Though there are dozens of festivals for people to go to, none quite measure up to Burning Man. This is mostly because Burning Man isn’t your typical festival. Indeed, some might not even call it a festival at all. Instead, it is more of a gathering of like minds where the constraints of “normal” society no longer matter.
At least, those are the ideals that Burning Man started with and developed over the years. The gathering began when Larry Harvey and Jerry James burned an 8-foot-tall wooden man on a beach near San Francisco. The gathering has since moved to the infamous Black Rock, Nevada and gathers over 70,000 people a year. Since 1986, Burning Man has undergone major changes and has survived consumerist vultures, identity crises, and more.
However, in a new, uncertain world, how the festival preserves its identity in the wake of government regulation and social media might be its biggest test, yet.
In the beginning, it was all so simple. In between bread-baking, wind sailing, and, of course, getting together to burn a giant wooden man, time on the playa was a bucolic retreat from the rigidity of normal society. Burning Man expanded into a temporary settlement where attendees shared goods and possessions while regular currency had little value. The event was an anti-commercial, free-living experiment as much as it was a chance to just go into the desert and do weird sh*t.
Like everything pure in this world, though, once the internet arrived things around the playa began shifting. The changes that organizers made were small at first. They established an email discussion list in 1995. In 1998, Sergey Brin and Larry Page created the first Google Doodle featuring the Burning Man. By the end of the ‘90s, Wired, CNN, and other outlets had caught onto the event. Burning Man was on its way to becoming big time.
In 2004, cofounder and “chief philosopher” Larry Harvey wrote the 10 Principles of Burning Man. These principles included Burning Man’s famous “leave no trace” rule and detailed the practices of gifting and radical inclusiveness. The guidelines for life on the playa would prove to be a crucial touchstone for the years to come.
The Cost of Burning
The 10 Principles of Burning Man, romantic as they are, remain guidelines. They haven’t stopped the super-rich from turning Burning Man into a desert playground. Nor have they stopped costs associated with Burning Man from ballooning. In many cases, the cost of Burning Man doesn’t end with its $425 tickets and $100 vehicle pass (or $1,400 if you buy tickets in advance). Burners typically have to bring in all of their supplies (the only items Burning Man allows visitors to purchase are ice and coffee).
While packing your supplies and shelter isn’t that different from a typical camping trip, over the years, the playa has turned into a microcosm of regular society where inequality and the well-off insulate themselves from the larger population. This escalated a couple of years ago when a “Billionaire’s Row” appeared on the playa.
Isolated from other burners, the Billionaire’s Row included meals prepared by chefs, security, parties in air-conditioned yurts. If you’ve been following along, this egregiously goes against Burning Man’s entire ethos. The worst offenders, a camp named Humano, sold accommodations starting at $25,000 and promoted its amenities with scantily clad burners showcasing the playa high life. Burning Man eventually banned Humano, but the narrative illustrates how the conflicting values of personal branding, lifestyle marketing, and anti-commercialization chafe. That conflict only intensifies in an age dominated by social media.
Invasion of the Influencers
Where in the past music festivals and cross-disciplinary gatherings like Burning Man were vehicles to enjoy music and like-minded company, festivals have transformed to accommodate brand partnerships and commercialization. For long-running festivals, it is a delicate balancing act. How do you retain the festival’s spirit while also integrating lucrative sponsorship deals? How do you, by all means, prevent an influencer debacle like Fyre Fest?
In today’s digital landscape, it’s increasingly hard for a unique gathering like Burning Man to retain its idealistic vision. Brand partnerships, on a macro level, are one thing. On a micro-level though, with influencers and personal brands being so prevalent, commercialization infiltrates the playa more every year.
This has come to a head in 2018 and, according to a Fast Company profile, organizers at Burning Man are grappling with how to maintain the gathering’s decommercialization and radical inclusion ethos while allowing people to experience Burning Man on their terms. Sometimes that means allowing phones and permitting plug-and-play camps. Moreover, there are no rules against hashtagging sponsored posts or being rich and comfortable.
Still, some people take it too far. Organizers conducted an internal report on the playa and found multiple for-profit and exclusionary plug-and-play camps. Meanwhile, someone was developing a Burning Man social media app and email lists. Elsewhere, there were instances of product launches, photoshoots, and increasingly more product placements on the playa.
To mitigate some of the ultra-rich trappings of Burning Man, organizers took a few steps. These included introducing low-income tickets for burners, prioritizing established art collectives, and comprehensively vetting newer collectives and camps. “If a camp is too big and fancy, then it’s our job to say, ‘Start small,’ ” said Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell.
Is Government Oversight Burning Burning Man?
Besides influencers and social media altering the fabric of Burning Man, the government has a say, too. Because Burning Man takes place on federal land, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grants the event a permit every year.
Recently, BLM has proposed several changes to Burning Man that would irreparably change the festival, if not price it out of existence. One change includes requiring organizers to provide approximately 1,500 dumpsters around the campsite to prevent waste and litter in nearby towns and surrounding roads. Needless to say, that many dumpsters would compromise not only Burning Man’s aesthetic but also its “leave no trace” guideline. The principle states that burners must leave the camp in the state they found it, i.e., preserved and pristine.
Beyond erecting a dumpster camp in the middle of the desert, BLM has also proposed constructing perimeter barriers. The barriers would, as the reasoning goes, prevent Burning Man from becoming a soft terrorist target. That is a legitimate concern. However, creating a barrier around the entire 9.2-mile perimeter is impossible (there aren’t enough concrete barriers in Nevada to create the perimeter). Furthermore, transporting barriers to Black Rock would cause congestion on roads and would also be expensive.
Burning Man estimates that BLM’s proposed changes would cost organizers an additional $20 million. Burning Man’s annual budget is $45 million, so you can do the math. “The thing that keeps me up at night is the death by a thousand cuts,” says Marnee Benson, Burning Man’s associate director of government affairs. “Just the immense weight of regulation and really the operational takeover.”
These are hard questions for any festival to answer. As one of America’s longest-running and idiosyncratic gatherings, they are doubly hard for Burning Man. The playa presents a world removed from our society—a place where people shed false concepts of self in pursuit of something meaningful (or a great IG post, depending on who you ask). Pressures from inside and outside of Black Rock may destroy all of that.
If so, Burning Man may find itself turning into a world just like the one it’s running from.