Burning Man winners: theme camps, and maybe ticket scalpers

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ChiaLynn/Creative Commons

Burning Man organizers faced at least two serious problems created by its flawed new ticketing system, and they chose to deal with just one of them yesterday in announcing that the open sale of the final 10,000 tickets would be canceled and those tickets would instead be sold through the theme camps, art collectives, and volunteer groups that make Black Rock City what it is.

But Black Rock City LLC has decided not to address – at least not yet – its other major problem, which was scalpers and ticket agencies gaming the new ticket lottery to snap up tickets and sell them for huge profits. I and many others have long suggested the LLC register tickets to individual buyers and regulate their exchange to prevent gouging, and after announcing the new system last night, the company got such fierce criticism from online commenters arguing that point that it felt compelled to amend the post a few hours later to address the issue.

“If we don't fill the holes in the social fabric, who cares about the scalpers, because then we've got nothing,” Marian Goodell, the LLC board member who authored last night's announcement, told me this morning, explaining the emphasis on theme camps.

Without ensuring the city's art, entertainment, and infrastructure gets build, Burning Man could suffer a fatal blow to its reputation, she said, making the theme camp decision a tough but necessary one. But creating what she called “identity-based tickets” is a far more complicated issue, and she just doesn't think the scalper problem is as big as many burners believe.

But she doesn't know for sure. “Nobody knows, it's all speculation,” Goodell said, and that's part of the problem. All they really know is demand for tickets this year far exceeded anyone's expectations – Goodell will only confirm that there were 80,000-120,000 requests for the 40,000 ticket allocated on Feb. 1 – and that tickets often sold for double face value last year after the event sold out a month early for the first time in its 25-year history.

“Is it 100 people or 1,000 people that are going to take advantage of the community, and can we just discourage that?” Goodell said of the number of multiple-ticket-buying profiteers, reiterating her hopes that burners will starve out the scalpers by refusing to pay more than face value for tickets, which is part of the culture's ethos.

And if it's just 100, or even 1,000, she said it might not be worth it for the LLC to require the 40,000 people whose tickets will be mailed in June to register by name and to try to bar entry to those whose tickets don't match their names, particularly given the chance for human error and the remoteness of this temporary city. “How do you punish them? What do you do?” she said, noting that the LLC has delayed the decision on registration while it gathers more information.

But what if the profiteers have managed to wrangle 10,000 tickets? Some bloggers out there have demonstrated how easy it is to generate multiple credit card numbers and argued that scalpers must have done so, despite the LLC claims to have ferreted out the obvious scalper scams before tickets were awarded. “There's no way it's 10,000,” Goodell said confidently, although she was also confident that this system would work well, and then that there would be enough extra tickets circulating in the community to satisfy most of the demand, which so far doesn't seem to be true, with most theme caps reporting that less than a one-third of their members have scored tickets, far less in some cases.

Goodell and the LLC are counting on the STEP ticket exchange system whose registration launches on Feb. 29, but the details of that also generated controversy last night and forced Goodell to say it may still tweak the system. It allows people to sell back their unwanted tickets, with the LLC covering the normal $12 restocking fee. They will then be resold to people who register on a first come, first served basis, but they've decided to limit purchases to one per person and only to people who registered and were denied tickets on Feb. 1. Couples were irked that it punishes people who tried to buy two tickets at the main sale using only a single entry, so Goodell said they'll take another look.

“We are trying to make the STEP system be fluid, so if there's only a limited number of tickets available then more people can get them,” Goodell said. “We want STEP to work.”

But many burners just don't think it will. Burning Man tickets have suddenly become a hotter commodity than ever, and even community-minded burners who aren't seeking to make a profit will probably prefer to sell any extra tickets to someone directly, or to hang onto them for awhile, rather than give them up now to some random people who will then be forced to wait at the gate in the long will-call line, which is a new anti-scalping precaution that Goodell announced.

And then there's the major thrust of yesterday's announcement: distributing tickets through theme camps. I and most of the online commenters generally support that decision – at least as the best of a bad set of options – even though it's certainly a controversial one that values one type of citizen over another and seems to fly in the face of the event's principle of “radical inclusion.”

Yet it seems to be one that creates some difficult decisions ahead for the LLC. The criteria they laid out say the decisions will be made based on a camp's history (both its longevity and record of leaving no traces of litter, which the LLC monitors in a very detailed way), what it offers to the city each year, and its adherence to the event's 10 Principles.

Goodell confirmed my observation of how subjective that judgment will be – something that has spurred criticism that camps cozy with the LLC will get favorable treatment – but she said the large team of volunteers that work with theme camps and volunteer crews each year have already made many of those judgments and determined who will get tickets.

“We already did the math,” she told me. “Just because you're a theme camp on the map doesn't entitle you to x-number of tickets.”

While there may be about 700 registered theme camps in recent years, Goodell said the LLC is focused on getting tickets to camps that are truly interactive or offer entertainment, transportation, art, or volunteers to key functions such as the Lamplighters or Gate crew. “And we know who they are,” she said.

For everyone else, there are still a couple more chances to get tickets, beyond just the open market. There will be 4,000 low-income tickets (just $160) offered through a process that will likely be more competitive than ever, with registration beginning Feb. 29. And then there are the major art projects that receive grant funding and free tickets for crew members from the LLC, with the announcements of winners expected next month.

So now, burners and outside observers will just have to wait and see – first how the LLC's solutions work, then this summer to see how the scalpers' really did – as Burning Man muddles through what is proving to be a pivotal year.