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Building Burning Man
The Official Journal of the Burning Man Project - Summer 1999 Newsletter

An interview with Larry Harvey
by Darryl Van Rhey

DVR: Let's talk about money. How much money did Burning Man make last year?

Larry Harvey: Do you mean how much did we take in and then spend, or do you mean how much was left over when we finished paying for everything? I've discovered that some people aren't readily aware of the difference. They earn their pay, receive their money and the resultant fund, they feel, is entirely theirs, as if they'd personally absorbed it. They live to the limit or beyond the limit of their income and it all goes for consumption, so they don't make much of a distinction between net and gross. If you take in a million dollars, they figure you're a millionaire.

DVR: Are you a millionaire?

LH: Not exactly, but in 1998 Burning Man did take in a million dollars — over a million, in fact — about 1.3 million before taxes.

DVR: I thought it would be more like 1.5 million. Wasn't the attendance 15,000?. Didn't tickets cost $100?

LH: A lot of people do that math, but they're mistaken. In 1998 the ticket price increased from $80 to $100 just two weeks before the event. In the first quarter of the year it was $65.

DVR: I see. Still, 1.3 million is a lot of money.

LH: It is. It's a cumbrous sum, but then you must also remember that it actually cost us considerably more than a million dollars to create the event. What we had left at the end of the year we've already spent. It pays for the next year. Last year's small surplus has simply afforded us a bridge to get from then until now, to get to that point where more money comes in again. Virtually all of our revenue comes from ticket sales. We have no investors, we've received no grants and no bank has ever loaned us money.

DVR: But, where exactly do all these thousands, these hundreds of thousands, go?

LH: Well, first of all, we ended 1997 $100,000 in the red. We were overcharged for certain crucial services — a political circumstance we couldn't control. We made the final payment on that debt two days before we opened our gate in 1998, and we're proud of that. We are also very grateful to participants whose contributions helped us do it.

DVR: Okay, that's a chunk of cash. What else was money spent on? But wait... first; let me tell you what I'm getting at. People come out to Burning Man and take great pride in helping to create it. You mark the streets with flags and signs, for instance, but how expensive can that be? Isn't it participants and their personal expenditures that supply the content? Isn't that the real substance of the city? I mean, just how expensive are portable toilets?

LH: It's funny you should mention that. In assessing our costs, people invariably start with the toilets, but they really don't cost that much in the bigger picture. This year we paid about $45,000 for them and a few other related services. It's just that those toilets loom large in everybody's experience. They're palpable and necessary and everybody uses them. They affect people at an individual level. But the rest of our costs are more general and mostly invisible. Our fire protection service ran $97,000, but there's no particular reason anyone should be aware of that. It was mostly kept in readiness. The BLM, our federal landlord, received $53,000 last year, and we paid around $70,000 for Washoe and Pershing County police services, but you wouldn't see that because they patrolled our perimeter. Our medical service cost $45,000, but, again, you wouldn't think about it unless you got hurt, and, fortunately, very few people did. In addition, a large part of the money is spent on things that are completely external to our city, that occur outside the event and before it happens; our insurance, transportation, travel expenses, office expenses. Paper based costs, things like our newsletters and mailings, totaled $35,000. Incidentally, I'd like to take issue with what you said about flags and street signs. Go tell that to the DPW.


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LH: That's our Department of Public Works. They run a depot and workshops on 80 acres of land that we rent. They really do build Black Rock City. They construct and set up our entire civic infrastructure. They're out there weeks ahead of time, work through the event and clean up the site afterwards. The DPW spent $290,000 in 1998, but who notices that? As you say, it's the creative stuff that participants do that gets noticed. Heavy equipment, generators, road grading, our 5-mile long perimeter fence; these things might as well be vapor. About the only thing that we spend money on that people really do notice, apart from those toilets, are things like our lampposts or the Man. We spent nearly $90,000 on public art last year.

DVR: I can see it mounts up, but what about personnel? Do you pay people?

LH: We certainly do. About a fifth our money in 1998 went to people we employed to do work. That's a large part of what's left when you add up the other things I've mentioned.

DVR: I thought volunteers ran Burning Man.

LH: It mostly is and has to be that way. The Rangers are volunteers. The lamplighters are volunteers. Our greeters and media staff and most of the artists are volunteers. We'd have to triple the ticket price to pay for all that, but, more importantly, we've never felt we should pay for these things. Burning Man is about giving gifts. It's about turning your gifts into a vocation that connects you with other people. People should do these things out of inner necessity, not because they get paid.

DVR: Why pay people at all, then?

LH: Because I've worked with volunteers for many years and I've found that there are two distinct circumstances in which you pay people. If, for instance, you're asking someone to do something that's repetitious or isolating, and if, especially, its something you must absolutely count on day in and day out...

DVR: You mean something more like normal work?

LH: Yes, precisely. No one's saying that our volunteers don't work hard. They can be heroic. But, as you get into the area of labor, of anonymous and unremitting toil, you lose people. It hasn't the same spiritual reward, so you have to pay them.

DVR: Okay, that makes sense. What's your other reason for compensation?

LH: Responsibility, another lonely chore. When you're counting on someone to do something and you put them in charge of other people, this again is a kind of burden. Especially so if you're asking them to sacrifice a lot of their time. When you get to the point where you're asking someone to spend all of their time or half of their time at a task, then, obviously, there's no choice. They need money to live.

DVR: Are you one of those people?

LH: I am. This is all I do. We actually begin to plan the proceeding year during the event itself.

DVR: Well then, here's the $64,000 question. How much do you make?

LH: Not $64,000.

DVR: I see. You're not going to tell me?

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LH: I didn't say that. Since it's you asking, I will. Last year I made $30,000. That's around $2,500 a month. It's by far the highest yearly income that I've had from Burning Man. I won't tell you what anybody else made, but I can say I sit atop this golden pyramid. I'll also say that from top to bottom it's very proportional. There isn't that much that divides us.

DVR: Would you like to make more?

LH: Of course I would. I hope to. I also want Burning Man to make more. We desperately need an office. We need to build workshops. We need to communicate more with participants as our community grows. We need a lot of things. But let me say this. If anyone imagines we will make a fortune out of Burning Man, they are deceived. We don't do licensing agreements and we won't allow vending. We're really not plugged into the mass economy, which is where I suppose all the money is. Our income is entirely generated by participants, from the tax they pay as citizens of Black Rock City and from their contributions. We may have taken in a million dollars, but we're essentially a Mom and Pop enterprise.

DVR: Any other thoughts on our subject?

LH: Yes. No one that I know of ever got involved in Burning Man because of money. We have an informal rule. If someone wants to be in the Project, to be one of us, they must come to the event, experience it for themselves, and they should be ready to work for free. It's sort of an initiation. We're not that interested in resumes. Do you know Will Roger? He runs the DPW. He showed up one day in the desert and asked if he could help. I was putting up lamp posts and he became my one-man crew. For two years I watched him sledging steel stakes into the dirt. He'd work for hours in the sun and when he'd take a rest he would apologize. Only later did I learn he'd taught art at a university. Now he is in charge of building the entire city. Passion drove him and it's passion that holds us to the task. Sure, everybody needs money, but that will never be what Burning Man's about.

Larry Harvey is the founder & director of Burning Man.
Darryl Van Rhey is a freelance writer now living in Bolinas, California.