Before Burning Man's big announcement, some final bits and bytes...

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So far this year, scoring a Burning Man ticket feels a bit like finding one of of Willy Wonka's Golden Tickets.

[UPDATE: Goodell posted details on the new system, which distributes remaining tickets through theme camps. We'll have interviews and analysis tomorrow.]  Burning Man participants are anxiously awaiting tomorrow's (Wed/15, release expected at 6:30 pm) announcement by Black Rock City LLC about how it will solve this year's ticket fiasco that left most veteran burners – those who work through theme camps and art collectives to create the event's infrastructure, entertainment, and artistic offerings – without tickets.

As I reported last week, sources say all or most of the remaining 10,000 tickets will likely be distributed through these theme camps and collectives, and representatives from many of the major ones have been invited to a meeting at Burning Man's mid-Market headquarters tomorrow to discuss the new system.

Sources say the LLC is also trying to implement a system of having those who were awarded tickets on Feb. 1 register those tickets to specific individuals before they are mailed out in June and to create a regulated aftermarket ticket exchange in order to prevent scalpers from charging more than face value. The LLC has resisted creating such a system, which many burners have suggested since the event sold out for the first time last year and scalpers gouged buyers.

LLC board member Marian Goodell still has not returned my repeated calls for comment, so we can't say exactly what the new system will look like, or how the LLC will decide which of the hundreds of theme camps that have registered over the years get tickets. Or how the registration system will work, or to sort out many of the other tricky details associated with this mess.

Hopefully, much of that will become clear tomorrow, and I'm sure there will still be many issues to explore then. But for now, I'd like to do a bit of a notebook dump to air a few of the interesting bits from the voluminous input that has been coming my way since I started writing (and being interviewed by the Sacramento Bee and New York Times) about the snafu a few weeks ago:

 

CHICKEN THE SCALPER

The LLC has been urging burners to freeze out ticket scalpers and refuse to pay more than face value for a ticket, urging the community to stick together. “You're really hurting your community if you're treating this like a commodity,” Goodell told me in late January, a message that I helped to convey.

As hundreds of burners commented on my stories and others, I was a bit surprised by the silence of longtime burner Chicken John Rinaldi, who has been a regular vocal critic of the LLC's leadership since I first started reporting on Burning Man for the Guardian in late 2004 and who then became a major character in my book.

Chicken had predicted the new ticket lottery system would fail and be gamed by scalpers, so when I finally talked to him late last week, I asked about his relative recent silence. “I really don't think I belong in this conversation because I'm the scalper,” he told me. “I got dozens of tickets and I'm planning to make tens of thousands of dollars.”

Chicken said he used confederates and multiple credit cards to game the system, just like the scalpers. And to justify his mercenary approach, he cited last year's announcement by event founder Larry Harvey that he and the other five LLC board members are in the process of cashing out their ownership interest over the trademarks and logos for significant sums of money before turning control of the event over to a new nonprofit.

“They want capitalism. Larry wants to make millions of dollars off of this, so I'm going to make some money, too,” Chicken said. “I deserve that money.”

Now, I don't know whether Chicken is telling the truth or just making a provocative point, but he does say that he's only taking this tack because the LLC has commodified Burning Man and failed to heed community input and guard against scalpers. “If I ran Burning Man, I wouldn't let people make tens of thousands of dollars off my members,” he said. “Our community needs some leadership.”

 

SERVING THE DISABLED

Many theme camp members have publicly said that their camps won't be able to attend this year because so few of their campmates got tickets, making it impossible to pull off large scale projects, thus diminishing Black Rock City. But there was one story I found particularly poignant, and one that the LLC might be forced to help.

For the last six years, the Black Rock Department of Mobility (formerly known as Hotwheelz) has been providing shuttle services and electric wheelchairs to those with disabilities, helping them to get around a city where private cars aren't allowed to drive during the week and where dusty, uneven terrain can to be problematic for the disabled.

But this year, camp founder Wayne Merchant told me, the Southern California-based camp scored just three tickets for its 27 active members. Already, he said they lined up almost 10 golf carts to do shuttles, nine electric wheelchairs for people to use, a few art cars with lifts, and at least 10 clients with disabilities have signed up for their services.

“I have the best core team that we've ever had on this camp,” he said, “but this is totally putting us out of business.”

He also raised the specter that without the voluntary services that this camp provides, the event itself might be out-of-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), possibly exposing the LLC to legal liability: “It will basically dump all the ADA compliance on Burning Man.”

“Depending on what happens tomorrow,” said Merchant, who plans to the attend the meeting at BM HQ, “I could be totally be done with Burning Man.”

 

WAITING ON THE FEDS

Many burners have suggested the LLC deal with this year's ticket demand issues by simply increasing the city's population, but organizers have said that's not really within their power. Not only are there transportation and other logistical constraints, but determining the population cap is at the sole discretion of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Black Rock Desert.

More precisely, it is at the sole discretion of Rolando Mendez, the BLM field manager for the region, who I interviewed last week, along with assistant field manager Cory Roegner. And one of the things I learned that I found most interesting is that the population cap won't even be set until this June, after all the tickets have been distributed.

“Black Rock City LLC is free to sell as many tickets as they're inclined to,” Mendez said. “That's a calculated business decision on their part, but I would expect Black Rock City LLC to live by the population cap that I set.”

Right now, both the LLC and BLM are awaiting completion of an Environmental Assessment (EA) report on the LLC's request for a five-year permit that seeks a population cap that would gradually increase from 58,000 to 70,000. A draft report is expected next month, after which there will be a public comment period, with the final report expected in June.

“I have not determined how to allocate that population cap over time,” Mendez said, expressing concerns over limited highway access to the site and other factors. “Too sudden of a change at too great a level could overwhelm the system.”

Both Mendez and Goodell say the two entities have a good working relationship. “We work together at problem solving and brainstorming,” Mendez said. “But right now, I'm depending on the EA.”

While he did indicate that Burning Man will probably be allowed to maintain at least its current size, as the LLC is relying on, even that isn't guaranteed. It all depends on what the report says. So what happens if the LLC sells too many tickets now? Mendez said that's not his call: “I don't know the business strategy Black Rock City LLC is using or what their contingency plans are.”

 

CHANGING NUMBERS

When Goodell and Harvey called me on Jan. 27 to let me know that requests for tickets had far exceeded supply and to enlist my help in spreading the word that people should remain calm, rely on those in the community who had most of the extra tickets, and avoid buying from scalpers, I asked how many ticket requests there were.

They refused to tell me. I've been a journalist for 20 years, so I'm used to corporations denying me financial information that I've sought. And it wasn't even a surprise from this LLC, which claims financial transparency but which has refused to disclose lots of information that I've sought over the years.

But as it became clear that their initial beliefs about how many tickets would be available within the community proved overly optimistic, and as pressure grew from both the Burning Man community and other journalism organizations, the LLC went into damage control mode and started to be a little more forthcoming.

So, how many ticket requests did they actually have? Well, it depends on who you believe. Goodell told the New York Times and other outlets that it was about 80,000 requests. But longtime event spokesperson Andie Grace – in a post that was widely lauded for a frankness and contrition that had been lacking in earlier communications from the LLC – wrote “we had nearly three times the number of tickets requested than we had available tickets.”

So, was 80,000 or 120,000? That's a pretty big difference, particularly given that all the official posts so far have claimed that scalpers gaming the new system wasn't as big a factor as is widely believed, although few have offered convincing evidence for that self-serving belief (after all, if it was scalpers gaming the system, than its creators made a mistake).

Personally, I've long believed that the LLC should be more transparent. As I discuss in my book, the LLC reveals general expenditure data (sometimes belatedly), but no information on revenues or current balances. The most recent report, for 2010, shows total expenses of $17.5 million, which includes a payroll of $7.3 million and fees to BLM and other agencies of more than $1.5 million.

Harvey has said that everything will be opened up once control is turned over to the nonprofit Burning Man Project in two to five years, but Chicken and others have complained that the board members will already have made off their their payouts by then and that those have contributed their sweat equity for decades have a right to know how much that is.

Maybe a bit more consistency in numbers and transparency now would help quell some of this restive community's concerns, but clearly we're not the ones making those kinds of decisions.

Comments

hey steven,

have you addressed yet why non-burners should give a shit about this, um, shit? i've never been to burning man, have no intention of attending this or any event with so much dust and dirt, and don't understand the battles with the leaders of the annual event. not sure what business it is of anyone that chicken john wants to make money, because as he put it, he deserves it. gotta be lots of folks associated with BM who get some bucks out of it all.

why should i care who gets to buy tickets to BM?

Posted by MPetrelis on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 5:25 pm

Not every story anyone writes will interest every reader, Michael, but Black Rock City LLC is a large and influential local company and tens of thousands of Bay Area residents have shown an interest in Burning Man.

Posted by steven on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 5:33 pm

I wished The Guardian would cover the flag issue in the Castro in greater detail. I mean - that's totally relevant to all of our lives.

Posted by guest on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

hi guest,

the issue of public space, not just in the castro but citywide, is an important issue and reclaiming it from private groups like MUMC is worth fighting for, IMHO. i'm all in favor of all members of the public having equal access to the public harvey milk plaza, including the rainbow flag pole.

be sure to read my latest post on the subject, guest, at this link:

http://mpetrelis.blogspot.com/2012/02/castro-rainbow-flag-rules-finally....

and finally, even my adversaries at the BAR agree the control and use of the flag is relevant:

One issue people do seem to want addressed is control of the flagpole in Harvey Milk Plaza, and on that topic Wiener has been mostly silent. While the flagpole itself is on city property, the city had passed off management of it to the Castro merchants' group. This year alone, several people have requested that the flag be lowered to half-staff in memory of a murdered gay activist (David Kato), an icon's death (Elizabeth Taylor), or due to national import (the 10-year anniversary of 9/11), with mixed results. There ought to be some sort of process – rules! – so that the public can make a request and it can be quickly vetted. No one's going to understand why the flag was lowered weeks after someone's passing. Or, if it's decided that the flag will never be lowered, as is the case now, then the Merchants of Upper Market and Castro should stop complaining and be prepared to deal with the requests and criticism that will inevitably come.

source:
http://ebar.com/openforum/opforum.php?sec=editorial&id=354

Posted by MPetrelis on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

over where the gay flag is on that pole. I mean - I can barely stand it when it's not lowered when someone like Whitney Houston dies. Growing income inequality, the situation with Iran in the Middle East, corruption in SF city government - all of it pales in comparison to the question of why the flag wasn't lowered when Whitney Houston or Elizabeth Taylor died.

Posted by guest on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 8:33 pm

Dearest MPetrelis,

Perhaps you should consider taking "I don't need to read it for 200 Alex"?

Regards,

I Burn & Care

Posted by Guest on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

Your passive aggressive sytle makes me smile. Amen.

All the best,

Joyful

Posted by Guest on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 10:18 am

Michael
Have you heard? Scott Weiner is going to burning man.

Posted by Vibral on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 7:36 am

damn. you gave enough of a shit to write a reply.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 12:03 pm

then why the hell are you reading the article, then replying to it? fact is, you DO care. but your care is that you don't like it so you'll go out of your way to tell people that. i could give a tinker's damn about pro hockey, and as such i don't spend my time finding articles about it then proclaiming that i don't care. why? because i'm not a narcissistic dooshbag.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2012 @ 12:38 am

and that's being pretty liberal with the count. That's .0013 of the total population here. Hardly seems like that necessitates the breathless commentary and outraged comments we're reading here in the The Guardian on a daily basis.

Posted by guest on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

false dichotomy.

the entire population of the SF Bay Area doesn't read the SFBG. see how that works? it's an arts and entertainment rag, and this is big news in SF arts and entertainment.

and, like above, if you don't care, why are you reading and posting about the subject?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 27, 2012 @ 12:40 am
Posted by kayvaan on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

Thanks for catching that typo, which I've now corrected.

Posted by steven on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 11:51 am

I got two tickets, but I'd say for every one person I talk to that got a ticket, I talk to another 7-10 that didn't.

One thing I noticed, because I saw the registration page a few times as I was trying to buy four tickets and watched a few friends register, was that the CAPTCHA phrase was the same every time. This would defeat the purpose of this security method, because it would be extremely easy for scalpers to write some code to do some damage. Just sayin'.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

The stats wonks in the crowd can confirm that it was much more than 80,000. 80,000 would be a statistical impossibility from the data already provided from several samples.

Posted by Sage on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

Can you PLEASE stop plugging your book in ever article? I otherwise enjoy your articles, but you do it so frequently it's getting old and ridiculous.

We all know you wrote a book. Can you please get over it and keep writing awesome articles?

Thanks!

Posted by Tired of plugs on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 10:02 pm

OK, I hear you and I'll stop plugging the book. I thought it was relevant to the topic, but I understand that it's rubbing people the wrong way. Message received.

Scribe

Posted by steven on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 9:36 am

"Audit the BMORG!"

Posted by Wanderingangel on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 8:53 am

My goodness. Really? It should seem when you have causes of your own to fight about you would be tolerant to others' fights for what is important to them. You don't have to agree, you don't have to even participate, or gain knowledge about it.

The freedom you are given to fight for the flag in the Castro is the same freedom burners are given.

I have never and will never go to Burning Man. I may not care about it. Just as I hardly ever (once a year) go to the Castro. I could care less about a flag. I care more about people's rights and people's freedoms.

To say this Chicken guy is right just because others are unethical or immoral is ridiculous. Like hey I'm gonna go kill this guy who's bothering me, Hey, other people are murderers too.

Open your mind before you speak and make yourself look like a contradiction.

Tell others you don't want to hear about their issues then post your own issue in the comments. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 11:15 am

I think I saw Mr Petrelis sneaking a piece of cake out of Scott Weiners garbage the other day

Posted by Greg on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 11:33 am

pretending to be me. I tried to squash it, but it was too slimy and got away.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 16, 2012 @ 12:30 am

Wow, Steven, can you be any more shameless in plugging your book? I don't think so.

Posted by MShaman on Feb. 15, 2012 @ 11:42 am

That will make more people want to use STEP. The restocking fee was the stupidest idea ever. Still, their solution is incomplete, because they're going to keep a $7 fee for "non-refundable services." And they're going to charge buyers a will-call fee of $12 plus a delivery charge. I'm glad they acknowledge they fucked up. So now is not the time to nickel and dime the community.

There's still no reason for sellers to use STEP when you can avoid the fees on both ends by using Craigslist. They should have just eaten the cost. I'm glad they're making an effort to fix the situation, but the urge to squeeze as much money out of the community as possible till the end is undermining that effort.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 16, 2012 @ 12:39 am

i don't know what all the fuss is about. 40k randomly distributed tickets is not bad for BM. it will cut down on couples attending who are constantly bickering. it will also cut down on theme camps and art cars (let's face it - most of them suck).

you'll have fewer veterans who constantly complain to BMorg about how things should be. you'll have about 70% of the population as 1st & 2nd year attendees - obedient as labradors. this is good for BMorg.

the 10k available tickets will be distributed to those loyal to BMorg - also, good for BMorg! they get 10k of their friends who actually produce and participate and will have a great time. the rest of the population will just be in awe of the installations and scenery and go home with tales of how great it was.

there will be a few grumpy veterans who were forced to go solo, but so what if they never come back? who needs them.

Posted by candykitten on Feb. 16, 2012 @ 9:09 am

As I see it, Burning Man was a naturally developing event with a culture of art, radical self-expression and community not found anywhere else in the world. BM brought together ALL types of people from different locations, professions, and economic levels.

OUR world needs this type of inclusive "We the People" attitude vs. the "what's in it for me" response some have posted on this article. BM's culture allowed for people to open their minds. I watched the event grow from 5,000 attendees in 1997 to where it is today.

The core has been eroded and it does concern me not only for the event but also for our society as a whole. I see a lot of factions growing in the event now that seems very unhealthy and non-burning man like to me. It uses to be all about what the individual can do to give back and participate thus become part of the community. Now there are just too many “tourist” that do not get nor care to get this core concept. I will be attending the event again this year -- as I was lucky enough to get two tickets in the lottery, however it does feel like this will be my last year. ☹

Posted by Plasmo on Feb. 17, 2012 @ 11:01 am

2003 was my last year attending BMan. It is amusing how those rich joes running it still manage to keep people interested in paying the skyrocketing price to attend their event. Hopefully this opens the eyes of attendees to the whole sick money-making scheme.
BTW: Isn't the man supposed to be getting shorter every year, won't he be invisible soon? This, along with the fact that art and theme camps cannot be completed or manned, will ensure that the next phase of "Burning Man" will just be some mainstream festival with hot dogs and turkey legs for sale, as tourists wander booths looking at knick-knacks to buy.

Posted by mountain scientist on Feb. 18, 2012 @ 2:45 pm