The Burning Man festival has become a constant feature of Instagram models and feeds across the globe, where a new city of radical self-expression is promised in the “golden land” of Black Rock City. Amongst the mundanity of our everyday lives, this idealistic mirage seems unobtainable. The question is: is it ultimately unobtainable?
The Burning Man festival is perhaps an extreme of the festival sphere with its promise of “a culture of possibility” and “a network of dreamers and doers”, yet to some extent, we all buy into this whimsical, fairy-tale take on reality. When packing our cases to visit our next festival we cram crop tops, transparent raincoats and sandals to ultimately end up freezing, or forking out all our money on branded ponchos to survive. In attempting to become one of these “insta-baddies” we help the invasion of commercials into festivals. The Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell has protested against this “commodification and exploitation of Black Rock City and Burning Man culture”. However, is the real culture of festivals one filled with models and brand ambassadors promoting their products, rather than the decommodification and radical self-expression the ten principles promise? Goodell continued by stating that attendees “are using Black Rock City to increase their popularity; to appeal to customers and sell more stuff”, suggesting that more and more festival-goers are opting to profit from their visit. Consequently, fewer regular people will have the opportunity to experience festivals as they only provide opportunities for the rich.
Despite the appeal of festivals such as Glastonbury, Fyre Festival and Burning Man to millennials, the original dream of an escape from reality lies with the Woodstock Festival. Described as having their roots in indie culture, Woodstock became a free concert after hundreds of thousands more people attended than the organisers anticipated. The event was not well organised, and many people left after a couple of days, however the tickets cost $18 in advance versus the astronomical cost of Glastonbury tickets which sold at £248 for 2019. This calls into question whether there is a balance between value for money and festival experience, as to get the ultimate Instagram version of festivals you need to have a disposable income of cash. The Fyre festival was a prime example of “rich kids” being brought down to earth, as one festival goer described how ‘I know paying $4,000 to go on vacation to the Bahamas makes me fair game to make fun of.’. Although tickets for normal festivals without the private jets and supermodels are far less costly, the inevitable build-up of travel, food and useless merchandise accumulates to a large sum of money. The average cost of going to a festival in 2018 was £400, and with the looming terror of loans and rent payments, can this price really be justified? Endless articles flood the internet with supposed “quick tips” for budgeting at festivals worldwide, however a festival experience will inevitably leave you counting your pennies until the next payday. Therefore, as we see more and more extravagant festivals being promised in the following years, the idealistic version of festival culture that we strive for is slowly becoming unobtainable without the disposable income of “rich kids”.
There is no denying that festivals offer a creative space for world-renowned and undiscovered artists to be appreciated by crowds of paying fans, however it is the extent of organisers’ exploitation of these naive visitors which is causing such outrage amongst communities. Hopefully, future festivals will attempt to break free from these commercial and profit-driven events and aim to create a space that is affordable for all; allowing everyone to support and enjoy their favourite artists without leaving their bank account empty.