Here’s What Burning Man Is Doing to End Turnkey Culture

Black Rock City 2011 (photo by Luke Szczepanski)
Black Rock City 2011 (photo by Luke Szczepanski)

After the 2014 Burning Man event, turnkey (a.k.a. “plug and play”, a.k.a. concierge) camping in Black Rock City rightfully became a hot-button issue in our community. We share the concerns that turnkey camping, left unchecked, could undermine Burning Man’s principles, and we’ve taken measures to ensure that doesn’t happen.

In her keynote address at the 2015 Burning Man Global Leadership Conference, Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell put it plainly: “We are absolutely committed to ceasing the plug and play culture.”

We are doing this in three ways:

  1. All theme camps must go through the same process and meet the same standard (including being interactive, open to all citizens of Black Rock City, successfully Leaving No Trace, etc.) to be considered for placement.
  2. Our updated Outside Services (OSS) contracts make it extraordinarily difficult for concierge service operators and potential organizers of turnkey camps to order necessary equipment to successfully build a turnkey camp without showing up on our radar.
  3. A new ‘Statement of Values’ on gifting has been developed to guide our actions and relationships with individuals and groups that provide financial and other forms of support to the nonprofit Burning Man Project.

Here’s the letter from the Burning Man Placement team to theme camp organizers:

Hello Theme Camp Organizer,

We’re contacting you because you have requested Placement for 2015 in Black Rock City. We’ve made some changes to our Theme Camp and Placement policies following events in 2014 involving turnkey camps, and we wanted to inform you of them so you can plan accordingly.


Turnkey is a category of camps along a spectrum. At one end of the continuum are camps that depend on supported infrastructure to create on playa projects. At the other end are camps providing vacation type experience packages for campmates with no specific requirement for contribution.

In 2014 Burning Man placed 12 turnkey camps that fell within the continuum as they were camps indicating they would offer an interactive aspect to be enjoyed by the entire Burning Man community.

For 2015, all camps (other than infrastructure support camps) will be held to the same standards in order to receive placement, early arrival passes and access to the Directed Group Sale.

Theme Camp Placement Criteria / Standards:

Other than event infrastructure camps, all camps will be held to the same standards of inclusion and participation regardless of how the camp is structured. All Theme Camps requesting placement will be evaluated according to the following criteria:

  1. Camps should be visually stimulating, have an inviting design and a plan for bike parking and crowd management.
  2. Camps must be interactive. They should include activities, events or services within their camps and they must be available to the entire Burning Man community.
  3. Camps must be neighborly. This includes keeping sound within set limits, controlling where camp generators vent exhaust, and easily resolving any boundary disputes that may arise.
  4. Camps must have a good previous MOOP record (for returning camps).
  5. Camps must follow safety protocols designed by the organization (this includes traffic management on the streets, proper handling of fuels, and any other areas defined by the organization’s production team including alternatives to RV lined streets).

Post-event evaluation Theme Camp Standing and access to Directed Group Sales:

Post event, all placed Theme Camps will be reviewed on the criteria above, as well as:

  1. MOOP score
  2. Strain on resources (whether a camp requires extra BRC infrastructure support, which could include undue communication or interactions with Rangers, DPW or the playa restoration team).

If camps meet all of the criteria they remain in “good standing” and may be eligible to receive access to DGS tickets the following year. Exemplary camps are the most likely to be invited to following DGS sales.

Camps that receive negative feedback will lose their good standing and be contacted in the Fall after the event. A loss of good standing will affect access to DGS.

Camps will have to make substantial changes to their submitted camp plans if they are to qualify for placement or the Directed Group Sale for the following year.

Camps found advertising are violating principles and cultural norms and will not be placed or invited to the DGS the following year.

Entering BRC with Early Arrival passes:

Only placed Theme Camps meeting all of the above criteria and receiving Placement will be given Early Arrival Passes from the Placement team for entry to BRC for pre-event set up.

Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions you have regarding these policies.

Here’s the pertinent section of the Outside Services contract:

Specific changes applicable to vendors include but are not limited to:

  1. Burning Man does not contract with concierge camping outfits or tour companies.
  2. Groups of vendor-provided RVs or trailers using shared resources and clustered together, or formerly placed as “turnkey camps”, must now apply as Theme Camps and adhere to all Theme Camp criteria to be considered for placement.
  3. RVs and trailers will not be permitted within the city streets prior to the renter or contact person’s arrival on site without previous approval from the OSS team.
  4. All RV, vehicle, and trailer license plate numbers must be submitted to the OSS team at least 48 hours prior to the vendor’s arrival on site to collect credentials.
  5. Vendors must indicate the contact person, or renter, for each delivered item/trailer/RV, at least 48 hours prior to those credential being distributed.
  6. Vendors found to be non-compliant with the OSS program guidelines or contract may be asked to leave the event site immediately, and may not be considered for the program in future years.

Lastly, here’s our Statement of Values on Gifting:

Burning Man exists solely because of contributions to and from our community. Whether these gifts are made manifest in funds, labor, artwork, or other forms, they are the fuel that powers our work in the world. As a culture we are devoted to acts of giving that are unconditional, and as individual contributors, we acknowledge that all such gifts are given freely, with no expectation of reciprocity or exchange. Each gives according to his or her nature and capabilities, and no one is entitled to special treatment as a result. No contributor, regardless of the magnitude of his or her gift or position, will receive preferential treatment or undue influence over the course of our actions in the world.

We feel that these measures, taken together, will help foster a community and culture in Black Rock City that embodies the values reflected in the Ten Principles. But we’re not going to be able to solve this problem through rules and regulations alone. Ultimately, it takes YOU, the Burning Man community. It’s important that Burners and would-be Burners understand that Radical Self-Reliance, Participation and Communal Effort are fundamental to the Burning Man experience. The value of those principles is eroded when one engages a concierge service on playa. We strongly encourage people to avoid them to get a more meaningful Burning Man experience.

What About Green Tortoise?

Note that Green Tortoise camp is the sole exception to our position on turnkey camping because of its established program for bringing engaged participants to Black Rock City and the valuable service they provide to the community (shuttle buses to and from Gerlach during the event) — their camp is the exception that proves the rule, and we’re actively considering further changes to our arrangement with GT to bring it into alignment with our theme camp policy.

What’s Actually Going On with Dance Music at Burning Man

(Photo by Darrin Harris Frisby)

(Photo by Darrin Harris Frisby)

News — and supposition — has been flying recently regarding a number of policy announcements and statements coming out of BMHQ related to DJs and amplified music on playa. Dancetronauts being “banned”, Opulent Temple not being placed, the Deep-Playa Music Zone (DMZ), pre-publishing DJ lineups — it’s dizzying. And taken together, it could appear that Burning Man has it out for Electronic Dance Music (EDM)!! Yeah, no.

We wanted to take a moment to clear up the misconceptions so we’re all on the same page. We don’t like to announce a “what” without a “why” so everybody understands what’s behind the decisions. So let’s do it. (more…)

The Dancetronauts Meet Civic Responsibility

We’ve received a number of questions about the Dancetronauts Mutant Vehicle being asked not to come to Black Rock City in 2015. Here’s some background …

Shark car at the DMV, 2011 (Photo by Philippe Glade)
Shark car at the DMV, 2011 (Photo by Philippe Glade)

We strive to create as few rules as possible in Black Rock City to allow Burning Man participants as much freedom of expression as possible. The few rules we enforce on playa (such as on-playa driving restrictions, sound limits for large-scale sound camps, the recent ban on hand-held lasers, etc.) strike a balance between the various competing interests in the community, creating a foundation for civil society. In the spirit of Civic Responsibility, everybody sacrifices something (gives a gift, if you will) for the benefit of the greater community — which is Communal Effort.

Burning Man has had rules in place for several years regarding sound systems on Mutant Vehicles. The sound policy was created to strike a balance between allowing mobile sound vehicles and respecting artists’ requests for quiet space around their installations, participants looking to camp in quiet areas of Black Rock City and to address reports of hearing damage caused by overly loud systems.

We’ve received a number of complaints from participants about the Dancetronauts vehicle since 2013 — in fact more than any other vehicle on the playa. We requested the Dancetronauts draft a plan for dealing with the issues, and they failed to do so. We informed them their vehicle would not receive a license to operate on the playa for 2015. Dancetronauts have not been ‘banned’ from Burning Man. They’ve been asked to take a year off and make plans as to how they’ll address concerns from the community in the future.

Dr. Yes over at wrote a good post on this topic, including some more details.

Why Radical Inclusion should make us uncomfortable

I’ve always taken Radical Inclusion very personally because I’m convinced that, if it weren’t for Radical Inclusion, I never would have been let into Burning Man.  You didn’t know me back then:  somebody would have said “I don’t know about this guy.  Is he reaaaaally one of us?”  Instead they said “Welcome Home.”

Done right, Radical Inclusion is the engine that keeps our creative energies going year after year – and is frequently uncomfortable.  If it’s not at least a little uncomfortable from time to time, you’re probably just playing with the people you’d hang out with outside of Burning Man, and what good is that?

Get Your Burning Man Brand LED GlowyFur™ Today!

Participant posing in front of a portapotty. (Photo by Mario Covic)

Participant posing in front of a portapotty. (Photo by Mario Covic)

One of the best things about Burning Man culture is that its participants are also its creators. Burning Man is what its participants do and say and make about it — and that includes creations that reference Burning Man.

Burning Man is unique in the way it encourages participants to incorporate its logo and imagery — including the Man symbol and design, the names Burning Man and Black Rock City, and the shape of Black Rock City — into their creations and offerings to the community. We see these uses most frequently in the season leading up to the event, often as part of fundraising efforts for art projects, theme camps and products offered to Burners.

The challenge comes when those creations conflict with the 10 Principles, and it’s usually an issue related to Decommodification. We don’t support projects that turn Burning Man into a commodified product for sale. We do license the Burning Man identity for certain third-party projects, but we do so very carefully for projects that represent the best of Burning Man culture. An example of this is allowing the use of “Burning Man” in the title of a book of photographs from Black Rock City. But we don’t license Burning Man for use as a commodity. You’ll never see Burning Man Brand LED GlowyFur™ available at your local BoxStore™. When a work crosses that line, we step in to protect the culture from misrepresentation and exploitation.

A recent example is the Burning Man Board Game. The developers reached out to us a year ago, and after extensive review, the developers were told they would not receive permission to use any of Burning Man’s legally protected intellectual property, including the Burning Man and Black Rock City names, the Man logo and the signature shape of the city.

Last month the game appeared as part of a Kickstarter campaign. While our fundraising policy allows the creation of crowd-funded campaigns that directly fund art, theme camps and mutant vehicles, the board game Kickstarter was being used to fund the creation of a product, with only a portion of revenue to be donated to theme camps or playa projects.

There’s an important distinction between using Burning Man’s IP in the appreciation gift one receives for making a donation (which is fine, as long as the guidelines are followed), versus in the product that is being crowdfunded itself. If we were to allow the use of our name and symbols in the product (in this case the board game), then it would open the door for other entrepreneurs to sell Burning Man merchandise under the guise of fundraising. This could set a dangerous precedent in terms of protecting our cultural integrity.

In the case of the board game, the campaign organizer stated the fundraising effort was designed to comport with the 10 Principles in that one portion of the donation would go toward the cost of producing the game and another portion would be donated as a gift to one of several high profile theme camps. However, in keeping with the Decommodification and Gifting Principles, we allow participants to use Burning Man’s intellectual property to fundraise directly for Black Rock City-bound projects, including specific artwork, theme camps, and mutant vehicles. Any other use requires special approval and a licensing agreement from the Burning Man organization.

The Burning Man board game is just one example a project that comes in conflict with the Principles. Others have included an individual selling jewelry with the Man symbol to raise funds for his camp, a high-end concierge service using the Burning Man name and logo to market their services, and companies offering to ship large quantities of their product to Black Rock City to give away for “free on playa” in return for the right to market the experience to the world.

In the vast majority of cases, these kinds of issues are resolved with a phone call. Only very rarely have we been forced to resort to more formal action.

Here’s the thing: We are truly inspired by the creativity of Burners — the range of ideas from our community continues to expand in impressive ways. And on the surface, many of these ideas sound great. But we take the responsibility of protecting Burning Man’s long term cultural integrity seriously, and we have to examine all of the possible outcomes and unintended impacts of a project.

Participants are welcome to gift items that incorporate the Man, the Black Rock City design, etc. to their donors. But that’s different from manufacturing a product at cost and selling it, which is not allowed. For more information about Burning Man’s approach to intellectual property, check out on our website.

Remember: It’s not a gift if there’s a price tag attached to it.

Equality, Inequity, Iniquity: Concierge Culture

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
–Motto of the American Grange

I began my career in the desert sleeping out of doors in the lee of a truck. The next year I brought out a low-slung two-man tent that accommodated my belongings and a sleeping bag. This arrangement was succeeded, after a period of years, by a series of ugly RV’s. Eventually I bought my current trailer; though battered by eight winters in the desert, it is still quite sleek and tighter than a can of tuna. It is an elegant home. Sometimes I half-humorously refer to this as the higher survival. I chronicle my history of upward mobility because I don’t believe this story is unique. Feathering one’s nest is a perennial human aspiration. It is amenities that make a house a home, and everyone should have a right to practice home improvement.

Black Rock City, 2012 (photographer unknown)
Black Rock City, 2012 (photographer unknown)

In the midst of the current controversy about Plug and Play camps, there has been a great deal of talk about equality, but I think that much of this misses the mark. Scan Burning Man’s Ten Principles, and you will not find radical equality among them. This is because our city has always been a place where old and young, and rich and poor, can live on common ground. The word for this is fellowship, as in the fellowship of a club or lodge whose members, however diverse, are united by common values and a sense of shared experience. But common ground is not a level playing field, and should not be interpreted as mandating equal living conditions.

This issue of equality almost amounts to a straw man. I do not believe that most people would want to live in a city that is the equivalent of a Marxist State, a place in which the prying eyes of envious neighbors are forever trained upon one. Instead, I think the current controversy over Plug and Play camps is not so much about equality, but concerns a very different though related concept: inequity – a basic sense of unfairness. Whenever a select group is allowed special access to tickets, especially when these tickets are in short supply, this can inspire ill feeling. This is doubly so if such a camp is widely perceived to be flouting nearly all of Burning Man’s Ten Principles. This is what has stuck and rankled in the public mind. It is as if these camps have been allowed to parade past the Main Sale ticket queue and insert themselves at the head of the line.

We do of course afford such a privilege to placed theme camps, collaborating artists, and many other quasi-public groups. This takes the form of a separate sale of directed tickets. However people don’t complain about this practice because it is now widely acknowledged that these camps are making special contributions to the life of Black Rock City. Unlike Plug and Play camps, which make up less than one percent of our city’s population, these activist camps are helping to knit together our city’s culture. They accomplish this by giving gifts that are above and beyond the common call of duty.

It therefore follows that the best reform we can enact is to stop placing these Plug and Play camps in a category that sets them apart from others. This was done informally, it was not fully thought out, and we apologize for this mistake. To rectify this error, we now intend to make these camps subject to the standards that have regulated theme camps and related groups. This means that in order to receive placement, early arrival passes to the event site, or access to preferential tickets, they must demonstrate what they propose to give to their fellow citizens. Not only is this fair, we also think this will lead to deeper and more heartfelt change. No amount of preaching can replace immediate experience, and we believe that constant interaction can be the best teacher of all.

This leads me to another aspect of inequity. Is it fair that Burning Man sells a limited number of higher-priced tickets that provide better access to the event? In order to adequately answer this question, I will first recount a little history. As everyone in the world now seems to know, in 2012 Burning Man went through a crisis. In that year demand for tickets exceeded supply by something like a 3:1 ratio. At the same time, the Bureau of Land Management, our Federal landlords, had placed hard limits on our city’s growth – it was the perfect storm, and many ticket buyers, long accustomed to unlimited access to the event, reacted angrily. People wanted a commodity that’s called a ticket, and over a span of several weeks, any sense of fellowship flew out the window – it was like a riot at a Blue Light Sale. Many people offered plans to solve this problem, and yet it often seemed that these solutions were actually crafted to ensure that they would receive a ticket. Amid much finger pointing and scapegoating, even theme campers were denounced as a privileged elite.

To look at this charitably, it’s clear to me that none of this would have happened if Burning Man were merely a consumer event. The passions that many people have brought to this issue are the result of a deep-seated commitment to an experience that has changed their lives. But as it was then, during the great ticket furor, so it is today; now it is being said that wealthy people – imagined as one-per-centers and gentrifiers who are taking over America – are actively demeaning and oppressing ordinary citizens, and that event organizers, motivated by greed, are selling out their principles. It is even said, bizarrely, that we’re scalping our own tickets. Such a picture has all of the advantages of melodrama, but the real story, especially as it relates to money, is very different.

We have sold a limited number of higher-priced tickets on a first-come first-served basis since 2008. In 2014, 3,113 of these tickets, priced at $650, were sold as part of our early Pre-Sale program. The advantage to the customer was that it was possible to order four tickets at one time – twice the number of tickets allotted to purchasers of $380 tickets in our Main Sale. There can be no doubt that this was preferential treatment and, on the face of it, this appears to be the sort of inequity that has angered people. But the mystery of our motive is revealed by another statistic. In 2014, we sold 4,422 Low Income tickets priced at $190, and this more than mirrors the number of higher priced tickets sold through our Pre-Sale program. We took money from the rich and subsidized the poor; and this seems fair to us.

This account of how money flows through our organization also has another dimension. In 2014 the owners of the Burning Man event transferred their shares to a not-for-profit corporation called the Burning Man Project, and the event is now nested within this new organization as a wholly owned subsidiary. The mission of the Project is to spread our culture throughout the world. This is an ambitious goal, to say the least, and such a start-up enterprise requires money. Over a span of three years, the Burning Man event has spent quite a lot of money in order to create this new non-profit and fund its operations. In other words, the Burning Man event has been the Project’s chief contributor.

We hope the Burning Man Project will soon become completely self-reliant – The Little Engine That Could can’t really pull many more cars. But until that time arrives,  a portion of our ticket sales will continue to benefit the Burning Man Project. Since 2012, when tickets first became a scarce commodity, I think some people have become so obsessed with squeezing through the narrow aperture that leads to Black Rock City they have lost any sense of a wider perspective. But from our point of view, by giving money to the Burning Man Project, we are making it possible for thousands of people, who might not ever come to Black Rock City, to participate in Burning Man’s culture.

This brings me to examine one last notion that has been in play throughout the present controversy over Plug and Play camps: the idea that these camps are guilty of committing some great act of wickedness – this is called iniquity. There can certainly be no doubt that there are conspicuous camps in Black Rock City that have practiced what I call concierge culture, and their missteps have been many; they have fielded members-only art cars, they have withdrawn from surrounding neighborhoods, and it would appear a few of these camps may have stationed security guards at camp entrances – they have, in other words, swaddled their members in a kind of cocoon that bears a strong resemblance to a gated community.

This kind of behavior is certainly an affront to our culture, though I find it hard to believe it has hampered or injured anybody. The curdling gaze of celebrities or the intimidating presence of the wealthy cannot possibly inhibit the remaining 99 percent of our citizens from participating. What I think these camps are really guilty of is being gauche. This is not so much about morals, it is more about manners, and we’re convinced bad manners can be mended; we can regulate the use of art cars, we can fashion guidelines for the funders and producers of Plug and Play camps, and we can make a systematic effort to monitor the result of these changes. Anyone who knows our history must be aware we have done this sort of thing before. In 1997, we enacted reforms that regulated access to the event, eliminated use of firearms, instituted speed limits for motor vehicles, and required cars be anchored to camp sites.

And yet, with all this talk of regulation, I hope everyone realizes we are beginning to move down the path toward a society that is ever more rule bound – and that should not be our objective. If Burning Man is about anything, it is about affording individuals as much liberty as possible, and critics who call for drastic and punitive measures are acting as if the Ten Principles are the Ten Commandments – but these principles are in no way commandments. They represent an ethos that arose from the lived experience of a community; this means these values need to be internalized, they should become a kind of second nature, not a set of literal and unyielding rules that are imposed upon us. The only thing that our tasked government can do is create new social contexts in which people can connect and meet on common ground. That is what we’ve always done, and will continue to do in the future.

[Editor’s Note: Please read Turnkey / Plug and Play Camping in BRC, a companion piece to this post.]

Gifting vs. Gift Exchange

As a Burner, you would think that I would love the Xmas season.

It’s the time of year when normally modest streets turn into suburban Esplanades – with glowing plastic reindeer and gaudy strings of lights everywhere.

We even have a obsessive cultural focus on Gifting during the holidays.

Far surpassing eggnog, mistletoe or jingle bells, the importance of gift giving dominates the Xmas season.

This makes sense because the entire economy depends on end-of-the-year spending. The Dow Jones could care less about the rise and fall of snowmen or the number of carols sang per capita.

But a cultural frenzy of spending? That is important. And the barrage of lights, music, and advertising are all going to make sure you don’t forget.

This seems like it should be a good thing. Gifting is one of the 10 Principles – so wouldn’t a cultural focus on gift giving be a good thing?

Unfortunately, there is something about Gifting that has been lost in our modern practice of holiday cheer.

Let’s review what a gift is. (more…)

Burning Cake (A Cautionary Tale)

My experiences for the last 17 years at Burning Man have been so amazing and transformative that I have a hard time seeing any shifts in the event as a real threat. “Bring on P.Diddy and the Turnkey Camps!” I said.   I still believe that.  But I also am able to understand the current fear more clearly now than I once did.  

Like everyone, I am eagerly awaiting the official response to the recent controversies.   I do *not* think Burning Man is doomed.  Quite the contrary.  I have faith we will figure this out and thrive.

Once we get a handle on the current challenges and correct the course, the magic will shine as bright as ever.

The fable below is fictional.  Take it with a grain of dust.


Once upon a time there was food enthusiast who hosted a fantastic baked goods potluck.

He invited 10 adventurous cooks he knew and they started gathering each month to share delights.

Their culinary skills were varied…but they all sure loved food.

The spreads were AMAZING!

People went WAY over-the-top.

Exotic ingredients, rare fruits, fine wines.

For some participants it became almost a game: who could produce the most fantastic dessert? (more…)