Burning Man’s rabid brand of loyalty is changing the events business

Bring lots of DEET.
Bring lots of DEET.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Every year without fail, certain dusty, LED-lit corners of the Internet are whipped into a frenzy over a shared conundrum: the shortage of Burning Man tickets.

As with most limited-capacity events, scalpers are eager to corner the market. And with Burning Man kicking off at the end of this month, attempts to resell tickets online for a profit are growing more ubiquitous.

A quick scroll through eBay reveals a handful of passes going for more than $1,000. The cheapest ticket available on Stubhub as of publication costs $990. A pair is listed for $2,000 on Craigslist. One person, in what can only be described as a bizarre display of online performance art, posted their ticket for a million dollars on Stubhub. (The actual retail price for entry? $390.)

It may seem like hippie anarchy. Yet in reality, according to Burning Man’s organizers, the majority of scalpers don’t actually stand much of a chance. In fact, Burning Man appears to be one of the first massive-scale event to have created a multi-pronged system that successfully combats the problem—with the help of attendees themselves.

In recent years, as the Internet has made it continually easier to resell goods for a profit, musicians and other event purveyors have tried to relinquish scalpers through a variety of means. When comedian Louis CK began selling tickets directly to fans through his website, scalping to his shows dropped by 96%. Last year, a Boston music venue canceled a customer’s ticket order for a Weezer show after a fan forwarded his attempt to resell on Craigslist for more than double the price.

Despite massive popularity and a limited supply, a least part of Burning Man’s rabid fan base seems to be working with them, not against them, when it comes to ticketing. Organizers employ a variety of forces that work together to minimize ticket scams and punish scalpers. “We have a lot of things in place that deliberately mess with the market,” Marian Goodell, CEO of The Burning Man Project, the event’s parent nonprofit, told Quartz in a phone interview earlier this year.

One of those things is the OMG Sale, in which organizers sold 1,000 last-minute tickets at face value in early August. Another is the Secure Ticket Exchange Program, a Craigslist of sorts for the Burner set that protects against scalping and counterfeit passes by running all transactions through Burning Man’s official website. A third is hiring partners committed to weeding out scams: When a group of hackers tried to hijack online ticket sales earlier this year, for example, Ticketfly voided all their passes.

“We’ve created more than one system to drive people towards buying directly from the organization or from people they know,” Marian said. “And it’s really working.”

Burning Man wasn’t always so in-demand. Its first incarnation, in 1985, was just a small party among a group of friends on a San Francisco beach. Over the years, attendance has steadily expanded, but the concept has remained more or less the same: create an elaborate temporary city, revel in art and creative expression for one week, and when it’s finished, pack up the whole shebang as if nothing ever happened. (One of the event’s ten governing principles, authored by founder Larry Harvey in 2004, is to “leave no trace.”)

Organizers eventually relocated Burning Man to a remote stretch of Nevada’s Black Rock desert in order to accommodate the ever-growing throngs of Burners, as attendees are known. But Black Rock City, as it’s known, exists on federal land, and the permit allows for a maximum of 70,000 attendees. In 2011, the gathering sold out for the first time, and tickets have continued in subsequent years to disappear pretty much the moment they hit the market.

This very popularity helps protect Burning Man even further from scalping and scamming. Burners remain an active and connected network all year long, hosting spin-off events around the world and planning intricately designed theme camps. Because the community remains so engaged, it’s easier to extinguish bad players.

“We have a lot of Burners who report scalpers directly to our ticketing department,” Jim Graham, a spokesman, told Quartz in a phone interview earlier this year. “The ticketing department is then proactive about investigating above price ticket sales. We’re pretty aggressive about going after the mark-ups.”

Selling tickets for a profit, Jim explained, violates the spirit of the event, which also counts “de-commodification” and “communal effort” among its principles. Burners hold those principles in high regard and will go to great lengths to preserve them.

“It’s remarkable how the community feels about this,” Marian said. “People will pass around a URL from eBay. We have known resellers we cleanse from our list. The most interesting [scalping] stories that come to us have been elevated by volunteers or other community members.”

Attendees themselves express similar sentiments. “Most of what I read says, ‘please don’t buy tickets above face value. It undermines the spirit of the event and begins a downward spiral,’” Alexander Pagliere, who’s planning on attending his fourth consecutive Burning Man this summer, told me via email. “In general I find the kind of person who wants to go to Burning Man is the kind of person who believes their actions impact the community.”

In other words, the subculture has found a way to self-regulate against scalping. And if numbers are any indication, although a handful of bad players still sneak through each year, the system has largely worked.

According to the Burning Man 2014 official census, only 0.7% of attendees said they had bought their ticket from a third party reseller, and 2.1% said they got theirs from a stranger. Meanwhile, 1.9% said they paid more than face value, while 3.8% paid less—and 9.8% paid nothing at all.

The concept of receiving a ticket for free is in line with Burning Man’s principles, which also include “gifting.” Throughout the week, individuals are encouraged to give items and actions to one another while expecting nothing in return. And it’s one of the main reasons Marian said she wouldn’t resort to added security measures for ticket sales, such as only allowing one per person or a requiring identity verification at the gate.

“We don’t want to administrate a system that would include identity-based entry or not encourage the gifting of tickets,” she said. “It’s just distasteful.”

Still, the unfortunate reality remains that only a finite number of tickets are available each year, forcing some Burners to the sidelines. While Marian acknowledged that in the future, her team plans to explore expansion options, they’re not immediately working toward increasing the number of attendees allowed on the land. Instead, she pointed to the thriving, international year-round culture as solace for those who can’t get their hands on an entry pass.

“You can attend an event in Colorado or Austin or South Africa; you can help with a regional art project,” she said. “Philosophically, our cultural intention is to bring Burning Man to everybody of all colors, politics, races and religions—regardless of whether you’ve actually been to Nevada.”