In November, when a mini-uproar erupted over Burning Man’s new ticket policy of using a lottery system, Andie Grace of the Burning Man organization told me:
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.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way it worked out. Demand for tickets was huge this year, freezing out many long-time Burners. Yesterday, Burning Man announced it would release 10,000 tickets to long-time festival participants who meet certain criteria. From the Burning Man blog:
We have made the difficult decision to take the 10,000 tickets that were slated to be sold via the Secondary Open Sale and manually redirect them to some of the vital groups and collaborations that make up Black Rock City: volunteers, theme camps, mutant vehicles, art installations and performance groups. These groups already have a relationship and contact points within the organization. We’re in the process of proactively identifying and reaching out to the established groups that fall into each of these categories, and offering organizers access to purchase enough tickets to provide for essential crew members.
Because we know this number cannot possibly satisfy the entirety of that demand, we will use practical criteria to determine eligibility. These groups will be reviewed for:
-History – A camp, project or participatory work must be in our database from past years. (We have ways to track name changes for groups over time.)
-Demonstrated Community Benefit – A project has been interactive in a way that has been experienced as meaningful, provides support for Black Rock City’s infrastructure, or provides services for our community. Basically, how the project helps make the community and create its magic.
-LNT – A group has demonstrated adherence to and good practices around Leave No Trace and are committed to our community perpetuating the message of LNT.
-10 Principles – A group or project fully embraces the 10 Principles in their entirety.
This analysis will consider a wide variety of projects rather than favoring just one type — large camps and small ones, self-funded as well as honorarium artists, Mutant Vehicles of all shapes and sizes, and performers of all kinds. The goal is to carefully and conscientiously reconstruct the rich tapestry of our community, based on information we’ve accumulated over years of facilitating our city around these key groups.
This process is not going to be perfect … it’s not always going to feel fair. And we’re well aware that there will be still be a great many deserving people who will be left out because we don’t have the means to welcome everyone. Again, there are no foolproof solutions for these remaining tickets, only tradeoffs. But we’re confident that through this process, we’ll be able to bolster some of the social, artistic and functional infrastructure of Black Rock City. This is by far one of the most difficult decisions we’ve ever had to make, and we do not make it lightly, but after much consultation and review of your feedback, we feel this approach has the widest base of support and is the best one to assure that we can build Black Rock City in 2012.
Read the full announcement here.
Last week, KQED’s Joshua Johnson talked to Burning Man Director of Business and Communications Marian Goodell about the painful dilemma the festival found itself in this year. Here’s an edited transcript:
How much were Burning Man’s planners ready for this, in terms of the impact on the community?
What we have in common with any other festival is managing the challenges of capacity and taking a look at scalping. What we have that is like nothing else I’ve ever been to — Bonnaroo, Coachella — none of them have a core community- based collaborative. They don’t have collaborative camps where the principle of community and collaboration is what drives the event.
Making sure we preserve that core is what we’re now faced with.
We knew in a sell-out situation there were going to be some failures to the system. So we had a relief valve to take care of a small amount of that. But the degree to which the interest of the event worldwide has pushed this beyond anything we saw coming. There’s no way we saw the interest for that number of tickets at all.
Why did demand spike so much this year?
We’ve watched our culture worldwide begin to grow. Burning Man is recognized more broadly than it had been and not just in the alternative culture; it’s now touched more mainstream places. I think what we’re doing in the world is very engaging, to be upholding values of self-expression, self-reliance, and also communal efforts, civic efforts. In this day and age where people are feeling disconnected and separated we offer a pretty engaging alternative. With nothing being sold at the event, people really buy into the idea that they can come and connect.
The idea of a lottery, the perception is that there’s a limited chance of being one of the ones that has the golden ticket, so that created a sense of scarcity and a sense of panic, and that exacerbated the situation.
Why did you switch to a lottery in the first place?
Burners have real jobs, and no matter what you’re doing, you end up trying to get online at 12:01 to get tickets. In the past, in order to get a ticket, people were telling stories of sitting by their computer for x amount of time.
So we felt if we’re already in a situation of scarcity, and if we’re already going to be out of tickets, why not create a registration opportunity where queuing is your lottery, and the lottery has different odds. So you might register at six p.m. that night and your odds of getting a ticket would potentially be the same as if you were standing in line.
You say the blame has been misplaced on the lottery system…
It depends on what your perspective is and which problem you’re looking at. We have people who think we have enabled scalpers, and some people point to the harm to the social fabric. Some people feel like they don’t know who got tickets so they think that newbies got them. So that any one of these means the system has failed.
The lottery process, the random drawing, succeeded in picking people to attend the event. It did not succeed in filtering out scalpers and it actually damaged the core collaborative center of the community.
That was due to the degree of interest. If the interest had stayed within the range we thought it would, which was 10 percent or 20 percent over capacity, instead of the more than double it turned out to be, we figured the system would work itself out. We had another sale coming up later and we had low-income tickets. We thought we were setting up a distributed environment where there were a bunch of opportunities. But to have twice as much interest negates the community core of the event.
What was it like when it became apparent that the system would not work in the way you hoped?
What we realized before the random drawing happened was that the level of interest meant it was going to be one in three people that received a ticket. It was very terrifying and very upsetting because we didn’t know what that meant. Who are these other people, where are the tickets going, what are we going to do?
It became even more serious when we began to hear from longtime camp members that basically 25 percent of their group hadn’t received a ticket. To say that the sky was falling and it was the end of Burning Man is basically what we thought. We figured if we didn’t solve this, we had gutted the social fabric of an event that depends on it for its magic.
Joshua Johnson To burners who say you should just get rid of the lottery, what would you say?
Marian Goodell At this point we can never go back to the way it was. There is no way to guarantee that the first 3,000 or 10,000 people are the ones running the theme camps. No one can be in everyone’s home making them put their fingers up to the keyboard so they get tickets before someone in St. Louis who just heard about it for the first time — who saw the video and now they really want to go — does. That’s not a system that upholds the social fabric either.
What as you go forward, gives you confidence that you’ll be able to solve this?
Solve is relative. I think we’re going to be able to move forward by listening to the community and see what it is they need. We’ve got a couple of ideas, and we need to be able to grow a little bit if not a lot. This is not a straightforward thing; it’s not like you just move the venue to a bigger stadium. We have a relationship with the BLM, we have a restricted road system, we have a small community that we go through. It’s not just a numbers game.
The reason why it’s taking us time, if we can put it all together it will make for a much more successful step forward. If we put little pieces in place, there won’t really be any stability. So we’re just trying to get each of the building blocks together.