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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2012/03/28

Burning Shame

If there’s one thing that dedicated concertgoers learn over the years, it’s how to get tickets. Be it waiting in line or discovering the current loophole that Ticketmaster hasn’t yet closed off, we all think about (and sometimes even tell others) our methods. In addition to thinking about how best to get our own ducats, we also like to theorize about what the best systems are. Everyone has a plan or two of how to optimize the system. Phish should go back to requiring mail orders! No they should charge a fee to be able to mail order and refund that money with a Dry Goods credit. Maybe they should just favor a particular group (which inevitably includes the person suggesting that option) in the lottery. The theories are endless.

Unfortunately, Burning Man didn’t listen to the bull sessions. It is understandable that they were a little confused this year, because this is their first time having to deal with issues relating to sell outs. Last year was the first time the event sold out and that happened in July. It was difficult to imagine what was about to happen to them.

It started out as being fan friendly. In past years Burning Man’s ticket website got really frustrating to deal with on the day of sale. It would get slow and people would have to hang out there all day and everyone got frustrated. Instead there would be a ticket lottery. People could put in entries over a period of days and there would be a completely random draw of them. Anyone who tried to get tickets for the Hampton 2009 shows knows exactly what happened next. Tons of people entered as burners tried to hack the system by putting in multiple entries which created enough general chatter for scalpers to decide to get into the game and put in their own massive set. Lottery systems can be hacked easily, especially when many of those who would want tickets aren’t the kind of people who work in a corporate office with dozens of coworkers who might put in an order for them.

Now here’s where the difference between a concert and Burning Man comes into play. If Phish played a show in Oklahoma and 70% of the people attending were seeing their first show, this would be a good thing. The energy of the crowd would be over the top, as no one would be complaining about seeing yet another “Possum.” Burning Man requires there to be more vets just because of its nature. Not only is it a participatory event that relies on the energy of people to create and be inspired by what they see and use that to further their creations for the next year, but ultimately it’s a dangerous activity. People who have never been there don’t fully understand just how deadly the playa can be. Reading warnings is one thing. Actually being out there and discovering that you can’t just run to the local store to pick up the crucial things that you didn’t know you needed is much different. There always was a reliance on the community to help fill the gaps, which might not be as possible if there aren’t enough experienced attendees.

Fortunately for Burning Man, they still had 10,000 more tickets to distribute. The problem though is that they’re a very reactive organization. For the remainder they decided to go to the completely opposite approach. They now will be handpicking who gets the rest, deciding based on how important various groups have been. While this probably is the right call for the situation they’re in, this has the possibility of destroying the event.

Going back to Phish’s mail order, one thing that defines it is the randomness. The underlying philosophy behind the system is that no fan is better than any other one, that it’s just as important to get in that 18 year old who will be blown away by their first show as the person who has been seeing them for decades [1]. And yet people still take it personally when their order is rejected, or even if they get crappy seats. Once you put your name on the process, people take it personally when it falls through. As Dean Budnick frequently mentions in his history of the creation of Ticket Master, part of what Ticketmaster is selling is the role of being the villain. Bands or events can hide their greed behind the ticketing agencies and say, “It’s not us. It’s Ticket Bastard!”

By taking it on itself, Burning Man isn’t allowing for any sort of scapegoat. Furthermore by deciding who gets to attend, they’re not allowing any buffer at all between the people who are shut out and the organization. Anyone who gets rejected from the secondary sales isn’t being told that they weren’t good enough at their Ticketmaster skills or that they had some bad luck. Rather, Burning Man is literally saying that your contributions over the years just aren’t as important as these other people’s. For a group that has “radical inclusion” as a guiding principle, this is a huge departure. Ultimately this is why figuring out your ticket policies before actually selling them is so important. Minor changes to your rules create have a major difference not just in who gets to go, but also in how your event is viewed. The fault here was less the system than the thought process (or lack thereof) that went into it. That’s why this is more than just a mistake from one organization. For every wish that I’ve seen expressed about tickets (shorter lottery periods, reward people who have repeated orders, have a pavilion only option for summer shows) there’s the potential for unexpected side effects (stagnation of the fan base, good seat only options would be a scalper bonanza and could have some contract issues). I’m not saying that any system is the best of all possible worlds, just that things might be more complicated than they appear.

[1] If there’s one problem with that philosophy, it’s the one that’s come up a few times already in this column, mainly that it’s impossible to tell the difference between a fan seeing a show for the first time and a scalper trying to rip off the fans.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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