Has Burning Man gone commercial?

By David Watts Barton, California Forum in The Sacramento Bee, August 30, 2015

Today is the day 70,000 people have been waiting for. Having spent months planning and welding and sew-ing, they are packing up their creations, filling their coolers and hitting the road to arrive this morning in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. When they arrive, they will create a temporary city that for 10 days will be the sixth-largest in Nevada: Black Rock City.
More commonly known as Burning Man, this experiment in intentional community is now in its 29th year, and for most of that time it has been the object of devotion, ridicule, pilgrimage, misunderstanding, dreams and more. Impossible to fully appreciate without firsthand experience – and even then, difficult to wrap one’s mind around – Burning Man is an endless source of inspiration and rumor.
It is a Rorschach test of sorts, in which one sees what one brings to it. Two of the event’s guiding Ten Princi-ples – “Gifting economy” and “Decomodification,” or the attempt to create “social environments that are un-mediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising” – strike some as quixotic. To those raised in a relentlessly commercial society, the event’s enormous successes are proof of the charge that Burning Man has gone commercial.
Even the recent transformation to nonprofit status has not reduced the frequency of that charge, especially among those who have never been. There’s a good reason for that: While only ice and coffee drinks are for sale and while Burning Man itself is nonprofit, the activity around it churns some very large sums of cold hard cash.
So has Burning Man been commercialized? This longtime Burner would argue, definitely not … and on the other hand, kinda. It depends how you look at it.
NonBurners are often shocked by how much money it costs to survive a week in one of the least-hospitable environments in North America. Burners themselves are often shocked, too, as the costs for shelter, trans-portation, party finery, power generation and food and booze and drugs can lead to expenditures of thousands of dollars.
What Burners habitually remind each other is “only a week in the desert” can easily cost the equivalent of a nice trip to Europe. Or Antarctica. And don’t forget to bring water!
Even in the winter, many months before anyone gets to the playa, as Burners call the Black Rock Desert, money looms large. Tickets, if you’re lucky enough to get one, were priced this year at $390, proceeds from which cover the Burning Man Project’s annual expenses, which in 2013 were $26 million. But the tickets are just the starting point.
Even the most basic camp setup, along with as many extravagant costumes and lights for a bike as possible, can cost hundreds of dollars. Everything one can anticipate needing for a week in the desert must be brought, either individually or in groups. Dues for the theme camps and villages can add hundreds of dollars to the cost.
Some of these camps provoked a controversy at last year’s Burn: the so-called “plug-and-play” camps. The-se are packaged tours that provide those who can afford them with fancy RVs, catered meals, custom-tailored fake fur finery – even decorated Segways. The one camp organizer as saying that his wealthy cus-tomers paid $25,000 apiece for a private flight into the city, air-conditioned yurts and servants dubbed “sher-pas” for the occasion.
The post-Burn outcry led the Burning Man organization to be aggressive in going after these companies, who, by selling these services, violated some of the other Ten Principles: “Radical self-reliance” and “Radical self-expression” are a joke when people pay others to take care of them – even decorate their bikes.
This summer brought more money-focused controversy, with news that the Bureau of Land Management, which administers the Black Rock Desert, was delaying the event’s permit until organizers agreed to provide infrastructure and to throw in perks for officers – hot showers, laundry facilities, personal flush toilets, prime rib dinners and frozen Choco Tacos. The Burning Man organization pushed back; it estimated that all the BLM’s requirements, including public safety improvements, would add an additional $1 million to the event’s cost.
And after Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Harry Reid cited the event’s estimated $35 million boost to Nevada’s economy, the BLM relented and approved the annual permit.
Nevertheless, Burning Man’s BLM costs have gone up more than 250 percent in recent years, while attend-ance has only slightly increased. According to a blog on the , in 2011, Burning Man paid the BLM $1.4 mil-lion; last year, it paid $4 million. All told, in 2013 the Burning Man nonprofit reported that it paid BLM rangers and other police $4.8 million for the privilege of having participants harassed and arrested – and yes, protect-ed – by law enforcement. Another $1 million went to the state and federal government for assorted taxes and fees.
Meanwhile, normal forms of supply-and-demand capitalism go on. Online scalpers demand as much as $2,500 for a single ticket, and $50 vehicle passes are for sale for up to $785. RV rental companies have found a sweet spot: rates can be twice as much for the week of Burning Man. Even Burners have made money creating must-have playa wear, and small companies have grown by providing tools and toys for Burning Man.
But while commerce swirls around Burning Man during the lead-up, once one is on the playa, cash concerns disappear – and it is a wonderful thing. People really do walk up to you and give you gifts, sometimes exactly the gift you had just wished for, however unlikely: A die-cut Burning Man medallion; a cold beer and a hot dog; or yes, even a frozen Choco-Taco.
Or you might stroll into a massive tent where aerialists and singers perform while waiters serve you wine and hors d’oeuvres, or happen upon a dance party featuring world-famous DJs, or find a 40-foot tall metal sculpture. Whatever it is, everything one sees or hears at Burning Man is a gift, created by someone for the community – often at great expense.
As far from the “real world” as it may seem, Burning Man is a part of our world – money, income inequality and all. Does that make Burning Man commercial? Or is it a valiant and largely effective effort to balance a culture in which money warps our politics, our religion, even our personal relationships?
The answer is yes. And no. Or, as in real life, somewhere in between.

David Watts Barton is a freelance writer. This year will be his 16th Burn.