Tens of thousands of volunteers are gathering to build a city in a Nevada desert that is notorious for triple-digit temperatures, high winds and blinding plumes of dust.
Their organizer is a for-profit company that has collected millions of US dollars in revenue over the last decade, largely because of this donated labor. At a distance, it’s easy to wonder: Why are these people working so hard — in the blazing heat, no less — for a company they don’t own?
That’s one of the paradoxes of Burning Man, the annual arts festival whose attractions include colossal art installations, all-night dance parties, marathon kite-flying sessions, off-kilter fashion shows, and classes where revelers can learn things that range from Hula Hooping to playing the ukulele to making absinthe.
The short answer is simple: The company behind Burning Man doesn’t act like a traditional business. Although it derives its revenue from ticket sales, festivalgoers don’t see themselves as customers. Rather, they are Burners, part of a cultural movement governed by 10 principles that include communal effort, self-reliance, gift-giving and fostering a social environment that is “unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions or advertising.”
Tickets for this year’s festival, from today to Sept. 5, have sold out in advance for the first time. In a situation that doesn’t seem to mesh with the principles, some participants have been left at the mercy of scalpers. While many community-minded Burners are selling their spare tickets to one another at face value or even giving them away, eBay vendors have hawked them for more than US$800. One prankster asked for a cool US$20 million.
How much money has the festival made over the years? Its organizers don’t disclose revenue figures on a year-by-year basis. Burners know little about the finances behind the event they work so hard to create, and that bothers some of them.
The company has made expenditures of US$102 million over the past 10 years, according to a list posted annually on the festival’s Web site. These annual reports do not include any money retained or invested by the event from year to year, and Burning Man does not take out any loans, according to its organizers. Last year, the company spent US$17.5 million. It’s clear that most of the money collected by the company goes back into financing the festival: paying for land-use fees, fuel, artists’ grants, medical services, infrastructure, insurance, wages for a full-time staff of 37, along with eight part-time employees and several hundred seasonal workers. Whether cash is left over each year, and how much, has always been a matter of speculation.
That speculation has intensified as Burning Man prepares to become a nonprofit, a transition that includes an unspecified payout to the company’s partners.
Burning Man’s origins are decidedly noncommercial. In 1986, a handful of passers-by gathered to watch a landscape gardener named Larry Harvey burn a 2.4m stick figure on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. The event became a summer ritual. In 1990 it outgrew the beach; the following year it moved to the desert. After a freewheeling and anarchic period in the mid-1990s, Burning Man changed direction: It started selling tickets, giving rise to a small company to manage it all. Harvey, 63, is now the executive director of that company, Black Rock City LLC.