BURNING MAN On July 9, Burning Man’s White Ocean sound camp officially announced its DJ lineup. The outcry came loud and swift. White Ocean, helmed by Timur Sardarov, founder of private jet service Ocean Group International, had broken informal protocol by releasing its lineup ahead of the traditional couple-weeks-before with the other camps. But those kinds of Burning Man rules are meant to be broken.
No, what got burner sarongs in a twist was the way the lineup was announced: A slick, professional-looking graphic containing, Coachella-like, a panoply of DJs and genre styles. And emblazoned above it all was “Timur Sardarov and Paul Oakenfold Present” — as if Burning Man was another Outside Lands or Electric Daisy Carnival, complete with famous headliner (Paul Oakenfold) branching out into “event branding,” and questionable promoter (Sardarov) making sure his name was the first one everyone read.
“Dear Burners,” came the inevitable Facebook apology. “As you know, a few weeks ago the entire White Ocean line up went public, in a relatively big way. To add insult to injury, it also listed ‘Presenting’ parties in the most un-Burner like fashion! We know that this greatly upset each and everyone of you, and for good reason! We agree this is a huge failure, on our part! There’s no excuse!!!”
The post went on to say the camp had hired a mainstream promoter, who “proceeded to create and implement a full promotions campaign, as if he was working for some music festival in Europe. That was his perception of Burning Man, an elaborately modified festival in the desert that doesn’t sell beer.”
But burners were forced to confront the question, “Are we actually becoming just a music festival in the desert that doesn’t sell beer?” As a nightlife writer, I’ve been getting emails for years touting different pre-BM fundraisers, innovative theme camp designs, and dance performances. But it’s only been in the past couple that I’ve been getting press releases from record labels announcing artists “appearing one night only!” at Burning Man. DJs routinely brag about multiple BM experiences. (One PR person even accidentally offered me press tickets!)
“It’s true that the current generation does see Burning Man mostly through the prism of music,” Syd Gris of the music-powerhouse Opulent Temple camp told me over the phone. “Most of the draw now may be not for the original communal experience, but the mind-blowing spectacle of seeing so many of the world’s biggest DJs playing on giant fire sculptures.
“Ever since the music festival circuit became such a huge thing in the past decade, there’s been the possibility that Burning Man may end up just another stop on it.”
Opulent Temple itself is boasting a jaw-dropping lineup — I can’t say the secret surprise headliners’ names (one’s that dubstep whizkid with the lesbian haircut, and the other helps put you Pon de Floor), but Crystal Method, Carl Cox, and Infected Mushroom will be there — Moby had to cancel, alas.
These kinds of superstar DJs always give me bad ’90s flashbacks. Sure, one of the ultimate Burning Man experiences is making out with several people as the sun rises and seeing someone unexpectedly unbelievable in the booth — really just counting down until Beyonce rides atop the giant BAAAHS sheep art truck. But is all this starpower needed? Is Burning Man just a badge of authenticity for electronic artists, now that electronic music has seized the mainstream?
“Really, most of the artists approach us at this point,” Gris said. “We don’t pay them anything, and we let them know that as part of the camp, they have to work. It can be an education process. Other camps can afford to fly people in and treat them to perks. But sound camps don’t get cash grants like art camps, so once we build the stage and sound system, there’s no money left for egos. Tiësto actually donated to us after he played one year, to help cover expenses.”
“I look at it as a fun act of subversion,” Gris said. “Opulent Temple is dedicated to sacred dance. So if people come for the headliners but leave with some of that original spirit and intent in them, it’s worth it.”