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February 4, 2012

Understanding the mess that is the 2012 Burning Man Ticket Lottery

I'm adding pictures to all my posts to look cool.
I want to start by saying that I believe in the good intentions of the Burning Man Organization.

That said, they screwed the pooch big time on the 2012 Burning Man Ticket Lottery.  But let’s take the criticism off the table and talk honestly about the problem and possible solutions.  I will try not to be snarky and negative, even though I want to admit in advance that I did not win the lottery and for the first time in years I can’t say that I bought a ticket on the first day.  I can only say that I hope to attend Burning Man 2012.

Understanding the Problem - Burning Man 2011 Sells Out

In 2011, Burning Man sold out for the first time, reaching the 50,000 participant limit set by the Bureau of Land Management, essentially revealing to the world that demand for Burning Man tickets now exceeded supply.  The current participant limit may be raised, but is currently set in stone by the United States Government.

This ticket scarcity problem creates massive scalper interest and can only really be solved by moving the festival or expanding the permit.  I’m sure that the Burning Man Organization is working on expanding the permit, so let’s put that solution aside and discuss the other problems caused by the sell out.

In 2011, the Burning Man online ticketing system failed.  It’s unknown whether it failed because too many Burners hit the site simultaneously or if the failure was caused by coordinated attempts to game the system by scalper hackers, but it was clear that the existing ticketing system could not handle the new demand for tickets (and that was before the sell out).  

Clearly the ticket system had to be changed, but the Burning Man Festival couldn’t sell out to Ticketmaster (could it?  This is an obvious and simple solution).  Could the Burning Man festival on it’s own develop a hacker-proof ticketing system and enough bandwidth to handle the traffic?  (probably not.  Ticketmaster is an option, but they would take a portion of the profits and the festival would clearly be going corporate.  But if you look at the online ticket selling problem, one of the only solutions is to have better geeks than the scalpers, and clearly (at the current moment) Ticketmaster has that.)  Since the Burning Man Organization couldn’t develop this hacker proof system and they couldn’t sell out to Ticketmaster, they had no choice but to attempt the Lottery.

The Lottery has a lot of benefits.  The servers don’t crash, because everyone doesn’t sign up at the same time.  Position in line doesn’t matter, since everyone in the lottery has an equal chance of winning.  But there really was no reason for tickets to be divided at different price levels (especially if you’re going to enter everyone in the lower lotteries, creating a system where everyone has a chance at a discount, even those who could afford to buy more expensive tickets).  The Lottery is a good solution to the zero day ticket selling problem and I’ve mentioned it to other Burning Man people I’ve met and while I wasn’t directly consulted on the way the 2012 Lottery was set up, I do believe that a properly configured lottery system could work in the future.  That said, we need to delve deep and really ask two important questions:  What is the purpose of Burning Man Tickets? and Why does Burning Man sell discount tickets?

What is the purpose of Burning Man Tickets?

- keeping the city under the 50,000 BLM limit
- providing money for city services
- identification system for gate entry
- responsibility for keeping the playa clean
- limits legal liability for the festival
- status that can be revoked if you break the rules

Clearly we need a ticketing system.  We can’t just have a party with 50,000 people in the desert and expect to do it every year without some sense of order, and the tickets provide this order.

Why does Burning Man sell discount tickets?

It’s a little less clear why all Burning Man tickets aren’t the same price.  In the past, Burning Man tickets were sold in many tiers over a several month period (sometimes even being sold at the gate during the festival).  It’s strange to think back and remember those weekly messages from the Jack Rabbit Slims mailing list announcing that a new level had sold out, but there was still a chance to get your tickets (sigh)…  Perhaps in the past selling tickets at different price levels allowed serious burning man attendees (theme camp members, repeat attendees) to purchase their tickets far in advance of the festival (allowing them to plan projects for the summer, and providing the low price tickets as a reward for planning ahead).  However, given the current sell out situation, there really is no reason to sell Burning Man tickets at different prices.  There is a low income ticket program, but it occurs after the main sale, a scheduling confusion that makes it nothing more than a back-up ticket option (and a true lottery).

Problem of Scalpers

The scalpers are well organized and have endless time. As long as demand for Burning Man tickets is greater than the supply, they will exist.  I currently believe that more scalpers own tickets  than burners.  This is obviously due to the failure of the Burning Man 2012 Lottery to solve the scalper problem.  The scalper problem is a serious problem and not to be taken lightly.

Possible Solutions to the Scalper Problem

Identification - Print everyone’s name on their tickets and then ask them to produce ID at gate.  If your friend orders your tickets, he must be present his ID to allow you to get in.  (Even as I type this I see hundreds of nightmare Orwellian situations and I don’t really like the idea, but it is straightforward.  I guess you could go a step forward and give the names of everyone in your party and print individual names on the tickets.  Are we really going to turn away Burners at gate because their ticket names don’t match?  Maybe.  If it solves scalping, right?)  (For the record, this idea was presented to me by the popular “Hitler learns of the Burning Man Ticket Lottery” video that is going around, so it does have fascist origins).  This problem also solves the problem of counterfeit Burning Man tickets (which is another reason to delay sending out the tickets until June, but not a good reason).

Burning Man the Subscription - It’s time for us all to join the Non-Profit, the same way we all join the local food Co-Op.  You pay an initiation fee and then pay a yearly subscription fee, receive a newsletter subscription, a poster, a tote bag and priority ticket sales.  Also provides a chance for wealthy burners to subscribe at higher levels to support the festival (that’s how you get the tote bag or football phone).

Burning Man the Social Network – Create your own social network, starting with core burners and flowing outwards to all burners.  Allow for friends of friends and before long the entire Burner community will be connected to each other.  Provide priority ticket sales for those who are connected.  (problem: obviously discriminates against new people, but most people know someone who is going or who has gone and thus would be connected.)

Priority ticket sales for repeat attendees - (again this is clearly discriminating against new people, but is a possible solution to scalpers, unless of course they’re scalping them every year.)

That said, I’m tired of discussing the failed 2012 Burning Man Ticket Lottery.  I had originally written a different post where I complained about Tier 3 prices being the same price as the main sale, that the lottery was being held in the wrong order (should go $390, $320, $240 so that people that can afford tickets at $390 don’t compete against people who can only afford tickets at $240), that the lottery was left open too long (one week seems reasonable, two weeks is time for everybody and their brother to game the system), that waiting till June to mail out the tickets creates multiple problems (paying for something and not getting it for six months, bulk mailing issues, change of address, possible delays, etc), how hard the system makes it for people who want to buy tickets but who don’t have credit cards, the inflexibility of the system (I wanted 2 tickets at $240, 1 at $320…), that the limit of 2 tickets was too low and that 4 seemed more reasonable, how stressful it was to wait two weeks for the lottery, now only to learn that you have no tickets,  how the stress would force people to use their friends and family to buy more lottery tickets and other general lottery related problems that now seem insignificant. 

I was hung up on trying to get tickets at a decent price (and to avoid the new all time high price of $390) like I had done every year in the past (a priority this year given my current unemployment).  Now I see that the larger problem is trying to get tickets at all, considering the presumed size of the scalper problem.  Perhaps the ticket exchange program will work out fine and I’ll still be able to attend the festival (where I’ll probably be shy and hang out in my tent half the time) or perhaps I’ll be able to get a ticket for full price from the main sale (a wallet crushing option, I'm now open to accepting).  I'm also annoyed at the timing of these two events (the ticket exchange program doesn’t even open for two weeks and the main sale isn’t until March).  The best I can say right now is maybe I’ll see you on the playa.  It’s strange thing to say and I’m not very happy about it.

Additional Solutions

RV Tax - Charge $1000 on top of ticket price per RV. Fewer weekenders and no more shortage (exemptions for seniors and the disabled).  (Erik N.)


  1. Economists have been studying this problem for centuries. The only real solution BM has is to hold an auction. The 50,000 highest bidders pay the bid of the 50,001st highst bid and receive tickets. BM can then use the revenues to subsidize all kinds of good behavior and to increase capacity. Otherwise the profits will probably still end up mainly in the hands of scalpers.

    1. fascinating auction idea. It's certainly the only way for BMORG to end up with all the money and thus have the best chance to "subsidize all kinds of good behavior" and it's fun to think about the possibilites for sponsored art.... Economic Man. would certainly "change the character of the festival".... =>

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