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The Burning Man Ticket Problem

I'm going to catch a lot of flack for this and a lot of bad juju or karma or what have you, but it needs to be said, so read the whole thing and learn a little while your here.

Microeconomics is one of those classes that almost everyone who goes to college has to sit through and for good reason. Yeah it sucks, yeah there's a lot of math and associated graphs, but even the "liberal-est" of liberal arts colleges leave it in the curriculum because they know it's important. Why is it so important, because like it or not, for better worse the principals of supply and demand drive almost every aspect of our everyday lives.

It's only a couple days after the main Burning Man ticket sale ended* and a can't count with an abacus the number of time I have heard or read, "It's not fair." "The Lottery was unfair," "The scalping of tickets is unfair," ect. ect. What did you think was going to happen? Did you think that in our capitalistic society that people were going to sit idly by while the opportunity to make hundreds of thousands of dollars on a secondary market simply passed them by. This is America, and this is their job, this is how they feed their kids or afford their drug addiction. The formula is ridiculously simple: Find a concert or event that sells tickets and has sold out in the past, all things being equal it will sell out again. Buy tickets at the low price, sell at a high price when the demand is highest, IE right before the event. Rinse, Wash, Repeat.

While it may sound like I'm trying to defend scalpers, I'm not. I'm just trying to explain their existence, actually I think that they are the scum of the earth. They make a their living on margin siphoned off other dedicated and extremely creative people. They don't make shows any better. They don't make the lines any shorter. In fact, as far as I can see they don't add value in any way whatsoever... Which begs the question why do they exist at all?

Scalpers exist because there is a margin to be skimmed between the venue's suggested ticket price and the economic demand price that people are willing to pay. I applaud the Burning Man culture for everything that it aspires to be. When you are in the mist of the dust in a loving gifting utopia, nothing but bliss can describe the elation you have for your kindred burning souls... But to imagine that it is all some how devoid of real economic pressures is pure delusion. Arc welders and Funktion-One sound systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. To rent the diesel generator that powers Disorient only costs a measly eight grand, and I'm pretty sure I didn't meet anyone that didn't spend at least a c-note on el-wire alone. Yes, your time in the desert should be pure bliss devoid of any of the hierarchy or entanglement that comes with our financial system, but to some how suppose that all the preparations including ticketing leading up to the burn won't be entangled is just pure nonsense.

So did the BMorg fuck up this year? ... ABSO-FUCKING-LUTLY. But it wasn't because they weren't trying to do the right thing. It wasn't because the lottery system was inherently flawed and it certainty wasn't because of the astute scalpers who saw an opportunity. It was simply because the people in the BMorg were to high or aloof to attend that freshman microeconomics lecture. You know the one where you do math and draw graphs to determine the market value of a ticket to Burning Man. I'm an engineer, I love puzzles and I haven't heard a single suggestion that couldn't be thwarted by clever ingenuity and bot-net of wielding a thousand fake credit cards... Except one: If tickets were priced at what the market demands. It sounds harsh, but if tickets were priced appropriately there would be no margin for scalpers to make profit on.

Imagine for just a second if the jackrabbit had priced tickets at fair market value. What's fair market value? We only need to look as far as stub hub where tickets are going for $640 dollars a piece, my guess is that they will reach a grand before august rolls around. OMG. I can hear Playa whales moaning in agony! $640 that's outrageous. But take a step back and think, what's an extra $300 to go to Burning Man? One tenth the cost of your RV? An extra furry LED encrusted pimp coat for when it gets really cold? For going that hotel and shower in Reno before your trek back to civilization? Your ticket from Australia or Germany cost twice that much... Keep in mind that this is now money that is doing nothing but going directly in to scalpers pockets...

Now think what BMorg could have done with the extra revenue? $300 x 40,000** = $12,000,000 That's six zeros as in more money than most of us will see in our life time. This is all profit, above all existing operating expenses. Assuming that the BMorg is ridiculous greedy (which they're not) and they spend 1,000,000 on the most kick ass awesome theme camp known to man. That still leaves $11,000,000 to make Burning Man even more awesome. Lets assume that Peter Hudson’s Charon cost about $400k in time and materials to build, thats TWENTY SEVEVEN more Peter Hudson's caliber art projects on the Playa. That's about equal to the the number of funded art projects in 2011. $11,000,000 is the approximate gross (not subtracting operating costs) for mega festivals and massives like Electronic Daisy Carnival and Future Music Festival... Not that they fund sound camps, but just for a second imagine booking all 150 of the worlds top DJ's to play at Burning Man. Now conciser that 11 million could build hundreds of homes for the homeless or feed hundreds of thousands of starving... Hopefully your coming to grips with what a colossal mistake BM LCC has made.

There are some of you who are reading this thinking, "But Man, that's not what BM is about, it's about including everyone even those who can't afford such a ludicrous ticket price..." Luckily, I took math, so lets do some figuring... Say you shave off 10,000 tickets to be given away for the financially stricken at $200 per person, BM LCC loses 10,000 * ($640-$200) = $4,400,000 that still leaves $6.6 million dollars to hire a team of college interns to comb over essays of those who feel they deserve a discount ticket. $6 million dollars is more than the operating budget for most College Admissions programs. It's also worth noting that a higher ticket price is going to cut down on the weekend warriors who show up on Thursday, piss on my truck and leave right after the man burns.

So this year because kids were bad at math, were are left with disbanded theme camps, forgotten art projects, the disheartened band of "survival guilt" ridden "lucky", and some very prosperous scalpers... When we could have had the most kick ass awesome week long festival in the history of man on earth.

I was lucky, I got two tickets in the lottery. My girlfriend is in China, she might come back for BM, but If she doesn't, I'm not even going to conciser the STEP program, I hope you follow my lead and take your extra tickets put them on ebay or stubhub and scalp them for as much as possible. Take your extra cash, buy that nice furry pimp coat or do like me and donate that cash to a needy art project.

'* News flash: demand out trumped supply by ~ 3 to 1

'** I'm being conservative in my estimates $300 * 50,000 = 15 million.


I will concede that too high a ticket price will set up a culture where people are essentially paying for the disneyland experience...
I think everyone understands the microeconomic situations at hand. The 'problem' that people have in my eyes is that the capitalist economics of it are directly at odd with the on-Playa experience. The whole gifting/no on-playa money/anti-capitalist value of the culture is inherently lost when people purchase tickets for the goal of profitting from them. In the past, most people ran with the assumption that no one in the community was intentionally profitting from BM. This year marks a change for that. No longer will people just gift tickets to friends, which is a sad thing.
How about instead of hiring those dj's lets offer make low priced tickets available to those how cover greater distance to the festival, or even better yet raise all tickets a minimal amount but place a decent surcharge on rv's and for late arrivals after say wednesday?
@David, a sad day indeed, as many have said before, the beast has outgrown it's cage, but I'm not entirely convinced that people looking to make a profit are to blame. I think most of the tickets probably went to people who are legitimately planing on going to BM. Thing is most burners signed up for an extra ticket because, why not, they can easily get rid of it if they have to. My argument is that instead of pretending the beast is still a cuddly puppy, to treat it like the beast it is. BM should be conducting market surveys and using real economic leverage to control population grow. That leverage can come in many forms weather its surcharges on RVs and late arrivals or non-refundable/non-transferable tickets. Unfortunately the ticketing problem is a real-world capitalistic problem and it's not going to be solved by all 70,000 people who want to go to BM thinking as a community.
@Mark, I'm not saying BM should spend money on DJ's I'm just saying they could buy them if they wanted to. I personally don't think they should. Read the next paragraph where I talk about how they could open up the low-income-ticket program to many many more people.