Q&A – How Would You Compare Burning Man to a Festival like EDC Las Vegas?
Posted April 19, 2017
This question was asked by an EDC attendee who was interested in attending their first Burning Man.
Q: How would you compare a week at Burning Man to the 3 days at EDC? I know it’s probably nothing alike but EDC is quite big, and hot.
A: First, let’s talk about weather. I LOVE the desert and I love the heat, so I’m not sure I can properly compare. Burning Man is hot, but it’s not as hot during the day as EDC. Over the past few years, Las Vegas has had daily temperatures of 110-115F, while Black Rock City’s daily temperatures are closer to 100F. Both are dry, if you’re coming from a humid climate you’ll probably find it tolerable, since you’re not constantly dripping sweat. Between the dryness and the heat, you may find you’ll want to chug water constantly the first couple days you’re there (and panic that you didn’t bring enough, because you downed your first gallon in 2 hours flat) but after a couple days your body acclimatizes and your water intake will drop to a more reasonable rate. I find it pretty comfortable as long as I stay hydrated and wear sunscreen, even in the sun.
It isn’t just the heat, but the dust. The dust storms really wear on some people; you’re always dusty, all your stuff is dusty, your clothes are dusty and your bed is dusty. If a storm kicks up, the dust can permeate everything you own; your electronics, your bags, your tent. You’ll come home to a thin layer of dust on everything you own. The wind can get intense, walking can be a struggle, you can’t see anything around you, and there isn’t anywhere to clean up. EDC has had some windy nights, but you’re generally pretty protected and won’t notice more than a stiff breeze and a little sand to the face here and there. If the wind kicks up at Burning Man (which happens frequently), you’re not going to be able to see more than 10 feet in front of your face and you’ll come home with white hair. Some people at Burning Man don’t deal with it as well as others, and get frustrated and overwhelmed by always being dirty.
It becomes easier once you just accept that you’re dirty and there’s nothing you can do about it. Being dirty is just part of your life for the week. Seriously, be one with the dust. Roll around in it. Love it. Snuggle with it. I didn’t believe it my first time – I tried to sweep out my tent and shake out all my belongings for the first three days. It got a whole lot less stressful when I just accepted that everything I own is coated in a thin layer of powder and there’s nothing I can do about.
Another thing that catches a LOT of people off guard are the nights. EDC Vegas stays warm at night – some nights never dip below 90 degrees. You can run around in your underpants and not have to worry about getting chilly. The nights at Burning Man don’t have this luxury – yeah, it’s in the desert, but it can get COLD, and the the cold comes on fast. 2015 had nights where the temperatures dipped below 35 degrees. There were only two nights last year when I didn’t need a coat (I thanked my lucky stars that I didn’t have to bundle up on those nights), and none in 2015. Definitely plan for warm clothes and a warm place to sleep – coat, gloves, a hat, and hand warmers. I think that’s the biggest thing that people don’t expect.
Finally – rain. Both are pretty similar in that regard and don’t see much rain. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be prepared for it. If it rains at Burning Man, the playa turns into a sticky, gross mess. Wet playa dust sticks to everything – forget going for a walk or bike ride in the rain. In the case of a downpour, be prepared to stay where you are for at least a few hours. This means having accessible food and maybe even a place to use the bathroom. Plastic bags over your shoes can help you clog through the muck if you do need to leave home, but don’t expect to get very far without a lot of work.
So what about the size? As far as attendance, Burning Man sees about 70,000 people through the gates, while EDC has a daily attendance of almost 135,000 people. Even with barely half the capacity, Burning Man is massively larger than EDC’s Speedway.
To put this into perspective, Las Vegas Motor Speedway where EDC is held is roughly 0.25 mile across and 0.5 mile end to end – and a big chunk of that at the south end is reserved for production and emergency services. In comparison, the playa is something like 2.75 miles from the middle of one side to the opposite point of the trash fence. The speedway laid end to end could fit almost twice within just the center, open area of Black Rock City. It’s absolutely mild-blowingly massive (yes, more mindblowing than the first time you walked through the Speedway’s tunnel), and there’s no way to see everything, even if you try. Every street is full of things to do and see, and the open playa is filled with hundreds of art installations and parties. When you step out on the playa, there are lights and fire in absolutely every direction. Even when you think you’re impossibly far from the edge of the city, there are still tiny lights off in the horizon that indicate art, art cars, and parties even further out into the openness.
What about the overall feel? You know how there’s always something to discover at EDC? If you do a little exploring, you’ll find actors, little rooms full of craft supplies, a coloring station, sticker walls, tents full of 3D art, sculptures, impromptu dance parties, secret speakeasies and surprise sets. At Burning Man, instead of a handful of these things being provided by the festival, the surprises are provided by – everyone. Every camp has it’s own art, activities, classes, surprises, and characters. Attendees seek to provide entertainment to each other. It’s EDC multiplied about a thousand times over. Yes, literally a thousand. I didn’t make that number up – there are about a thousand camps and every one of them has something to discover. People set out to create experiences for others – and yes, that includes you. If you attend, you’re expected to do your part in building the experience for everyone by sharing your talents, helping others, volunteering, or contributing to a project. Bring some piece of yourself to share with others. It’s not a requirement, exactly- but if everyone was a spectator, the playa wouldn’t be what it is.
And that’s just the city! The open area of the playa is full of roaming art cars to catch a ride on, and art installations of all shapes and sizes. Mayan Warrior, El Pulpo Mechanico, and Kalliope that are often at EDC are actually from Burning Man, plus about 650 (yes, literally) other mutant vehicles of all different sizes. At EDC they’re parked in one spot for the weekend and used as stages, but at Burning Man they drive around. You can hop on your bike and ride alongside Mayan Warrior while someone plays a set from the roof, or park your bike and hop on board for the ride. Some do park in one spot for extended sets – if an art car runs a set of a certain length and volume, they stick to a designated area. But for those that drive around, it’s an amazing experience to be on board some massive pirate ship while Major Lazer spins a set for the passengers and others ride alongside on bikes. These art cars have no routes – if you hop on, you’re at the mercy of the driver until they park and let you off.
EDC also has some large-scale art borrowed from Burning Man (like Metaheart at EDC 2016). While EDC has a half-dozen of these spectacles each year, the playa hosts around 300. The art is EVERYWHERE. Even if you think you saw it all, there will always be photos of areas you didn’t even know existed.
How about music? If you’re only interested in music, EDC is likely the better option. At EDC you get a lineup in advance. You’re given a schedule to tell you exactly who is playing, and where they are. Most of the artists are big, popular, well-known names. You know that if you go to Neon Garden at 1am on Saturday, you’re going to see Adam Beyer there and he’s going to play techno for exactly 90 minutes. It’s reasonably reliable aside for a handful of adjustments.
Burning Man does NOT have this focus on music. Sure, there is a plethora of music at all hours of night and day. But the city is full of non-music activities too – and it’s more about the people and the art.
The major difference here is that there is no overseeing organization to book and curate events at Burning Man. Every artist is there because they want to be there. They don’t get paid to play – they buy their tickets like everyone else. They are participants as much as every other person there. Sets are arranged by the camps hosting the stages (sound camps); each sound camp handles it’s own offerings individually.
Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of sound camps with amazing visuals and booming sound systems that exist solely to host DJ sets – but this isn’t an event where you can check out the lineup in advance and find out who’s playing where and when. There is never a formal lineup released. Individual sound camps get to choose who plays, when they play, and if they release a lineup publicly.
Some camps do choose to put out a lineup and a schedule in advance – but these are not formally compiled, you have to hunt down each camps’ lineup individually. They are not allowed to release too far in advance, any more than a few days and they face trouble from the Org. There is no waiting for lineups to decide whether or not you go. If you’re not already packed and on the road when lineups start to appear, you’re not going to make it.
And that’s if stages choose to release their lineup, which many of them don’t. Some release only the hours they run each day. Some release the DJs they’ll host, without set times. Some release only a theme for each day. Recently, many big camps have chosen not to release a lineup at all – the only way to find out who’s playing is to swing by their camp and ask. Or check the sandwich board outside camp each morning for that day’s schedule. Some do nothing at all and decide everything on the fly.
And even if you do find a camp with a formal, scheduled lineup – they quite often aren’t followed. Even if you aggressively hunt down schedules in advance and make yourself a plan and try to stage-hop all night like you might at a formally-scheduled festival, there’s a very good chance that a large number of the sets you plan to see just won’t happen. Set times and locations are more like suggestions. Carl Cox is planning to be at Playground at 1am Thursday, but there’s a chance that he won’t be there when you arrive. Reschedules are often a big deal at large festivals; if a change happens, it’s announced on the app and broadcast to everyone. At Burning Man, that’s just the way it is. If you came by and it’s not who you were expecting, then oh well, just go with the flow. It’s a much less predictable atmosphere.
This can lead to a lot of surprises. I’ve seen some absolutely amazing sets and had no idea who they were. I jammed out to a sunrise set at Kazbah for hours in 2016 – a camp that chose to keep their lineup a secret. I later found out I’d just watched a four-hour set by Lee Foss. On another night I tried to catch The Funk Hunters on board the Christina Land Yacht at 8pm. I swung by their camp promptly at 8, and no one was around, the boat was empty and dark. I was pretty disappointed, so I checked my attempt at a schedule and booted it across the city to try and catch Carl Cox at Playground. He wasn’t there either, but I ran into some campmates. After some wandering, we found ourselves back near the Christina at 10:30, now launching for a set. We parked our bikes, sprinted across the desert to hop on board – only to find out that now, almost 3 hours late, the Funk Hunters were starting their set… followed by Major Lazer who were surprise guests on board. They played for all of 50 people. This would never happen at EDC.
As mentioned, there is certainly great music. There is a LOT of great music of all genres from house to reggae to jazz, at all hours of the night and day. Despite this, a lot of people (myself as a massive music fan included) love exploring the city just as much, or more, than the music. I couldn’t imagine going to Burning Man and only worrying about the music, because there’s just so much more, better stuff going on. The rest of the city is the real magic. That’s the part that makes Burning Man so unique. For my first four days, I hardly even caught a set because I was so enthralled by what was happening in the rest of the city.
If you’re only going for the music – in all honesty, you’re probably better off going to EDC. But I ramble, you mentioned other concerns…
As for as the length of time you’re there, since EDC is 3 10-hour days, it’s pretty much go-go-go-go and party non-stop, as hard as possible, from open to close. There just isn’t time to do much else, everyone is on the same schedule and every hour you miss is a significant chunk of the event with a major artist on stage.
Burning Man is over a week from start to finish, and it operates 24 hours a day. There is ALWAYS something big happening. You can run on your own schedule and there will always be something just starting up when you’re ready to adventure. There is no pressure to be awake during certain “core” hours with headliners, so you can party at your own speed and take time to relax when you need it. A lot of people spend a lot more time sober (or mildly drunk, many people drink causally throughout the whole week). No set of core hours and no main focus means there is less pressure to get drunk or high at certain times like what happens at a lot of festivals, and there is no pressure to make it to “the end”. You go to bed when you’re tired. In some ways it’s more crazy, and in other ways it’s more relaxed.
Last year I had a hard time even seeing music at night because I loved doing the morning and daytime stuff so much. I’d wake up at 9am, run around the city all day, and be totally wiped by 11pm. That was probably a bit of a mistake on my part. There’s no need for a 15 hour marathon every day, if you wanna catch a 2 hour yoga class in the morning, take a nap, do an art class, go exploring, find a party, learn to belly dance, sleep for 6 hours, find some music, jump on a trampoline, take a nap somewhere, and watch the sunrise… you can do that.
Did you say trampolines? Safety Third! Burning Man lets you do things you probably wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else. That includes things that are probably, maybe, just a little… not so safe.
EDC’s logistics are on point. They’re amazing. Everything is perfectly orchestrated. Anything dangerous is closely watched, anywhere that can’t be closely watched is checked frequently. Even the smallest fence or the tiniest cable is carefully covered. There isn’t much trouble you can really get into. They’ve checked every inch of that space and made it incredibly difficult to get hurt.
But at the burn… they don’t even try. You can pretty much do whatever you want there as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone and isn’t illegal. You’re responsible for your own safety. Climbing all the things is a popular activity and most art is designed with climbing in mind (…assuming it doesn’t have a sign because it’s fragile or shoots fire, do be respectful of the artists). The trust is placed on you to decide what’s safe. Want to swing on some swings that lift 30 feet in the air? Hop on that spinning thing? Want to climb that 50 foot tower and zipline down? Never tried skateboarding but wanna hit that awesome half-pipe? There are lots of police but there is no one to stop you. We climbed our friend’s 30 foot tall art installation in 2015 and security just stood there and watched. Climbing the Death Guild Thunderdome and hanging from the roof while people beat the crap out of each other below you is always fun. We climbed a three-story tall art car with a horribly dangerous playground merry-go-round at the top that was more than capable of throwing someone over the edge. That being said, make smart decisions. Doing awesome things that you normally wouldn’t be able to do is fun, rewarding, and empowering – but the last thing you want to do is ruin your burn because you messed yourself up.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly is the emotional aspect. Yes, that’s a concern at Burning Man. It’s actually quite a big concern. The desert is relentless and can affect people in a lot of unexpected ways.
EDC doesn’t have a whole lot going on to challenge your emotions. Most people go, they have a good time, and that’s it. They’re in happy, party mode all night. There might be a bit of frustration with friends, or anger about missing a set or bad traffic, but overall, it’s a happy spot. The entire goal of the festival is to make people happy.
Burning Man is an emotional place, but it’s absolutely, in no way focused on making you happy. Artists put their own feelings into their work, so a lot of things are done specifically to make you feel a whole bunch of different ways. The temple will make you sad. People’s lists of confessions may make you empathetic. You’ll probably be intensely lonely, and tired, and angry, and jealous over the week. You’ll probably be frustrated at the dust and at your camp mates. You’ll be yearning for a clean bed and clothing and a shower, and maybe even feeling isolated. Or different. Or like an outcast. You may end up feeling pretty bad about yourself after seeing all of the amazing things that people have accomplished. Something may cause you to dig up the darker moments in your life that we all have. And it’s intentional.
And then the dust, let’s not forget the dust. A lot of people just can’t deal with it. It’s hard to be dirty all the time. It’s uncontrollable. It’s all over your things. You’re too hot, and you’re too cold, and your skin is a mess, it’s windy, you’re exhausted, and your’e ready to get home. It amplifies everything and some people are ready to call it quits by day 3.
But of course, this is all in addition to the infinite amount of amazing things to be found. Art that makes you feel good about yourself and your accomplishments. Someone to remind you that you’re important. An activity that pushes your boundaries and shows you that you can do so much more than you ever thought you could. The parties, and the fun times, and the mischief and all the people who do nice things for you just for the sake of kindness.
The emotions I’ve experienced on the playa are so absolutely raw, it’s addicting. It’s one of the things that keeps me coming back. I find it refreshing to have the opportunity to experience those emotions in such intensity, in a way that’s rare to ever encounter in our day-to-day lives. It’s not all happy-plur-party all the time, and you might not always be happy, but it’s most emotionally honest and real I’ve ever felt.
Although EDC is heavily influenced by Burning Man, they are very different events. Burning Man is not a festival, although it mirrors many of the same aspects. It’s a world on it’s own, and that world isn’t for everyone.