On the first Tuesday in August, the staff and volunteers of Burning Man’s media team come together to prep for the big event. It is 20 days out, close enough that they are already worried about staying hydrated.
They’ve approved just over 360 media projects from around the world to attend Burning Man this year — significantly fewer than years past. They’ve decided not to approve CNNs’ project this year because CNN ultimately wouldn’t agree to their terms.
The team can be choosy. Burning Man is a perfect media storm: visually stunning, culturally challenging, and full of explosions. There’s not a media outlet in the world that can resist. This year Sarah Palin’s new TV channel requested 10 complimentary tickets and time to interview Burning Man co-founder Larry Harvey. Palin herself was asking to come in for half a day to be filmed by her crew.
The people sitting around this table and on the phone are the ones who say no. It’s kind of a thrill.
The meeting is headed by Burning Man’s paid media staff, but as with almost everything Burning Man it’s the volunteers who make up the vast majority of the team. They’re a diverse group, ranging from a photographer in Ohio to a government official in Chicago to an academic in remote Canada to a network administrator in Singapore.
Hundreds of reporters, media outlets, and documentarians submit their applications to come and shoot video or photographs each year. When the reporters reach Burning Man, volunteers will give them ID badges identifying them as press (for years the badges have read “This entitles you to absolutely nothing”), tag their cameras, and help them find the story they’re trying to tell.
But this premise is flawed.
Increasingly, “Burning Man” is not happening at Burning Man. Go to the desert and you miss the story. Not because the event is unpopular — more people come every year, forcing a current population cap of 70,000. Not because it’s “jumped the shark,” lost the magic, or any of the other “it’ll never be cool again” things scenesters have been saying ever since the first person who didn’t belong to the San Francisco Cacophony Society showed up with a tent.
Rather, Burning Man culture has left the temporary building: It has crossed the desert and outgrown San Francisco.
If you want know whether Burning Man is a major philosophical movement that will change the world or a boutique system for throwing art parties, you have to look at its frontiers. That’s where Burning Man’s future will be decided.