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Tech billionaires haven’t killed Burning Man’s anti-capitalist spirit—but influencers might

The annual mecca for the experimental and weird has become one of the world’s most iconic arts events by keeping the forces of commercialization at bay. If only it weren’t so Instagrammable.

Tech billionaires haven’t killed Burning Man’s anti-capitalist spirit—but influencers might
[Illustration: Meredith Miotke]

It was midweek in Black Rock City, Nevada, and the burners were looking disheveled. Days of camping, cooking, exploring, and partying with limited resources on the remote arid terrain where Burning Man is held at the end of August each year had stripped most attendees of any polish they had arrived with.

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But one cohort looked suspiciously well-preserved. They appeared freshly showered in their carefully selected getups, often some combination of wings, glitter, and exposed midriffs. They looked as though they were heading to a photo shoot—and some of them were, posing for Instagram-worthy desert pics with all the relevant hashtags. While most of the 70,000-plus Burning Man attendees were bunking in RVs and makeshift tents, a growing number of these polished burners had more luxurious digs: all-inclusive camps with air-conditioning, showers, reliable Wi-Fi, and large beds. One boutique-hotel-style fortress, called Camp Humano, featured a selection of “bedouin tents” ($25,000 a week) and two-bedroom lodges ($100,000 a week), along with “personal sherpas” for guests. Humano’s organizers had promoted these accommodations online as “the perfect place to escape from all the madness.”

Over its 33-year history, Burning Man, an eight-day-long experiment in radical, commerce-free living, has drawn a wildly diverse crowd. It’s been home to hippies, artists, and activists; pranksters, ravers, and techno-utopians; punk, grunge, and EDM enthusiasts; libertarians, socialists, and even billionaires. They’ve all embraced—to varying degrees—the 10 principles that founder Larry Harvey laid out in 2004, including self-reliance, self-expression, inclusion, gifting, and decommodification. But during the 2018 event, many longtime denizens of the playa (burner parlance for the Black Rock Desert) found themselves running into a group that even they had trouble assimilating. The influencers had arrived.

Although Burning Man’s organizers avoid the term “festival,” preferring to call it a “catalyst for creative culture,” the event is part of a global boom in culturally focused, cross-disciplinary gatherings that today include everything from Pharrell Williams’s new Something in the Water music and ideas festival and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop Wellness Summit to stalwarts like the Frieze art fairs and South by Southwest. Live music events alone are forecast to grow from a $25.6 billion to a $31 billion global industry by 2022. Coachella, for example, drew 125,000 attendees during each of its two weekends in 2017 and took in $116 million, a tenfold increase from 2007, fueled by ticket and merchandise sales, corporate sponsorships, and other brand partnerships. 2018’s Coachella event generated 4 million hashtags, many of them from social media influencers using the festival as a backdrop for a product plug.

Burning Man, which will take place from August 25 to September 2 this year, may bring in more than $45 million annually in revenue, but it has stubbornly defied commercialization, using most of its ticket sales to sponsor community-building activities around the globe and offer artists grants to create large-scale installations for the event. There are no merch tables or food purveyors at Burning Man. Every experience—music, art, and more—is free. According to Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell, who has led the 120-employee nonprofit behind the event since 2013, the organization has rebuffed would-be sponsors and acquirers over the years. Burning Man’s remote location and spotty connectivity have made it relatively easy for it to resist the forces of commerce. But the 2018 gathering—the first without founder Larry Harvey, who had passed away a few months prior—was different.

Goodell and other members of the leadership team noticed ruptures in the social fabric of the playa: too many smartphones, those private camps, people seemingly more interested in crossing things off their bucket lists than in joining a community. She and her colleagues had heard about a 70-year-old burner who’d tried to board an art car (the Burning Man equivalent of a parade float mashed up with a party boat) and had been rebuffed for not being “a hot girl.” Goodell herself recalled an encounter with an electronica-blasting art car whose champagne-drinking passengers had repeatedly refused to turn down the music during the event’s annual temple burning ceremony, a moment that usually inspires at least some reflection among participants. Goodell sensed that one Burning Man contingent was behaving like “it [was] Tulum on New Year’s Eve.”

[Illustration: Meredith Miotke]
Worse still was the commerce. At Goodell’s request, employees pulled together a 55-page report documenting it all. There were the concierge-style travel services and so-called plug-and-play camps—some seeking profit, others that were simply exclusionary. There was a still-in-beta social-networking app that had been using Burning Man email lists to solicit users. A sculpture from the playa had been licensed to Coach and appeared on a line of sandals. Fashion designer Manish Arora, a longtime burner, showed a collection at Paris Fashion Week that incorporated images and words from Burning Man installations without the artists’ approval. There were photo shoots, product placements, and even some product launches at Black Rock City. “You have people out there [on Instagram] saying what brand of bicycle [they’re riding at Burning Man], what boots they have,” says Goodell. “Why would you do that? You’ve missed the whole point.”

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Burning Man defines itself by its laissez-faire ethos, but Goodell decided to impose some limits. In February, she published a lengthy piece on the Burning Man website called “Cultural Course Correcting: Black Rock City 2019,” announcing a mandate to refocus Burning Man around its core principles. Goodell said that Burning Man was introducing more of its designated “low-income” tickets (for $210) and reducing the number of high-price ones, which reach up to $1,400, depending on when you buy. It was also prioritizing access for established art collectives and looking hard at the applications submitted by people hoping to set up a themed camp. “If a camp is too big and fancy, then it’s our job to say, ‘Start small,’ ” says Goodell. Humano, for one, was not invited back for 2019. And Burning Man would use its website and community forums to educate attendees about decommodification, especially around product posts and hashtags on social media.

“The outside world has tools that are starting to affect our values,” Goodell says. “[But] we didn’t scream and tell everybody to put their phones away. How can the organization do this stuff by ourselves? We can’t. We have to do it with the community.” Ultimately, to maintain the integrity of Burning Man—to keep it a place that refracts rather than reflects the world beyond the playa—Goodell is relying on attendees to change their ways. But in the era of spon-con and affiliate links, when every photograph is a potential product endorsement and every person is a brand just waiting for a collab, Burning Man’s desert ecosystem is increasingly endangered.


Related: Timeline: Burning Man’s tumultuous past


“You only have to see a few pictures of Burning Man to know that it’s dramatically gorgeous,” says John Styn, who goes by the name Halcyon and favors hot-pink hair and gauge ear piercings. For the past 20 summers, he has made the pilgrimage to Black Rock City’s sun-scorched landscape, which is dotted with absurdist, oversize works of art that look like they were dreamed up by Disney Imagineers on LSD. “If you’ve made a career out of being dramatically gorgeous and being an influencer, it makes sense that you would want to go.”

Last year, a Los Angeles–based model named Natasha Wagner, one of hundreds of influencers who use the hashtag #Burnerettes, attended Burning Man for the third time. She was part of a group called Camp 747, which hauled an old Boeing 747 into the desert and turned it into a nightclub. Some burners viewed the effort as the pinnacle of imagination; others saw it as an elitist and ostentatious display. Her camp provided its guests with two daily meals, along with showers, Paul Mitchell hair products, and Patrón tequila, which were provided by Paul Mitchell CEO, Patrón cofounder, and 747 attendee John Paul DeJoria.

A designer friend had given Wagner a faux-fur vest to wear at Burning Man. Wagner had no cell service in Black Rock City, but when she returned home, she tagged the designer in one of her Instagram posts and sent her a photo. The designer then posted the image on her company’s Instagram account. Later, after reading about Burning Man’s “cultural course-correcting efforts,” Wagner realized this was an infraction of the Burning Man ethos. “We don’t want Burning Man to turn into a big corporate campaign,” she admits. “It’s supposed to be about . . . What do you call it? Decommodification. But at the same time, your outfits [are] part of the art. And it’s nice to give credit to the person whose art you’re wearing.” Ultimately, neither the designer nor Wagner removed their posts, despite Goodell’s online condemnation of such practices.

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This is hardly the first time Burning Man has wrestled for its soul. Any longtime burner will joke about the event’s long history of identity crises. The gathering began when Larry Harvey, a San Francisco artist, built an 8-foot-tall wooden structure of a man in 1986 and burned it on a local beach with some friends. He repeated the cathartic ceremony the following year, and it soon became an annual tradition in his San Francisco art community. Eventually, Harvey obtained a permit from the state of Nevada to formalize the event in the desert.

Word of mouth spread among the arts and tech communities, and by the mid-1990s, about 10,000 people were heading to the desert at the end of every August to experience what had become a bacchanalia of fire-emitting sculptures, souped-up art cars, dance parties, and wild costumes (or no clothes at all), with no police or security on the premises and no official rules. Guns weren’t banned until 1997. Commerce was present, in the form of the occasional food stall or barter station, but the event’s anticapitalist spirit was strong enough that when Goodell began attending in 1995, she boycotted an assigned shift at a T-shirt stand, feeling that it broke with the intended spirit of Burning Man. She could already sense Burning Man’s culture coming under siege.

During the dotcom boom of the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Burning Man’s vision of a creative utopia came into clearer focus, and it became a destination for mind-bending industrial art. It also started drawing in Silicon Valley types, who saw in the gathering a reflection of their disruptive style of entrepreneurship. (Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page attended in 1998.) By this time, Goodell, who had dated Harvey in the ’90s, was part of the Burning Man inner circle: She had become the event’s communications lead and established its first email newsletter. Goodell began noticing quirky logos placed in front of some camps and thought they were just eccentric designs, until a friend informed her that they belonged to tech companies. “We found ourselves going, ‘No, that is not okay,’ ” she says.

As Burning Man ballooned—it reached 20,000 attendees in 1999 and was at 35,000 by 2004—Harvey began formalizing it. He, Goodell, and a handful of other early burners established the governing Black Rock City LCC, and later created a foundation arm to dispense profits from the event to artists. (These moves to create a formal structure dismayed some longtime burners, including cofounder John Law, who quit the organization in 1997.) In 2004, Harvey helped draw up the 10 Principles, which firmly established Burning Man as a commerce-free space. At least in theory.

The event’s leaders couldn’t deter wealth and its trappings, and over the next decade, Burning Man became a hub for the increasingly moneyed world of Silicon Valley. Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk made appearances, along with other adventure-seeking members of the 1%. With this influx of prosperity came luxurious extras, such as private jets, personal chefs, and on-site stylists who could create bespoke looks for a $10,000 fee. At the same time, the Burning Man organization started to embrace some of these iconoclastic capitalists.

The results were uneven. Chip Conley, who founded the Joie de Vivre hotel group and later was named an Airbnb executive, became a Burning Man board member in 2009; he introduced Airbnb cofounder Brian Chesky to the playa in 2013 and became an advocate for Burning Man’s decommodified mission. Jim Tananbaum, CEO of Foresite Capital, became a board member in 2014. Tananbaum celebrated by creating a camp for that year’s event that he likened to “staying at a pop-up W Hotel” and that cost $15,000 a person. He was excoriated by the community online, and eventually apologized and resigned from the board after just a year. The frustration among burners, says Halcyon, “was made worse by the fact that people on the [Burning Man] board had connections to high-budget camps.”

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Policing bad behavior at Burning Man is hard. For one, there’s Harvey’s persnickety principle of radical inclusion. Second, there is no explicit rule against being comfortable or rich. In fact, the Silicon Valley elite are typically the ones most eager to prove they’re playing by the rules. “The rich and famous in Silicon Valley are not creating plug-and-play camps,” Conley argues. “They’re doing it in a way that’s more upscale, for sure, but they generally [keep] a pretty low-profile.”

It is the consumers of these tech titans’ products—the throngs of Instagram and Facebook users who have grown accustomed to the norms of those platforms—who represent the bigger threat. Halcyon has spent two decades watching waves of change pass through Black Rock City, and he says something new settled in last year: a sense of defeat among old-guard burners who are starting to feel that “the genie is out of the bottle.”


“We are all individual brands these days,” says Jukka-pekka Heikkilä, a Finnish academic who has been studying Burning Man communities for several years through the lens of commerce and entrepreneurship. “Burning Man is also a brand, and that brand is going through an evolution.”

There was a time when some artists downplayed their association with the event, afraid it might seem too out of the mainstream. Today, creating a large-scale piece of art for the playa can launch a career. The Smithsonian debuted an exhibition last summer called No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, featuring some of the installations the event has inspired and sponsored, which is currently touring museums around the country. Big-name artists, including architect Bjarke Ingels, now create work specifically for the event.

Burning Man’s influence has expanded well beyond art into the fuzzier realm of lifestyle brands. A glamorous “dinner in the desert” that Krug champagne hosted at Burning Man in 2012 was photographed and covered by several glossy magazines. (The public shaming that followed was perhaps only slightly less intense than the one Tananbaum experienced for his luxe camp.) Consumer research firm Trendalytics noted, in 2016, that Instagram interactions related to Burning Man had increased 2,000% from 2014 to 2016, and cited the event as a launching pad for new fashion trends, such as Dutch braids. The following year, the firm released a report with advice for brands on how to leverage Burning Man, Coachella, Art Basel, and other “festival microcommunities.” Among the tips: Increase your brand’s SEO by marketing special festival shops online from April to August, and lock in “strategic partnerships” to expand your reach at events.

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In order to prevent this unwanted commercialization, the nonprofit Burning Man Project (which succeeded the for-profit Black Rock City LLC in 2014) exercises unusually tight control over the use of its intellectual property—which includes the Burning Man logo, the design of the actual burning man sculpture, and even the map of Black Rock City. (We’re a long way from 2006, when cofounder John Law unsuccessfully sued the organization over rights to its logo, arguing that “Burning Man is for everyone.”) What’s more, according to ticket-buying terms and conditions, the copyright for any photo taken at the event belongs jointly to the photographer and Burning Man, allowing the organization to issue cease-and-desist letters if images are used for anything other than personal reasons. There’s also a stricture against using Burning Man photos to promote commercial products, services, or brands on personal social media accounts, though enforcing these infractions is difficult.

For the uneducated burner with an Instagram page, or a well-intentioned company looking to join in, Burning Man can be a minefield. Halcyon consults part-time with corporations, instructing them on how to infuse their businesses with the Burning Man ethos. He says even he struggles to find the line between proselytization and commodification. “I’m basically trying to sell my experience of Burning Man without selling Burning Man,” he explains. When Pacific Gas & Electric donated felled trees to support a Burning Man installation in 2017, the gift was gratefully accepted. But when the company issued a press release about the “partnership,” Burning Man gave it a behind-the-scenes scolding.

The boundary grows blurrier still for artists, whose installations often require thousands of (often unpaid) hours and tens of thousands of dollars to construct. Last year, an art collective called Studio Drift created a massive drone project at Burning Man, a groundbreaking endeavor that was originally shown at Art Basel with funding from BMW. Does that affiliate Burning Man with BMW? “We have to deal with those kinds of examples on a case-by-case basis,” says Goodell, who notes that the Burning Man drone performance was not funded by the carmaker.

Music is even more complicated. Many of Burning Man’s most ardent burners strongly resisted the encroaching force of rave culture. “I think I was the first big-name DJ,” says electronic-dance legend Paul Oakenfold, who began attending Burning Man in 1999. “I was lightly warned by friends that this is not a music festival and that I should keep everything about Burning Man private and not document it, which I found strange.”

The arrival of prominent DJs brought along a new kind of crowd, including the influencer types who flock to music festivals around the world. Oakenfold founded an EDM-themed camp in 2013, called White Ocean, that hosted DJs and held dance parties throughout the event and promoted, online, both its lineups and the resulting tracks. The camp was vandalized in 2016 by a group of old-guard burners wishing to make a statement. Oakenfold continues to attend Burning Man, although White Ocean hasn’t returned.

“I think White Ocean was targeted unfairly,” he says. “I work in music, and it’s not about stopping and saying, ‘This is mine.’ It’s about sharing and moving forward.” He sees a profound cultural change on the horizon. “It was natural that [social media] was going to be the next progression. Burning Man was always going to go that way.”

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No matter what, Burning Man is at a crossroads. It can continue to educate the public, energize the community, encourage best practices, and protect its intellectual property. But in trying too hard to preserve itself, it risks undermining the free-spiritedness of the event and creating a kind of civil war on the playa. Goodell says she has been heartened so far by the reaction to her course-correction post: She believes it gained extra momentum online in the wake of the Netflix and Hulu documentaries about the influencer-driven Fyre Festival, which she describes as “just one big plug-and-play camp.”

But Goodell is facing a new threat. In June, the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees Burning Man’s permit for the Black Rock Desert, released an environmental impact statement that recommended, among other things, instating a private security firm to screen attendees for drugs and weapons. Goodell quickly condemned the idea of subjecting “a peaceable gathering of people to searches without probable cause other than the desire to attend Burning Man.” And—like any good CEO—she has hired a top D.C. lobbying firm to help appeal the proposal.

A version of this article appeared in the September 2019 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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