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Burning Man’s Sold Out!

Well of course it is. Every year the event sells out of tickets. But this year there’s lot of controversy over whether the event is selling out the values that have made it so attractive as a countercultural haven and hotspot.

Every year Burning Man has a guiding “theme” that organizes the event and directs some of its art. I find the themes to be a little inconsistent, but often they give rise to some very intriguing and beautiful moments. One of my favorites was the marine theme that gave rise to giant lit up whales and pirate ships roaming the playa. They’re like a physical cogitation of an idea or an issue. They turn the place dreamlike, and the dream has a common thread. This year’s theme, The Green Man, is about the environment. And in order to truly have a social impact—the Burning Man Organization’s goal has always been explicitly experimental and utopian—they have invited in a number of companies to demonstrate their advanced, clean technology.

The Burning Man community might have mixed feelings about letting corporations and venture capitalists promote their wares inside the sacrosanct city walls after keeping them out as “the enemy” for all these years. According to the recent Business2.0 article I cited yesterday, the organization pulled the initial invitation for corporate participants off the website after only a few days, replacing it with a revised version that explicitly stated that

“no marketing whatsoever would be allowed at the event. Clean-tech companies can exhibit their technologiers, but their products can’t display a logo. No marketing materials will be allowed. Company reps can’t even demonstrate their wares in the pavilion: they have to turn them over to Burning Man, which will demonstrate the technologies in whatever artistic form it chooses” (Taylor 2007, p. 69).

As Alice might say, interestinger and interestinger. It’s apparent that Burning Man is walking a fine line, and experimenting yet again. The current statement says that this year marks a “quantum revolution” (strong words) in how Burning Man applies in the real world what happens on its remote and carefully demarcated playa.

In my initial exploration of the topic, I noted how Burning Man sought to keep some of the negative effects of the market at bay. These negative effects have been present at least since Ferdinand Tönnies theorized that communities could come in two idea forms: the caring and sharing variety, and a more transaction-oriented, distanced form of relationship.

As I talk about elsewhere, what resistant groups like Burning Man, fans, Open Source programmers, Mountain Men, and many other groups resist is not the market itself, but what Tönnies calls the Gesellschaft, the distanced, corrosive, exploitative social relations that people associate with the market. What seems to be important is not the actuality of total resistance to markets—which may be pragmatically impossible to achieve in an absolute way—but the appearance of it, its partial achievement.

That’s why this new development is so interesting. Burning Man is, pardon the pun, playing with fire. It is seeking to control the corporate relationship. And its cultural impact and import is so strong that is dictating the terms. And getting away with it, it seems.

The reason for the thawing of relations is also noteworthy. In its never-ending quest to be experimental and to try out pragmatic social solutions, Burning Man’s organizers realize that the utopian daydream is also in many ways an environmental nightmare. It is through its renewed emphasis on Green that it finds itself reaching out to Corporate Gold–and their proposed solutions. It seems very probable that the organizers of Burning Man have been bitten by the same environmental bug that is spreading its way around the world. I love these recent blog posts by Future Boy (the guy who also wrote the Burning Man article) about an eight year deadline for radical change in our environment, and another one about Venture Capitalist John Doerr’s environmental awakening and new mission.

What shocked me just as much as allowing physical corporations in, however, was the semantic use of corporate speak, genuine MBA-style marketing lingo being spouted by the head honchos of Burning Man. I’ve been researching and writing about Burning Man with the permission of great people like Larry Harvey, Marian Goodell, Jim Graham, Lee Gilmore, and Jess Bobier for almost a decade (my first burn was 1999). I have never heard them talk about Burning Man as a brand.


In fact, a couple of years ago when I presented to the IEG Conference a little presentation called “What Marketers Need to Know About The Growing Anti-Consumption Movement: Illuminations from Burning Man” I was extremely careful to shy away from this topic. Burning Man is trademarked, yes, but it’s not a brand. We even got into a discussion about this topic, where I carefully avoided saying that Burning Man is a brand. Because it’s not. Um, it wasn’t.
But then I see Maid Marian in this Business2.0 article quoted as saying

“Branding’s important.”

What does this mean? Branding of Burning Man, the anti-brand brand? Is this going to be like the No Logo t-shirts, or the Black Spot Sneakers? Is it already like these hypocritical alt.brands? Can Burning Man now co-brand it’s anti-brands with big brands like Google to lend the, extra countercultural legitimacy and street cred?

It sure sounds like that’s what’s if you look at the sidebar in the article: Lessons from the Counterculture, which starts with a quip by Larry Harvey. The irony doesn’t quite make it into the page print:

“We like to joke that we may end up making money as business consultants.”

In print, this doesn’t sound very radical, countercultural, or utopian. Then the article proposes the Three Big Lessons from Burning Man. Are you ready for these?

  1. Give your “customers” as sense of ownership (what customers?).
  2. Let your “products” speak from themselves (what [products?).
  3. Launch and learn as you go (um, what grassroots or small business would this not apply to?).

Along the way to becoming a Business mag article, a lot of what makes Burning Man special seems to have been lost in translation.

And as my old friend Lee Gilmore brought to my attention with her terrific comment yesterday, maybe the branding emphasis is coming from the legal battle launched by John Law over ownership of the Burning Man trademark (Lee, did you really see me on TV? that’s some strange synchro…). Currently, it is owned by Harvey & Company’s LLC, but Law and others would like to see it released into the public domain. The story is covered thoroughly here. Call it what you want, but that’s very much a battle over a brand in my opinion. And that’s likely to sensitize everyone to the fact that the Burning Man symbol, name, and event have come to carry considerable cultural cachet, and have attached to them significant social and thus economic value.

Burning Man opening its doors to corporations. Burning Man offering product demonstrations. Burning Man emphasizing and protecting its “brand”.

Has Burning Man sold out? What do you think?

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