Is There a Place for the Rich and Famous at Burning Man?
Bonnaroo. Coachella. Burning Man?
Burning Man began with a bonfire on Baker Beach in 1986 and has since ballooned into an entire lifestyle, industry and ecosystem. Today, an estimated 70,000 people will migrate to Black Rock Desert, Nev., to kick off the yearly event. And while it's positioned as an experiment in anti-greed, counter-culture spirit, it has started to look like just another stop on the festival circuit for some celebrities.
In recent years, Paris Hilton, Heidi Klum and even Diddy have been spotted at Burning Man, decked out in garish, camera-ready outfits. On the other end of the spectrum, Silicon Valley types, like Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page, have been decried for using the free-spirited event as a networking opportunity.
"What we're seeing are many more of the Fortune 500 leadership, entrepreneurs and small startups bringing their whole team," Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell told the Chronicle in 2014, calling it "a bit like a corporate retreat."
The influx of celebrities and tech execs at Burning Man has, predictably, spurred a great deal of hand-wringing in the Burning Man community. Cash transactions are prohibited at Burning Man, but wealth manifests itself in the extravagant camps clustered on "Billionaires' Row." The so-called turnkey camps, set up and run by hired "Sherpas," were described in the New York Times:
Lavish R.V.s are driven in and connected together to create a private forted area, ensuring that no outsiders can get in. The rich are flown in on private planes, then picked up at the Burning Man airport, driven to their camp and served like kings and queens for a week. (Their meals are prepared by teams of chefs, which can include sushi, lobster boils and steak tartare — yes, in the middle of 110-degree heat.)
The cost for the VIP playa experience? Twenty-five thousand dollars per person.
Silicon Valley's richest execs have frequently been held up as the guilty parties, being accused of ruining Burning Man's original spirit with their unbridled capitalism. The New York Times described them in 2014 as "a new crop of millionaire and billionaire technology moguls, many of whom are one-upping one another in a secret game of I-can-spend-more-money-than-you-can."
Millionaires looking to avoid the hot, sweaty conditions of the playa now have a number of luxury camping options. Festival Concierge Services, an event planner in Los Angeles, offers special Burning Man packages.
Classic Adventures RV, an RV rental company, told the Wall Street Journal they'd been hired in the past by Tesla CEO Elon Musk to create "an elaborate compound consisting of eight recreational vehicles and trailers stocked with food, linens, groceries and other essentials for himself and his friends and family."
The entry fee for Burning Man is no cheap ticket for anyone, however. General admission will set you back $425, and early bird pre-sales range from $990 to $1,200. Four thousand tickets are set aside for "low income" Burners, who must provide "proof of your income and expenses." Applicants who are approved can buy their tickets for $190.
Despite anxiety about the commodification of Burning Man, many longtime Burners say a few celebrities mixed in with the tens of thousands of revelers has no adverse effect on the celebration.
"People always say, 'Don't you miss those old days?'" Burner Richard Titus told the Chronicle. "And I'm like, 'No! No way.' Today it's way more interesting and powerful than ever."
A satirical column posted on the Burning Man blog called "A Brief History of Who Ruined Burning Man" has more than 100 comments, most of them praising the inclusion of non-traditional Burners, regardless of socioeconomic status.
"If you love the playa, your obligation isn't to wall it off from perceived threats," commenter Timothy Phillips wrote. "Instead you should nurture it as it grows. Help it evolve in ways that are consistent with what you've learned there. Reach out, give gifts, be radically inclusive and most of all, resist the urge to fear change. It's just an opportunity waiting to be understood."
(This article originally appeared on sfgate.com and was written by Katie Dowd)