The Party is Over

I decided not to go to Burning Man this year.

Between my dog being on hospice, moving living spaces two times in three months, a new job and nearly dying last year1, going to Black Rock City just isn’t in my cards. My (not easy but absolutely clear) decision was made approximately exactly two weeks before Gate opens, and despite the offhand jokes I’d been hearing (“Burning Man tickets are the new zuccini”) I was feeling okay about selling my tickets and recouping the money I paid for them back in April.

I would soon find that this plan would not make it past the whiteboard stage. I logged on first thing in the morning to post my tickets and found the secondary market I’ve come to know over the years suddenly an unfamiliar trading floor jungle. Craigslist, Facebook and Stubhub were flooded with posts of desperate sellers offering their passes for far below what they paid for them2. The market value of tickets had nearly halved, from $575 (not including fees) to around $300 or less (update 8/17: $213).

So, what’s going on?

It’s hard to know for sure, but an economic downturn, adverse weather forecasts and a Covid-19 surge all seem to be anecdotally what people are pointing to the most. Considering that participants not within a day’s drive of the playa (ie most of the world) have already decided months ago whether they’re going or not, the potential buyers in the market suddenly becomes very small. Like, four major coastal cities small.

The coldest Burning Man of the rest of our lives

No stranger to strange markets, I knew that the closer to the end of the event it got, the closer to zero dollars my tickets would be worth, and it seemed lots of other people were in the same boat. So I sold them immediately for a loss. It felt so… impersonal. So forced. And on a certain level I felt betrayed.

In the decade I’ve made the pilgrimage to Black Rock City I’ve gifted tickets, received tickets, bought tickets from friends, and been a recipient of a low income ticket. But I’ve never paid nor sold over face value— and this was intentional on the part of Burning Man. Since ticket demand started outpacing supply in 2011, the organization has taken steps to ensure that ticket prices remain fixed within the secondary market, ostensibly to uphold the principal of decommodification. A social contract of sorts was established over the years— no matter how much demand there may be on the fixed supply of tickets, please only sell them at the price you paid. Or gift them. Essentially, thou shalt not make money flipping tickets.

So now here we are, experiencing for the first time in Burning Man history a secondary market where demand has precipitously dropped below supply, and all the resources put into keeping the ticket prices from skyrocketing suddenly don’t apply to retaining their value. At this point Burning Man has the ticket sale money in pocket (and probably already spent most of it it on the event), so a loss in ticket value only sees artists, theme camps and participants left holding the bag.

It also opens up the principled question of profit; if one buys at a low price and sells at a higher price still below face value, is that okay? Is open market price discovery alright to happen below face value, even though it’s actively discouraged above it? How is one seemingly acceptable and the other out of line with the core principal of decommodification?

Hard Rock Nick asking the hard questions of the Burning Man Organization. Original meme for the uninitiated.

It’s hard to know what Burning Man Project thinks of this unprecedented phenomenon, as they have yet to make a public statement about it. What we do know is what they haven’t done, which is a lot. No request to the community to conduct ticket exchanges at face value (like they’ve done for a decade now), no buyback program to support the price floor, no acknowledgement at all that anything is amiss. I’m looking forward to hearing their thoughts and how they plan on addressing this type of thing in the future.

Maybe this years event will turn out to be a massive success. The dust will be minimal, the weather will be balmy. The wubs will wub and the Burners will Burn and we’ll all forget the Ticket Hot Potato Crisis of 2023. Maybe the last good burn won’t have to be the Renegade Burn, or next years SOAK3. This could all be a blip on the radar and we can continue the sold-out party that is That Thing In The Desert like a bunch of hooligans that didn’t just pay a thousand dollars for the opportunity to take a year off.

What I know for certain is that Burning Man, year over year, event after event, is never the same. And that’s what we like (or often pretend to hate) about it. After a crisis like this it’s hard not to see how things won’t be different; even if that difference is the sobering realization that the party has thoroughly jumped its own shark eating tail, and there’s nothing to do but take a year off and decide whether to do it all again next year.

Have fun out there everyone!

  1. Figuratively but also possibly quite literally. The extreme heat of Burning Man 2022 was oppressive at best and heat stroke inducing at worst. There’s only so many nights you can cram sleep AND roaming the city AND volunteering into the few precious hours of post-midnight sub 90° F temperatures before you begin to question whether this is a sustainable way to burn. ↩︎
  2. STEP apparently doesn’t support the exchange of physical tickets. ↩︎
  3. Shameless plug for the best regional out there, SOAK! ↩︎

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