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Desert Music: Burning Man Confronts The Rising Beat

Revelers take in the Robot Heart art-car sound system at the 2014 Burning Man festival.
Ellie Pritts
Revelers take in the Robot Heart art-car sound system at the 2014 Burning Man festival.

Noise complaints are not an issue you would expect to associate with Burning Man, the week-long, outsider arts festival that takes place in Nevada's remote Black Rock Desert. But that is exactly what happened after the event's namesake ritual on the last Saturday in August of 2014, the 28th version of Burning Man. The symbolic torching of an oversized effigy designed by festival co-founder Larry Harvey is the culmination of the gathering for many of the 65,000+ freaks, geeks and free-spirited revelers for whom the festival has become a global destination. It is a bacchanalian end-zone dance full of banging beats and fireworks, which continues well past the break of dawn, celebrating the survival of what can be a grueling existential slog in the elements. But last year, the evening's Dionysian abandon left detractors in its aftermath, incensed with the volume and vibe of the party. The criticisms not only raised questions about music's place at Burning Man, it also drew lines in the meaning of the event's "radical self-expression" ethos.

"We do not expect to hear a DJ exhorting a crowd in a way that might work at spring break in Daytona Beach," went a post on the official Burning Man blog the following day. "But it doesn't work on the playa. At all. We admit that we were waiting for the Man to fall last night so we could escape the sound. Yes, yes, we know the saying, 'If it's too loud, you're too old,' and maybe that's true." The pounding rhythms of dance music united under the EDM banner, it seems, have the power of turning cultural progressives a little bit more conservative.

Burning Man's generational divide is playing out largely via its soundtrack. In preparation for the 2015 version of the event, which kicked off Monday, Aug. 31, festival organizers issued a number of reactive policies attempting to reign in certain elements of its dance music scene. When taken in aggregate, these changes lead some to conclude the festival harbors an institutionalized bias against DJs and their desert-rocking beats. An official statement released in late July entitled "What's Actually Going On with Dance Music at Burning Man," felt the need to clarify that "there is no grand conspiracy to ban, marginalize or sideline EDM at Burning Man."

This year, the release explained, the larger art cars (creatively-festooned vehicles tricked out with massive soundsystems which power many of Burning Man's dance parties) would be classified as having "Large Dance Club, Arena, Stadium sound," and limited to a new "Deep-Playa Music Zone" (already dubbed the DMZ by the burners). The release also defended various music-related decisions, including forbidding camps who present DJs from pre-publishing their music line-ups and denying the Dancetronauts camp's art-car license for their alleged role in not abiding by the sound rules at last year's burn. It also gave reasons why the famed, music-minded Opulent Temple camp­ (founded in 2003) lost its prime placement.

This year's Burning Man remains an endless array of creative thought, art installations and open-minded self-registered events — everything from a Beekeepers Summit, a Female Ejaculation Workshop and a lecture by the Electronic Frontier Foundation's John Gilmore to the Warm Celestial Hug Center, a Magic Pancake Workshop and a Spank Bank. (Draw your own conclusions!)

And it still feels like everyone on the playa, the adapted name for Black Rock's 200-square mile flat, is a DJ. While the vast majority is relatively unknown, the festival has hosted its share of high-profile DJs, many of them by the currently-out-of-favor Opulent Temple. Old-school international superstars such as Armin Van Buuren, Tiesto and Paul Oakenfold, EDM-era descendants like Bassnectar, Skrillex and Diplo, longtime break-beat regulars such as FreQ Nasty and Stanton Warriors, well-respected dance music veterans François Kevorkian, Carl Cox and Marques Wyatt are among the many DJs who've graced the desert decks.

Through the years, it has been a place for many music-altering perspectives. Wyatt is an Angeleno bitten by the New York house music bug in the 1980s. He says, "When I first went nine years ago, Burning Man opened me up to different sounds." Not only does he still perform at a variety of camps, as well as at his own Ashram Galactica site, Wyatt says he tailors his sets accordingly. "When I'm playing Distrikt I like to play tracks with lots of energy and when I'm playing something smaller like Pink Mammoth I'll play deeper cuts."

Such modern manifestations are a dramatically long way from Burning Man's humble, near-mythical 1986 origins. Twenty-nine years ago on San Francisco's Baker Beach, Larry Harvey and Jerry James threw a solstice party with the symbolic burn of a relatively diminutive eight-foot human effigy made of scrap lumber. According to a speech Harvey delivered in 1997 recounting the fest's inception, music was initially an unplanned presence, from the moment the flaming figure illuminated the Bay Area sky.

A DigitalGlobe satellite image shows an overview of the Burning Man festival in 2013.
DigitalGlobe/ScapeWare3d / Getty Images
Getty Images
A DigitalGlobe satellite image shows an overview of the Burning Man festival in 2013.

"Suddenly our numbers tripled," Harvey said of the first burn, which attracted only 35 people. "I looked out at this arc of fire-lit faces, and before I knew it there was a hippie with his pants on his head and a guitar standing there. And he started singing a song about fire. Now I'm not exactly a hootenanny kind of guy, but it seemed like the thing to do."

The art festival moved from San Francisco to the Nevada desert in 1990. And the first music-oriented camp, strongly influenced by the San Francisco rave scene, took place in 1992 and was held roughly a mile away from Burning Man's main plaza. The music area became known as the "Techno Ghetto" and its first DJ, according to an informative history on the burners.me site, was Terbo Ted, who dropped Burning Man's first record: a random Jean-Michel Jarre 12" pulled off a pile of rave organizer Craig Ellenwood's stack of vinyl. (Vinyl, it should be noted, is now rarely used with LP- and CD-player-destroying desert dust abounding; today, USB sticks and controllers are a DJ's elements-proof weapons of choice.)

"The music I mostly heard then wasn't dance music, it was mostly rock and roll, a little metal music and kind of cool, jazzy music depending on which camp you walked up to," says Marian Goodell, CEO of Burning Man Project, the non-profit organization with a $34 million dollar budget and 70 employees that oversees the event, who first arrived at the playa in 1995.

The "Techno Ghetto" remained on the outskirts until 1996 — when a vehicle tragically ran over a tent causing severe injury. The following year saw the introduction of the generically named Community Dance, as music became more integrated into the main Burning Man camp, though sound camps would be relegated to specific zones — the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions on the playa map (Burning Man is set up as a semi-circle with the positions of the clock as guides), with speakers facing outwards toward the distant desert. This restrictive placement, in turn, led to the rise of increasingly larger and louder art cars, whose meanderings will be more controlled this year.

Still, given the sheer number of musical performances that have popped over the years, it is perplexing that Burning Man subsists without an official music guide. And with a preponderance of one kind of sound in modern dance music, it is even more surprising the organizers haven't instituted a more proactive strategy toward encouraging diverse musical experiences. But that lack of strategy, it turns out, is by design.

"There is no committee. There are no meetings about music, just as there's none about performance either, which is a huge part of what Burning Man is about," says Goodell. "To me it all fits under the category of celebration and self-expression."

"Burning Man's actually gotten more musically eclectic over the years," argues DJ $mall ¢hange (a.k.a. Jim Dier) who has DJ'd there since 1999 and who works for the festival's BMIR pop-up radio station. "There's definitely certain things lacking, like punk rock, and the live music is kind of whatever." Yet Dier echoes a mantra you hear oft-repeated: "They don't curate the music at all. Burning Man wants to be viewed as more of an arts festival so that's where they put the grant money."

In other words, no one wants it to become Coachella, Glastonbury or the Electric Daisy Carnival. "If Daft Punk were playing at Burning Man," Goddell argues, "there'd be people scrambling for $2,000 tickets and we don't want that."

If grousing about music flies in the face of Burning Man's more enlightened ideals and somewhat contradicts its often-cited ten basic principles, the overwhelming sentiment about the event expressed by attending DJs, organizers and burners alike, is that it remains an inspiring platform for profound experiences.

"It is nothing short of breathtaking," says François K (for Kevorkian), the esteemed New York City-based DJ and producer whose first burn came only five years ago. "It has allowed me to express my creativity in ways I didn't know were inside me." Burning Man inspired Francois to design and build a surround sound system for his Disorient sound camp after his first year, which has in turn inspired his music perspective.

"Four years ago I decided to play a surround-sound mix of Dark Side of the Moon at three in the morning," he recounts. "It was a very small thing but I really live for those moments when you are able to take people off balance and present something that from the looks of it is rather innocuous. But by the time they realize they are getting drawn into it, they are already part of it and they can't get back to where they were before."

The Robot Heart car illuminates the darkened playa at the 2014 festival.
/ Ellie Pritts
Ellie Pritts
The Robot Heart car illuminates the darkened playa at the 2014 festival.

All good DJs know that understanding your audience and the context is part of the gig — maybe even more so on the playa. One of $mall ¢hange's favorite Burning Man moments came spinning the wee hours at the Disorient camp. "I played post-punk, weird disco, hip-hop, jungle, all kinds of stuff," he recalls. "And at one point a guy dressed up in a pretty full-on Pope outfit walked in. I was like, 'Wait, I have the exact record for this moment, Beenie Man's 'Praise Him,' this gospel dancehall record which starts off with this vocal part, 'praise him, praise him, praise him.' So the a cappella part starts and then the Pope gestured to me like we planned this and of course everyone is bowing down to the Pope."

But not everyone recognizes the need to understand the musical context. Last year an art-car-cum-dance-music-camp called Robot Heart became notorious for what may very well have been an apocryphal event, when Skrillex and Diplo ended their tag-teaming Jack Ü DJ set with a mainstream pop-rap track ("Turn Down the for What" by DJ Snake and Lil Jon), allegedly eliciting boos from the audience. In true Internet style, the incident became viral fodder that transcended truth while playing into popular perceptions of what is "wrong with Burning Man" (which may not be much of anything). Though Diplo disputed the report in subsequent Twitter posts, it played into the fears of many longtime Burners and the stereotypes non-attendees foist upon the gathering.

But will new rules make Burning Man "right" again or is this just par for the historically checkered burner-raver course?

"Personally I find it kind of absurd that you would create a zone for something because it kind of defeats the whole purpose of what Burning Man is about," says Jason Swamy, a DJ who works with Robot Heart, about the DMZ. (Swamy repeatedly emphasized he does not speak for or represent Robot Heart). Though he spoke of the messy "cacophony" that grouping multiple soundsystems together would create, he was more concerned with the philosophical restraints he sees in the new policy. "I think creating a destination for a particular type of music and having everyone go there kind of puts people in a box. And the whole reason why we're going to Burning Man is to not be in a box. I don't completely know how it will affect it, but we'll know soon."

And then undoubtedly the playa's music and art communities will have something to say about it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Andy Gensler
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