Category : Personal

Events Personal

In Which I Answer “What’s the deal with privilege and Burning Man?”

A few months ago, my friend Russ Marshalek asked: “How can anybody defend this fucking privileged Burning Man thing?” I decided to take a stab at it. The original audio is pretty choppy after 15 minutes, so I decided to transcribe it here.

BLACK ROCK CITY, NV - SEPT 2: First-time Burner Sonja Lercer of Whistler, B.C., Canada, dances on the LOVE installation at last week's 25th annual Burning Man festival.   (Photo by Keith Carlsen For the Washington Post)


Russ: Hey there. Welcome to Postcards from the Edge, my weekly radio broadcast that goes right into your tiny little ear drums. Or if you’re like me, your ear drums are pretty big because those iPod headphones never actually fit. My name is Russ Marshalek, if you don’t know that. I am one third of the band a place both wonderful and strange. And ever since I started this show like 14, 15 weeks ago, I’ve kind of been wondering what exactly it is that I want to do. I’ve had some amazing guest mixes. I’ve done literally just a live conversation with Ghost Cop and my band mate Shanda, and Partisan from the UK about walled garden internet apps while listening to terrible Twentyone Pilot songs. And a couple of weeks ago I decided that one of the things I would really like to do is try to kind of explore my own biases and do something other than just say, here’s a Shackleton tune. So if you know me, you know that I am preternaturally biased against Burning Man and all that stands as signs and signifiers of Burning Man culture. So I am trying to delve into why that is and what the culture actually is, ostensibly for my own peace of mind, so that I can kind of reconcile people who I love and respect also being heavily into the Burning Man culture. And also just for my own personal understanding. I don’t like having prejudices against people other than Donald Trump. So, yeah, so this week, I spent some time talking to a dude named Kevin Bracken, who runs Newmindspace and is a burner multiple times over. So I’m going to air that interview as it happened. A couple of caveats. One, the sound quality kind of gets a little crappy. So I apologize for that. I am working through some equipment shit but I wanted to get this done. One, because I wanted to talk to Kevin while he had time, and two, because I didn’t want to just rerun an old episode again. So if you can bear with me for the quality, the conversation was really, really good and kind of, as I say many times, kind of hit me in a blindside with some stuff that I relate to. So thank you again, Kevin. Again, Kevin is with Newmindspace., I believe. And yeah, their art car from this past year, their art project, the Prodigal Swan, you’ll be able to see that if you click on the show information. I’ve put a picture of it there. So once again, without further ado, here’s a conversation I had with Kevin Bracken.


Russ: So for those of you who don’t know Kevin, why don’t you yourself, Kevin, kind of give a little introduction to who you are, Newmindspace, you’ve done like a thousand things since we first met, so just I guess, elevator pitch Kevin Bracken.

Kevin: Totally. So I think when people want to know like, hey, what do you do for a living, the most boring fucking cocktail question there is, I usually just tell them I’m an event producer. If they think that means that I haul speakers around or I sell tickets to parties, that’s totally cool. But for the last 10 years, I’ve been putting on mostly free massive fun events, probably most notable, International Pillow Fight Day, now in 150 cities around the world, people literally do just hit each other with pillows by the thousands of the first Saturday of every April. Giant games of Capture the Flag, huge bubble blowing parties, night club parties. Illegal under-bridge raves. Things that have required me to drag generators through the mud in the pouring rain to make sure the party still went on. Basically any manner of public fun that we can get away with. So it’s called Newmindspace, and I’ve also thrown parties under lots of different names; Refuge, we had an illegal night club for a while in 2009; all kinds of fun stuff. So that’s what I do. Events are my passion and probably my purpose too. I think they are the thing that I am uniquely good at, way more than any other corporate shit I’ve ever done.

Russ: Cool. That definitely I think encapsulates the Kevin Bracken that I have come to know over the past few years. So yeah, definitely check out some of Kevin’s work. He’s definitely in terms of those of us in the event world, Kevin is super inspirational in terms of you know what, it doesn’t matter if there’s no power and there might be a flood and the cops will probably most definitely likely come, fucking do it anyway. Just do it. So let me ask this, when was your first time going to Burning Man, and what initially appealed to you to make you literally buy that ticket and take that ride?

Kevin: Sure, sure. So the first time I heard about Burning Man, I was 11 years old and this is when I first discovered electronic music. And, I mean, it was the first music that I said to myself, like, this is my soul, like this is the beat of my soul. And so I mean back then when I was 11 years old, I guess like what, I guess trance was like trance was the most popular [unclear 07:18] music, right? And so I heard about this thing called Burning Man on the news, I guess. It’s probably on some fucking Dateline Special. They’re like, drug orgy in the desert. But at the moment, I was like, I was reading like rave magazines. I had just gotten Internet, I was reading like rave mailing lists, I was just really getting into the rave scene. Obviously I couldn’t go to raves because I was fucking 11.

I didn’t go to my first rave in New York City until I was 15, at the Amazura Ballroom in Queens. I asked my mom if she would take me, and she’s like, no, I will not fucking take you to Burning Man [note: my mom doesn’t actually swear.] So from that moment on I wanted to go because I just thought like, this is my culture, this is like my thing. And I wasn’t able to go until I was 18. You can’t go to Burning Man as an unaccompanied minor, but you can go when you’re 18. So I bought tickets to go when I was 18, when I was living in Toronto. And I think that year, we probably spent maybe like $500 on the whole thing. I got a flight from Buffalo because it’s the closest American airport to Toronto. We ate basically potato chips and apples the whole week and trail mix. And we hitched a ride from somebody at the San Francisco Airport. And yeah, I mean, since then I’ve been going.

This was my 11th Burn, that I just went to. This year, we created an art installation called the Prodigal Swan. It was a huge sheet metal swan that could fit about 8 to 10 people with a sound system. And you know what, I think long story short, and maybe this is what you’re actually getting at is, I am unusual in that unlike many burners, the thing that got me into Burning Man, it was really the music that pulled me there, and then the art. I think a lot of burners, especially older burners, it was the art and then maybe the music. Or maybe not the music at all. I think there’s actually a very deep cultural divide within the Burning Man community, and some people think that Burning Man has been ruined by dance music, but personally I think that’s one of the greatest things about it.

If you ever went to a Teknival, or if you ever went to any freetekno party, then one of the beautiful things about it is if you had a sound system and a generator, you can show up and you can play your music. Whatever kind of music it is, whether it’s fucking like, if it’s like down tempo ambient polka-core or some fucking jazz step, or some hard techno, or whatever you like, then you can play it and people vote with their feet, and if they like the music you’re playing, then you have like a guaranteed audience as long as your music isn’t shit. So I mean that was really the thing that attracted me initially to Burning Man, although now after going for 11 years, I mean, we’re very much deep in the scene.

Russ: So there’s a couple of things I want to say. One, for the listeners, there’s going to be a picture of the Prodigal Swan in the show notes. So you will be able to see it. I’m going to throw a bunch of pictures up there because it actually is really fucking cool looking. Second, god damn jazz step, the fucking like, that New Avalanches song completely had me hooked, and I was like, I’m listening to jazz step. They’ve tricked me. I feel tricked. I’ve waited 15 years for this, and now I have to go bury my head in the sand. Like…

Kevin: It’s a rabbit hole.

Russ: Yeah. You make an interesting point. And you come at this from kind of my one weak side, and that is that when I first started to get really heavily into electronic music, I was a little older than you, I was like 15, and I lived in the South, so there was very much kind of a massive younger crowd that would go to raves and underground parties and whatnot. And I remember hearing about what Lee Burridge was doing with full moon fest and things like that. At the time the thought of being out for a week and just listening to dance music with people that also wanted to consume that seemed super idyllic. And so when you present that facet of Burning Man, I actually am like, oh, this kind of sounds cool. And I know that in terms of the music scene out there, it’s definitely escalated from when it started to where it is now. Why do you think that is? Why do you think that now you’ve got the, for lack of a better word, and I don’t hate this dude, the Skrillexes of the world coming out to Burning Man to play?

Kevin: Yeah, totally. So I mean, Burning Man did not actually have dance music at it for the first 10 years of its existence. So Burning Man started in 1986, and in 1995, that was the first year that there was actually a rave at Burning Man. I think the headliner was Goa Gil. I mean, that guy… I feel like he’ll never die. So Goa Gil was there, and his name was actually on the flyer for Burning Man, which is something they would never do now. They would never list a DJ’s name on the Burning Man flyer. It was like a black and white photocopy flyer, like, there were only 5000 people there at the time. But it caused such an ideological rift between burners on one side, who had been going for a long time, like your kind of leathery badass like fucking dogs and guns and explosives type burner.

Russ: Yeah, the like mad max burners.

Kevin: Right exactly. And the Bay Area and Southern California area rave scene. And there was a major ideological falling out. And there was a confrontation, and generator cables were cut, and it was really just kind of a bad scene overall. And so the next year, they passed an official ban on sound systems louder than 100 watts. So what the Bay Area and LA and some New Yorkers actually, Blackkat was involved in this action, they built a massive papier mache art installation, and they’re like, we’re not doing a rave this year, we’re bringing an art installation. And Burning Man was like, cool, come on in. And then in the middle of the night, on the Wednesday of the event, they busted out a 20,000 watt sound system from the papier mache sculpture, and they played music all night. And so there was a confrontation, and they negotiated, and they said, okay, like we’ll let you bring sound systems next year, but they have to be really far away. So it’s pretty much been like that ever since.

The loudest sound camps at Burning Man, they have to be far away and they have to be facing away from kind of like the residential areas of the city. And, in terms of New York camps, I’d say Robot Heart is probably like the loudest mobile sound system they have there. But since they started allowing dance music at Burning Man, the population has swelled dramatically. I’ve camped with the sound camp for the last 10 years, where it’s either Opulent Temple or Root Society or Nexus. And those camps have played hosts to some of the world’s biggest DJs.

Now, Opulent Temple is the camp that I’ve spent the most time with. And Opulent Temple has never paid a DJ ever. They have 12 fundraisers during the year to raise their budget for Burning Man. They bust ass during the year, none of them are millionaires, they work their asses off and they raise a lot of money to bring out sound and arts and fire and these DJs. And some DJs even donate to OT for the privilege of playing on the stage. Like for example, we used to do a lot of trance back in the day. Oakenfold donated $5,000 to us. Tiesto donated $5,000 to us. But these days, I mean, we could have all kinds of music, I mean, there’s DJ Dan, Stanton Warriors, Infected Mushroom played this year. But none of them have ever gotten a dime from us. They’ve never gotten a plane ticket. They’ve never gotten… I think one time, we’ve given a DJ a Burning Man ticket. But in general, it’s up to them to sort all their shit out, just like every burner. And they just want to play on our awesome fucking 100,000 watt sound system, and have this kind of vibe that you just honestly can’t get anywhere else. I mean, Burning Man has the largest ratio of like crazy shit per person, I think of any music festival in the world, or, sorry, any festival in the world, music or not. And the reason is because each individual could bring something that is up to the size of a house, literally the size of a house. And so the amount of crazy shit out there and just like the fact that you have these people who are ready for anything, I think for a DJ, for whom music is the most important thing in their life, why wouldn’t you want to play at Burning Man?

Russ: Wow. That’s again, you’re coming at me from the side that is sympathetic and… as somebody who also DJs, I’m nowhere near on the level of Tiesto… maybe 300 people as opposed to 300,000. But it reminds me a lot, and I guess I’ll ask you this, because you really too, albeit, you were in the North while I was in the South – to what degree does it remind you, because I remember when rave shit stopped being fun. And for me that was in Atlanta, when rave kind of died and clubbing kind of started escalating, where instead of the kids [unclear 17:13] and the glow sticks and whatnot, it suddenly became like black pants and nice shoes and buttoned up shirts when you’re kind of listening to… like because they’ll, or like…

Kevin: It feels like it was going from the rejects to the cool kids…

Russ: Yeah, exactly, exactly, that’s exactly it. From the rejects to the cool kids.

Kevin: I mean, here in New York, that moment was definitely between 2001 and 2003. And part of the reason that it happened was because there was a coordinated effort… one was the RAVE Act weighed heavily everywhere else in the country. But New York in particular, because of all the money that the NYPD got from the Federal Government for counterterrorism initiatives, it seemed like almost everything that was illegal became possible for them to stop. So before then, I mean, there is just too much New York City to police and all that grimy underground spaces you could turn into parties.

And then around 2002, 2003, it suddenly seemed like everything got shut down at basically the same time. And at that moment, the night life industry was like, well, we got to push the bottle service, because we can’t have dancing in our spaces anymore, otherwise they’re going to think we’re a rave. And that’s when Meatpacking starting blooming, and that’s when the bottle service model really kind of came up. Like no more Limelight, no more club kids, Peter Gatien had been deported to Canada. And that was the moment that I started seeking a better rave scene. And I heard from my best friend at the time that the rave scene in Toronto was still untouched. And so we went to a rave in Toronto in 2003, and I was like, this is the best shit I’ve ever seen in my life. Because at that moment, happy hardcore was like my thing. Like, I was so into happy hardcore. And there were all happy hardcore raves in Toronto, really big ones.

And so, around that time, they were talking about a draft for the war in Iraq. And it never happened, obviously. But a lot of the American public really supported it. And that was the moment where I decided that I was over with this country. And I applied to only Canadian universities. I got into University of Toronto and I moved to Canada. And I enjoyed a healthy rave scene until that one also died, probably around like 2008 to 2009, if I had to put a date on it. But anyway, I know that your question really is, I think though, do I think that cool kids have taken over dance music at Burning Man – is that kind of where you’re going?

Russ: Yeah, that’s kind of exactly where I was going with that.

Kevin: Yeah. So I mean the Burning Man scene in San Francisco, like… So I think it’s important just to set the tone here. So Burning Man is a very broad term. And it talks about not only a single event but also a culture and events that happen in 50 countries around the world. So I think it’s very difficult to paint Burning Man with like a single brush. And that’s why I’m going to refer to Black Rock City, which is the city that pops up during the week before Labor Day, right? Black Rock City has a population of 70,000 people, it has very organized streets and avenues and a planning department and police and fire and medical. It is the third largest city in Nevada during the event, dwarfed only by Las Vegas and Reno. It’s now larger than Carson City, which is the capital of Nevada.

Black Rock City, like any real city, has a census, and the census has very good data about the people who come and what they do. So 40% of burners who go to Black Rock City live in California, and if you go California during the year, and you go to a Burning Man party, like those people are freaks, they’re fucking freaks. I mean, there’s no other way to put it. If you go to the Superhero Street Fair or the Folsom Street Fair, and there are balls hanging out of like leather underwear, and the Superhero Street Fair… (the theme of the Superhero Street Fair is like, be the superhero that you would be if you were a superhero) and everyone there is fucking weird. I mean, there’s a lot of weird people in the Bay Area. And really when it comes down to it, I mean, Burning Man is a creature of the Bay Area, and there’s a lot of fucking weirdos there. But there are camps at Burning Man, where you are going to find like the well heeled crowd. I think Robot Heart and White Ocean are probably the best examples. So White Ocean is a camp run by the son of a Russian billionaire oligarch. And White Ocean and Opulent Temple actually did have an agreement three years ago. And Opulent Temple took a year off, and all the core members went and they built the first year of White Ocean because they’re like, well, you have the knowledge, and we have funding, and we can make like a really cool stage. And it actually ended up being a terrible mistake. We hated their vibe. They were super rich assholes and from then on they’ve paid contractors basically to set up their camp.

And another is Robot Heart. Robot Heart is from New York, and I think people associate Robot Heart with attracting like models and whatever. But here’s the thing. Black Rock City is a city. And just like any other city, there is bound to be a ton of different types of people, especially if you’re talking about a city of 70,000 people. So the upper quintile in California of household income is $100,000 household income a year or more. The upper quintile of Burning Man is about $120,000 a year. So you’re talking about like a 28% difference to get to the upper quintile. Burning Man is actually incredibly diverse in terms of income, in terms of origin and I think we can talk a little bit more about race later because I have data about that too. But the fact is, in a city of 70,000 people, like there’s going to be rich people. And it seems like that they’re very visible at the dance camps just because there’s like a shit load of other good looking seemingly well-heeled, clean-looking people who have been rolling around in the dust.

But you got figure that say that it was only a few thousand people like that, or the upper quintile of income. Still you have four-fifths of the city, it’s like, it’s not like that. They’re getting down in the dust and they’re working hard, and they’re fucking building shit, and they are welders, and they’re artists and they’re blue collared workers, and they’re just like regular people from San Francisco who’ve been coming to this thing for 10 years, sometimes 20 years. I’ve even met people who were at the first Burning Man. So I mean, really, like, I do agree that there are certain camps at Burning Man that seem to be associated with I guess kind of like rich looking, jet-setting globetrotters. But at the same time, there are… how many large sound camps are there allowed… let’s just take it that there are 26 massive sound camps that are allowed to be at Burning Man. And then there are hundreds of smaller ones that will still play music at some point into the evening, but they have to stop around 12 or 2, depending on what part of the city they’re in. So I think White Ocean is definitely like, I don’t know, it’s kind of like a rich person dance music camp and maybe Robot Heart too. And Robot Heart also throws its own festival called Further Future, which I think if you’re looking for a larger concentration of like well-heeled dance music people, fertile future is…

Russ: Definitely, definitely. That is probably going to end up being its own separate show eventually once they get [unclear 25:29]. But it’s definitely…

Kevin: But to answer your question, I mean, Burning Man is a city. And a city, yes, there are definitely going to be like the richer people in the city and the not so rich people in the city. But honestly, this never really factors into your conversation with people either. But I do think, yes, like the number of, yeah, I think there are two camps for I would say, there are kind of very obviously better heeled people. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing either, as this is like a real city with real city things.

Russ: Cool. So I’m going to… Because you mentioned that I’m going to go into our last like big broad conversational topic, the question of race. Obviously with Burning Man, this question of race comes up a lot. The [unclear 26:23] camp is kind of [unclear 26:29]. So yeah, so talk to me about the issue of race at Burning Man.

Kevin: Sure so one thing is, a question that I’ve heard is, do you think Burning Man is a racist event? And that is, it’s nonsensical question, because there is obviously, one, there’s clearly no race test to get into Burning Man. And two, I have never seen any evidence of a large number of people of color who have expressed the desire to go to Burning Man and have not been able to because of some kind of perceived systemic inequality. So I have the data in front of me. 80.4% of burners in 2015 identified as non-hispanic whites. And so compared to the country, the country is 63% non-hispanic white. So that means that Burning Man is about 27% whiter than the country that it takes place in. I think for any music festival, this is probably actually the norm. And I would say that this might even be lower than an event like Bonnaroo or Camp Bisco, especially I think Camp Bisco is I think way more than that. Or any, or your average Phish concert. Or especially Coachella. So I would say that, one, is Burning Man actually significantly whiter than the country that it’s in, in a way that would surprise you? I don’t think so.

But here’s another thing. I think it’s actually more about class, and I think class is actually the more interesting question. So you may not know this, and that’s why I’m here, but Burning Man does a lot of things to make sure that if you can’t afford to go to Burning Man, that you can. So the average burner spends $1,943 going to Burning Man every year. And is that a lot of money? I think so. However, consider the… let’s talk about the ticket first. The ticket to go to Burning Man is $390, right? So $390. And what do you get? This year for the first time ever, Burning Man was 9 days long. You could show up on Saturday, and you could leave on Tuesday, and the reason for this is because Burning Man, to get into it, you need to go through a two-lane highway. It’s never getting bigger, the highway is not going to grow, and basically Burning Man needs to figure out ways to reduce the number of cars that are coming in. So what they’ve done to that effect is. now there are vehicle passes, and if you want to bring a vehicle in, you have to have a vehicle pass. And remember that the supply of vehicle passes is designed to contract every year. So this year there are fewer vehicles than last, next year there will be fewer than that.

So the ticket is $390, and the reason that it’s longer this year was to allow people more time to get in and out without causing a massive flood of people on either side, the beginning or the end. So think about that. Think about $390, for what is essentially 9 days of, I wouldn’t call it entertainment… but participation or entertainment. You’re talking $43 a day to go to a festival that, I mean, by most people’s accounts who have been there, is like the most mind blowing event you’ve ever been to in your life. So $43 a day to pay for that to me seems like, I don’t know, seems like a good price.

Russ: Yeah, but definitely, I mean, if you were to like spiral that off into a normal festival ticket price, that is definitely being [unclear 30:22] or even your fucking like, even your governor’s ball.

Kevin: Totally, totally. So consider that in addition to your $390 ticket, there are 6,000 low income tickets available to burners. And so the low income ticket is $190, and 4,000 of them are available through application. And 2,000 of them are available for people who are working on big art projects or big camps or also performing during the fire festival before the man burns. The gathering of the conclaves. So $190, I mean, if you lived in San Francisco or Reno, and you hitched a ride to Burning Man on Craigslist, they tend to run about $50. And you cooked all your own food that you bought from Trader Joe’s or from some kind of cheap grocery store, you could… if you didn’t have the money for Burning Man, and you could prove that to Burning Man, you could do the whole thing for like $500 for 9 days. I think that’s actually incredibly affordable.

I’ve never heard of anyone who wasn’t able to go to Burning Man because they were a low income person. And this year, Burning Man also announced that every year they take different factors into account. And this year, the factor that they took into account especially was the fact that the Canadian dollar right now is very weak. The Canadian dollar right now is worth about 70 cents US. So they announced that, they know there’s a lot of Canadian burners, makes up about 7% of the population of Black Rock City. And they would take into account the fact that the currency was low in their low income ticket applications. And a lot of my friends who are just like, they work at restaurants, they’re servers, they live in Toronto or Vancouver, and they were able to get the low income ticket because they applied for it, they said, hey, here’s how much money I made. It actually is not that much money US, do you think I could get a low income ticket? And they got it. And, until 2014, I don’t know how they do this anymore, but I think this was a cool program, there was a scholarship program, and if you wrote in to Burning Man and basically said like, I’ve been meaning to go to Burning Man my whole life, I’m going to bring this art project, like this is what I want to do, they would just give you a free ticket. And they did that for like I think 10 years. I don’t know if they’re going to do it anymore. I think they have just rolled out more low income tickets and scrapped the scholarship program.

But when it comes to class, like I said, I’ve never heard of anyone who was not able to go to Burning Man simply because they were a low income person. Now, if you’re a middle income person, and you think Burning Man is too expensive, then I think that’s fair, but at the same time, like I said, the mean for expenditure on Burning Man was $1,943. For a middle income person, this should be about what you would spend on your average annual two-week vacation. But I also do think that the mean is dragged up quite a bit. I don’t know the median. But I would venture a guess that the median is considerably lower because I know that even coming from another country and paying international flights, and like after 10 years, I finally bought like a shitty beat up old RV. Even after… and we… our camp dues are $100, some camp dues are more. Even after paying for all those expenses, I still don’t think that last year, we spent $1,900. So I don’t think that… there’s certainly no, there’s no income tests to go to Burning Man, but there is an income test if you want a low income ticket. And the way it’s been explained to me is that there’s a lot of them, and I don’t know any other festival that really does this, although there are festivals where you can get a free ticket if you volunteer in the kitchen or whatever. But the event itself, I mean, especially when we are talking about class and race, I think that it’s important to know, all of the projects that Burning Man also does that are not Black Rock City. And I’m going to go over a couple of them now, if you’re interested.

Russ: Sure. I’d say, we probably have about another 10 to 15 minutes of air time before I have to chop some of it up. So if that is good for you, then I would absolutely love to end up ending this with whatever else you’d like to tell me about.

Kevin: So beyond the gates of Burning Man, there are tons communities that are impacted by Burning Man in a really positive way. And those people are primarily people in northern Nevada, who live in very economically depressed towns, in Pershing County, in Washoe County, people in Reno, people in Fernley, Wadsworth, what other cities are on the way – Empire, Gerlach, these are people who, they basically live in a one-horse town that is currently in a period of massive de-industrialization. The city of Empire was responsible for one half of the country’s sheetrock production, because that’s what they mine out there, they mine gypsum. I mean, sheetrock is essentially playa dust. And their mine dried up. And they now… Burning Man is the only thing they have.

And so the economic impact on northern Nevada is hugely beneficial, but many of the people who live in the communities around Burning Man are Paiute, Paiute First Nations people. They’re extremely impoverished. They have problems with access to clean water and electricity and sanitation. They have problems on their reserves with… there’s addiction problems, there’s alcoholism. And Burning Man, they realized that we have all these electrical engineers that go to Burning Man, why can’t we give them free electricity? So that’s what they do. It’s called Black Rock Solar. It’s a free electricity program that benefits non-profits, schools and Paiute reservations that are basically along the road to Burning Man. And when you’re driving there, you see all on the road, massive solar farms and it says, energy provided by Black Rock Solar.

Now, there’s also burners without borders. Burners without borders is a group that was founded, my first burn, 2006, because at Burning Man, we received news from the outside world that there was a terrible hurricane that was basically destroying New Orleans. And the burners who were there at the time, a lot of them left early, because they said, look, we know how to erect temporary structures, we know how to use generators, we know how to set up tents and we know how to like… we know, basically like make these super efficient, low energy consuming camps in the middle of nowhere. We should get our asses down to New Orleans and we should lend a hand. And so now burners without borders is all over the world. I think there are chapters I think 20 countries now. They do stuff for, like central California, during the fire. They’re in Asia, they’re in Africa, they’re in parts of Eastern Europe. I mean, it’s really the scale of burners without borders is crazy. They do a lot of shit.

Now, there’s also big art for small towns. Burning Man grants $3 million a year to art projects, but that’s only art meant for Burning Man. There’s another I think couple of million dollars that’s destined for other places. You can look at it more, but I mean Burning Man is really all about taking the impact of the art and bringing it all around the world. There’s also the city of San Mateo innovation week. So the city of San Mateo I believe is 62% hispanic, Burning Man funded or rather co-sponsored and funded the city of San Mateo innovation week where they taught kids all kinds of special skills like welding and fabrication. There is Jaqmel Expression, which funded 15 marginalized artists in Haiti in Jaqmel Haiti to purchase silkscreening equipment and create an artist in residency program. And so they’ve been teaching business skills and screen printing to people in Jaqmel, Haiti, after the earthquake, so that they can get their feet back on the ground and start doing something to generate money for the families.

So there’s actually a bunch more but I understand our time is limited. But really, That’s just Burning Man itself. Now, consider that every burner is kind of called to give and do some kind of volunteering. And a lot of times that volunteering is just for their camp, making art during the year, spending nights and weekends on this thing that usually cost them a lot of money or doesn’t make them any money anyway. But some people, they have created massive projects in other cities like Detroit and Oakland, and just things that I think really spreads the benefit far and wide. I mean, some of these places like Peralta Junction was built in West Oakland, employ local people. And West Oakland, I’m sure you know is a very impoverished of the area. And Peralta junction, they said, we’re only going to hire locals to do the fabrication and to be the employees here. Downtown project in Las Vegas, Downtown Las Vegas, is also very economically impoverished place. And Burning Man is working together to create jobs for the local, the people who work there. So there is a lot of stuff man. It’s like, there’s a lot of stuff, and if you look at the pictures of the event of Burning Man and you say like, oh, it’s a lot of white faces, like what’s that all about? Or like, hey, this thing seems really expensive, like, is there something wrong with that? And I think these are definitely worthwhile questions. But I do think that Burning Man also takes great strides to not only address these things, but also to really just be a positive impact in the world.

Russ: You definitely have given me a lot to think about. I’m obviously not about to like hop on a plane and go out to the desert right now [unclear 41:21]. But yeah, anyway, thank you so much again, Kevin, for taking like half an hour out of your day to kind of walk me through this. It’s super fascinating for me even if nobody else ends up caring, but this has been really fucking informative and cool. And I like kind of the great spin that you put on things. So, yeah, you’ve given me a lot to think about, and I really appreciate it.

Kevin: Cool, man. Yeah. I mean, thanks for listening and having an open mind about it. And I’m happy to answer any follow up questions you might have. Let me know when we’re live on the air.

Russ: Okay, cool. Right, thank you so much, Kevin.

Kevin: All right.

Russ: All right. Thank you so much. Again, Kevin, I really, really appreciate you taking time to talk to me. Again, that was, it was super. The rave aspect of it, again, it’s something that’s kind of close to my heart, so obviously, not buying the ticket for the desert any time soon. But I’m going to keep having conversations like this. And if you thought it was cool, awesome, please let me know. If you hate this kind of new format, also let me know. But I probably won’t change it because this is my fucking show. So that’s about how that goes. Anyway, yeah, thanks again, Kevin. And if you know this show, you know what time it is. See you next week.

(Song plays)

[End of Recording 48:17]

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What’s Different in Canada: The Book


Get the book for free!

After three years of collecting the minor differences between the US and Canada, and the American election just one week away, I am proud to say the book is finally done, ready for you to download it.

Are you an American who’s bummed out about American politics? Do you deeply fear what may come after the election? Do you long to order double doubles, buy your milk in bags, and take your shoes off when you enter a home? What’s Different in Canada: The Book is for you!

We are pleased to announce the book release date: TODAY, one week before America decides between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. And how much will this fine bit of literature set you back? $0.

Click here to get the book instantly.

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Entrepreneurship Personal

On the Occasion of my 29th Birthday

Today I am turning 29. Here in Canada it is almost Thanksgiving, so I thought I would take a moment to give thanks for the incredible year that was my 28th.


I am incredibly blessed to have shared a fourth year with my wife and the love of my life, Marie. This summer we bought our first RV, painted it like a giant zebra and had an incredible road trip from California to Burning Man to Idaho and back. Marie is my favorite travel partner in the whole world and before the year is over, we still have Dubai, Thailand, Tokyo, New York and San Francisco to hit up 🙂 We are now in the planning stages of our wedding celebration and we are having the dress made in Thailand.

Work and Play

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Earlier this year, the company I co-founded, Gymsurfing, was acquired by fitmob. A few months later, fitmob was acquired by ClassPass, thus bringing to an amazing conclusion a journey I began in 2012, with all the insane ups and downs in between. There were times we were certain of failure, and those surprising moments where we turned it all around. I owe our amazing team, especially Dustin, a huge debt of gratitude for this.

Newmindspace also continues to see its biggest numbers yet, 10 years after we started this crazy mission of turning the city into a giant playground. This year we had our biggest pillow fight ever (and donated the most amount of pillows to homeless shelters ever!) our biggest bubble battle, and our biggest lightsaber battle, ever!

Marie and I are planning a new small business that we couldn’t be more excited for. I’ll keep the details scarce for now, but think “Palm Springs by the Bay.”


I also consider myself incredibly blessed to be surrounded by the most amazing bunch of friends and family I could ask for in New York, Toronto, and San Francisco. Every night out is an adventure, every party is next level, and every moment is so surprisingly good. The standard by which I measure my life: If the afterlife were real, and I got to look back at each day I’ve lived, would I consider it an excellent life? The answer, for my 28th year, is “absolutely” – and the reason is the people who make up this crazy tri-coastal life of mine. Thank you, and for you, my friends, I am eternally grateful.

I will not take this moment to offer any trite advice, although if you are interested in stories of life hacking, travel and entrepreneurship, watch this space: I hope to blog more often. And if you really do want some trite advice, do yourself a huge favor and read The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. No book has taught me more about how to think and how to live in order to maximize my personal happiness.

I’ve gotten here partly by working hard, partly by working smart, and in a huge way, a lot of dumb luck. 29, here I come.

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The Time Adam Vaughan Pressured Me To Change a Torontoist Post

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In September of 2007, Toronto’s most interesting temporary nightclub, CiRCA, was about to open. Exiled New York City club king Peter Gatien of Party Monster fame granted me an interview about the entertainment facility; I was thrilled. The club had faced years of delays, mostly regulatory, led by an alliance between the AGCO and Adam Vaughan. Vaughan was the local councillor in the ward, and one of his raison d’êtres was putting a cap on the number of nightclubs in Toronto’s Entertainment District, something about which we frequently sparred in public forums.

I faithfully transcribed my interview with Peter Gatien in the Torontoist post and I was very happy with it. It gave a glimpse into an amazing project many people thought was going to be just another mega-club on Richmond Street, when it was so much more. Not everybody was happy with the post, though.

A day after I posted it, my phone rang. It was Adam Vaughan and he was pissed. Apoplectic even. His objection was the following line in the post, specifically the second clause:

My guess is it’s probably some special interest like real estate developers, my guess is their contributions to campaigns have influenced politicians who might want to help companies develop in the area. -Peter Gatien

He yelled at me for roughly twenty minutes, saying the post was libelous. I objected, saying I had only transcribed another person’s words, and he said I knew nothing of the laws of Canada because I was a “foreigner.” He said that Torontoist could be sued, I could be sued, and I should know better than to insinuate that he took money from developers and that they were affecting his judgment on the local nightlife issue. He brought up his decades-long journalism credentials, as well as his campaign promise not to accept developer money. He was furious.

What I did next was definitely the wrong move: I changed the post without asking my editor David Topping. Adam had given 20 year-old me a good scare, and he convinced me that I was somehow guilty of libel. I removed the line that says, “my guess is their contributions to campaigns have influenced politicians who might want to help companies develop in the area,” and replaced it with a line I had edited out for brevity: “To the condo developers, this area is still pretty cheap.”

For the record, I know Adam Vaughan never accepted developer money for his campaigns. He made a point of this and published a list of his contributors; no developers were on the list.

This story is one of three times Adam and I publicly faced off; the other notable one was when he called me “a tough little 20 year-old” for challenging his infamous “mess of drugs and graffiti” video that he eventually pulled from his first campaign website.

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Announcing What’s Different in Canada: The Book!


We are extremely excited to announce What’s Different in Canada – the book! Featuring expanded content, original illustrations by Marie Poliak, and bonus material, to be released in July. And best of all, if you subscribe to the newsletter, the ebook is completely freeFind out more at What’s Different In

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