Burning Man Has Gone From Underground Experiment to Playground for the Rich

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Freak City

John Law insists he does not like talking about Burning Man, but once he gets going, he has a lot to say. Law was one of the founders of the annual artistic gathering in the Nevadan desert but cut ties in 1996, when tickets cost $35 and only 8,000 people attended. When he speaks of Burning Man now, he is both impressed and disgusted.

Burning Man is a global phenomenon, attended by billionaires such as Elon Musk, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, who flew in on a private helicopter in 2013. Musk once said Mike Judge, co-creator of the HBO sitcom Silicon Valley, doesn’t get tech culture because he’s never attended the festival.

It was never supposed to be this large, Law tells Newsweek. In its first year in Black Rock Desert in 1990, the festival was a sanctuary for San Francisco’s underground artists and an experiment in creating a temporary society without rules. Now Law thinks Silicon Valley elites have appropriated the festival: “It's become what I went to the desert to get away from: a top-down controlled society where the rich punks and hippies are served by the poor punks and hippies.”

In 2016, the event in late August and early September is expected to host around 70,000 attendees, paying anywhere from $190—reserved for low-income attendees—to $1,200 per ticket. Thousands of tickets are given away, according to Burning Man Communications Director Megan Miller, but the vast majority of attendees, around 56,000, pay $390, more than 10 times what the $35 tickets went for that first year.

Miller says those ticket prices are simply to catch up with the rising cost of supplies, permits, labor and insurance. In 2014, Burning Man cost over $30 million to operate. The Bureau of Land Management has also charged the festival more. “We pay the BLM several million dollars per year, and that has gone up dramatically since 2011,” Miller says.

Law thinks Burning Man still can be a life-changing experience for young artists but says it is now a sandbox for the wealthy. “Facebook and Google could not design a better vacation for their workers,” he says. “Burning Man is now a corporate vacation—you have license from your employer to get naked, do drugs and fuck someone you just met.”