[UPDATE: Goodell posted details on the new system, which distributes remaining tickets through theme camps. We'll have interviews and analysis tomorrow.] Burning Man participants are anxiously awaiting tomorrow's (Wed/15, release expected at 6:30 pm) announcement by Black Rock City LLC about how it will solve this year's ticket fiasco that left most veteran burners – those who work through theme camps and art collectives to create the event's infrastructure, entertainment, and artistic offerings – without tickets.
As I reported last week, sources say all or most of the remaining 10,000 tickets will likely be distributed through these theme camps and collectives, and representatives from many of the major ones have been invited to a meeting at Burning Man's mid-Market headquarters tomorrow to discuss the new system.
Sources say the LLC is also trying to implement a system of having those who were awarded tickets on Feb. 1 register those tickets to specific individuals before they are mailed out in June and to create a regulated aftermarket ticket exchange in order to prevent scalpers from charging more than face value. The LLC has resisted creating such a system, which many burners have suggested since the event sold out for the first time last year and scalpers gouged buyers.
LLC board member Marian Goodell still has not returned my repeated calls for comment, so we can't say exactly what the new system will look like, or how the LLC will decide which of the hundreds of theme camps that have registered over the years get tickets. Or how the registration system will work, or to sort out many of the other tricky details associated with this mess.
Hopefully, much of that will become clear tomorrow, and I'm sure there will still be many issues to explore then. But for now, I'd like to do a bit of a notebook dump to air a few of the interesting bits from the voluminous input that has been coming my way since I started writing (and being interviewed by the Sacramento Bee and New York Times) about the snafu a few weeks ago:
CHICKEN THE SCALPER
The LLC has been urging burners to freeze out ticket scalpers and refuse to pay more than face value for a ticket, urging the community to stick together. “You're really hurting your community if you're treating this like a commodity,” Goodell told me in late January, a message that I helped to convey.
As hundreds of burners commented on my stories and others, I was a bit surprised by the silence of longtime burner Chicken John Rinaldi, who has been a regular vocal critic of the LLC's leadership since I first started reporting on Burning Man for the Guardian in late 2004 and who then became a major character in my book.
Chicken had predicted the new ticket lottery system would fail and be gamed by scalpers, so when I finally talked to him late last week, I asked about his relative recent silence. “I really don't think I belong in this conversation because I'm the scalper,” he told me. “I got dozens of tickets and I'm planning to make tens of thousands of dollars.”
Chicken said he used confederates and multiple credit cards to game the system, just like the scalpers. And to justify his mercenary approach, he cited last year's announcement by event founder Larry Harvey that he and the other five LLC board members are in the process of cashing out their ownership interest over the trademarks and logos for significant sums of money before turning control of the event over to a new nonprofit.
“They want capitalism. Larry wants to make millions of dollars off of this, so I'm going to make some money, too,” Chicken said. “I deserve that money.”
Now, I don't know whether Chicken is telling the truth or just making a provocative point, but he does say that he's only taking this tack because the LLC has commodified Burning Man and failed to heed community input and guard against scalpers. “If I ran Burning Man, I wouldn't let people make tens of thousands of dollars off my members,” he said. “Our community needs some leadership.”
SERVING THE DISABLED
Many theme camp members have publicly said that their camps won't be able to attend this year because so few of their campmates got tickets, making it impossible to pull off large scale projects, thus diminishing Black Rock City. But there was one story I found particularly poignant, and one that the LLC might be forced to help.
For the last six years, the Black Rock Department of Mobility (formerly known as Hotwheelz) has been providing shuttle services and electric wheelchairs to those with disabilities, helping them to get around a city where private cars aren't allowed to drive during the week and where dusty, uneven terrain can to be problematic for the disabled.
But this year, camp founder Wayne Merchant told me, the Southern California-based camp scored just three tickets for its 27 active members. Already, he said they lined up almost 10 golf carts to do shuttles, nine electric wheelchairs for people to use, a few art cars with lifts, and at least 10 clients with disabilities have signed up for their services.
“I have the best core team that we've ever had on this camp,” he said, “but this is totally putting us out of business.”
He also raised the specter that without the voluntary services that this camp provides, the event itself might be out-of-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), possibly exposing the LLC to legal liability: “It will basically dump all the ADA compliance on Burning Man.”
“Depending on what happens tomorrow,” said Merchant, who plans to the attend the meeting at BM HQ, “I could be totally be done with Burning Man.”
WAITING ON THE FEDS
Many burners have suggested the LLC deal with this year's ticket demand issues by simply increasing the city's population, but organizers have said that's not really within their power. Not only are there transportation and other logistical constraints, but determining the population cap is at the sole discretion of the Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Black Rock Desert.
More precisely, it is at the sole discretion of Rolando Mendez, the BLM field manager for the region, who I interviewed last week, along with assistant field manager Cory Roegner. And one of the things I learned that I found most interesting is that the population cap won't even be set until this June, after all the tickets have been distributed.
“Black Rock City LLC is free to sell as many tickets as they're inclined to,” Mendez said. “That's a calculated business decision on their part, but I would expect Black Rock City LLC to live by the population cap that I set.”
Right now, both the LLC and BLM are awaiting completion of an Environmental Assessment (EA) report on the LLC's request for a five-year permit that seeks a population cap that would gradually increase from 58,000 to 70,000. A draft report is expected next month, after which there will be a public comment period, with the final report expected in June.
“I have not determined how to allocate that population cap over time,” Mendez said, expressing concerns over limited highway access to the site and other factors. “Too sudden of a change at too great a level could overwhelm the system.”
Both Mendez and Goodell say the two entities have a good working relationship. “We work together at problem solving and brainstorming,” Mendez said. “But right now, I'm depending on the EA.”
While he did indicate that Burning Man will probably be allowed to maintain at least its current size, as the LLC is relying on, even that isn't guaranteed. It all depends on what the report says. So what happens if the LLC sells too many tickets now? Mendez said that's not his call: “I don't know the business strategy Black Rock City LLC is using or what their contingency plans are.”
When Goodell and Harvey called me on Jan. 27 to let me know that requests for tickets had far exceeded supply and to enlist my help in spreading the word that people should remain calm, rely on those in the community who had most of the extra tickets, and avoid buying from scalpers, I asked how many ticket requests there were.
They refused to tell me. I've been a journalist for 20 years, so I'm used to corporations denying me financial information that I've sought. And it wasn't even a surprise from this LLC, which claims financial transparency but which has refused to disclose lots of information that I've sought over the years.
But as it became clear that their initial beliefs about how many tickets would be available within the community proved overly optimistic, and as pressure grew from both the Burning Man community and other journalism organizations, the LLC went into damage control mode and started to be a little more forthcoming.
So, how many ticket requests did they actually have? Well, it depends on who you believe. Goodell told the New York Times and other outlets that it was about 80,000 requests. But longtime event spokesperson Andie Grace – in a post that was widely lauded for a frankness and contrition that had been lacking in earlier communications from the LLC – wrote “we had nearly three times the number of tickets requested than we had available tickets.”
So, was 80,000 or 120,000? That's a pretty big difference, particularly given that all the official posts so far have claimed that scalpers gaming the new system wasn't as big a factor as is widely believed, although few have offered convincing evidence for that self-serving belief (after all, if it was scalpers gaming the system, than its creators made a mistake).
Personally, I've long believed that the LLC should be more transparent. As I discuss in my book, the LLC reveals general expenditure data (sometimes belatedly), but no information on revenues or current balances. The most recent report, for 2010, shows total expenses of $17.5 million, which includes a payroll of $7.3 million and fees to BLM and other agencies of more than $1.5 million.
Harvey has said that everything will be opened up once control is turned over to the nonprofit Burning Man Project in two to five years, but Chicken and others have complained that the board members will already have made off their their payouts by then and that those have contributed their sweat equity for decades have a right to know how much that is.
Maybe a bit more consistency in numbers and transparency now would help quell some of this restive community's concerns, but clearly we're not the ones making those kinds of decisions.