News — and supposition — has been flying recently regarding a number of policy announcements and statements coming out of BMHQ related to DJs and amplified music on playa. Dancetronauts being “banned”, Opulent Temple not being placed, the Deep-Playa Music Zone (DMZ), pre-publishing DJ lineups — it’s dizzying. And taken together, it could appear that Burning Man has it out for Electronic Dance Music (EDM)!! Yeah, no.
We wanted to take a moment to clear up the misconceptions so we’re all on the same page. We don’t like to announce a “what” without a “why” so everybody understands what’s behind the decisions. So let’s do it.
Before we get started, we should say that at BMHQ we often make decisions slowly because there are many moving parts to all of these things, from operational considerations to cultural impacts. We take this stuff seriously, we debate these questions to death (holding them up to the Ten Principles), we work hard to get it right, and we usually do. When we don’t, we reflect on it and make an adjustment. We like to say that Burning Man is an experiment in temporary community, and that’s what we do: we experiment to try and create the ideal context in which our diverse community can come out and do their self-expression thing while maintaining some semblance of civil society.
OK, so let’s clear this stuff up, shall we? Starting with …
The Grand Conspiracy to Ban EDM at Burning Man
There is no grand conspiracy to ban, marginalize or sideline EDM at Burning Man. EDM is an art form, its community has made valuable contributions for many years to the rich cultural fabric of Burning Man, and we like it that way. It just so happens that this year, we’re finding ourselves forced to make decisions about issues ranging from sound policies to public safety to Decommodification — even Leave No Trace. None of this is even about a particular kind of sound. If people were blasting bluegrass or smooth jazz or (insert your favorite music here), all of the decisions would be the same.
Heck, we didn’t even lift a finger in the years when dubstep was all the rage — that’s how tolerant we are. (We kid, we kid.)
Addition of Deep-Playa Music Zone (DMZ) to DMV Sound Policy
On July 27, Burning Man’s Department of Mutant Vehicles (DMV) made an addition to its Sound Policy for Mutant Vehicles for the 2015 event, creating a new area for Mutant Vehicles to blast music in deep playa for more than three hours. The Deep-Playa Music Zone (DMZ) will be 5,340 feet from The Man between the 10:30 and 11:15 clock positions with banks of toilets at each end. This distance out follows the arc of Kook Street. The length of the arc is 1,747 feet. In plain English, this area is BIG, so multiple vehicles can party there.
The DMZ actually expands the options for all Mutant Vehicles with sound. Our standing policy for Level 1 and 2 sound vehicles asked their operators to be mindful of their volume and surroundings, especially in quieter areas in the city or late at night, and when on the open playa, to turn it down when appropriate. Vehicles with Level 3 (read: massive) systems were asked to only play at high volume at 10:00 and 2:00 by the Large Scale Sound Camps, with speakers pointing out to the deep playa. Now, in addition to those areas, Mutant Vehicles can park and party in the DMZ with large gatherings of people for extended periods.
In practice, the old policy wasn’t carefully enforced, and that caused lots of major problems. By creating a new area designated for large, long, loud dance parties in deep playa, we can address environmental, sanitation, and public safety concerns, while balancing the needs and desires of different participants. This experiment will move loud sound further away from people and art installations who don’t want it, and it will provide better amenities for people who do, most importantly porta-potties and medical care. Deep-playa dance parties in the past have led to way too much poop MOOP on the playa surface (you’d actually find a circle of poop around some parties, folks), so now there are potties to address that problem. There will also be Emergency Services medical personnel on hand to quickly respond to medical emergencies.
The DMZ is not some kind of quarantine for loud dance music. It’s a new place to have loud dance parties that are both more fun and safer. And this is an experiment — if it doesn’t work, we’ll look at it again.
Dancetronauts Mutant Vehicle
As we explained on June 17, DMV asked the Dancetronauts to address complaints from participants about the music on their Mutant Vehicle. DMV required that Dancetronauts present a plan for how they would address these complaints to bring their vehicle back in line with the DMV’s sound policy. They failed to do so, so their 2015 Mutant Vehicle license was not approved. No one has been “banned from Burning Man”. In fact, the Dancetronauts can bring the Strip Ship this year, park it at a 10:00 or 2:00 camp and play to their heart’s content. They’ve simply not been granted permission to drive their Mutant Vehicle on playa this year, which happens regularly to Mutant Vehicle teams whose applications don’t check out.
The DMV sound policy is a delicate effort to strike a balance between the interests of vehicle teams with sound, artists whose installations are affected by sound, participants who either do or do not want loud sound, and public safety concerns about hearing damage caused by overly loud systems. It’s not an easy balance to strike, but it works as long as all parties act in good faith to uphold it. In this specific case, the Dancetronauts did not. Next year, DMV would love to see a sound plan that lets them bring their vehicle back.
Opulent Temple Camp Placement
Opulent Temple has been a staple of the BRC EDM scene for a dozen years, bringing a monster sound system and a spectacular stage, and regularly drawing thousands of people to their camp to dance their brains off. This year, OT decided to take a break from this offering. Here’s the change they’re making in their own words:
[T]he plan is to step back and have a different Burning Man experience while still maintaining an OT presence and vibe in Black Rock City. There will still be a great OT camp that will be close to the many dance floors in the 10:00 and Esplanade vicinity, and as said — we’ll still do a number of events, but they just won’t take place in our own sound camp and dance floor. (emphasis added)
There are five criteria for Theme Camp placement, one of which is that “camps must be interactive. They should include activities, events or services within their camps and they must be available to the entire Burning Man community.”
Since Opulent Temple won’t be holding its events in camp this year but rather elsewhere around the playa, their camp didn’t get Theme Camp placement. That doesn’t mean they can’t come, it means they’re not pre-placed. What a camp has given the community in years past is not part of the consideration — it’s about what they’re offering this year. It’s that simple.
Announcing DJ Lineups
In response to a growing practice of Mutant Vehicles and Theme Camps pre-announcing celebrity DJ lineups to audiences outside of Black Rock City, representatives from a few different Burning Man departments considered the potential cultural ramifications of this practice and composed a letter to Mutant Vehicle and Theme Camp organizers. The gist of it was:
Burning Man doesn’t have “headliners”. We pride ourselves on that. Burners don’t follow anyone else to Black Rock City, they go for themselves. Please understand, we don’t have anything against EDM, an art form whose vibrant community has made great contributions to Burning Man for many years. But we welcome members of the EDM community to come to Burning Man for a different experience than they’re used to: to fully participate in an experiment in a temporary community.
You can read the full letter in this blog post from July 21.
We’re Working on It
We hope it’s clear that there’s no unified campaign against EDM going on here. Taken individually, these decisions all make sense. Taken collectively, it can look like a musical preference vendetta playing out. But that’s not happening. It so happens that a handful of this year’s decisions all swirled around issues involving loud music. We think they’re going to make life in Black Rock City better. If they don’t, we’ll fix it.
Thanks for listening.