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Burning Man's growing pains: Is the festival's community becoming more commercial?




A man wearing an animal mask glances at the camera during the15th annual Burning Man festival September 2, 2000 in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada.
A man wearing an animal mask glances at the camera during the15th annual Burning Man festival September 2, 2000 in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nevada.
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Fifty thousand people are converging this week on Black Rock City, Nevada for Burning Man, the annual anarcho-arts festival and pop-up community. For the first time in the festival's 25 year history, tickets are sold out. Scalpers on EBay are charging as much as $800 for tickets and the cost of the weeklong celebration has reached enormous proportions – causing some to question whether capitalist interests are overshadowing this year's communitarian gathering.

Among the spectacles at this year's festival: A 15-foot-tall Pez Dispenser with a giant yellow chicken head and a fire breathing dragon that doubles as a Viking ship. There's also an enormous trojan horse and an elaborate model of the inner ear. The festival will culminate, as it does every year, with the torching of an enormous effigy.

On Tuesday, Burning Man regular Jessica Bruder, author of Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man, joined the show from the top of one of the festival's taller sculptures. She's also the author of a controversial piece on the gathering's growing pains for the New York Times. Bruder said she could see a line of cars coming into the makeshift city.

"They open the gate at 6 o'clock and there was just this river of light streaming towards the desert from the four lanes of gate traffic coming to Burning Man," Bruder said. "So lots of people here and lots more on the way."

Burning Man doesn't disclose its ticket sales or revenues, but expenditure costs from last year's festival totaled $17.5 million, Bruder said. The money goes towards general infrastructure, fuel, port-o-potties, worker salaries and other costs.

But for festival-goers, once they arrive in the Nevada desert the only things for sale are coffee and ice.



Live video from Burning Man on Ustream

"It's kind of luck a pot-luck supper in that everybody here is really urged to participate," Bruder said. "There's not supposed to be a firm dividing line between the entertainers and the entertainees – which is one of the things that makes Burning Man so unique."

The six owners of Burning Man are now liquidating their stakes and turning the festival into a nonprofit, Bruder said. The 17-member board of directors has already been selected and includes a variety of people involved in everything from hotels to politics and art.

"It's really a broad spectrum of folks they're hoping will carry the legacy on," Bruder said.

KPCC's Hayley Fox contributed to this story.