Burning Man vs. Coachella: How to Choose a Festival

Gina Levy is the founder of Kindra, an app that helps people make meaningful connections. Her experiences at Burning Man and other festivals encouraged her to create 10 Principles for the community she founded.

I got hooked on festivals after attending my first Burning Man in 1999. Since then I’ve attended 12 Burning Mans, plus more than 10 regional Burns (BEquniox and YOUtopia), and festivals including Lightning in a Bottle, Lucidity, The Gathering, BhaktiFest, Leyenda, Genius Loci, and more.

What draws me to festivals is the community, the playfulness, the warmth, the music, the activities, the spontaneity, and the quirkiness. But not all festivals are alike, and they provide different types of experiences.

Some attributes that set festivals apart are:

DIY Gifting / DeCommodification

Initially, what drew me back to Burning Man was its other-worldliness -- the magical wonderment of not knowing what I would find around the corner, the excitement of so many people manifesting the wildest creations, and the shock of coming upon something that I had never even imagined could exist.

What has kept me coming back year after year is the gift economy.

There seems to be an immediate shift in how people interact and relate to each in a gift economy. In our everyday capitalist world, most of our interactions are transactional and commodified. Not just the obvious buying and selling of goods and services, but our day to day interactions have become increasingly commodified and transactional: What are you doing for me? What value are you to me? How much are you worth to me? How will you help me get what I want? If I hang out with you, will that increase or decrease my social standing? Will dating you increase or decrease my value?

Gifting economies are a breath of fresh air where (almost) everyone is unconditionally giving without thinking about what they will get in return. This shift in intention leads people to find themselves interacting with others from a place of warmth, grace, kindness, helpfulness, and love. And this is why I’ve become literally addicted to these gifting/de-commodification festivals – so I can be energized by the human potential for so much good.

The regional Burns also follow the 10 Principles including gifting and de-commodification, but they deliver a much more intimate experience more aligned with the Burning Man line that “Everyone is a participant. There are no spectators.” The regionals remind me of the early days of Burning Man: they don’t deliver the spectacle of the Playa with its huge, decked out sound camps, million dollar installations and art cars, and expensive fireworks and explosions. Most camps at regionals are DIY cobbled together affairs, and the art feels more intimate and follows the philosophy of Outsider Art that proclaims: Everyone is an artist and you too can create.  

Today there are scores of regional burns across the globe.  In Southern California YOUtopia, San Diego’s regional Burn in October, hosts 3000 Burners and xx theme camps people nestled in a magical oak forest with a large stream running through it. Bequinox, Los Angeles’ regional burn, relocated this year to a purchased plot of land in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Its first year at this location, Bequinox embraced 1500 people and xx theme camps, with streets laid out on a grid like Black Rock City. It really felt like a neighborhood of Burning Man had been picked up and plopped down in Southern California’s high desert. As one Bequinoxer raved - it’s the culture without the virgins and the plug-and-play guests. In other words, Burning Man culture undiluted by too many new people not yet familiar with its principles - over one-third of Burning Man attendees are virgins, some of which are wealthy people who fly in to spectate.

At Burning Man and regional Burns, you (or your camp) are responsible for your own food -- although there is so much gifting of food that you usually barely make a dent in what you brought. By contrast, at other festivals such as Lighting in a Bottle, Lucidity, and Desert Hearts, there’s a plethora of delicious food and drink vendors, as well as clothing vendors.

At Burning Man, DIY theme camps offer interactivity. At most other festivals, campgrounds are just for camping, and campers don’t offer anything or welcome people they don’t know. But at some of the smaller festivals -- Lucidity, Genius Loci -- the camping area has a more open, welcoming vibe.

Size and Terrain

70,000 people flock to the Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, the intense heat in the day, cold temperatures at night, and unpredictable dust storms act as a rite of passage for all who journey forth. No other festival is as large or promises such a formidable physical environment.

Festivaling in the Live Oak Campground in Santa Barbara is idyllic by contrast -- dancing under the oak trees, never too hot or too cold.  Lightning in a Bottle began there in the early 2000s, but outgrew the space. Lucidity Festival (about 5,000 people) is now held there every April. Lighting in a Bottle, hosting 20,000 revelers, re-located this year to camping grounds by a swimmable lake in Bakersfield.

My favorite location is by far the stunningly gorgeous peninsula in Baja where Genius Loci Festival, a music, surf, and yoga festival, hosts 1200 people. Most make the trek from Los Angeles and San Diego. You can set up your tent overlooking the ocean. Every moment as  you look around, you are overcome by the natural beauty.

Music

For music lovers who want the festival experience with the best curated music from famous bands, Coachella happens over two weekends in April near Palm Springs. Top headliners this year include Childish Gambino, Ariana Grande, and Tame Impala.

Burning Man also delivers a feast of music, but you have to search for it. Theme camps are prohibited from announcing their DJ lineups in advance to limit the DJ-following crowds. While most of the music pumping on the Playa is EDM, there are live music camps: Reverbia, Crossroads, Jazz Camp, roaming barber shop quartets, and New Orleans jazz bands. Black Rock Philharmonic and Playa Pops literally sprout up all over the Playa spreading classical music.

Unlike Burning Man, festivals like Lightning in a Bottle (LIB), Lucidity, and Desert Hearts, are curated, so like Coachella they have a schedule of music you can actually follow. LIB and Lucidity offer a range of music from EDM to world music and live performers. Desert Hearts is more EDM-focused.

Workshops and Interactivity

The big draw for Lucidity Festival, billed as a transformational Arts and music festival, are the talks and workshops. They host a movement area just for yoga, qi gong, and contact fusion, areas for learning poi, meditation, healing, and talks about activism, spirituality, creativity, tantra and plant medicine and many many more.

LIB also delivers a huge offering of workshops. One year I spent hours in their Learning Kitchen soaking up food and cooking tips. There’s a whole area teaching crafts, from pigments to rope making to blacksmithing. Another area offers round the clock yoga and meditation, and another talks about anything from psychedelics to art and climate change.

Not to be missed at LIB is the Grand Artique’s Frontierville, a Western Town with Saloon, General Store and Old School House offering carnival games, old Timey music, Frick Frack Blackjack, and spontaneous Old West experiences.

Best-known for its music, this year Desert Hearts is expanding its workshop, healing sanctuary, and art offerings.

Selected for its killer waves, Genius Loci’s two beaches entice surfers; for novices, surfing and paddle boat lessons are provided daily. All day yoga is offered from atop a ridge overlooking the Pacific coast with fresh ocean air spilling up to invigorate each breath. While there are fewer workshop at this intimate festival, activities from crystal wrapping to cocoa ceremonies enrich the experience.

Age

Everyone is welcomed at Burning Man, including children, who usually can be found at Camp Kidsville or Black Rock Explorers. Even people in their 80s are known to make the trek. The median age at Burning Man is 34. Lucidity Festival also welcomes all ages, and even has a teen activities area. LIB is also all ages, although it tends to skew a bit younger (average age is probably late 20s) than both Burning Man and Lucidity.

Desert Hearts is a 21-and-over event, with the average age probably in mid-20s.

Other Festivals worth investigating include yoga festivals Bhakti and Shakti Fest in September and May in Joshua Tree, Serenity Gathering happening late April in Northern California, and Sambala Festival in August in Canada. Some festivals follow the summer camp model -- rather than workshops they have summer camp style games. Although I haven’t attended, I’ve heard great things about Dirty Bird Campout and Camp Xanadu.

Kindra will be at Lucidity, Desert Hearts, and Genius Loci this spring creating a space to chill and connect with others. In collaboration with SerendipiTea Lounge, we’ll be bringing a tea lounge and offering guided cuddling, face painting connection, HELD heart-opening workshops, Kindra Connection Cards, and SpiritTats and other temporary tattoos.

Get a preview of our festival experience with the Mad Hatter's Tea Party on Saturday Night! Find kindred spirits, play FrickFrackBlackJack, decorate hats, face-paint, cuddle, dance and drink from an ice sculpture!

What’s your favorite festival and why do you like it? Let us know in the comments below!