As the annual Burning Man festival rages on in Nevada this weekend, founder Larry Harvey discusses what it’s like to be at the center of one of the world’s most popular–and wildest–events.
Photo courtesy of Burning Man
Larry Harvey founded Burning Man, an annual music an art festival that takes place in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
Photo courtesy Michael Holden
About 50,000 attendees gather each year to build a temporary city known as Black Rock City. The structure seen here is known as “the temple”.
At the annual art and music festival known as Burning Man, Larry Harvey is regarded as something of a deity.
He’s the founder of the festival, which brings about 50,000 attendees together each year to build a temporary city in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. He’s also the author of the festival’s highly altruistic guiding principles, which include lofty ideals like “radical inclusion” and “decommodification.” As a leader, Harvey is widely credited for making Burning Man not just a business, but a movement.
But being a leader as established and respected as Harvey comes with its challenges. In our July magazine issue, Harvey discussed how he struggled to keep Burning Man together when money issues threatened to tear the 26-year-old company apart.
Now, as this year’s Burning Man is underway, with the ritual burning of the 40-foot-statue known as “the man” taking place this Saturday, here’s a look at an extended interview with Harvey, as he tells Inc. reporter Issie Lapowsky about the festival’s history, hardships, and, most importantly, future.
Tell me a little about how Burning Man began.
When I was in my late 30s, I lit a figure on fire on Baker Beach in San Francisco. It was me, a friend, and maybe eight people, tops. There wasn’t any premeditation to it at all. It was really just a product of San Franciscan bohemian milieu. Forms of self-expression are rewarded in a city of self-expression. As soon as we lit the figure on fire, our numbers doubled. I guess if you light a figure on fire in the right way at the Republican Convention, people would yell, “Down in front.” Fire’s just a primal attractor. But if you asked my friend and me on the beach in 1986 if we thought that act would become what it is today, I suppose the very notion would astonish us. Year after year, a few people joined. Then a few more people joined, and all of a sudden, I was at the center of something big.
Was that strange for you?
Well, I’m actually a very shy person. You’d be surprised how many leaders are shy. They’re not all extroverts by nature. My early life in many ways made me feel extraordinarily isolated from others. I grew up on a farm in Oregon, an adopted child, with one sibling, and parents the age of all my peers’ grandparents. We lived in isolation from the people around us, and it was always a struggle to cope with as a child. The heart can really expire under those conditions. I always felt like I was looking at the world from the outside.
You’d be surprised how many leaders are shy. They’re not all extroverts by nature.
I don’t think I was unique, but I know I felt all too unique. Well, with Burning Man, I’m surrounded by all these people who believe in what I believe in, I have the privilege to enunciate it, and everyone joined me! Freud said that there’s no happiness in life except the realization of a childhood wish. In some sense, Burning Man is the fulfillment of my first conscious wish in this world.
So did you design Burning Man for people like yourself?
Burning Man isn’t about my story, but it does tend to attract people who feel they can be themselves when they can’t be at home. When you come to an event, we say, “Welcome home.” You’ve finally found that group of people who accepts you for who you are.
Last April, you announced that Burning Man would be transitioning from a for-profit to a non-profit entity. How did that decision come about?
It all started around 2007, when we were sued by a very early partner, who had resigned. The early partners had kept the intellectual property, and the lawsuit surrounded that intellectual property. The terms of the settlement don’t allow me to be absolutely frank, but it was settled for an undisclosed sum. When we settled, other members of the board began wondering, “What about us? How do we take care of our personal futures and square that with our ideals?” Burning Man wasn’t about profit-making. It never was. We had an agreement that annihilated equity. We said anyone who leaves the partnership gets just $20,000. But here we were sitting on all this property, the event, the income from the event, and the capital investments we’d made. We started asking ourselves what would happen to that when we were gone. None of the partners ever considered selling the event. We didn’t want to liquidate the company, make off with our piles of money, and have it cease to be, either. We’d always been acting for something greater than ourselves. No one could bear to sacrifice that. As far as we’re concerned, there wouldn’t be enough money in the world to compensate us for that. So we applied one of our guiding principles, “gifting.” It’s based on the notion that what we’re doing is a kind of gift. There are institutions in the very business of giving gifts and acting for social good, and those are non-profits. We decided that’s what Burning Man should become. We’d liquidate our own interests over three years, maybe four years, then we’d give the rest of the money to the non-profit.
When you announced the change, you also mentioned that the decision caused some infighting among the board members. You said it “felt like the band was breaking up.” What happened?
The big question was, how big of a bite could we take out of the enterprise, ourselves, without destroying it? What’s enough? That was the issue. People muddle along in life and say, “I have enough to live well.” But show them the chest of millions of dollars that could be theirs, and it can unhinge people. It can absolutely unhinge them. My job had always been to adjust the differences between my partners. I would go back and forth and explain one to the other, but that really took a toll on me this time. Every time one of them came to me to complain about another, I just heard this beeping sound, like a truck backing up to dump off a load of garbage. I couldn’t help in the depths of night thinking, “I’m the one who’s internalizing all of this all the time. I don’t have anybody.” What always kept us going is that we supported one another. But who supports the supporter?
So how did you resolve it?
The only way to resolve it was to get people talking to one another. The problem was they thought they didn’t have to talk to one another, because they could talk to me. That’s when I began to realize that my method of leading was no longer adequate, and to think it was would be egotism. I had to get people to realize I was as frail and as mortal as they were. I had to humble myself in the faith that they would step forward. We spent a lot of time in closed rooms together.
That’s when I began to realize that my method of leading was no longer adequate, and to think it was would be egotism.
There were instances when people got really mad. But we came through because we held true to our values, and, ultimately, our values were always aligned. It comes back to the philosophical question: What makes life worth living? That’s our model. It may not be a business model, but look at what we’ve achieved as a business. We’ve survived. We’ve grown. And this new non-profit entity has enormous potential.
Will the non-profit serve the same purpose as the for-profit, or is there more to it?
Burning Man has come to have great celebrity in the world. The new non-profit is focused not so much on the event in Black Rock City, as it is with applying those values and growing our culture worldwide. There are many Burning Man-inspired events around the world now. We haven’t instigated them. People just organized events because they wanted to be the way they’d been at the festival. We’re not getting any money for it, but we think down the line the Burning Man Project, as the non-profit is now called, can create a consultancy relationship and help them. We learned every lesson you could possibly learn the hard way. They’re soulful lessons. We know why we know what we know.
In the new entity, you’ll be one of 17 board members and will no longer run the day-to-day operations. How do you feel about that?
I don’t want to offend community members, but to be constantly set at task-managing the event is like having a terrier continually biting at your trousers and dragging you back every time you take a step forward. The scope of Burning Man is worldwide. This gives me the chance to see what home the culture we’ve created can find worldwide. I want to remain a useful contributor. Even though we did all this to extend our legacy after we’re dead, as long as I’m alive, I want to grow until the day I die.
Are there any key lessons you’ve learned from all this?
I’ve learned never to expect people to be better than they are, but to always have faith that they can be more. I’ve seen it proven out enough times that I don’t think it’s naive at all.