The Untold Truth Of Burning Man

Burning Man is a well-known music event that has gained immense popularity over the years. As Billboard puts it, this festival is unconventional and very different from its peers. What can you expect at the event? An eclectic mix of artists and musicians, a vibrant atmosphere, the promise of a temporary escape, and an opportunity to meet other like-minded music enthusiasts.  

While the festival is way more popular than it used to be, there are several tidbits about the festival that are worth delving into. For example, the space around Burning Man is known for being rather dusty and is basically not what you’d expect. It’s not sand or dust, but it’s actually leftover residue from a lakebed (via Inc.).

Another interesting fact? You’re in luck if you’re into astronomy, because the festival offers its attendees a chance to be a part of an observatory and catch glimpses of Saturn, Jupiter, and other fascinating sights. Tom Varden, who runs the initiative at Burning Man, said that you can have a major impact on someone if you treat them to a rare view like Saturn’s rings. He added that it goes beyond just observing a remarkable sight. Varden said, “[When you show someone Saturn’s views], they say things, they move, they get uncomfortable. It is exactly Burning Man.”

Burning Man started as a bonfire ritual among friends

Believe it or not, Burning Man’s origins were rather humble. It started as a small idea among friends that eventually got much bigger than originally intended. As an academic paper published in the Sacred Tribes Journal pointed out, the festival started with a really small number — around 20 attendees in San Francisco, Calif. The group got together in 1986, and the concept of the festival really started on a whim when two friends, Jerry James and Larry Harvey, decided to set fire to a wooden figure in an attempt to mark the Summer Solstice. Interestingly, Harvey was inspired by something he witnessed (via the New Republic.) An artist called Mary Grauberger would create sculptures and burn them, something that intrigued Harvey and eventually inspired him to come up with Burning Man.

According to The Washington Post, Harvey was really moved by the fact that he was joined by others at the location and that they wholeheartedly supported the event. The enterprising Harvey ended up repeating the event the following year, which eventually led to the inception of Burning Man known it today. As per the festival’s official website, the first event had an effigy that was 8-feet-tall that was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm from those who were there to witness it.

Burning Man became popular in just four years

According to The Washington Post, after that first get-together, the event continued to become popular. In fact, by the time the fourth year rolled around, the festival was so popular that cops decided to pay a visit and interrupt the event. At that point, the wooden figure was massive — around 40 feet tall, at least. 

Larry Harvey and his pals weren’t discouraged in the least and simply decided to change their location in order to continue with what they had planned. They went directly to the Black Rock Desert in Reno, Nev., accompanied by a group called the Cacophonist Society. They continued the event in the middle of the desert and even ended up carrying out their signature burning ritual coupled with other shenanigans, like racing in the desert at crazy speeds. Things were about to get crazier with the subsequent editions of the festival.

Burning Man became a way to remember lost loved ones

According to Inc, Burning Man offers a rare opportunity for attendees to remember their loved ones by visiting a temple at the festival. You can pen a letter to someone you’re grieving for and leave a message. The temple is set on fire during the course of the festival. Many find the ritual incredibly touching and life-changing.

It’s also recommended that you allow yourself time to mourn at the festival and write how you really feel instead of trying to do something beforehand. There is no pressure, and it really is up to you.

As per Burning Man’s website, the temple is significant and symbolic in more ways than one. It’s highly a spiritual space for visitors, and several attendees seek peace by writing down how they feel about their loved ones. There are no rules, and it’s also acceptable to come up with a letter for yourself, to no one in particular, or anything else that catches your fancy. A description on the site explains it best, “Those who participate in this tradition often find that it works as a spiritual cleansing, a liberator of the mind, and a psychological release. What is for certain is that the temple always stirs awe and inspiration.” 

The Burning Man festival has a set of principles

The Burning Man has a list of ten principles that its loyalists tend to follow religiously. According to the festival’s website, its principles include ideas like embracing the concept of giving gifts to other attendees at the event. It’s an unconditional act that’s performed without any expectations. Additionally, the festival has a strict policy that rejects commercialization.

Furthermore, Burning Man doesn’t rely on things like advertising. As far as the festival is concerned, it’s crucial to keep the true essence and spirit of Burning Man alive. Plus, the event relies heavily on its people and the sense of community they carry with them to keep the fire burning. 

Participants are also heavily encouraged to respect rules and not violate any laws while attending the festival. Another principle is dedicated to the environment and the importance of safeguarding its beauty. As the site explains, “Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather.”  They add that they make it a point to leave the area clean and spotless after the festival.

Burning Man is fairly diverse

Diversity has often been a big part of Burning Man. In fact, according to one of its ten principles, participants from varied backgrounds are encouraged to attend. A statement from the festival reads, “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”

An Insider piece dove deep into the concept of inclusivity at Burning Man and explored the idea that no matter what your age is, you’re welcome to be a part of the festival and celebrate with other participants. This means that you could be an elderly person or a child, and the doors will still be open for you. 

That said, one of the primary problems at the festival is the fact that tickets can be eye-wateringly expensive and may cost as much as $1,000 or more. While there are ways to ask for cheaper tickets if you can’t afford them, the costly tickets do make it difficult for many enthusiasts to attend and be a part of Burning Man.

Burning Man has issues

Despite good intentions, Burning Man has run into controversies in the past and has been unable to ward off accusations that it has strayed away from what it originally stood for. As illustrated by the Guardian back in 2019, the festival was starting to suffer on account of the fact that many social media influencers were flocking to Burning Man and promoting brands at the festival, an act that definitely goes against its true spirit. 

Complaints started to pour in from old Burning Man attendees who pointed out that the festival was suffering from many setbacks, such as influencers taking over the event. Additionally, it was alleged that certain unfavorable camping groups had started making their presence felt at Burning Man, corrupting the event.

Burning Man took the complaints seriously and decided to ban a camp that promoted things like “yoga retreats” and “meditation and energy healing sessions.” Burning Man’s CEO Marian Goodell said, “Burning Man strives to stand in technicolor contrast to the typical consumerist, status-driven, brand-saturated, optimized-for-your-convenience world.” He added that the team truly believes in the festival’s original spirit and what it stands for, implying that the organization wouldn’t ignore transgressions.

Burning Man has attracted attention from companies

Burning Man has unexpectedly received attention from tech companies. As reported by the The Los Angeles Times, for example, for entrepreneur Shane Metcalf, it was important to arrange Burning Man tickets for his employees. He hoped that the initiative would give members of his team a chance to be more creative and also feel more connected with each other. 

Another company, Faceparty, in 2007, encouraged its employees to attend the festival and experience something new. While the experience was fascinating for many attendees, the company sadly experienced major setbacks later in 2008 and was forced to let go of many staff members. Additionally, many major players in the technology space, such as Tesla’s founder Elon Musk, Garrett Camp from Uber, and Google‘s ex-CEO Eric Schmidt, have been a part of Burning Man in the past and showcased their support for the festival.

Burning Man and #MeToo

Burning Man ended up being involved in the controversial #MeToo movement. According to a 2018 Vogue piece, the story gets a bit complicated when it comes to sexual assault allegations at Burning Man. Turns out, a few attendees wanted to suggest a few changes to the way things worked at Burning Man even before the #MeToo movement took off. They wanted the founders to tweak the festival’s principles to include consent. 

A project was started in 2012 by those who’d been a part of the festival. One of the members from the project, Jaime Chandra, said, “We had some issues at our Burn…and that same year, there were a ton of sexual assault reports from Black Rock City.” As per Chandra, many attendees have sadly misused what Burning Man stands for to “take advantage of this culture of radical expression and inclusion” and act inappropriately with other attendees. 

As reported by the The New York Times, Burning Man has chosen to step up and address consent. The Burning Man website has several pieces that focus on ways to tackle sexual assault at the event. Participants at the festival are encouraged to turn to the services available at the event to seek help and report incidents. The website further states that the festival does not tolerate sexual harassment of any kind.

The take on economy is odd

While Burning Man doesn’t stick to commercial activities, it has been unable to escape commodification in the outside world. According to the Atlantic, Reno-Tahoe International Airport witnesses the arrival of many festival attendees every year from different parts of the world, making it an incredibly busy time for those working at the airport. It is believed that the airport gets as much as $10 million every years thanks to those heading to the festival.

Larry Harvey, to his credit, did address the fact that Burning Man does fall prey to commercial activities. Additionally, he explained what goes on behind the scenes. He said, “They say that because we have a principle of decommodification, that we’re against money. But no, it’s not really about money.” He added that he doesn’t discount the fact that the team needs to rely on market economics to make the event happen in the first place. The team does have solutions — it uses tools such as crowdfunding to make the event successful and to put up its glorious art installations every year.

You can even make a call to God at Burning Man

Make no mistake — Burning Man fully lives up to its image when it’s supposed to. As the Guardian pointed out, it’s possible to actually make a phone call to God at the event and pour out your heart. Volunteers pick up and allow you to share whatever is on your mind. 

A Redditor recounted the experience and wrote about what it was like to talk about their feelings. They wrote, “I stumbled upon the talk to God phone booth and it made me smile.” They couldn’t help but feel curious and picked up the phone, crying when they heard someone talking to them on the line. The conversation moved to the Redditor’s late brother and left them feeling understood and at peace. They added, “That was the most cathartic and healing experience I’ve ever had… I look back on it all the time and smile.” A commentator shared their encounter with the booth and wrote that they were struggling and couldn’t make up their mind about shifting base to a different city. The conversation ultimately helped them make the difficult decision.

You can, of course, talk to other attendees at the event and engage in discussions on a variety of topics without worrying about being judged. As per the Guardian piece, nothing is out of bounds, and you can choose to have heavy discussions or talk about something bizarre if that’s what your heart desires.

Music at Burning Man has evolved

Burning Man is not a boring or predictable event. At all. As far as music at the event is concerned, there have been plenty of changes that have been embraced by Burning Man. According to an NPR report, Burning Man has welcomed all kinds of artists to its festivities, including popular DJs like Armin Van Buuren, Tiesto, and Skrillex, among others. It’s impossible to get bored — you’ll be treated to a variety of music and will find something that truly appeals to you.

As a Billboard piece pointed out, electronic music is a big deal at the event. A long-time loyalist, Syd Gris, who started a popular sound camp at the festival, believes that the festival has seen massive changes. For example, many high-profile DJs are now sought after, and that is a bittersweet pill to swallow. He explained why he supported this move himself and recounted a memorable experience. He said, “Having Tiesto play your camp in 2005 when he was big but not the monster he is now, and he was still playing what I would consider great progressive trance, that was magical and everyone that was there that night experienced a little piece of magic.”

That said, he admitted that Burning Man does sometimes end up missing out on the raw talent that unknown DJs can bring to the festival. 

There was a private Burning Man in 2020

The coronavirus pandemic affected many things in 2020, including Burning Man’s annual celebration. While the event was officially called off on account of the pandemic, a few enthusiasts decided to go ahead with private celebrations of their own. As reported by Vulture, scores of Burning Man loyalists did end up flocking to Nevada around the end of August. Of course, it helped that the desert is vast, and attendees could practice social distancing without stressing over the logistics. 

One of the organizers said that the team tried their best to keep things as safe as possible. They said, “People made the decision to come here during a global pandemic. So we decided to keep people’s camps 200 feet away from one another and to advise wearing masks when meeting others” (via NBC News 4). 

Technically, Burning Man chose to organize its events online in 2020, as per Uproxx, but of course, some festival-goers still went to the Black Rock Desert. The official team didn’t organize the event, which was called “Not Burning 2020” and had at least 1,000 participants at the venue.

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