Is Burning Man going communal or selling out?


“Man on the move,” the headline I gave to my current Guardian article and an extended personal blog post on the announcement that Burning Man will next month form a nonprofit group to eventually run the event, raises a number of interesting issues that are likely to be vigorously debated within this huge, active burner community in the coming months and years.

How should Burning Man be governed? What is the event worth – if it can even be quantified – and who created and should benefit from that value? Are Black Rock City LLC board members being selfless stewards of the culture in giving up control or are they being greedy control freaks in holding on for six more years and expecting a big payoff in the end? Or, like much about this dynamic culture, is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Event founder Larry Harvey's big announcement last week, made during a speech that was unusual for its insights into the thoughts and internal dynamics of the BRC board, stressed how to value an event whose central ethos opposes such commodification.

“I thought it was time the owners stepped out from behind the veil of secrecy,” Harvey told me during a follow-up interview this week. He repeatedly emphasizes the benevolence of a corporate board voluntarily giving up control over its assets and revenue stream. “What we're doing, as far as normal capitalism, is aberrant...What we're doing is giving up a lot of money.”

But the way that Harvey is trying to frame this issue seems antithetical to how most burners see the event and culture that they've spent decades helping to create, from using the term “owners” to describe the six board members to suggesting Burning Man has any relation to “normal capitalism,” even to the claim that there's “a lot of money” to give up, and that they might be more entitled to that money than the thousands of burners who have contributed their sweat equity to the event.

“We have people who have 10,000 volunteer hours at Burning Man,” says Chicken John Rinaldi, a longtime burner and critic of how Harvey and the board have run the event, believing that they have always overstated their importance considering Black Rock City is built each year almost entirely by its participants. “This event throw itself.”

Yet Harvey and the other board members, such as Michael Mikel and Marian Goodell, insist that the board plays an important role in shepherding the event and the culture that has grown up around it, which is why they plan on waiting three years to turn control of the event over to the new nonprofit, the Burning Man Project, and another three years after that until they liquidate their ownership of the name and associated trademarks and are paid for their value.

“We want it to get on its feet and be able to raise money on its own,” Harvey said of the nonprofit. The board is also creating a committee called the Philosophical Center “to ensure the cultural continuity as we pour Burning Man into a new vessel.” Mikel said he insisted on that because “for me, it's not about the art. It's really about the culture.”

The nonprofit board will be comprised of the six LLC board members and at least seven more members that those six members will select, and Harvey said they are doing interviews now, including talking to many longtime burners who were represented at last week's summit of Burning Man regional leaders from around the world. Chicken said it was offensive that Harvey would tell this gathering that it would take six years before they'd have full control over Burning Man.

“What they're saying is it's going to take years to pass the torch over, and they're saying this to a room full of people who have been involved in Burning Man for decades,” Chicken said. He was particularly critical of Harvey's statement that the board discussed coming up with a value for Burning Man and dividing that by six. “Once that comes out of someone's mouth, the bets are off.”

Chicken's conclusion: “They've turned Burning Man into a commodity. They're selling the event.”

Burning Man doesn't have much by way of assets now, and its roughly $12 million annual revenue stream from selling tickets goes almost entirely to staging the annual event and supporting the year-round operations of the organization.

But once the nonprofit forms up and starts taking tax-exempt donations and finding other ways of diversifying its revenue stream for the three years before the current board members cash out, Chicken predicts the board members will walk away with about $1 million each. “But I'm not going to let them get away with it,” pledged Chicken, who has already starting agitating and rabble-rousing in online forums, just as he did in 2004 when he launched the rebellion that became known as Borg2.

Harvey has confirmed the board members will walk away with well more than the $20,000 that they're currently entitled to if they resign, “but we'll have to work for a living,” he said. Mikel told me, “It's never been about the money, for me it was there was no succession plan. I really want Burning Man to continue beyond my involvement with it.”

Yet they also said that the bitter divisions on the board have evaporated since the new plan was developed. “Now that we can all see the future,” Mikel said, “we're getting along wonderfully.”

But Chicken says he's determined not to let these six board members, who have been getting the highest salaries for the last six years anyway “simply for ordering the PortaPotties,” profit from an event he helped created that has always been been about communal effort and decommidified relationships.

“Burning Man should be a labor of love,” he said. “I think Burning Man should exist outside of commerce.”

Guardian City Editor Steven T. Jones is the author of The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.

Photos of Larry Harvey from April 1 speech by

Ana Grillo Photography and Multimedia Productions


Three words: Limited Liability Company. Oh, and perhaps the disclaimer on every ticket that has said something to the effect of: By using this ticket you assume all responsibility for injury or DEATH by attending. They haven't been "liable" for much since the formation of the LLC.

Just sayin'

Posted by Guest on Aug. 06, 2011 @ 1:16 am

Do you really believe that all these six people do all year round to prepare for this event is make a few phone calls from their desk? Because thats what you posted in your article dipshit. Do you think a group of stoned hippes that follow out there every year have the brain power and dedication to deal with the BLM and other government agenices. No, thank god some responsible dedicated burners put in the effort to make this event ligit, legal and structured. Did he say that the entire event was put on by these six people? Not even close, he suggested that the crew works extremely hard year round for the past 25 years, i would love for you to argue that statement Steven. Yes participants make their own theme camps and installations, but in reality thats a very small part of the logistics. Does coachella just build a stage and everything else just falls into place, no, theres alot more work then what you actually see, alot more. The least you can do is be grateful to the people that have put in the years of hard work to make this possible.

Posted by ryan morris on Apr. 10, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

Who threatened Ritual Roasters? There is a fucking line out the door, and there always will be. Just because a girl I'm dating owns a coffee shop don;t think that whatever I say she agrees with because she doesn't. Coffee has nothing to do with the commodification of our parks, which is kinda the same battle here. You might not agree with my methods, you might not agree with my message and you might think my art sucks. But implying that I am alone in my opinion is absurd. I've got 10 people in this room that think the same way as me, 5,000 people on my mailing list that think the same way as me, and although they are not posting in this chat room there are many people who read this and agree as well.

It seems the only people who post on the SFBG website are disappointed in me. I'll try harder.


Posted by chicken john on Apr. 08, 2011 @ 11:39 pm

“But I also don’t think they (Larry, LLC) are the only stakeholders in Burning Man or the only ones who should determine its future and governance structure, at least not without hearing from us first.”

Yeah, let me clarify that for you, Steve.

You’re wrong.

They do own it.

“They” own Paper Man, LLC, and the trademarks. They deal w/ the BLM and local various authorities. They sell the tickets, sign off on the insurance & other paperwork, and put their ass on the line. They own it.

I know, I know.

You’re still stuck out on the playa and want to have some gay conversation about the soul of Burning Man or whatever, but let me put it to you like this.

Just because I’ve been going to my neighbors BBQ for several years now and contributing my awesome bacon guac cheeseburgers for everyone doesn’t mean my neighbor has to get my permission to sell his house and move up to Oregon.

This is still America (for now). It doesn’t work that way.

Running Burning Man is a hard job and you have to deal with a lot of dick-heads with an over inflated sense of entitlement.

Remember Paul Addis? What a basket-case loser. Dude went to Burning Man all of TWO TIMES over a decade ago and now thinks he’s the Dali Lama of Burning, comes back to arson the event and lecture the rest of us about some “I love the 90s” moment he had.

I know you want to be this hard-hitting , asks the tough questions, kind of reporter, Steve, but honestly, you’re just coming off as another smug white guy on an ego trip with an over inflated sense of entitlement.

What is that about white people and Burning Man?

None of my yellow, brown, or black friends get like that with Burning Man.

It’s only white people I know, mostly leftist or people that like to brag about how left they think they are and drive around w/ the “Hope & Change” bumper stickers and as soon as they get on the playa it triggers some kind of Manifest Destiny DNA in you and you all turn into George Bush.

Arrogant, small dick pricks, that walk around with this over inflated sense of entitlement and expecting everyone else to ask your permission on how to live our lives.

Girl, what’s up with that?


Posted by Go Team Sunset 2011 !!!! on Apr. 10, 2011 @ 9:02 pm

Yawn, uh, what? People still go to that thing? Hell, I'd sell out HARD!

Posted by Guest on Apr. 11, 2011 @ 8:41 am

I've seen Paul Addis at BM more then 2 times. More then 10 times. Everything else you said is wrong too, but I can't prove it. Except the part about small dick pricks. I can prove that as well. I have an inny.

But your thesis is grand, surly. You have an opinion. You think that the event that touts a gift economy should be able to be sold at any time to any person for whatever money and that we should just buckle our lips and not talk about how we feel. We aren't threatening legal action here, we are just talking about our feelings. We didn't threaten anyone. We didn't call for a boycott, we didn't insist that they do things in a certain way. We are just talking about it. We are talking about our feelings, man. And your laying down this heavy small dick prick trip.



Posted by chicken john on Apr. 11, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

This is hilarious. I've only been a participant at BM 10 times since '98, so I've been there some, but not always. At Burning Man I've been regularly fascinated by the euphoria of burners as they realize that they have escaped their home and have found 'radical self-reliance' on the playa; the self-reliance of getting a latte at center camp, hah! And so, as with everything, there is no purity of intent, no independence from the capitalist system. We're human, duh. We can imagine things much better than we can create them, yet Burning Man is a creation very close to the imagination, the collective imagination.

NOTE: you too can make some phone calls, order porta potties, and stage an event on the playa, free country. Since it doesn't take much effort, everyone should do it! Better, you can just go there alone and dig what an awesome place it is without the gawkers...and learn what self-reliance is really about. Start it out as a non-profit, see how far you get.

Creation takes work. A lot of work if you're making something new. If you don't care about the financial well-being of Harvey +5, if you think they don't deserve some retirement cash, then you haven't thought it through. They have done substantial work, they created an asset that they own.

If you just assumed BM was a non-profit, and you think that's grounds for attack of capitalist behavior, you're at fault for assuming such a thing when it is public knowledge that it is burningman .COM. Craigslist is craigslist .org and Craig is worth more than $100m. I don't see any attack there, and that's a situation where 'craigslist .org' is flying in the face of 'netequette': a for-profit company, 25% owned by eBay which offers itself under a .ORG domain???!!! Knowingly operating with the veneer of .ORG! Attack that.

Regarding the journalism above: why attack the messenger. Sure, attack some points about the piece, but why attack the person? Sounds like there's a religious war going on amongst the tribes. Sounds like no one really ever learned what gift economy really meant. If you volunteered, don't go looking for a dividend check. Personalities like Chicken John are news makers, clearly. Why not quote them? That this is a short piece, enabled by the Guardian's HUGE editorial budget (not), and the fact that the Guardian routinely takes this side in such arguments means they are one of the very few publications ANYWHERE that are willing to shed light on such an issue. I'm glad for it even though I disagree with some of the Guardian's coverage of many issues. But glad, very glad it's there.

Utopia's dirty laundry: Money is not clean, but it's necessary, apparently. Discussions about money in pristine environments, the purity of thought... worse, the assumption of purity is as much a utopia as BM on a good day (without dust storms).

[btw: It's particularly offensive to name body parts in personal attack, especially absurd how readily all genders like to call out penis size. It's a mark of a person who has nothing to say. I would call them smooth brained, but then I would have to join the club, maybe I already have! hah!]

Posted by br on Apr. 13, 2011 @ 8:09 am

Wow, take a minute and simply visit the site and you will see the title "Get Rid Of Your Wallet" ............ (let it sink in)............

Now, while I have to admit the goof on Scientology is clever, one should think about HOW MUCH this man is earning in HIS wallet (bank account) from charging a mint for providing a place for people to EXPERIENCE what it's like to have nothing. I'm sorry, but the few people I know that have attended this event seem hollow and lost as a mutherf*&^%$

Not all attendes will get high as a loaf of bread, but this has become the excuse for many to go. Any artificial high you experience in this life will be followed by the same, deep and cavernous low.

once this event starts disclosing ALL REVENUE generated and exactly where it's going - It will be nothing more than a ELITIST event charging a very high ticket price for a free experience. Until then, it's nothing more than a slap in the face of the truly poor and homeless

Posted by Gilgamesh on Aug. 22, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

Can I make comments like:
"so and so's just like every other smug black person"?
Sounds racist and it is. So why all the bullshit about "smug white people" and "people with small dicks"?
There's lots of different types of white people, and white people actually have lot's of different opinions. As well as different dick sizes. So fuck you and your racism. If you think burning man is only "rich white yuppies" then you have your head up your ass.

Posted by Tired of the Racism on Feb. 17, 2012 @ 9:43 pm

I'm glad I didn't get a ticket this year - all the commenters sound like miserable people I wouldn't want to spend any time with.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2012 @ 6:06 pm