Dear Burning Man folks:
The last time you guys were bickering this much I was away in India. I wouldn’t have cared, but you filled my inbox with so much crap about raising money for alternate alternate art funding (Borg2) that I wrote back telling you that what you needed to worry about was not more art funding but more whiskey and rockets at Burning Man.
This time, I was away on a silent meditation retreat, so I almost didn’t notice. But on my return, what seems like half of San Francisco and Silicon Valley had entered the Burning Man ticket lottery, were disappointed with the results, and were filling every social media outlet they could find with tales of woe and suggestions for what the BMorg should do next. Endless fine points about ticket levels (to $400 and up), scalpers with prices many times that, printing photos on tickets and making them non-transferable, and so on, ad nauseum. (The best post I read has been Alyssa Royse on Burning Man tickets and crisis PR.) It seems like there is a good answer that I’m surprised noone else has suggested it by now.
Why is Burning Man still selling tickets at all?
I loved the original barter system at Burning Man. These are some of my fondest Burning Man memories. It was such a fun interaction to see what ridiculous thing you could get someone to do or give in return for something they wanted. It was just as fun to see what might be asked of you when you wanted something. People brought things specifically to trade, and people forgot things on purpose so that they’d have to barter.
As the event grew, too many people didn’t get it, and the barter started tending away from ridiculous and toward real. Hoarding and greed were inside the (new) fence. Something had to be done. So the “Gift Economy” was introduced to a great deal of fanfare, with much explanation and evangelizing. Blogs were posted, lectures given, movies made, until everyone attending the event was sufficiently indoctrinated. Political correctness required militant correction of anyone who didn’t “get it.” The transition was completed and forgotten within a couple of years, and Burning Man has worked well this way since.
Whether you think saving barter would have been more interesting, or much prefer gifting, the amazing thing is how quick and complete the transition. Larry Harvey, the LLC and the org did an amazing job. This is the kind of organizational change that’s tough anywhere. Corporations spend millions of dollars on lesser change initiatives supported by the best expert consultants and fail all the time. They can’t convince their own salaried employees to do what they want. Yet Burning Man pulled this off with a bunch of anarchists.
What’s this got to do with tickets? Well… the org has grown to provide more services and grants every year, and thus had to raise ticket prices. They went through years that they were almost bankrupted and done, and they survived and thrived overcoming incredible legal, logistical and other challenges (the org deserves tons of credit for amazing accomplishments!). When tickets got too expensive for many of the folks who contribute the most at the event, they instituted a tiered pricing system and systems for scholarship tickets and the like. There’s been endless complaints about the prices and the process. For years, ticketing has been time and energy draining for the org and for participants. Every year there are people who are angry about technology breakdowns, who miss getting the level of ticket they feel like they can afford, etc. The system hasn’t really charged people what they can afford so much as it rewarded those willing to spend a day of their time hitting “refresh” on their browser. So cheap bastards with well-paying cubicle jobs paid the same price as starving artists, while those who really had to work paid the higher prices regardless of affordability.
But the energy drain doesn’t stop there. For the next six months, folks buy sell and trade tickets. Camp and project lists spend much of their time on who needs a ticket, who has a ticket, what’s for sale, what free tickets have to be applied for. More conversation about tickets than about building camps and art. Don’t even get me started on the endless waste of time at the gate with things like folks toss your car looking for stowaways.
It looked like it had gotten kind of stable though. Prices looked simliar from year to year, and people had long ago gotten used to the level of hassle around tickets. It might have gone on like this for as long as Burning Man continued.
And then one year, tickets sold out. So this lottery debacle. And now endless discussion. Every part of it an evolution toward more complexity.
I’m amazed that so much energy is going into solving the wrong problems. How to transfer tickets, how to make tickets non-transferable, how to keep scalpers from profiting… ug. So tired.
Instead of dumb incremental change and added complexity, how can you change the fundamental assumptions and limiting beliefs around tickets to make for a much simpler and more beautiful solution?
There are really only two problems you want to solve around ticketing. 1) Get the right mix of people in the door (newbies who get a chance to experience it for the first time, and established folks who’ve been making this happen for years), distributing fairly the 50,000 entries available. 2) Pay all the bills in the default world that are required to make awesome stuff happen, including salaries and benefits for employees, a fair retirement for the founders, continuing to grow the impact of Burning Man outside the event, etc.
I’m not going to directly address the first problem (who gets in). Relatively, it’s the easy one. You can just pick a desirable mix of new and old, and there are many ways you could implement a system to put that in place while fairly distributing the entries between those who need to plan far in advance and those who will decide closer to the event. In fact, there might be some really interesting new ways to encourage stronger and more intentional community in addressing this. I can hear you screaming about the complexities. Hang on a sec.
This problem (who to let in) seems like a much bigger problem than it is because you’ve kept it so tightly coupled to the second problem (selling tickets to pay for the event). You can’t see past how to deal with the dollars. So fix that first, then open a world of endless possibility.
Burning Man, stop using commerce as a way to pay your bills and solve your entry problems. The better solution to both is to stop charging for tickets.
It’s hypocritical anyway. Especially now that you’re becoming a non-profit. You’ve always been anti-commerce at the event. Eschewed logos and advertising and sponsorships. You did such a fantastic job of explaining the gift economy inside the gate. It’s time to do the same amazing job of explaining the gift economy to those you give tickets to. Yes, I said “give” as in for free. It’s time to put your trust in participants. Show the world how your talk isn’t idle idealism, but is a real working vision for how a gift economy is a real sustainable alternative with advantages that can’t be ignored.
There are plenty of default world examples of exchange without capitalism and commerce that works without a price. What kind of example could you become?
Many meditation retreats operates by “dana.” Teachers don’t charge for teachings, they give them freely. And students practice generosity by giving back, not in exchange or barter, but in true giving. It pays for teacher’s livelihood as well as paying all the costs (considerable for residential retreats with room and board for all the students).
Talk to Niphun Mehta who runs ServiceSpace.org. One of their projects is the Karma Kitchen, which has now operated successfully for years. “A restaurant where there are no prices on the menu and where the check reads $0.00 with only this footnote: Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you and we invite you to pay-it-forward for those after you.” They have more examples.
Talk to the software developers and technology entrepreneurs who know all about free. Talk those who’ve built companies on freemium and other alternative models. These are hardcore capitalists who’ve found they make more money by giving things away for free. Kevin Kelly wrote a whole book about it, maybe there’s something in there to consider, too.
It’s time to make Burning Man tickets priceless. It’s time to ask each Burner to pay what they can afford and to practice generosity. It’s time for the LLC to discover how much more participants are willing to pay rather than to fear how little. Getting your ticket (and giving back) should be a sacred rite that feels good to everyone involved, rather than a shameful deal with the devil that makes no one happy. It’s time for us all to learn how to make a much stronger bridge between the playa and the default world, to make a bigger step into changing the way we deal with money and commerce outside the gate.
I’ll respond to comments to this when I get back, but I was on may way out the door. I’m going to turn off all my electronics and go out to the woods for a couple of days…