Burning Man gains more educated, affluent following

For most of its 28-year existence, Burning Man brought to mind a “dirty hippie” image of those attending the annual counterculture arts and music festival now playing out in the Nevada desert north of Reno.

But as a growing number of people with influence and affluence join the “Burner” ranks – from high-tech millionaires to celebrities and conservative stalwarts – the putdown has become increasingly tongue-in-cheek.

Burning Man has gone from a hastily assembled party on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986 to a global phenomenon attracting 70,000 ticketed attendees. Unlike traditional music festivals, Burning Man’s culture calls on festivalgoers to help create the amenities of a temporary urban city – including massive dance clubs and morning coffeehouses – and to share them with others.

The event, held on a dusty lake bed since 1990, officially started Monday, although entry for many was delayed by as much as a day because of a rainstorm. During the week, participants transform the desolate landscape into a pulsating, vibrant community where no money changes hands, art projects fill the desert, dance parties last all night and hugs are plentiful. The festival concludes Monday.

Burning Man fosters a do-it-yourself ethos – “radical self-reliance” is one of its “10 Principles.” For purists, that means building your own camp and shade structure, sewing your own costumes, decorating your own bike and cooking your own food. But camping in the desert for a week isn’t easy, so most people camp in groups, some as small as five, others as large as 100 or more. The level of collaboration – encouraged by the principle of communal effort – varies widely. Some people share meals. Some collect dues. Some rent private port-a-potties apart from those placed and serviced by the event contractors.

Surveys conducted on behalf of the event suggest that over the last decade the population of Burners, as participants call themselves, has grown increasingly more affluent and educated than the general U.S. population. A 2004 census of Burning Man attendees found that 61 percent of respondents have at least a college degree. That figure grew to 67 percent in the 2013 survey, compared with 29 percent among the general U.S. population.

Income also grew. In 2004, 11 percent of respondents reported annual salaries of $100,000 or more (with 11 percent not responding). In the 2013 survey, 21 percent of respondents reported income in excess of $100,000 annually, (with 4 percent not responding).

That shifting population has also shifted how people sleep, eat and generally cope with the desert environment. In 2013, nearly a third of the nearly 70,000 people attending reported sleeping in a recreational vehicle or a camper trailer, a percentage that has grown sharply over the decades.

While some longtime attendees scoff at the proliferation of luxury RVs at the desert camp, a larger debate centers on groups that charge a hefty fee – some of them as much as $10,000 – to provide catered meals, private showers, luxury accommodations and other amenities.

It’s unclear how many “turnkey” or “plug-and-play” camps exist. Most insist that contractors and staff sign nondisclosure agreements.

“I find it completely distasteful and counter to the principles. It’s not radically self-reliant,” said Brian Merica, the founder of a Sacramento strategy firm celebrating his 10th year at Burning Man this summer.

He rented an RV this year, he said, but often camps in an improvised tent.

“What I don’t like about (turnkey camps) is that they become islands of themselves,” Merica said. “Some of the best experiences I’ve had are meeting the people around me.”

Rather than building walled fortresses, camps are encouraged to build interactive elements near interior streets of the city, inviting guests in.

Keith Ferrazzi, a Los Angeles business consultant, is one of those operating luxury camps for high-end guests. Those guests pay about $10,000 to be flown into the Black Rock airport on site and are treated to posh accommodations and meals served by accomplished chefs.

He said he went to his first “Burn” 15 years ago. Bringing executives to the experience fits into his business goal of helping companies unleash the untapped potential of their workforce, he said.

“I find that when I bring executives there that it stretches their minds. I want leaders to understand who is pent up at their companies,” said Farrazzi, founder and CEO of Ferrazzi Greenlight, a strategic consulting firm.

Ferrazzi said he challenges his guests to move out of their comfort zones and asks them to find someone they’ve judged negatively and engage that person in a meaningful conversation.

Leaving one’s comfort zone doesn’t involve roughing it, Ferrazzi said. He said if he couldn’t fly guests in and treat them to lavish accommodations, they wouldn’t come to Burning Man.

But he said camps, including those with wealthy guests, should adhere to the event’s cultural rules.

Founder Larry Harvey said he thinks too much is being made of luxury arrangements of celebrities, corporate juggernauts and others.

“I live in a turnkey camp,” said Harvey. “I don’t pound stakes. It’s completed when I arrive.”

For some, Burning Man as an attraction for the rich and famous has generated sentiments of class warfare.

In July, Joe Kukura – author of a blog for “poets, social workers, artists ... and everyone else out there who wants to enjoy life not as a rich person” – wrote a column titled: “Which Famous A**holes are Going to Burning Man This Year.”

His unconfirmed list include artist Sean Combs, aka Diddy, tax reformer Grover Norquist, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla founder Elon Musk, actress Anne Hathaway, and Google execs Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

A tweet by Norquist confirming his attendance set off a mock revolt, with “Vanity Fair” proclaiming that that’s the day Burning Man died.

“I wouldn’t call them Burners,” said Josh Johnson, a 12 year attendee and a Bay Area brewer formerly of Sacramento. He and others said there is something lost in the experience when one bypasses the pain and suffering that comes from waiting in line for half a day, the communal effort of building your own camp and generally coping with the harsh environment.

“If you get to fly in and ‘sparkle pony’ out, do you get the same experience?” asks Kim Perkins of Los Angeles. “Sparkle pony” in Burning Man lingo refers to offering beauty to the camp experience, but little else.

Harvey is unfazed. “Radical inclusion” is another of Burning Man’s principles. Harvey said he enjoyed meeting retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark the year he attended and he welcomed Norquist’s arrival.

“We’re interested in meeting people that have influence in the world because we want to influence the world,” he said. “We’re not afraid of being co-opted by the mainstream. We want to co-opt it.”

Harvey said those not building their own camp should at least provide some interactive experiences and participate. Food is Ferrazzi’s gift. He said his campers treat guests to four-star meals under soft lighting.

At one camp hosted by an affluent businessman, a well-appointed dining and lounge area sat ready to serve Wednesday morning while some staff members played music on the pro-level sound stage semi-covered by a vaulted ceiling.

Those staying with the theme camp run by Diamond Spring caterers Andy Tannehill and Kimberly Medici also expect to eat extremely well. After several years of operating the kitchen that feeds many of the event volunteers, the husband and wife team, who own Table Nectar Catering Events, were approached about building a camp for a wealthy client who wanted give friends the Burning Man experience for his 50th birthday celebration.

“It felt weird for us,” Tannehill said.

The next year, he was approached by someone he described as a “significant global businessperson” and rather than turn the offer down, he said he decided to do it the right way.

In addition to planning for the comfort and feeding of the guests, Tannehill asked the client to fund a theater space and bring performers for a live show.

“We have been adamant with gifting the community something spectacular and beautiful,” Tannehill said.

He bristles at the negative remarks that have bubbled up within the community.

“Who the hell is anyone to say what Burning Man should be?” Tannehill said. “There are people with means that want to come to Burning Man. They should be allowed to go however they want.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee