(A version of this blog was published later the same day by the Huffington Post)
The Edinburgh Fringe does not happen until August, but performers – and especially comedians – start planning for it now – in late-December.
The big problem, of course, is the cost. I have reckoned for the last few years that, to stage a professionally-promoted show at the Fringe, costs a performer around £7,000 to £8,000 and you have to assume a 100% loss.
I may be out-of-date, though.
Comedy whirlwind Bob Slayer, formerly in the music business, reckons it now costs £12,000+ to run a show over the Fringe’s three-and-a-half weeks in a ‘paid’ venue. That means the performer pays to hire the venue and the audience pay to see the show.
This week, on the Chortle comedy industry website, he wrote about the opportunities for building a comedy career in a new way.
Now he has gone further.
“The Edinburgh Fringe is a wonderful thing,” he tells me, “but few punters realise the extent to which it is bankrolled by the performers themselves. The vast majority of so-called ‘promoters’ at the Fringe rent rooms to performers just like a landlord. And they sell marketing packages like an agency. What they do not do is take the same financial risks that a real promoter does.”
It is even worse than that. The major venues, in effect, force performers to pay around £500 to be included in their own printed programmes on top of the £295-£393 all performers pay to be included in the main Fringe programme. And then there are unavoidable PR and ticket-handling costs.
“By passing the actual financial risk on to the performer, they are effectively making the performer act as the promoter with a limited upside,” says Bob. “In the music industry this would be called Pay-To-Play and something that you only really find at the lowest level. What performers need at the Fringe is the opportunity to put on shows without risking ridiculous amounts of money.”
For this reason, the last few years has seen a gigantic increase in the number of free Fringe shows, with the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival.
The performers do not pay any money to hire a free venue and the audience do not pay for tickets. At the end of the show, they can give as much or as little (or no) money to the performer as they feel the show has been worth. In effect, it is like busking.
American comic Lewis Schaffer – as I mentioned in a recent blog – has brought this ‘free’ performance concept to London with his Free Until Famous show – it is now the longest-running one-man comedy show in the West End and he is taking this free show on a mini-tour of UK arts centres in 2012.
“The huge growth of free shows,” says Bob Slayer, “highlights the increasing demand for an alternative to shelling out so much money to put on a Fringe show. These shows are becoming the place where acts can grow an audience without getting into debt. But there remains a huge gap between the free and paid shows.”
That gap is mainly the gigantic advance cost of paying venue hire. The traditional paid-for Fringe venues charge the performers to hire their venues and also take a percentage of the box office returns (usually split 60/40 in the artist’s favour). The free venues, on the other hand, charge no rental fee and take no percentage of the voluntary donations that punters put in the performer’s bucket.
A couple of years ago, there was hope that the so-called ‘£5 Fringe’ could bridge the gigantic gap between traditional and free venues, but it could not be made to work economically.
Bob reckons he has another model, though, halfway between the free and paid models.
“If a venue did not charge performers rent, had a fair deal based on a profit split, did not waste money on poster sites and set reasonable ticket prices, it could succeed. That is why, during the 2012 Fringe, my Heroes of Alternative Comedy company is linking up with Laughing Horse (who run the Free Festival) at The Hive venue in Edinburgh. We will co-promote paid shows that do not charge artists rent to hire their venues.
“I will be booking four paid shows in the prime evening slots (hourly 6pm to 10pm) in the main room of The Hive.
“They will run alongside free shows during the day and in the second room. All income from the first ticket sold will be split 70/30 in the artist’s favour. As well as shows running throughout the three-and-a-half weeks of the Fringe, we can also accommodate second shows and shorter runs of one or two weeks.”
At The Hive, both the free and the paid shows will run under the banner of The Alternative Fringe, with listings in both the main Fringe Programme and the Free Festival programme.
It is an interesting idea and might, indeed work.
Performers will have a box office income related to the number of people they can attract with a guaranteed payment per-bum-on-seat. But they will not have to pay the standard up-front costs at all: in particular, no venue hire and no enforced publicity charges.
There is also a problem, of course, with rapacious agent/management companies. I was told a story this week about an Edinburgh Fringe show several years ago which took £33,000 at the box office. I believe the pre-arranged box office deal was the standard 60/40 split in the performer’s favour. After deductions – and several months later – the performer received a cheque for £400 as his split of the profits.
But that, as they say, is another story.