How the Edinburgh Fringe is financed: the article which you cannot read in this morning’s edition of The Scotsman

Bob Slayer: taken aback by The Scotsman

Comedian Bob Slayer was asked by The Scotsman newspaper to write a piece about the way the Edinburgh Fringe is financed.

One week ago, they told him it would be printed in today’s issue. Yesterday, they told him they had decided not to run it. This is the article they are not printing for whatever reason…

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Edinburgh Fringe’s magnificent choice of shows comes along with a rainforest of media and PR which aims to persuade us to see this show or that. Of course we all ignore that nonsense and seek out shows based on friends’ recommendations, reviews or other factors such as venue or price.

Surely the better shows are in the bigger venues and a £15 show will outshine one that is £5 or Free? You would think so wouldn’t you? Well maybe we should have a look at how the Fringe really works.

Understanding the Fringe means knowing who actually pays for it. Promoters? Venues? Some all-powerful Fringe body?  All of those will make money but actually the Fringe is mostly paid for by performers (who generally don’t make money!). Really? Yes, Really!

The open-access policy means that anyone can perform at the Fringe so long as you can find a venue. Demand to perform at the commercial venues is high and they have evolved a selection criteria that sets a minimum number of tickets that shows must sell, then charges them for those tickets before the festival even starts. Now it doesn’t really matter for the venues if tickets sell or not as they have already covered all their costs.

Performing at a 100 capacity pay-to-play room will cost an act a minimum of £160 per day or £4,000 for the whole Fringe. Ticket income is then split 60/40 but the venue applies such a myriad of deductions that shows are unlikely to ever cover what they have already shelled out. The venue is the only one guaranteed to make money in this relationship. Also with 10 shows programmed into each performance space it could generate the venue around £1,600 every day, or £40,000 for the whole Fringe. The commercial pay-to-play promoters have 65 performance spaces between them with an average capacity of 150 which means they’re charging performers nearly £4 million to pay for the Fringe, most of whom simply won’t make this money back.

Crikey! I want to run a venue! Oh, hang on, I do run a venue! The Alternative Fringe @ The Hive is in its second year, but we aren’t charging artists these sort of fees. In fact, we aren’t charging artists anything up front at all. Why? Well these crazy pay-to-play Fringe economics get worse.

Competition is so fierce for spaces in pay-to-play venues that, unless you have a full marketing campaign, then you are unlikely to get selected. This has led the average cost of putting on a Fringe show to be around £14,000. You can be the best show on the Fringe but if you haven’t got the cash then you are unlikely to be in the Assembly, Pleasance, Underbelly, Gilded Balloon or Just the Tonic. Conversely, if you wave enough money at them then they will probably find you a space somewhere.

So who ends up paying for these imposed costs? You the consumer of course. Just to stand a chance of breaking even, most shows need to charge at least £10. Even when you are paying £15 or £20 for a ticket, it is very unlikely the performer will see anything. It’s all being spent on that same marketing that you aim to ignore all month. It’s a myth that ticket prices reflect what the show is worth: they are dictated by what costs have been imposed on the show by an industry that has gone ever so slightly mad.

Some performers may still want the bragging rights of having played certain pay-to-play venues, but for how much longer? If you were a smart, funny, interesting act and you had a choice between spending thousands and risk not seeing a penny in return… or being part of a fun environment where you will be treated fairly, where would you decide to put on your show?

Change is inevitable.

The Alternative Fringe adopt a model similar to The Stand, who have been promoting some of the best, most affordable shows for years. We do not charge artists guarantees, rent or other hidden fees (Alternative Fringe earns £1 from each ticket sold). If we don’t sell tickets then we don’t get paid, which means we select shows purely on quality. As we are paying for the marketing ourselves, we are careful not to waste our money. These savings get passed on to the punter through cheaper tickets – £5 per show or £12 to see four shows (one pay).

Most importantly Alternative Fringe performers do not have to worry about getting into debt. When you buy a £5 ticket the performer is always seeing a healthy cut so you know that they are happy… It’s ironic that the pay-to-play mainstream comedy has been sponsored by a marketing led commercial beer, whereas the Alternative Fringe has been sponsored by Scottish Borders Brewery who produce individual real beers with care, building their business through word of mouth for a quality product.

“The pay-to-play venues have their commercial festival, but we are making a stand to Reclaim the Fringe!”

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ADDENDUM: By the time of the 2013 Fringe, Bob had developed his Pay What You Want concept under the banner of his Heroes of Fringe at two Edinburgh venues Bob’s Bookshop and The Hive.

24 Comments

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24 responses to “How the Edinburgh Fringe is financed: the article which you cannot read in this morning’s edition of The Scotsman

  1. Christina

    Lots of good points but equally, smaller venues who run for the love of the fringe, don’t make money out of it and I think it’s dangerous to paint venues as evil money grabbers. Because people are starting to think like that we have had companies pull out on us, not let us know and assume it’s not a problem when in reality we are subsidising the loss ourselves, in the same way that many performers do. We charge hire fees up front to cover the costs of hiring the venue we are based in and providing accommodation for our volunteer box office and front of house staff and hiring tech equipment for the performers to use. We are entirely voluntarily run and don’t have any sponsors or up front backing to be able to take the financial risk of box office splits. Our budgets are purely break even and we don’t charge companies for anything they don’t use. The free venues model only works if you have a sponsor or a bar to subsidise your venue or if you don’t programme shows that require a full theatre set up. To build a theatre space cost money and we don’t have that amount of cash up front or the marketing capacity to sell all the shows on behalf of our companies. If every venue only programmes shows they think will sell loads it will eventually undermine the whole concept of the fringe being unprogrammed and anyone being able to bring a show if they want because then only more experienced companies or ones that know how to present their show in the first place to get programmed will be able to come to the fringe and restrict more niche or off-the-wall shows from being able to find a venue because they wouldn’t sell loads of tickets. I think there is definitely a need to make sure that performers get a fairer deal but it’s essential that there are a variety of models to suit different styles of performance and keep the variety of the fringe and charging someone to hire a space and then letting them keep all their box office I think is an upfront and clear way of doing it and doesn’t necessarily equal evil money-grabbers!

    • This year AF is going under the banner Heroes of Fringe…
      Our shows are FREE but you can buy a ticket in advance to guarantee entry… its the best of both worlds
      Phil Kay, Ivan Brackenbury, Miss Behave, Bob Slayer, Adrienne Truscott, David Mills, Lewis Schaffer, Sanderson Jones, Pippa Evans… etc

      http://www.heroesoffringe.com

  2. I wrote that in a moment of rare lucidity that I no longer understand – it does not offer an answer to the ills of the fringe but it does attempt to point the finger at the greedy bastards who are making it sick. Of course theatre is different. Of course the best show at the fringe is in the underbelly (Dr Brown) but it would still be interesting to burn the cow to the ground… long live PHIL KAY – and we have him turning up at the Hive next week. David Mills and Devvo are packed to the rafters with happy people… did I go off point? I had a fosters judge in today and she refused to drink a drop of the sponsors shit lager while I downed pint after pint of foxy blonde from the scottish borders brewery. my cousin is lovely. and the number of bars i am banned from this year so far totals 3…

    Bob x

  3. Hello again John! Fascinating. Myself, Austin Low and my partner, Michelle Wilson, performed a show from 2005-2007 called ‘Che Guevara on the Fringe’ (**** The Scotsman – the saga of how that review made it into print is a story in itself). We educated audiences through entertainment about exactly what is detailed above. Viva Revolution! Hope to bring back the 4th installment next year in some way, shape or form. 2017 is only five years away!

  4. Fringeveteran

    Another article by someone with a financial interest in pushing their own venue/show through attracting attention with controversial statements that bear little relation to reality. In his example where a performer has to pay £4000 minimum, if the performer sells 70 of the 100 tickets a night, then the performer’s share will be £10,000. The minimum venue share effectively means that the venue takes the proceeds of the first 16 tickets sold, then the performer takes all the proceeds from the next 24 tickets and they split the reminder 60/40. If the performer cannot be sure they can sell at least 40 tickets in a top four venue, then they should have chosen a 50-60 seat space. If performers are subsidising venues with the guarantees, it is only because their show is bad and no one comes or they were foolishly unrealistic about their prospects of competing against the other 2,699 shows.

    Also, it is worth noting that for the same performer to get the same total proceeds, of £10,000 after venue’s share, they would have to sell 100 tickets a night at £5, in which case they would still be paying Bob £2,500 even though Bob’s set-up costs are probably much lower than the big four venues because it is run on a shoe string.

    • Robbie Tone

      Absolutely rubbish reply that missed the whole point. Fringe veteran you may be but having a clue, you do not. And i bet you are not even a comedian.

      • Sam

        He’s right about the author using the article to promote his own interests though – which I suspect is the reason they didn’t run it. Pure self promotion.

      • Fringeveteran

        Robbie, you are right I am not a comedian. I am in fact someone who has been going to the Fringe for 23 years as a performer/producer (theatre not comedy), venue manager and more recently just as a punter. But I don’t think that only comedians can do simple maths!

  5. Kim

    As the parent and investor of someone who has hocked everything to ‘pay to play’ – I have to say that I was disappointed in the venues and the work necessary to fill them, in the light of the competition. In order to get a good reputation to fill seats, you have to get someone on the seat first. They have calculated that their venue would have to be full every performance from day 1 to break even. Definitely not The Fringe we knew when we lived in Scotland – it was all about giving unknown artists a voice then whereas nowadays it is a moneymaking machine which may very well be on its last legs..

    • Fringeveteran

      This was just as much of a problem when I first took two plays for a new unknown theatre company to the Fringe in 1991. I those days we had to pay fixed rent to the venues in advance, not even a box office split. The problem of new companies getting bums on seats is nothing to do with the financial model and all to do with the number of shows you have to compete against for a limited number of paying punters. As a punter these days I am more likely to take a punt on a new company in a big venue as I know how competitive it is to get a slot there and so I know there has been some quality control. I do also go to “pay what you want” shows (no shows are really free), but I won’t take more of a chance on them because I still consider it my duty to put a decent ticket price for these shows in the bucket as I know how hard it is for performers to earn a living if punters pay nothing or just £1 or £2 if they can actually afford more.

  6. Fringeveteran has calculated their figures all wrong
    In order to cover the £14,000 costs for putting on a show in one of the Pay-to-play venues you will need to sell 2333 tickets and in a 100 capacity room have the potential to make maybe £70 per day – pretty dreadful return for risking the £14,000 you paid before the fringe even started.
    And remember the venue (who call themselves promoters) doesn’t risk a penny on this deal and wont pay you until way after the fringe has ended.

    # Pay-to-play finances
    £14,000 is 60% of £23,333 which at £10 each ticket means you need to sell 2333 tickets over the whole run in order to break even
    Divided by 25 days of the fringe Is 93 tickets per day – Leaving just 7 tickets potential profit (£70)
    That is potential profit of just 7.5% of the ticket income!
    Whereas the venue is getting 40% plus (they have their fingers in the marketing costs!)
    (Oh and remember you need tickets for reviewers, industry etc = and don’t forget the deductions that the venue add to your statement)

    # Alternative Fringe
    Acts on the Alternative Fringe do not have anywhere near the risk up front and will take home 80% plus of every ticket sold…
    = Phil Kay sold out his part run at the Hive – It was priced correctly and of course because of who Phil is we did this with £200 marketing costs. Other acts may need a little more. But if you can’t sell tickets spending a few hundred / couple of grand on promo then spending £10,000 is pissing in the wind and you might as well give your money to Chris Dangerfield to spend it on hookers…
    Also note Phil was able to take his cash income every night. And we settled up online sales and did a final account 5 days after his run ended.

  7. Scots Lass

    Where are you getting the £14,000 from?

    This seems to be another badly written, sensationalist article driven by self publicity.

  8. Alternative Fringe aim is to spread public awareness of why ticket prices are so high in Edinburgh and I think this well written article does exactly that! We also offer an Alternative model to acts who don’t want the financial nightmare of pay-to-play venues.

    Scots Lass and Fringeveteran both appear to be aliases of the Pay-to-Play venues. So here is my suggestion instead of desperately trying to undermine valid criticism why don’t you go public with your actual statements and costs? Then we could accurately calculate the average cost of performing in one of your venues. But you wont will you. I have spent the month talking to many shows who can’t even find out what extras and hidden costs you will be charging them… i.e. charging for press and comp tickets…

    Interesting piece by Steve Bennett on Chortle today

    http://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2012/08/28/16039/the_future_of_the_fringe%3F_think_smaller

  9. Please don’t forget the original player who decided the fringe had become the very thing it was set up as a reaction against. PBH’s Free Fringe satisfies almost all of the arguments. The good shows on both the main Free Fringe models made good profits this year and had decent audience numbers despite the overall low turn out of punters. The ones making the money were not big names, just hard working savvy types who were lucky enough to have all their dice land well on this years throw.
    As with all the other venues and models, the poorly produced, poorly thought out or the vanity shows failed to get audience and it cost them a great deal of money to turn up to nearly empty rooms. There will always be exceptions to the rule I know of a number of world class comics who failed to get audience…. it is not their talent which let them down but maybe their brand or their marketing. The successful shows in whichever venue or format were the ones who understood their market, had the right branding to grab the attention of the fickle Ed Fringe public and then delivered a show to match their marketing wizardry.
    There is room for all the ways to play. Just remember that whichever one you chose, it is just the beginning of a cruel and fragile process which can fail if just one detail is missed.
    I applaud Bob for having the balls to do this and the more competition their is and the more diverse the formats and deals the more chance that everyone will find a place that suits them regardless of budget, talent and marketing ability. That’s what the fringe is about.
    The big venues are sound business models and cannot be criticized for covering their own arse and even making a profit, no-one is forced at gun point to play or pay.
    I run a successful building company and charge top money for what I do. People happily pay for my services. If someone down the road wants to fit a roof or a bathroom for a fraction of what I am charging, good luck to them, Lets allow the market to decide.

  10. How could anyone forget the indomitable PBH, but as you have brought him up it does make me want to point out that, as commendable as everything he has done is, his claim that his way is the only valid one and his banning of anyone who doesn’t agree with him has ultimately been rather unhelpful in many ways especially in developing diverse models, either free or paid…

    I am most proud that this summer the Alternative Fringe has helped move the debate away from paid v free shows, this was always a largely irrelevant debate that was constantly sidelined by bickering between the two free promoters.

    The big venues are indeed sound business models for everyone apart from the artists! If you can sell tickets then why is your agent suggesting that you give the venues and marketing companies all your money? Maybe because they are taking a healthy share as well or tying you in to other deals? There are much smarter ways to operate and I believe that as more artists realise this and find representatives who act in their best interests the fringe will improve. This is when the Pay-to-play venues will be forced to offer more competitive deals and the fringe will change for the better…

  11. Your article makes interesting points but I’d agree with the decision not to publish. You make no mention of the two free fringes, forest fringe, dozens of other smaller venues and a host of other models that are out there. What the Alternative Fringe is doing seems worthwhile but it’s far from a new idea.

    I do have ties to some of the big venues, having worked in most of them in the past, and there is some truth in what you say, but ultimately even the biggest venues aren’t in it for the money. Building temporary venues is an expensive business and the professional standards a venue has to measure up to make it a damned expensive undertaking.

  12. Leo Kearse

    Cracking article, and it’s great that the status of the Free Fringe and your own Heroes of the Fringe is growing by the year, with acts such as Imran Yusuf, Chris Dangerfield and Darren Walsh performing there.

  13. The Cantankerist

    I agree with Brian – there seems to be little consideration in the article of what the venues put into play. Yes, it’s an expensive enterprise mounting a show, more expensive than it should be, but that goes for everyone: performers, producers, venue owners. I’ve seen it up close from every side, and I can guarantee that absolutely nobody is raking it in to the degree this article would suggest.

    It’s easy for some artists to see it, somewhat narrowly, as a one-on-one relationship: I brought this show, and the venue brought that room, and why isn’t our cut more equitable? Well, probably because the venue brought that stage, that staging, that technician, that promotion, those facilities, for that room and the ten rooms surrounding it. At that scale, they’re not small enough to fly under the radar, so they do have to comply with stringent OH&S. They can’t do guerilla marketing with (ten rooms x 5 or 6 shows) fifty shows, there’d be no cut-through – what a luxury to be able to deal with a small roster and have the time to devise those approaches!

    Your example show may be selling out the 100-seater, but the show just before it? that one that’s dying a death and getting houses of 7 or 8? is receiving the same expenditure on technicians, promotion, facilities etc., and the venue is losing a packet. Your artist’s gamble on the Fringe was 10k? 14k? Yes, it sucks, it’s 14k they don’t have. Venues gamble in the multiple-hundred-k territory AT LEAST (those ten rooms weren’t actually rigged out until a few weeks ago, a crew came in and built the staging in every room over long days and somebody had to pay them all before the first audience member even came through the door), and most of them don’t have that much to lose either. Your artist finishes the Festival broke, and yes, it’s unfair. The venue finishes the Festival broke and the owner sells their house to cover debts and has to say “you’re fired” to a boatload of other people – that’s their payoff for having worked their guts out on the logistics and organisation of that year’s program for months before your artist had probably even started writing the show. It’s not remotely the same scale; if you wanna talk about risk/reward, a little more consideration for that side of the ledger would make for a much more balanced article.

  14. rgove

    > It’s ironic that the pay-to-play mainstream comedy has been sponsored by a marketing led commercial beer, whereas the Alternative Fringe has been sponsored by Scottish Borders Brewery who produce individual real beers with care

    That is precisely the opposite of ironic. Consult any dictionary.

  15. Pay-to-play venues make money regardless of ticket sales on individual shows.
    They rake money off the acts
    ANd make money on the bars
    PR make money
    Poster companies make money
    Media make money
    And the acts do not

    This is why Free shows have grown from 10% of the Fringe to 25% in the last 5 years… We now have a Free v Paid show divide which is also not healthy. Either the Free shows will splinter off and become the new real fringe or we will have a new model that will put the fringe back into balance

    THIS YEAR ALL HEROES OF FRINGE SHOWS are:
    Free, pay what you want on exit OR buy a ticket in advance to guarantee entry
    – we do not need to charge performers rent but there is more money to go around so that we can kit out the venues properly and give real support to the performers

  16. While I understand the point of view of the article, it does woefully miss out a large chunk of the Fringe; the other hundred or so venues that are not one of the big five. Also, the much bandied around figure of 14K to put on a show is far from the norm; it is easy to put on a show in the Fringe for a fraction of that (in the interests of disclosure – I have performed at the last 21 Fringes. The most I’ve ever had to pay for the run is just over 1K, and I’ve made money every year. I do all my own marketing and publicity, and I have three official ‘sell out show’ awards from the Fringe Office).

    Suggesting that it is a binary system of ‘everything you have’ against ‘nothing at all’ is deceptive. There are many other models, and room for all.

    People choose to apply for the big venues because they know that it will be easier to be noticed in such a room; the sad fact is that the press tend to congregate around them, and in the current climate of the Fringe (a comedy trade show) it is seen as an investment in a career (and before you glom onto that, I disagree with that idea in principle). Also, because of the large bar areas in these ‘Tier 1′ venues, there is a much larger ready audience to persuade in.

    The cost of facilities has already been mentioned; for professional companies there is a world of difference between a well equipped theatre (albeit a temporary one) and the back room of a pub. For stand ups who are used to playing such venues on a regular basis it’s less of an issue, but there are those to are willing to pay for better conditions.

    The only way to guarantee success in the Fringe is hard work; prepare a good show, and spend hours a day telling people about it. Look at it as three weeks of hard graft, and you will get the rewards. If you expect people to show up at your door on spec, you might be surprised when they go to see the people next door who did spend hours pressing the flesh.

  17. Iain

    I’m not surprised the Scotsman didn’t publish this. It’s nothing but a thinly veiled advert for the writer’s own venue. While some of the points made about the bigger venues may be true, the article is far from balanced. It suggests that the only options available to performers are the big five comedy venues or the writer’s own Alternative Fringe venue.

    There is no mention of the myriad small to mid-sized venues, or the free Fringe, which between them all offer a massive range of pricing options to both performers and audiences alike. There’s also no acknowledgement of the fact that while the Hive may be a great venue for certain acts, such as stand up comedians, it will be wholly unsuitable for other acts.

    A lot of acts, especially theatre, dance and physical acts, will require larger spaces, room to store props, wing space, special lighting effects etc. Things like this will not be achievable in the back room of a pub. To provide things like this, venues will have to hire larger rooms, specialist equipment etc. This costs money and as such the performers will need to pay up front. It’s completely unrealistic to suggest otherwise.

    I’ve been performing at the Fringe for ten years now, initially with student groups and then with professional companies, but always in “pay to play” venues. The majority of times we’ve made a profit. The times we didn’t were because the shows weren’t very good, or because we didn’t put enough effort into flyering, not because of some evil, money grabbing venue.

  18. We were on a word count – I would like to acknowledge so much more – the Free shows have grown from 10% of the Fringe in 2008 to 25% this year… They are a symptom to the increasingly one sided deals of the pay-to-play venues – AND they are keeping those Disney style operations in check

    What Heroes of Fringe is doing is looking to fill that massive void between two opposing philospohies…. Balancing and maximising creative and financial returns of the artist as opposed to just a commercial return for an organisation or individual

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