Why is Burning Man still selling tickets at all?

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…


25 thoughts on “Why is Burning Man still selling tickets at all?

  1. Wow! I’ve heard Sooooo many suggestions as to how Burning Man should fix this “fiasco”. No one besides YOU has actually had the cahones to suggest a “FREE TICKETS” system. But, somehow you actually pulled it off and EVEN make it sound completely feasible! (Scary as fuck, but feasible!) ~ Hugs, Jim

  2. The problem remains, who do you let in? If someone is choosing, that person is shaping the profile of the burn, rather than letting chaos reign as to who shows up and what they do. This, to me, is a fundamental issue that forces any system by which individuals or groups are selected to receive tickets into determinism, removing the underlying “anything goes” possibility of the playa. Giving tickets away (or “pay what you can”) might just work, but I feel very strongly that the concept of merit-based ticketing is fundamentally constrictive to the culture. Others have suggested giving away 40k tickets for free in a lotto, and selling the last 10k to the highest bidders. I’d much prefer that to having some committee decide who gets to go and who’s not “burny” enough.

  3. Amazing outside of the box thinking! From big problems come even bigger solutions! Those of us lucky enough to have attended Burning Man know what healing soul medicine it is! Perhaps the time has come for our community to share that medicine with the whole world! To teach the world a very important lesson about how it does business!


  4. While I like this idea, it still does not address the issue of scarcity. There is still a finite number of tickets available and roughly 3 times more people wanting to go than there are tickets. A free system with no scarcity would be of no interest to scalpers. A free system WITH scarcity would definitely encourage scalpers to snatch up as many low price (or free) tickets as possible and turn them around for a profit. And because there is scarcity, there will still be desperate burners willing to pay scalpers for tickets. This will take money from Burning Man and put it in the hands of scalpers more than usual. Once the size limit of the event is raised (or lifted?), then a free ticket system could work.

    When it comes to “who to let in”, I still think a first come, first served approach is the most fair. To limit bogging down servers, I’d release a small amount of tickets into open sale every month. People would be able to pay when they had money without fear of the event selling out on the first day/month. With courtesy instead of panic, some of us might even let those who need more planning (theme camps, international burners, etc) buy in the first months and wait to buy until we really need to. Of course new burners may not realize the importance of this and still snatch up all the tickets early, leaving none for veterans.

    There is no one elegant solution. Any fix now will have to keep evolving. When this population cap is raised, what happens when we exceed the next cap? The main issue (as Halcyon’s video elegantly explained) is that the community is growing at an alarming rate and becoming a global phenomenon. Someday the question will be which of the thousands of burns you will be attending and how you will manifest the spirit of Burning Man in every day life. It’s going to get too big to count and contain.

  5. Makes a lot of sense. There’s an idea floating the forums about ‘earn to burn’. People get what they give. Once you go, you quickly realize the real gift is in the giving. I think the beauty and reality is we, the community, make Burning Man what it is. The real problem has arisen, Burning Man will not retain its spirit without certain people – every year inspires me to contribute more, to nurture that giving and help make the whole even better. It shivers the spine, reading all these veteran vs.virgin comments. I’ve met people who have never been that, given the chance, would radiate in that environment. The shares of our city are distributed through our contribution. Perhaps everyone should submit ideas for what they’re going to contribute, and the community decides? In response to the post, I whole heartedly agree we should continue our ‘radical’ approach, and radically change the ticketing system. ‘Free’ being the best suggestion I’ve heard so far.

  6. I thought an idea similar to this but your explanation of how this could pan out is in far more detail than mine.

    I have also suggested that the .org renames the event to something unrelated to BM.
    Set up a decoy event that really isn’t BM. Tell the world that BM is only a 2 day event and let the party animals from all over the world show up. Also allow the scalpers buy up as many tickets as they want. If the tickets buy 50,000 tickets to the “burning man” the real burning man another weekend could be free.

    The people who have been in the email system before, or receive a jackrabitspeaks email could get the link to the golden REAL burning man event.

    just my .02 .

    love and light

  7. Interesting creative thinking. Going along these lines, why not make BM a membership organization? Could have memberships for all types of stakeholders — individual participants, theme camps, art car operators, artists, service providers (departments). Have the members elect the Board, which appoints executive management. All major policy initiatives and changes have to pass through the Board and be ratified/vetoed by the membership. Have an initiative process to bypass Board veto when sufficient percentage of members want to submit same for ratification/veto by the entire membership. The usual rules about quorums etc.

    Dues would support the organization and event then, and the commerce from tickets becomes less critical. The organization would have more money to give grants for arts etc. and other events in addition to BM.

    I see where you’re going with apportioning tickets: x% to established theme camps, art car operators and established artists and other veteran participants, x% to newbies. Deciding those percentages should have input and ratification from the community at large.

    The other very real alternative is to find a new venue for the event, where it can keep on growing, either under the current street plan or under a new scheme that could include differently shaped districts, or more urban, suburban, and even rural encampments, depending on density and other factors. It’s already getting to the point that we might benefit from mass transit in BRC — even two bus lines with a stop at the Man in both directions (3 to 9, 6 to Temple). Why not? These are all things that happen naturally in the development of towns and cities in the default world, as they grow in population and size.

    To me, it feels like the event is at one of those crossroads/turning points, where a number of milestones have been passed, and we need fresh, forward thinking and new ideas.

  8. Still does not address the supply and demand issue… how do you allocate the 50K tickets? Control is easy… put name and last four of CC on ticket, you don’t have picture ID to match the ticket and the CC you don’t get in. Buy four tickets and all four have to come with you to get in.

  9. It’s really great to read your blog post and to see your meditative eye on the situation, Dale. In a true gift economy, driven by dana, not only would the current year’s participants fund the entrance fees with their money, but past year participants might also sponsor a newbie, offering them the opportunity to experience the Burning Man ethos from the git-go. Those who have had the good fortune to attend the event in year(s) past would voluntarily step down and let those less fortunate have an opportunity to obtain a ticket and go. Certainly, there would be no gloating over having scored tickets at the lowest tier as there has been in years past by members of the community that could have easily paid more. We might even see an offering of unused camping gear in “the year we did not go” to those in need of a sturdy shade structure or kitchen set up. We all know someone who is paying ridiculous amounts of money to store these items for an event that happens once a year.

    Just as an aside, the Buddhist center that I attend runs entirely on dana and is definitely “in the red.” Classes and retreats are taught by volunteers and it is rare when the give and take involved with the dana system takes in more than it gives. The hope is always that you can cover your costs and that the participants then extend the dana concept into the world at large — with time, talents and funding being given to the greater communities and to those that we love and interact with on a daily basis. Is this the intention of the Burning Man organization? Could the staff support themselves year-round in the fashion to which they are accustomed? It is not my experience there, but maybe change is in order.

  10. For most people there’s no difference between paying for their ticket and paying forward for the next person’s. But if they can get in for “free”, they will just spend a little more on beer and bling. If there are bills to be paid, there has to be a system that ensures they are paid.

  11. Even the idea of one Burning Man event once a year in one location is not sustainable. If there were more regional burning man events around the world, maybe even simultaneously, not only will it decrease the carbon footprint that 50,000 going to one location causes, it could also alleviate the problems of overcapacity and ticket issues, etc… BM is ready branch out from Black Rock City

  12. I love this thought! There are defiantly still some issues to work out with the scarcity issue, but I can see it being less of a problem if you have to get all the way to the gate for a “ticket”. We all know plans can change last minute and there are people who applied for 2 tickets this year who will end up not going at all for some reason or another…..shit happens.

    As far as who to let in….a possible solution could be breaking up “ticketing tiers” by type of participant rather then price……
    large sound and art contributing camps apply for X% of the tickets
    groups working on art installations, cars, interactive projects apply for X%
    participants volunteering at the burn apply for X %
    individual and smaller art projects apply for X %
    and of course newbies can apply for X% of the available tickets

    Theoretically this would allow for more control over the mix of participants, which is clearly necessary. I am truly concerned about participating this year if only 30% of established participants and camps will be there and 40% are all newbies. If that ends up being the case I foresee disaster! You can’t have the spirit of Burning Man when 40% of the people there have never experienced it before and my not even know what it is! Its not fair to seasoned participants or those experiencing Burning Man for the first time.

    Perhaps distributing tickets based on a system like I’ve outlined above but with out set prices. Each participant could then contribute what they are capable and willing financially…..pre-event even……..just a thought.

  13. Oh, Dale, thank you for posting this. Otherwise, since I really try not to read anything about burning man — ever — how would I have found out that burning man has killed itself? What a wonderful birthday present this news is. Reading all the boo-hooing in the comments of the “official” blog is better than cake!

  14. Like the Karma Kitchen I have seen the “gift” method work for various small businesses and it works well. You instill a sense of loyalty and caring in customers and in return you get patrons.

    We need to trust that the Burner Community will give back and provide what the organization and the playa needs. Gifting 80% of tickets to returning Burners is a great way to keep the frustrations at bay and build a stronger community. Ticketholders will understand that if they want to keep this magical world alive they must maintain it. And each person should only be able to receive a ticket for themselves.

    Once the returning community is in place, the community that must take the most time to plan, build, and create for the event, it is at this point that you take the remaining 20% of tickets and distribute them to newcomers or re-born burners. Newcomers need to understand the honor of becoming part of the ranks of an established community. As on the playa, we expect nothing out of the virgins except to try and give back with their time and cleaning up MOOP. We can’t expect newcomers to understand our gift process immediately and not try to take advantage of the system at first, so charge a ticket price for these tickets.

    Every year it seems the gift principles we learn at Burning Man exist only on the playa because the people who run BM have not taken the leap of faith to incorporate it into the entrance process in the default world. Do something to truly shock the world and give away the tickets so we can show the world that Burners truly know how to give back in order to maintain their community.

  15. Pingback: Burning Man Apologizes! Ticket Update: Radical Inclusion, Meet the Other Nine – Burning Blog | | Crazy Bernie's FREE Burning Man Tickets!!!Crazy Bernie's FREE Burning Man Tickets!!!

  16. Just pointing something out – in 1991 *everyone* was a newbie. Maybe, if 50% of participants this year are newbies, something wonderful might happen.

    They might improvise new art, they might overturn the established rituals and hierarchies, they might lose it with the cops and start a f…n riot.

    It might be interesting to see what happens.

  17. What the 2012 “ticket fiasco” and the enveloping noise tells me is that, regardless of the fantasy facade that BMORG promotes, there is very little difference between the playa and the “default” world.

  18. Pingback: Why is Burning Man still selling tickets at all? | Burners.Me Burning Man commentary blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s