Burning Man Evolution

As this year’s Burning Man Festival at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada Aug. 29 to Sept. 5 celebrated its 25th anniversary with a “Rites Of Passage” theme, event organizer Black Rock City LLC has some growing pains of its own.

The counterculture event created by Larry Harvey and Jerry James that launched on a San Francisco beach in 1986 experienced a first in its history when this year’s festival sold out at more than 50,000 tickets.

Warnings to potential Burners about ticket scalping and how to avoid it soon followed via Burning Man’s website and “Jack Rabbit Speaks” newsletter and media reports about the situation.

That scenario alone is surreal for the staff of an anti-establishment, non-commercial event to absorb and deal with.

But Harvey’s earlier announcement that Black Rock City LLC is going to transition to nonprofit status was reportedly another head-scratcher to some. There’s been a perception that an event that encourages principles such as radical self-reliance, communal cooperation, participation and “decommodification” – no commercial sales or sponsorships allowed so Burners use a barter system/gift economy on the playa – was already run by a nonprofit. Not the case.

On the event’s website BMan principal Will Chase explains the Bay Area company was formed in 1997 when the partners decided there was need to better organize and manage the ever-growing event, which at the time attracted about 8,000 people. A limited liability, for-profit model was considered “the right tool for the job at the time” despite the seeming contradiction with the festival’s philosophy.

The event has since evolved into more of a “way of life,” Chase says. The company has expanded to include a Regional Network, year-round community outreach programs and affiliate groups such as disaster assistance group Burners Without Borders, Black Rock Solar and the Black Rock Arts Foundation, which supports the festival and many of the massive art projects built and displayed on the playa, so nonprofit status was a logical next step in Burning Man’s evolution.

Under the three-year plan, Harvey and his five partners reportedly will liquidate their ownership interests in Burning Man and cash out their stakes for an undisclosed amount. Control of the festival will eventually be taken over by the nonprofit Burning Man Project run by a 17-member board that will include Harvey and partners as minority members, according to the New York Times.

At issue is reportedly how much those undisclosed payouts will be because the annual, temporary city functions thanks to the hard work of some paid staff and hundreds of volunteers.

And with ticket prices from $210 to $360 this year, financial transparency has been an issue. The company posts an Afterburn Report every year with general itemized costs. For Burning Man 2010, Black Rock City LLC reportedly spent about $17.5 million.

So are the Black Rock City creators getting rich, as one Burner expressed to the Times, “on the backs of attendees?”

Harvey said no, and that’s never been the case.

“Listen, all of us could probably in the future just live the life of millionaires,” he told the paper. “We’d have money pouring in because of rights of ownership. We will surrender that [to the nonprofit].”

In the meantime, Burning Man organizers are reportedly negotiating with the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the Black Rock Desert, for a permit that will allow the event to grow to 70,000 people by 2016, the Times said.