BURNING MAN: Where Music is “Found” But Hardly Ever “Promoted”

Black Rock City 2013 | Photo © Reuters

Burning Man. By now, you’ve certainly heard of it. Or maybe you know someone who goes every year and you’ve never been, but you hear them talk about it all the time. For some of us familiar with the site here, our first exposure to those two words was the hilarious Electric Apricot song, “Hey Are You Going to Burning Man?” — certainly that was the first time I had ever had anyone reference the event. Living out in the Bay Area as a newly transported Midwesterner a few years back, I started to catch wind of people and friends “leaving for the Playa” at the end of every August with no real understanding of what any of that meant yet. I just figured they all had great recipes for cosmic flan, but after meeting two new and closer friends of mine lead me deeper into the explanations and folklore behind what Burning Man is/was and what it’s supposed to be about, all while they showed me the numerous bins that were “not unpacked yet” still weeks after they had returned from the festival, I started to get the sense that I was missing out on something.

One of these friends just so happens to be the drummer in the band I joined a year or so later, so suddenly I had close members of my inner circle that were Burning Man “vets.” Over time he kept telling me stories, giving me insight, or showing me how this could be something unique that is really hard to describe. And when I talked to anyone else about it, they invoked emotions ranging from the cultish desire that you see out of Phish fans to the casual “Yeah I went once, it was wild” sentiment coming out of the well-off weekend warriors who had made the trek to the festival once because their friend had an extra and needed a ride. Nobody could ever describe it in the same way twice but they almost always said something about “leave no trace,” “self-reliance” and “dubstep everywhere.” Turns out the more and more I learned about this festival, the more I was afraid of it. So much freewheeling sex. So many psychedelics. So many people talking about grey water and MOOP; it was all a bit too much to take in whenever someone would give me a full rundown of what they’ve seen there, why everyone was so crazy (and how awesome that was), and why I should go despite the fact that they just gave me at least 10 more reasons NOT to go rather than 10 more reasons to attend.

Something about the entire thing had me at pause, and I think I had to slowly expose myself to the people that make up Burning Man to realize that all of my anxieties and fears about the festival were probably largely unfounded. I intended to try it sometime and face my fears, despite how unpleasant they appeared to be in my head. And so this year was finally the first time I had a reason to go, an excuse if you will. My band NVO decided it was time to bring our music to Black Rock City, and I figured that I’d focus on playing music and maybe enjoy a little bit of the festival in the process without taking too much of it in. But it started to become clear to me I would need more of an open mind than feeling like I was obligated to attend… friends told me I needed to be open-minded about my first Burn. I needed an open heart to attend. I wasn’t going to like it, one friend told me. Many people I knew were surprised when I finally said “yeah I’m going this year.” So I knew that the vets knew something I didn’t, and I definitely freaked out for a good week before the fest about being so disconnected and being probably one of the only gingers out in the Nevada desert.

And so I spent weeks preparing, thinking about trying to clear my head enough to try and feel prepared enough, and finally, I arrived on the Playa, and suddenly all of my fears were gone. Turns out Burning Man is maybe my favorite festival experience that I’ve had thus far, and while it’s taken me a while to come around to the idea of an event like Burning Man, this guy’s first time at the biggest underground arts festival in the world left him impressed, inspired, and fully aware of why this is such a “thing” that people talk about and people spend months and months preparing for. Burning Man is a one-of-a-kind human experience that one simply cannot easily attain in the “real world” we all live in day in, day out. Or as Burners would call it, “default reality.” I’m so happy I went.

And I almost saw hardly any live music while I was there, maybe the reason I had such a good time and let myself experience everything but that. While music is definitely a huge part of the experience at Burning Man, I was amazed at how secondary it was to a normal music festival experience. Music is just there; it’s part of what you hear when you’re riding your bike on the Playa past bumping sound cars, or it’s there when you wake up in the morning and your neighbor is blasting Pink Floyd. But it was almost never anyone’s top priority unless you wanted it that way.

Why not make your own soundtrack then?

Really dig dubstep? There was definitely at least seven camps that had a lot of that happening. Like dancing during the daytime to some of the biggest names in house music while bartenders with fake breasts pour you free drinks? There’s definitely at least one camp for that, probably two to three if you count the ones I didn’t attend myself personally. Bored of DJ’s and want to jam on some instruments yourself? Find the Jam Camp and play your own open mic night. My band NVO brought all of our own gear, set up for seven shows (played six) and made our own tunes during the week in ways that we had never anticipated. It was all about “what do you want to hear right now?” and trying to make that happen for yourself, whether or not you were the camp that held a B-52’s dance party or you were the camp that broadcast full Dead shows projected onto their RV while the audio blasted out of their own PA system.

I’d estimate conservatively that there were at least 1,000 PA’s going at any given time at Black Rock City. Between the sound camps, art cars, and campers creating their own party back at their camp, music was everywhere at Burning Man. One of the things that would always clearly come out of any discussion about Burning Man was that it was a festival of artists and people that considered themselves wannabe artists; Burning Man was never a “music festival” first. It was all about gathering with people, creating (and subsequently destroying) art, and expanding everyone’s mind and perception in the process. Coming from my experiences of being moved and overjoyed at every single Phish experience I could get my hands on in college — live shows, tape trading, website building, forum discussions — and moving from there to my first experiences at larger festivals and with more acts that wowed live audiences while remaining firmly outside of the music mainstream, I guess this festival just didn’t appeal to me at first when hearing about it. Because people told me it wasn’t a music festival, and someone that felt like something that would have bored me. It couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Who is the Rock Star Librarian?

If you actually came to The Burn with a desire to seek out music and didn’t bother to “bring” music to the city, you may have had those moments where your camp was all “let’s go check out some art…” and you were all “but I wanted to see My Favorite Band / Hottest DJ Ever play at That Huge Camp Out on 10…” Problem is, you almost never knew who was really going to playing at each camp because nobody bothered to post a schedule anywhere (the only exception I personally found was the camp at Distrikt who had their lineup posted prominently all week). One of the 10 guiding principles behind Burning Man is Decommodification, an idea that this environment should be “unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising.” They go further with the point by saying “We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.” Or put another way: don’t flash your personal brand at us, bro. Want to make a banana stand hut at your camp? Don’t you dare flash a Chiquita sticker in the wrong direction. Drive a Hertz rental truck up to the Playa? Better cover that brand up, bro.

There’s even a second guiding principle which further explains why you never knew who was playing where. Immediacy is a more intellectual way of saying “stay in the moment” which was a huge part of how I saw many people interact with each other at the festival. You were always doing something deliberate with your time, and I hardly saw anyone studying the Events booklet to figure out what they wanted to do next.

Suddenly it all makes sense why nobody has a lineup posted anywhere: when you’re there, it really doesn’t matter who is playing. If you wanted to dance and see some amazing music, it was everywhere for you.

But, if you were looking for a musical experience with something you were familiar with and wanted to do some research ahead of time, you had to introduce yourself to the Rock Star Librarian. There, you would have been rewarded with the only guide to the music booked at Burning Man: The Rock Star Librarian Music Guide. Compiled into a massive PDF and broken out by day, by camp, this huge guide was something we did have on hand and it proved to be valuable for figuring out who we were missing somewhere far off on the PLaya. Plus, a lot of the “major” talent was listed only once on the major camps when they were set up to do art-car sets along with it. At 13 or so printed pages (front and back), this was hardly comprehensive and yet the only place where it’s all compiled. And our car was the only one in our camp (out of 50) that had actually printed this guide. It really just didn’t matter.

So who was there?

Turns out one of my favorite artists was actually on the Playa for quite a while during the week; Diplo brought out his Major Lazer crew and sported some Mad Decent jackets while roaming plenty around the city in between their four shows.


Here’s a shot of their crew playing the Nexus stage, right on the Esplanade at 10 o’clock.

Photo via Diplo on Instagram
Photo via Diplo on Instagram

He commented on it briefly in this recent chat he had with the Billboard team: “Carnival in London is the most insane party — or I thought that before I went to Burning Man. They rival one another.”

I heard some grumblings that Alanis Morrisette was spotted in a couples communications class that my girl friend attended; she was pretty sure that everyone recognized her as well so I consider it properly corroborated. I know Susan Surrandon was there. John Perry Barlow was hanging out with General Wesley Clark, which got some press on more blogs than it should have. I heard Eric Schmidt from Google was there, camped in a big compound of RV’s out deep past the “I” street area on the 2 o’clock side of the city. And we definitely read that Zuckerburg even helicoptered in to serve up some heady grilled cheeses.

P. Diddy was there and had a fantastic reaction to the event, even making a stop at RobotHeart to get in the throngs of Burners dancing it up to one of the more famous sound camps.

I wonder what his Playa name is... | P. Diddy @ Burning Man 2013
I wonder what his Playa name is… | P. Diddy @ Burning Man 2013

Burning Man calls this Radical Inclusion, which is perhaps the most interesting principle to me because I inherently don’t trust in the good of human nature at times. Everyone is allowed at Burning Man. Grateful Dead fans. Phish fans. Dubstep fans. Orgy fans. DMT fans. Silicon Valley icons. P. Diddy.

And whether you had a good experience as a result of this or this is partially why you were f*cked, the fact that you could maybe run into P. Diddy while you were dancing it up with your friends in the desert is a marvelous thing. It took me a while for all of that to sink in, and a few weeks later I’m feeling more confident than ever that this unique sense of inclusion made us all feel more connected to what the festival is all about. That’s only one percent of the takeaways I got from this experience, and I’m convinced I’m already reaching conclusions in life that have benefited from experiencing eight days at Black Rock City as a scared and anxious newb.

My first Burning Man wasn’t about being there as an editor for a music blog, and it really wasn’t even about being there as a musician hoping to share my art with the world. It was about my own little journey through the 10 Principles and my first time ever being that disconnected from the rest of the world that had been stressing me out. And I left with a brain full of Burner cliches that somehow I had hoped I would be avoiding: inspiration, love of humanity, and confidence were the big ones.

In hindsight, I really needed Burning Man this year. I didn’t expect that to come out of it, but I’m glad it did. Who cares about that Beats Antique set I missed anyway?