Burning Man ticket fiasco creates an uncertain future

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The Burning Man community is ablaze with frustrations and doubts over this year's event.

UPDATED WITH LLC RESPONSES BELOW   Is it the end of Burning Man as we know it? That's certainly the way things are looking to thousands of longtime burners who didn't get tickets when the results of a controversial new ticket lottery system were announced on Tuesday evening, particularly as big picture information emerged in online discussions yesterday.

[SFBG update: Will theme camps receive the remaining tickets?]

Personally, I was awarded the maximum two tickets I requested at the $320 level (my sister already claimed the other, so don't even ask), but I'm feeling a little survivor's guilt as I hear from the vast majority of my burner friends who didn't get tickets. And if it wasn't already clear that scalpers have effectively gamed the new system, that became apparent yesterday when batches of up to eight tickets were listed for as much as $1,500 each on eBay and other online outlets.

As I've attended Burning Man since 2001 and covered it for the Guardian and my book, The Tribes of Burning Man, I've become involved with many camps and collectives over the years. So over the last couple days, I've been privy to lots of online discussions and surveys, and it appears that only about a third of burners who registered for tickets actually received them (organizers have refused to say how many people registered for the 40,000 tickets sold this week, so it's tough to assess whether scalpers were more effective than burners at buying them).

The huge number of burners without tickets is a big problem for theme camps and art collectives that rely heavily on their members to pay dues and work long hours to prepare often elaborate camps, art cars, or installations, some of which are now in doubt. Many people are so frustrated that they've pledged not to attend this year, and even those of us that did get tickets are questioning whether we want to go if some of our favorite people aren't – particularly if they're replaced by rich newbies willing to spend a grand on a ticket.

Theme camps are the basic building blocks of Black Rock City – a central tenet of my book and regular claim of event organizers – and the work they do to build their camps and plan fundraisers to pay for them has already begun, only with far more uncertainty than usual this year. And that will also exacerbate a tension that already exists between grant-funded art projects (which usually get free tickets for their volunteer builders) and big camps that don't qualify for tickets, such as sound camps or independently funded art projects.

For now, most burners seem to be willing to wait a beat or two – as Black Rock City LLC is urging, a message that I willingly helped disseminate and that I support – to see whether enough extra tickets purchased by community-minded burners are offered for sale at face value using an aftermarket ticket exchange the LLC is hurriedly setting up right now. Some camps and projects have created internal ticket exchanges to try to take care of their own first. And there's still the secondary ticket sale with the last 10,000 tickets coming on March 28.

But the frustrations are palpable, and there is widespread concern that Burning Man has jumped the shark and will be changed by the series of official missteps in the last year. Dozens of people have independently asked why, after the event sold out last year and scalpers made a killing, the LLC didn't require each ticket to be registered to an individual and transferred only through a regulated aftermarket system, which would prevent gouging by scalpers. I've asked organizers that same question each of the last two years, and I was only told that it seemed like too much trouble and that things would work out.

Well, most burners don't think things are working out very well. Many are still willing to wait and see, and this certainly is a resourceful community, so perhaps things seem more bleak now than they will in a month or two when playa preparations really kick into gear. But if not, the LLC could be facing a real crisis of confidence in its leadership of an event that we all help create, and perhaps even an open rebellion of its core members.

Many longtime burners are already making other vacation plans for this year, some are even pondering plans to create alternative events, and there are a significant number of them who have tapped the spirit of these political times and suggested it's time to “Occupy Burning Man” or “Occupy Black Rock City.”

Whatever happens, the Year of the Dragon seems to have brought with it the old Chinese proverb: may you live in interesting times. I'll continue covering new developments in this most interesting of years, so stay in touch.

Sincerely, Scribe

UPDATE (5 PM): LLC board member Marian Goodell just returned my call and said the organization leaders huddled up today to work on solutions to problems raised by the ticket shortfalls. "We're genuinely really putting our heads together today. We're listening, we really are," she said. "It's very real for us, I get it."

She recognizes that it's a big problem for established theme camps and art collectives having tickets for only about a third of their members, a figure that she also confirmed. "It's clear that the theme camps and art projects are a significant part of the community, and this situation is causing problems for them," she said. "That's the part that will hurt us if we don't take another look at this."

Goodell also acknowledges that it doesn't appear there are as many tickets available within those established burner networks as she had hoped would be the case: "I doesn't look like camps are sitting on a lot of tickets." But she also said that she doesn't think the lion's share went to scalpers. "We don't think there are 10,000 people out there looking to scalp tickets," she said. "Putting them up for sale is not the same thing as them being sold." She reiterated her appeal that people don't use scalpers for tickets but wait for community-based sources and solutions.

But Goodell said it was too late to re-do this week's lottery -- "not possible," she said -- even though the physical tickets won't be mailed out until June. She said the LLC has divided up information-gathering tasks now and will regroup soon to decide how to proceed, with options including tweaks to the rules for the March 28 ticket sale or working with the BLM to bump up the population cap, an option that would raise other problems.

"We have many different challenges: scalping, community development, and population," Goodell said, reiterating her concern that increasing the population would make logistical problems like the long exodus wait even worse. But whether that's even a possibility will depend on the Environmental Impact Statement that is expected to be completed in March.