In 2011, tickets to Burning Man, the pre-Labor-Day creative arts convergence at Black Rock City, Nevada, sold out for the first time. That was in July 2011. So it's no surprise that Burning Man 2012 is another sell-out. But this time, more than 40,000 tickets (nearly all of them) have been bought as of the end of February. Many long-time attendees are ticketless and, well, burnt and fuming. And Burning Man is embroiled in debate over whether the annual tradition that embraces non-conformity and "radical inclusion" of any and all needs a radical makeover.
It's still possible to get a ticket to Burning Man this year, but it won't be easy. Have a back-up plan for Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 2012, and prepare to practice the Burning Man principles of radical self-reliance and radical self-expression.
It was only 1986 when Burning Man began, with a handful of friends building and burning a wooden human figure on San Francisco's Baker Beach. Since then it has moved to a dried up lake bed north of Reno and become a pop-up community in the desert and North America's biggest outdoor arts festival. It's known for its other-worldly creations and environment, non-mainstream culture, lighting and fire extravaganzas and its finale, the torching of a giant wood statue.
BURNING MAN 2012 TICKET FIASCO
For 2012, the Burning Man organization switched from selling tickets first-come-first-served to selling them in phases to people drawn by lottery. But the lottery system brought on a mess, showing that the 26-year-old Burning Man phenomenon is suffering from its own success and fame.
In a November 2011 pre-sale, the lottery dispensed 3,000 tickets at $420 apiece. In the main sale in January 2012, another 40,000 tickets (priced from $240-390) were sold--but more than 80,000 people had signed up for the lottery. The federally set limit on attendance at Block Rock City is 50,000 people at any one time.
Many suspect that scalpers swooped up the bulk of the tickets, and both Burning Man critics and supporters blame the organizers for being ill-prepared.
On top of that, "inordinately large numbers of our core contributors"--the regulars who build, create and perform art of all forms and sorts each year--ended up empty-handed, Burning Man spokeswoman Marian Goodell wrote in a blog post on the Burning Man website. A relatively big block of tickets apparently went to first-time burners (dubbed "birgins").
About 10,000 tickets are left. They had been slated for sale in March, but because of the high numbers of ticketless core contributors, the tickets are being re-designated for established art teams, theme camps, mutant vehicle builders and performance groups.
HOW TO GET 2012 BURNING MAN TICKETS
- Be part of an established, community-minded art team or collective project
For many of Burning Man's long-time art teams and groups, none or very few of their members got tickets in the lottery, making it nearly impossible to bring and execute their projects at the Burning Man site, called "the playa." As Goodell says, it "punched significant holes in Black Rock City's artistic, civic and functional infrastructure." The imbalance between ticketless veteran burners and ticket-scoring birgins "was so unexpectedly large" that it put "the integrity of the event itself at risk," she says. (Newbies are typically agog in "Burning Man shock"--defined as the "euphoria and freedom" of attending Burning Man, especially after a too-long spell of "normal life"--and so contribute relatively little).
The last batch of 10,000 unsold tickets is now reserved for established camps and groups, whose track records and proven benefit or services to the community are being evaluated by the Burning Man organization. Those chosen will be allowed to buy enough tickets for their team members to go to the playa.
- Apply for a low-income ticket
There are 4,000 tickets, costing $160 each, earmarked for low-income people. If you don't belong to an established art collective or group, you didn't get a ticket via the lottery, and you're financially strapped, starting Feb. 29, you can apply online for a low-income ticket. You'll need to submit your tax return, paycheck stub, student loan document or other proof of your income and expenses.
Burning Man doesn't say what qualifies as "low income," but it will rigorously screen the applications--and will sell each approved person only one ticket. The low-income tickets are non-transferable and will be handed over at Burning Man only and directly to the applicant, who must pay at the box office on site.
Low-income applications will be accepted until the organization runs out of tickets or May 1, 2012, whichever comes first.
- Buy a ticket from a lottery winner via Burning Man's program
The Burning Man Secure Ticket Exchange Program (STEP) begins on Feb. 29, and is meant to facilitate the selling and buying of unused tickets, free of scalpers and scammers. The catch: It's open only to people who registered for and did not get any tickets in either the November or January lotteries.
Those people will receive e-mailed instructions on signing up for STEP, which will sell tickets, on a first-come-first-served basis, that are non-transferable and can be picked up only at Burning Man's will-call counter. Tickets will be sold when they become available, one per person, at the face value that the seller paid ($240, $320 or $390), plus Burning Man's standard per-ticket service fee and $12 will-call fee.
If you sell a ticket through STEP, you'll get back the ticket's face value and delivery fee.
- Anything goes
Wheedle, cajole or woo your friends, family and enemies. Post pleas on YouTube, as several burners have. Check Craigslist and ticket reselling services--but remember that the Burning Man ethos frowns upon scalpers and scalping.
RADICAL SELF-RELIANCE - MOVE AND THINK BEYOND THE PLAYA
Some ticketless burners are furious over the ticket fiasco and swear they'll never return to Burning Man, but most are forgiving and forward-looking (though perhaps whimpering a bit). A YouTube satire about the anticipated over-representation of birgins at Burning Man 2012 ("They think they are contributing just because they wear a stupid costume and freeload on stuff") notes that Burning Man "really messed this one up" but "it wasn't the organization's plan to screw anyone over."
John "Halcyon" Styn, 40, who has attended every Burning Man since 1998, says that the radical inclusion principle plus the "totally awesome experience" plus the laws of supply and demand resulted in the ticket mess. "Nobody created this problem except for the awesomeness of Burning Man," the self-described "lifestyle artist" says in a video. Styn, who sports dyed hot-pink hair and produces a video podcast series called HugNation, says it is an inevitable part of the festival's growth, whose prescient theme in 2011 was "Transition." Burners have to be "thinking beyond Burning Man"--such as considering communal living situations, new festivals and art gatherings, and regional Burning Man events, he says.
Burning Man spokeswoman Goodell says the organization is looking into negotiating a higher attendance limit, extending its duration and other ways to accommodate more participants. It is consulting burners, "game theorists, sociologists, statisticians, festival producers, ticketing companies, software developers, widely-read bloggers, and more" to figure out the future.
Short-term, Burning Man fans in the Bay Area can console themselves with a regional network event on March 3, Burnal Equinox 2012, which promises art, music, dancing, performances, DJs, videos, networking and creative opportunities.
Burnal Equinox 2012
March 3, 2012, at 7 pm-3 am
At Public Works, 161 Erie Street, San Francisco
Ages 21+. Admission $15, 20.