The Woes of Creating Burning Man
The Costs of the Contemporary Beast
Burning Man is now an event that most participants feel is a huge enterprise, easily filling the pockets of the creators allowing them luxury and ease of living. Unfortunately, this is not a reality for the creators of the event. Cynicism for the creators reared its head in a timid gesture this year with mock flyers in every single porta-potty telling of a fiesta BBQ dinner for all. Word got around fast, and the 2pm BBQ time was met with a dry erase board reading, “No BBQ today! The flyers are a hoax!”
Why would participants that thrive upon this week of unleashing want to hold contempt for the creators? It all comes back to money. Money is exchanged in order to enter Black Rock City. Larry Harvey considers it a “tax”. Participants consider it an expensive ticket. I bought early this year and my tax was a few dollars north of two hundred. Participants are not stupid people, and with a little math their algebra takes them to formulas such as this: Each participant pays around $200/person. There are 35,000 participants. Multiply $200 by 35,000 to see how much money is brought into the pockets of the creators. Answer: Roughly $7,000,000.
It is a safe bet to estimate that 85% or more of the population of Burning Man will not earn this amount of money in their lifetime. To them, this is a large chunk of change that can take them to places known as Tahiti or Morocco every day of the year for the rest of their lives.
Reality check: Burning Man is a business. Campmate Jeff from San Francisco assists small start up businesses as his living. My first night at camp I was expressing my cynicism for the tax, while Jeff was talking about the possibilities of growing the event for the sustainability of Burning Man. The growth of the event was “for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was they probably needed to make more money if they were going to live off of it, and I’m not talking about getting rich, I’m just talking about paying salaries.”
“Yeah, I’m sure it does at this point,” I interjected.
“No,” Jeff replied, “I don’t think it does.”
I protested that $200 a pop for 30,000 people would give you at least $6,000,000.
“$6,000,000, that’s your whole budget for the year. That’s peanuts…[start-up companies] burn a million dollars a month, easy,” Jeff said.
My thoughts at this point were how companies are entities that function at full throttle year round. Burning Man does not function at full throttle year round. At best it is only at its peak for three months of the year including set up and take down.
“[The companies I advise] are small… they have, like, 30 people, 40 people…they’re burning $2,000,000 a month. [Burning Man] has way more than 30 people… and when this thing is going they have hundreds of people.
“This year the DPW guys, the guys that do the heavy lifting…are working for food….Nobody is getting rich off [Burning Man].”
Not only are there 30 or more full time employees to pay, but a multitude of other expenses:
--A $1,000,000 land use fee imposed by the US Government for use of the barren land.
--Three divisions of law enforcement: State, Local and County
--Sanitation for the porta-potties
--Electricity at the site
--Water trucks to keep the dust down
Each of these listed could potentially cost $1,000,000 or more, and then you still have underlying costs.
Walking through the event and talking to people about general operation of the event and what they felt about it, the conversation always came back to the revenue. An unknown person on one of my tapes expressed, “I have a tough time knowing that this event pulls in somewhere between 6 and 8 million dollars of revenue and Larry having all these lofty moral goals, but at the same time the guy is obviously pocketing some fucking doe.” After explaining what I had heard regarding costs for the event, however, this individual and others felt a little more comfortable about it. My friend Jeff from camp (not Jeff with the business background, but Jeff from Huntington Beach) adds, “[Larry is] not cashing in off this; he’s having a good old time…he’s a good going guy…He’s looking at the benefits of…[the money] going towards everybody, not just himself.”
Larry does make a little money off the event, but he oversees the entire event. Jeff added, “He comes out a head, but he’s not sitting out there milking it; he’s not doing that MTV shit…he’s a good guy.”
Larry is also very aware of the ramifications of having a corporate sponsor for the event. Corporations are not well loved at Burning Man, for many people go to the event to get away from them. I met a whole camp of computer engineers that work for Google who come every year to just relax and not be a part of that doldrum. The temptations for having corporate sponsors for the event, if you need money, are huge, however. If Budweiser were to sponsor the event, the organizers would most assuredly have enough revenue to cover all the operation costs at their current rate. Larry is constantly asked to consider sponsorship and he always adamantly says no. “I think [not having corporate sponsors is why] people don’t really have a problem paying $200 a ticket,” another unidentified participant interjected, “because, I mean, you know there is no corporate sponsor out there.” Introducing the corporate sponsorship would bring in a new crowd, but also significantly change the dynamic of the event. Jeff finished the thought by saying, “[Larry is] basically doing this [event] so that we all have a good time. That’s what it comes down to. Make sure we’re all fucking cool. Make sure everything is clean and we’re having a good old time.”
Liabilities are an issue for the organizers of the event. A few thought Burning Man could be held responsible for heinous acts or events in the court of law, even though the event says it is free of all liability. Last year (2003), a girl fell off an art car and was crushed by it. In the same year, a pilot forgot to put down his landing gear and crashed his airplane at the Black Rock Airport and another plane that just outright tumbled on the landing strip. Disasters like this at the event are serious concerns for the organizers and they have to be taken into account when putting everything together. Because of the general atmosphere, however, the blaming for accidents seems to be kept in check. The attitude of my interviews prevailed through out the week of saying that if you come out to the desert and you are stupid, its your own damn fault, and everyone is going to hold you responsible for what happened to you. But when accidents become disasters, “understood” rules can give way to the written documents that hold the event down and people responsible. A sad evolution of a large beast.
There are Girls Gone Wild aspects that the organizers have to contend with, too. Nudity is accepted and, for the most part, the norm of Burning Man. When you video tape girls dancing around and then broadcast it on your website, the context changes. Three years ago all video cameras (and digital still cameras that have video capability) began to have to be registered at Media Mecca. The intent is to know exactly who has the capability and if something pops up online or worse, on DVD, the organizers can search through the registrations of equipment and hold the responsible party liable.
How that exactly works, is up for speculation. The registration process basically says that you have to tell the event organizers what you do with your published work. Whatever is gained in commission for publication, 10% is to go back to Burning Man. Because the event has a year-round full-time staff, it is possible for them to check the internet for publications of Burning Man related articles, pictures and video. If you have not told them about what you have done or made from your work, they can come after you, which is totally not worth it for the author of the articles. It makes much more sense to pay $100 than $1000 in fines or hassle charges from the event.
Problems with Individual Costs
Still, there are many costs that are incurred to each participant. Myself, I had food and water costs, camping equipment and liquor expenses that I would not have normally encountered. Those that put on elaborate theme camps or even organized camps the costs must be huge. Other aspects, such as the gift economy, cannot function beyond the week of the event.
It is tragic that participants of this event feel so much initial animosity because of the initial money exchanged. Ideally, no one would be charged, but this is an event that takes place on government land and therefore has to abide by the measures imposed. It is also an event with a large population that needs certain comforts, such as porta potties. And, now that the event is a true slice of life, law enforcement needs to be in attendance because of the small percentage of criminals that appear.
Nothing Else Like It
Burning Man is the evolution of the beast. This event evolves with time. It has evolved into being a city that understands it’s business agenda, but also understands how it was founded and it tries to accept both. There is only so much the event organizers can do when they invite anyone and everyone to come out to the desert to do what ever they want. However, the predominant attitude at Burning Man is that you can walk down a street at any time in any section and feel safe, so don’t let my “criminal statistics” make you think otherwise. Crime that occurs is innocent, consisting mainly of people too “confused” about which bike is which and wander off with the wrong one.
Larry Harvey started this event because they wanted to find a time and place to do what ever they wanted to do. The week was for doing drugs or shooting a gun because they never did those things in normal society. Now there are no guns or dogs, but it is still a place where any one and everyone can come to be naked or dress however they want to and not be judged from it. In fact, you have a better chance not being judged if you do have a costume.
The money issues will continue to be an issue as long as the event grows. It seems people always need something to complain about, but its good to know Larry Harvey and the other organizers are not about to budge with corporate sponsors or other means of selling out. The amount of chaos the organizers have to contend with is enormous so to have an event happen every year of this scale that basically goes off without a hitch is amazing. Whenever you think curating a show is tough, think about this and you might feel a little better.
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