BURNING MAN /
BLACK ROCK CITY
BURNING MAN / The week-long alternative lifestyle festival takes place in the barren Nevada desert.
Gathering over 50,000 ravers in 2013, the festival is the uber party of the world.
Moments that show utopian nature
BURNING REALITY. DREAMS ENDING IN ASHES.
ELON MUSK/LARRY PAGE/SERGEY BRIN/MARK ZUCKERBERG/
When the first Burning Man took place in 1986, the wooden figure was 8-feet tall and stood scorching on Baker Beach in San Francisco.
Fast forward to the annual event in 2014, which will begin on Monday in the desert of Black Rock City, Nevada. The figure will likely be at least five times as tall with about 50,000 participants, including a handful of tech entrepreneurs and CEOs.
WHEN YOU DID BURNING MAN, YOU GET SILICON VALLEY
Musk says if you haven't attended Burning Man, you don't really understand Silicon Valley.
“If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it,” Musk said, according to the New York Times, in reference to the HBO show "Silicon Valley." A representative of Musk declined to comment to ABC News, on his behalf.
Most of the richest attendees go unnoticed along with the rest of the crowd who is bringing their own place to sleep and food. But some wealthy attendees choose to brave the desert with a little help.
Enter Swiss concierge service, The Key. With an office in Los Angeles, The Key will be providing services to high-flying clientele at Burning Man for the second year.
Arica West, public relations director for The Key declined to name their clients. "We have a wide range of clients who attend the festival," West told ABC News.
Individuals and companies like The Key can provide whatever you want for Burning Man, though they typically must work out the price beforehand. The event has a strict rule that no money can exchange hands there.
But in past years there have been luxury R.V.s, catered meals, including sushi and lobster, and luxury restrooms.
HIRE A SHERPA
According to the New York Times, "sherpas" can be hired, and for large camps, you can see as many as 30 of them for 12 attendees.
“The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” former sherpa Tyler Hanson told the Times. “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”
IT'S A MIRROR OF THE NEXT SOCIETY
Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz wrote a response last September in response to criticism over the presence of the "1 percent" at Burning Man.
"If you’re a Saudi Prince that can only go if a turnkey camp is provided for you, please, please come," Moskotvitz wrote on Medium.com. "I’ll make you a sandwich. If you believe you’re a member of the class of people who actually deserve to be there, well then I definitely want you to keep going. One day, you’ll get it. Elitism in all forms distracts us from the truth of our common humanity."
THE KEY TO BURNER COMMUNITY
The Key "coordinates and supports" the client's entire experience at Burning Man or any other festival, West said. The Key doesn't sell tickets however. But, according to West, The Key provides logistics before and after the event, including: all travel, R.V. reservations, community projects, survival kits, costumes, cleanup and more.
"But mostly we share our expertise on how to prepare and make the most out of their experience. We strive to ensure our clients not just attend Burning Man, but are truly a part of the burner community," West said.
Antoine Sepulchre, special projects director for The Key, said, "As a private concierge, we offer our clients the opportunity to live their wildest dreams. If they can dream, we can do it."
Sepulchre declined to reveal the cost of these services.
The company isn't exclusive to events or festivals. It also provides a private affairs service, to help clients manage their daily lives. This includes real estate, personal property and staff, Sepulchre said.
"We custom tailor our services to the individual client and the event they want to attend. We also require our clients to support a community project, in order to actively participate in Burning Man," Sepulchre said.
Brian Doherty, senior editor of Reason magazine and author of the book, "This is Burning Man," has been to the event for the last 20 years. In his tenth anniversary e-book reissue of his work, he includes an afterward that discusses some of the class issues that have arisen.
"As someone going to the event for now 20 years straight, I'm not sure why people are bothered by the increasing presence of tech industry folk and their money at the event," he told ABC News.
Wealthy attendees can bring their resources where they go, and that includes contributing to one of the centerpieces of Burning Man: artistic expression.
"Some of the most amazing art you see out there--which I hope is part of the reason people want to go there, to see staggering works of art of a variety and scope you can't find in the normal art world--takes big money to make, and a lot of that money is tech money," he said.
The complaint that Burning Man, based originally out of the Bay Area, is the "bonfire of the techies" is an old one, Doherty notes. The issue has been noted since 1996, when it was a Wired Magazine cover story.
"And to me it seems based in just weird class anxiety--the idea that other people are having an easier time of it than you because, say, they can afford a really nice air conditioned trailer or even essentially servants to feed them and take care of them. That does happen," he said.
Doherty acknowledges that it's easy to poke fun at these services, or to say that attendees are missing the point of Burning Man.
"But to me, if you let the fact that someone else is experiencing Burning Man differently than you choose to really bum you out or ruin your good time, you are the one who is missing the point," he said. "If not for the big art they help fund, there is no reason for the typical burner to even know that super-rich techies are there, except reading about it in the paper."
THE SILICON VALLEY ELITE : BURNING MONEY
There are two disciplines in which Silicon Valley entrepreneurs excel above almost everyone else. The first is making exorbitant amounts of money. The second is pretending they don’t care about that money.
To understand this, let’s enter into evidence Exhibit A: the annual Burning Man festival in Black Rock City, Nev.
If you have never been to Burning Man, your perception is likely this: a white-hot desert filled with 50,000 stoned, half-naked hippies doing sun salutations while techno music thumps through the air.
GETAWAY FOR BILLIONAIRS
A few years ago, this assumption would have been mostly correct. But now things are a little different. Over the last two years, Burning Man, which this year runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 1, has been the annual getaway for 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 and, some say, ruining it for everyone else.
Some of the biggest names in technology have been making the pilgrimage to the desert for years, happily blending in unnoticed. These include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Google founders, and Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon. But now a new set of younger rich techies are heading east, including Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, employees from Twitter, Zynga and Uber, and a slew of khaki-wearing venture capitalists.
Before I explain just how ridiculous the spending habits of these baby billionaires have become, let’s go over the rules of Burning Man: You bring your own place to sleep (often a tent), food to eat (often ramen noodles) and the strangest clothing possible for the week (often not much). There is no Internet or cell reception. While drugs are technically illegal, they are easier to find than candy on Halloween.
THE NEXT TRIBE : BURNERS
And as for money, with the exception of coffee and ice, you cannot buy anything at the festival. Selling things to people is also a strict no-no. Instead, Burners (as they are called) simply give things away. What’s yours is mine. And that often means everything from a meal to saliva.
In recent years, the competition for who in the tech world could outdo who evolved from a need for more luxurious sleeping quarters. People went from spending the night in tents, to renting R.V.s, to building actual structures.
“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”
His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.
This is drastically different from the way most people experience the event. When I attended Burning Man a few years ago, we slept in tents and a U-Haul moving van. We lived on cereal and beef jerky for a week. And while Burning Man was one of the best experiences of my life, using the public Porta-Potty toilets was certainly one of the most revolting experiences thus far. But that’s what makes Burning Man so great: at least you’re all experiencing those gross toilets together.
That is, until recently. Now the rich are spending thousands of dollars to get their own luxury restroom trailers, just like those used on movie sets.
“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”
For those with even more money to squander, there are camps that come with “Sherpas,” who are essentially paid help.
Some of the technology elite who have attended Burning Man, include from left, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin. CreditJeff Chiu/Associated Press, Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images, Rick Wilking/Reuters, David Ramos/Getty Images, Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Tyler Hanson, who started going to Burning Man in 1995, decided a couple of years ago to try working as a paid Sherpa at one of these luxury camps. He described the experience this way: 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.)
HIPPIES REINVENTING THE AMERICAN CLASS SYSTEM.
Burning Man has taken essentially the same trajectory as Grateful Dead shows did over the years, from community to crowd, and Musk's...
“Your food, your drugs, your costumes are all handled for you, so all you have to do is show up,” Mr. Hanson said. “In the camp where I was working, there were about 30 Sherpas for 12 attendees.”
Mr. Hanson said he won’t be going back to Burning Man anytime soon. The Sherpas, the money, the blockaded camps and the tech elite were too much for him. “The tech start-ups now go to Burning Man and eat drugs in search of the next greatest app,” he said. “Burning Man is no longer a counterculture revolution. It’s now become a mirror of society.”
Strangely, the tech elite won’t disagree with Mr. Hanson about it being a reflection of society. This year at the premiere of the HBO show “Silicon Valley,” Elon Musk, an entrepreneur who was a founder of PayPal, complained that Mike Judge, the show’s creator, didn’t get the tech world because — wait for it — he had not attended the annual party in the desert.
“I really feel like Mike Judge has never been to Burning Man, which is Silicon Valley,” Mr. Musk said to a Re/Code reporter, while using a number of expletives to describe the festival. “If you haven’t been, you just don’t get it.”
Non-tech Burners who have been may “get it” but don’t like all this excess, and are starting to push back. This month, the Key Group, a Swiss luxury concierge service, announced that it would be offering a Burning Man Concierge Service that seemed more like a cruise liner vacation than a week in the dusty desert. (The company did not respond to a request for comment.)
Among the dozens of options offered by the Key, there is the “establishment of a camp with electricity, water and satellite Internet Wi-Fi connection,” “cooks and fresh buffets for every meal” and — not a small task by any means given the distance from the real world — the “possibility of ordering goods and products from outside Black Rock City every day.”
When the website Burners.me, which blogs about the festival, posted a link to the Key’s site, the Burning Man community seemed generally confused as to whether such extravagance was actually real or if someone was playing a joke. When it turned out to be quite real, people railed against the service, and the Key removed the Burning Man concierge option from its site.
Of course, you won’t likely see pictures on Instagram or Facebook of the $2 million camps, chef-cooked meals, the Sherpa helpers and concierge services, or private and pristine toilets. That would mean that the tech elite actually cared about money — which would just go against the entire Burning Man spirit.