We create Burning Man. We do it without much coordination (camp placement, early entry passes mainly) from the organizers. And we do it for free, as a gift.
Contrast that with music festivals, where everywhere you look someone is trying to make a buck off you, and where the management pays people to come entertain an audience. They're completely different animals to my mind.
There are plenty of other differences too, of course, but those are the ones that are the most salient to me, and make Burning Man different enough that I personally just avoid using the word festival to refer to it.
I mean, we have a word for it, and it works really well: city**, as in Black Rock City.
Because that's what it is. It's not a rave. It's not a concert. It's not a music festival. It's a temporary city that rises from the dust every year like a goddamn phoenix thanks to the generosity of spirit and incredibly hard work that the non-tourists put in. Did you know that the hard-working placement team placed over 1300 camps in 2014? Think about that - that means there are over 1200 camps providing some kind of interactivity to the city. Where else do you get that kind of density of experience besides a city?
And like other cities, you'll find many different things in the it. You'll find bars. Radio stations. Newspapers. Raves. Roller rinks. Classes. Participatory sex seminars. Dojos. Restaurants (Dust City Diner!). Temples. Bakeries. Bike repair 'shops'. On and on and on. Hell, you'll find a whole installation art festival as soon as you step onto the open playa. And of course, you'll find a lot of music stages, because it's a city whose inhabitants definitely do place a lot of importance on music.
And once again, it's largely built by the city's inhabitants. By us, for us. Just like in permanent cities. A central authority builds the basic infrastructure, and we build the rest. We just do it all as a gift rather than as commerce.
City is at least as accurate as festival as it frames the event in our minds such that some of the ideals we value, like participation, communal effort, and civic responsibility, are simply natural outgrowths of that framing. Of course you don't simply passively consume in a city - you live in it. Of course you want to work together with your community to make it a better place. And of course you care about the welfare of those around you.
And yeah, I do get that calling it a temporary city might seem a little pretentious to some ears, but I think it's a far more accurate and meaningful term than music festival for it (though just 'festival' is fine), so that's what I use. May the haters be forever afflicted with bros.
**Some people claim the correct spelling of city in this context is actually c-u-l-t. It is difficult to dispute sometimes, and certainly I have friends who wonder why I won't shut the hell up about it already.
Addendum: Reddit user 'theseekerofbacon' made a good point: "I would describe thinking of burning man as a giant rave/party is like going to a major city and only ever visiting the tourist locations.It's bright and flashy and the easiest to talk about, but it doesn't even cover a sliver of what the city has to offer."
I'm Dr. Yes, Professor of Affirmatology. Just say yes, folks!