Art Cars, Plug and Play & Playa Tech: How Electronic Music Culture Is Evolving at Burning Man

AP Photo/Laura Rauch
The symbolic man stands glowing in the desert as visitors wander around him during the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert near Gerlach, Nev., on Sept. 2, 1999.

While it's possible to hear many types of music at Burning Man, the event is ruled by the electronic genre. Bass, techno, house, dubstep, tech house, deep house, playa tech -- a strain of music named after Burning Man itself -- and more blast from roving art cars and myriad sound camps for the duration of the nine day event, which begins this Sunday, August 25, in the Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada. 

As Burning Man has become better known in the mainstream, so too has it become a destination for big name DJs attracted to the singular vibe that has made the event a fabled destination throughout its 34 year history. But given Burning Man's place outside the confines of the traditional festival structure, these artists largely pay their own way to get to the middle of nowhere and don't receive compensation for playing. For many who make the trek to the desert -- Lee Burridge, Damian Lazarus, Above & Beyond, The Crystal Method, Skrillex, Flume, Diplo, Seven Lions, and Carl Cox, to name just a few -- it seems the experience is its own reward. 

In his 19 years attending the event, Syd Gris has seen the evolution of electronic music culture at Burning Man first-hand. Gris is the co-founder of Opulent Temple, one of Burning Man's longest running and most-celebrated sound camps, which, in its 16 year history, has hosted stars like Carl Cox, Tiesto, Infected Mushroom, Paul Oakenfold, Seven Lions and many more. While Opulent Temple is now on an every other year schedule, 2019 will see them hosting parties at other camps with sets by Rufus du Sol, Nora En Pure, Umek, Gorgon City and more. (This past July, frequent Burner Diplo also played a fundraiser hosted by Opulent Temple and Camp Questionmark in San Francisco.)

Here, Gris discusses the trends, nuances and evolution of electronic music culture at Burning Man.

Plug and play camps have long been controversial at Burning Man because they create an atmosphere of exclusivity, commodification and reliance that runs counter to Burning Man's official principles. Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell wrote a statement in February about the organization's efforts to address this and other related "negative cultural trends." Has plug-and-play culture in any way affected sound camp culture?
Not for me personally. I've never had the experience where I wanted to book a DJ and they said, "I'm sorry I can't play for you because these other guys are paying my way." I had had a situation with another sound camp where they would say, "I don't want my artist to play for you Tuesday because they're playing for me Wednesday. How about Thursday?" That to me is fair, understandable and cool because you're working it.

But I would say it's a related vein of the event's evolution that clearly boys --because I think they're almost always men -- with money use Burning Man as a platform to build toys and, to use an expression, kind of swing their dicks around. In particular, some of the mega art cars have impacted sound camps for sure, because they have the production level of a sound camp, but on an art car, and most of them are funded by millionaires as opposed to a community formed and community supported sound camp that's making its money to do its production off fundraising parties. That's kind a separate thing from plug-and-play, but it is related.

Because of the influence of money.
Yeah.

When did it become clear to you that people were putting that much money into these art cars?
It started with Robot Heart, but it's very clear with Mayan Warrior and now the Jaguar that I think is associated with [the camp] PlayaSkool. I'm not knocking them for being there. It's an open canvas and do your thing, but it certainly changes the dynamics of the event, because if you're not a millionaire it's hard to keep up with what they can spend on production.

How do you?
The short answer is that you don't. You do your best with what you've got and you hope that that will be appealing to enough people that it will feel like it was worth the trouble.

There's been a bit of controversy in the past in regards to camps releasing lineups before the event, which is frowned upon by Burning Man. What are the dynamics of that?
I have a number of perspectives on this. I understand and respect the pressure Burning Man is under, in terms of their dealings with law enforcement and permitting, that the event not be seen as a rave. They have a clear interest in downplaying the music side of the event. They don't want it to sound like a music festival, and they don't want people talking about it in those terms, because it just makes life harder. The reality is, a lot of people go to Burning Man for the music, and people go knowing there's going to be top tier talent all over the place. It's kind of part of the fun and excitement like, "Wow, who's here this year?" I get that.

The flip side is that it's not like by releasing [information about] who's playing, you're going to get a bunch of ravers show up at the gate trying to get in. I highly doubt that. The event sells out immediately. You're not going to affect what happens with who's showing up. It's just the perception and the narrative that they have taken great pains to build about the event, that it's an art festival and not a music festival. I get it, but at the same time, some of it seems a little silly to me, because I'm like, "What difference does it make?"

But I feel like the compromise is sufficient, which is them saying don't release your lineups until a week before or something like that. We post our schedules at the event itself, so if people want to know who's playing, all they gotta do is ride by.

There's a deep house, deep tech, playa tech sound that's become really synonymous with Burning Man. Was there a specific era when you saw that become a discernible trend?
I noticed just how much people were responding to that sound around 2010 and 2011. Part of it was noticing the sunrise sets at our camp, no matter how massive the night was, were just less and less populated because the sunrises at Robot Heart became the destination. Of course that's continued, and now you have Mayan Warrior as well, and they seem to do one morning together now. 

So you're saying the rise of this genre was simply their presence and them playing exclusively this type of music?
All I would give you is theories. One is that in 2007, 2008 and 2009, quality electro house was huge and awesome. As it happens, it got ruined by its development into over the top, maximus EDM. Electro became the kind of foundation for EDM, and then it starts sounding like overproduced garbage. There was a predictable backlash of like totally going the other way -- a slowed down, stripped down, deep progressive techie. I think some of it was just the boomerang from the EDM garbage that grew out of really good electro house. 

Another piece of it is that Robot Heart had a killer sound system and a cool car and they got this kind of New York-chic brand thing going on that people really responded to. It's hard to know how much of their popularity was that piece and [how much was] the music, because it kind of all just came together. But I think across dance music, things slowed down. People that were playing bangin techno or trancey progressive stripped down and evolved their sound to where it is now, with shaman house and melodic deep tech and these kinds of things.

In terms of music culture at Burning Man, what is most frustrating and what is most exciting to you?
Frustrating is ironic, because I and we helped give birth to this problem, which is big-name DJ chasing. It's absolutely partially my fault that big-name DJs come to Burning Man. We were the first camp to do it on a regular basis. I stand by my reasons for doing it.

Which were?
Two things. One is I wanted to hear the music I wanted to hear at Burning Man, and there are certain artists that personify that, so it was exciting to bring them out. Having Tiesto play your camp in 2005 when he was big but not the monster he is now, and he was still playing what I would consider great progressive trance, that was magical and everyone that was there that night experienced a little piece of magic. To create that experience for people is why we do it. 

But the other part is, Opulent Temple is a camp that exists sort of under the umbrella of a certain mission. We have a vision that is part of why we do what we do. Anything that raises our profile, as far as I'm concerned, is good for the mission because it gives us a bigger platform to spread the message. That was part of the equation. If it raises our profile and more people are touched by what we have to say, then that's a good thing -- and I'll take the shit that comes with it, which we certainly got.

So what's frustrating to you about the big-name DJ aspect?
There's too much reliance on a schedule and not enough love for the random, community camp member DJ who can throw down just as awesome as someone who's popular, but who's more more likely to get missed because someone's trying to find out the next place a big name DJ is playing. I take responsibility, but that is something I see that I kind of roll my eyes at.

And what's exciting?
It might be hypocritical, but what's exciting to see are the growing number of artists interested in coming out to play. Whereas I used to do an annual ritual of the learning curve -- explaining to an agent or manager why their artist should come and "No, I can't pay them and in fact it's going to cost them money to come, but it's still cool and they should come anyway." 

That's a tough conversation to have, and I don't need to have it anymore. Now it's more likely that they're going to hit me up and be like, "My artist is coming. Can you get them on your schedule?" That's a wonderful place to be in, particularly when you spend the rest of the year hiring DJs for the parties you throw. Burning Man is like the bizarro world, where they will come to you.

Festivals 2019


THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.