. This will help to keep the secondary market right under our noses, and you’ll be able to see who’s buying and selling tickets. Selling over face value is hugely frowned upon in our community. I don’t know who is buying these over-value tickets; we don’t have a lot of data on it.
Last year we saw instances of ticket scalping here and there on Craigslist or eBay. But our folks don’t tend to be willing to pay that much more to go in. We heard a lot of feedback about the ticket sales last year but I didn’t hear a lot of people saying I had to pay X much over face value. I think it’s a big perceived problem in people’s minds, because you don’t want to think someone who is a tourist or someone who is unscrupulous bought a ticket and sold it over face value and you missed your chance because of that. But we don’t have data that says it’s a super-widespread issue.
On the larger issue of how popular Burning Man has become, what plans are there if any to try to accommodate increased demand?
We’ve grown by a small percentage each year for a long time. (Note: You can track the growth in attendance each year in this Burning Man timeline.) But last year something tipped and we hit the level that we were required to stay within by the Bureau of Land Management. (Note: BLM issues the Special Recreation Permit for the festival to take place.)
This year we need to operate within that same framework in terms of number of people. We have asked them for our next round of permits to go back to a model where we can grow a little. But there’s the question of how socially responsible it is to grow too fast. We don’t advertise the event, we prefer to grow by word of mouth, and people tend to go home and get really enthusiastic and bring a friend. That’s the growth we see. But we’re not proactive about trying to make the event bigger. We like the event the way it is, growing organically.
Do you think the spirit of the event has held throughout, considering all the growth you’ve experienced?
Burning Man certainly has changed, but all good things change. It’s a week out of the year that we have a chance o try to get this grand experiment of building a city together right, and every year that there are more people there’s that much more creativity and new ideas infused. If it was a private party for the same people every year, it would get pretty stale pretty quick.
The most fun is when we bring someone new and see them get to experience it for the first time. One of our principles is radical inclusion, so we welcome anyone who wants to participate. We just have to figure out how to do that within a responsible framework for the impact of the event and the space we’ve chosen to hold it.
Anything else you want to say about the new ticket policy?
We sat and talked to a lot of people over 12 weeks or more on how to solve issues we’re faced with. We’re using this system because we think it will get the most number of people the tickets they want in the time frame they want. I think it’s going to work.
After I talked to Andie Grace, I got put in touch with some longtime Burners, who weighed in on the new ticket policy. Here’s what they have to say:
I hope this is a trial run. I hope everyone is paying close attention to how it plays out, what ‘crowd’ is able to get to Burning Man with these new policies in place, and how it affects the event. This doesn’t seem to be a system designed for artist/explorer/hippie-type people who may not necessarily have credit cards or funds available when they’re needed. And logistically….if everyone is not ‘guaranteed’ they can go, then how does a theme camp ensure all its paid/participating members will be able to go at all?
Or artists who are creating the temple or other projects that require large numbers of people to help, how can they ensure they will get in? I’m assuming in the spirit of transparency those people are not being offered special access to tickets, are they? Kind of like congress giving themselves their own special health care system.
As an entrepreneur, I can appreciate why they are doing this. As a living-below-poverty-level artist (making my living conservatively 90%+ through the burning man community) with no credit, this new system blows and IMO, discriminates against people like me.
-Isa “Glittergirl” Isaacs
And from Isa “Glittergirl” Isaacs’ blog post, Why the New Burning Man Ticketing Process Sucks for Me!:
“(T)his system really is not great for anyone poor or struggling with money. Here’s why you may never see me able to support this event while my fiscal position is as someone living below poverty level.
With the new system, you have to submit your credit card information at the time of the ticket lottery registration process. At that time, you have to give them a credit card that will have the funds on it to charge your tickets several weeks later.
If you’re like me, and you struggle with money on a regular basis, the challenges are multifold.
For one thing, this is at the very least, way more of a hassle if you don’t have a credit card. I’d go so far as to say the system discriminates in favor of those with credit cards — yes, ha! – Burning Man is now modeling the banking system — the rich get richer and the poor get screwed. 😉
Ok — maybe that’s harsh… and at the same time, Burning Man has made a strategic decision that really does favor those with credit cards and really does make way more work for anyone without.
Burning Man does have a solution for you though. They suggest you buy a pre-loaded debit card with the total amount you need on it so you can set that aside and gurantee you have the funds. Seems like a reasonable idea to some degree, right? Aside from the obvious pain in the ass and extra work you have to do if you don’t have a credit card at least…
[But] because this is a lottery system, if I’m only willing to pay up to $320 which is the new mid tier price (or not go), I’m not actually sure I can use this lottery system to buy me and my partner a ticket.
I mean, best-case scenario is I put enough money on the pre-loaded card for the two lowest priced tickets, I win the $240 lottery and then they charge the card and it works. Yah!
If I’m willing to pay up to $320 each (which I see the value of though I lack the funds to do), I still have to tie up all that money. As someone struggling to make rent, this means I have to tie the money up in the card from the registration date until I’m notified at some point a few weeks later. I’m not even sure I want to pay that much to go to Burning Man and now I have to make that decision and be prepared to shell out the funds in about 8 weeks — when the holidays are coming up, I’m traveling and funds are the tightest.
Then, on top of that, I have to know the exact amount of the ticket prices plus all charges/fees (which, to date, I have not yet seen, though Burning Man may get it together and publish that also). They said if your card is declined, the ticket goes to someone else. So don’t screw that up and get the wrong amount on your pre-loaded debit card…
And, while I’m bitching up a storm: I think it’s incredibly lame that Burning Man has put out information about this system and all I can find about the soon-to-be-revamped-and-combined-program for low income and scholarship tickets is that it will be revamped. That does not allow me to make an informed decision at all.
So you’re pretty much screwed if you want to start working beginning of the year on a theme camp and you’re poor because, hey, committing may be useless since Burning Man, the alleged to be radically inclusive event, has now decided to discriminate against the poor.”
I think what’s important to remember about Burning Man is that the event itself is a celebration of an ethos. The culture that has grown up around it that has percolated into many of our daily lives is the
important thing. Having said that, I like to be on the inside of the velvet rope as much as anyone. But being at Burning Man, how one finds oneself there each year is never that straightforward. The
lottery just randomizes the process a bit, which may be good. For now.
When I read it I found my heart sinking, as it seems there is a real possibility I could go through all the correct motions in a timely way and still not get a ticket – very weird.
How to plan with my friends in a timely way – knowing one of us might not get a ticket?
Seems to me that the BM organization, which prides itself for its tech-savvy ways is being very lazy and uncreative. That they cannot solve last year’s call-in computer disaster and punishing people who for years have marked their calendars and called in literally from around the world on the opening ticket day (I have called in twice myself from Europe) seems strange. And that my loyal steadfast efforts are NOT being considered.
From my reading of the BM organization’s point of view, they seem to think it will all work out, and that all their loyal participants will get tickets and if not, who cares they can go on the last-minute hunt for tickets, or well, who needs them, as they have plenty of folks anyway.
I found myself thinking of boycotting the Burn – except for my friends.
Seems like since the first tickets that will be sold are the most expensive, then less people will be in the first lottery and therefore, richer people have greater chance of getting tickets. This is not inclusive, this is exclusive. BTW, I can afford the first lottery, I just don’t think it’s right.