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A ticket 'fiasco' threatens Burning Man festival

Organizers of the iconic counterculture event Burning Man are scrambling to solve a crisis that some fear threatens the very fabric of the event.

The problem has left perhaps 75 percent of the longtime participants who traditionally provide the creative spark for displays and activities without a ticket. The event is held annually at a remote site in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada.

The crisis resulted from attempts to solve issues from last year, when, in addition to the normal problem of computer servers crashing as thousands of people rush to buy tickets online, the event sold out for the first time.

With the event increasingly becoming a bucket-list activity, organizer Black Rock City LLC set out to create a more egalitarian method for distributing tickets and thwarting scalpers.

Black Rock's solution was to distribute 40,000 of the 58,000 tickets through a lottery. Applicants had two weeks to apply for up to two tickets. Demand far outpaced supply.

The result: "A full-on fiasco," said Steve Jones, author of "The Tribes of Burning Man."

The new system made it easier for folks not willing or able to sit at a computer for hours. But many say that same convenience also made it easy pickings for scalpers.

"The demand was bigger than what anybody thought," said Marian Goodell, a founding member of Black Rock.

She said consideration was given to trying to fix the first-come, first-served online buying, but didn't think that was the best solution.

"We don't think it's fair that people have to sit on their computer at one particular time," she said.

It's unclear how many tickets are in the hands of scalpers and how many are in the hands of new participants. What is clear is that many longtime participants, or burners, are ticketless.

"Nobody knows where all these tickets went. But since they didn't go to regular burners, the thought is they must have gone to professional scalpers," said Jim Bowers, who spearheads the Placer County-based collective of burners called The Tribe.

"It's a fiasco. They don't have any idea what they are going to do," said Bowers.

Unlike music festivals like Coachella, Outside Lands or South By Southwest, Burning Man depends on participants to provide the entertainment, erect the art projects, operate free bars, lead parades and host forums. Most of the major offerings are created by clusters of people called "theme camps" or "tribes."

"Of the 80 people in our theme camp, five got tickets. Everyone else got rejection letters," said Bowers, whose group helped build a precision laser light clock tower and decorative hour markers last year.

As the rejection letters started going out Feb. 1, would-be participants traded messages online. Frustration with the process quickly bubbled onto Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

"Following phone conversations with major theme camp and art group organizers, we determined that only 20 to 25 percent of the key people needed to bring those projects to the playa had received notifications for tickets," Goodell wrote in an email message to subscribers.

"The Burning Man organization recognizes that the ticket registration and random drawing process has caused many participants frustration and concern over whether they can attend the event this year," the message stated.

Organizers are hoping that when the dust settles folks who got two tickets but needed only one will redistribute the extra ticket within their personal network.

The organizers' published plan is to sell the final lot of 10,000 tickets through an open sale (first-come, first-served) in March, but there are rumblings that they will give the leaders of major theme camps, artist groups and performers first crack.

That would be welcomed by established groups, but would likely infuriate participants who attend regularly but aren't part of a group.

"It would be essentially saying they value one type of Black Rock citizen over another," Jones said.

Goodell wouldn't say what options are being considered but said it's important to keep the community together.

"We want a community that has new folks in it. But the lottery has effectively gutted the theme camp," she said.

Earlier, Goodell said one option was to ask the Bureau of Land Management to expand the attendance cap. But BLM officials said they have not been approached about expanding beyond the 58,000- person limit for 2012 that is still in the approval process.

Under an environmental impact report being studied, the population would be allowed to climb to 70,000 by 2016, said BLM Field Manager Rolando Mendez.

To thwart scalpers, organizers are imploring people to pay only face value though a secure ticket exchange organizers plan to launch.

Dean Budnick, author of "Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped," is skeptical that any group can hold the line against scalpers. But if anyone can, he said, it's Burning Man.

The Burning Man ticket crunch is reflective of the overall concert industry that also struggles, with varying level of success, to deal with scalpers, Budnick said.

The dominant means to combat scalping is to make the tickets non-transferable, an idea Black Rock City LLC rejected.

He said it's not just professional scalpers these days. With the Internet, more people are aware of events and from the comfort of their living room or dorm, buy tickets in hopes of making a quick couple hundred dollars.

"It's very very easy do it," he said. "They see an opportunity."

Bowers said some people in his group are talking about going to some exotic locale with their suddenly free late summer week.

Jones said there is legitimate concern that this might be the "jump the shark" year for Burning Man, when the artists are overpowered by those merely hoping to see topless women.

Goodell preached patience and cautions against judging new participants.

"It really hard for people to feel like they have lost a slot to someone who is coming the first time," she said, "but they had a first time too."

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