Commentary by Guy Farmer: The future of Burning Man

They burned "The Man" out on the Black Rock Desert playa last night. Is that really news? Should we care?

Of course I'm writing about Burning Man, the annual naked drug festival that takes place just over the Pershing County line (where law enforcement is minimal) near the small town of Gerlach, about 90 miles north of Reno. People actually pay $350 or more to bake in the sun for three or four days in what they call "an exercise in radical self-expression." Thousands of them get naked and enjoy sex, drugs and/or rock 'n' roll, not necessarily in that order. And they can admire a wide variety of alleged artworks, some of them quite creative and imaginative, others bordering on public pornography.

But the purpose of this column isn't to trash Burning Man yet again; I've been doing that for the past 15 years. You already know my two main objections to the annual bacchanal: (1) Widespread drug use on public property in a National Conservation Area, and (2) The presence of young children at an X-rated event. Today, however, I want to speculate about the future of Burning Man.

A Reno News & Review headline says it all: "Burning Man Sells Out." Clinton Demeritt's RN&R article points out that all 50,000 tickets to the festival sold out by July, leaving thousands of disappointed Burners to scrounge for tickets on the Internet, where they paid exorbitant prices. Burning Man's Bay Area organizers - Lord Larry (Harvey), Maid Marian (Goodell) & Co. - have petitioned the always-compliant U.S. Bureau of Land Management for an increase to 70,000 participants by 2016, a 40 percent increase in Black Rock City's population over the next five years.

It's an open question as to whether the fragile desert playa can absorb such a mass of humanity, despite the festival's admirable "leave no trace" cleanup policy. The big population increase petition raises a more controversial question: Has Burning Man gone commercial? If so, that would go against the Burners' longstanding opposition to commercialization.

Currently, Burners pay between $210 and $350 to attend the festival. Assuming an average ticket price of $280 (a conservative estimate) and multiplying it by 50,000 participants, the event's anti-capitalist organizers raked in at least $14 million this year. It must be morally difficult for them to handle so much "dirty" money. Meanwhile, BLM will collect more than $1 million as its share of the proceeds. If BLM approves an increase to 70,000 participants - as is virtually certain, given the agency's financial stake in the event - Black Rock City LLC should gross some $20 million by 2016.

According to Heidi Schumann, a Burner who wrote an article for the New York Times, "The company has made expenditures of $102 million over the past 10 years." That translates into a profit of nearly $4 million this year. No wonder some disgruntled Burners have asked for an audit.

My friend Sam Bauman was at "the burn" last night. I hope he had a good time.

• Guy W. Farmer, of Carson City, is a longtime critic of Burning Man.


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