Yesterday, comedian Bob Slayer got a bit grumpy about the blog I posted two days ago about the six Edinburgh Fringe shows I am involved in this year – Five of them are happening at Bob’s Bookshop, one of the venues he will be running in August under the banner of his Heroes of Fringe.
His grumpiness had been triggered by reading in my blog that I thought his ‘Pay What You Want’ model within the Free Festival would be confusing to punters.
“There is no real confusion,” he moaned to me, “unless you plant it. It is Free Entry – just turn up – or, to guarantee getting in, buy a ticket in advance. What possible confusion is there there????”
“But,” I tried to argue, “it’s confusing enough already that you’re expected to pay for ‘Free’ shows on the way out. Now you’re just calling ‘Free’ shows ‘Pay What You Want’ shows – calling the same thing by two different names – and adding in an extra layer of confusion by offering advance tickets for sale.”
“You are often wrong, John!” Bob ranted at me yesterday. “You were wrong not to give Chris Dangerfield the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award last year. You were wrong not to give John Robertson the award for Comic Originality and you were certainly wrong to nominate me (twice). Don’t be wrong again!
“Not only is ‘Pay What You Want’ a more honest description of Free shows,” he argued, “it is a more honest name for most Paid shows where, at the Fringe, so many shows give away tickets for free due to low sales – or ‘papering’ as it’s called.
“There is a massive gap between Free and Paid shows at the Edinburgh Fringe and we are planning to bridge that gap. Pay What You Want is the best of both Free and Paid. It is a natural evolution.
“As Free shows have become more successful on the Fringe, a better standard of acts are keen to do them, especially with the main venues continuing to adopt their ‘Pay-To-Play’ model.
“It got to the point with many of our Free shows at The Hive venue last year that we were regularly turning people away because they were full. Heroes of Fringe has an even stronger line-up this year which would be the envy of any Paid venue and we will be turning people away from shows again this year. So if you really want to see a show, get a ticket!
“Heroes of Fringe is about promoting and developing the most interesting acts that can sell tickets but who don’t want to lose money in order to do so.
“Last year we promoted both Paid and Free shows. That was partially in response to the growing claims that Free shows are more ethical than Paid shows. While this is true when you compare Free shows with the Pay-To-Play model adopted by most venues, Free shows are not ethically superior in themselves. We wanted to show that it didn’t have to be the case. It is not how you pay for the show, but the model behind the show and how much money the performer sees.
“What we accidentally discovered was that punters who really wanted to see a particular show were happy to buy tickets in advance so that they could guarantee they could get in – even if that show was advertised as free. What we also found was that, by telling punters that some folks had already paid a fiver, they were prepared to give more to the performer at the end.
“In an ideal world, punters would pay what they wanted in advance as well, but the Fringe Box Office can’t cope with that at the moment. Maybe in the future…”
But Bob’s grumpiness with me was not just caused by me criticising the ‘Pay What You Want’ idea.
He always gets grumpy when I mention the fact that performing at the Fringe is (in the words of a comic whose name I have forgotten) like standing in a cold shower for three weeks, just tearing up £50 notes.
“Don’t accept the bullshit that people don’t make money in Edinburgh!” Bob rants at people… He had another go at me yesterday about this, saying those words.
“The PR people, management, agents and venues make pots of money,” he ranted. “With nearly 2 million tickets sold, the money goes somewhere!”
This, of course, I agree with, though I think the big venues sometimes unfairly get cast as the big villains. They provide a lot of background support and infrastructure but do not own their venues.
It sometimes seems that half or more of Edinburgh is owned by Edinburgh University, who rent out their buildings to the large and medium venue-runners. The venue-runners are, themselves, at the mercy and whim of the charges and overheads levied by Edinburgh University, whose level of charging is never mentioned.
But, whatever the cause, I think most performers see going to the Fringe as going somewhere to lose money.
“Of course,” agrees Bob, “most comedians at the Fringe don’t see any of the cash swilling around… but the smart ones do. All the comedians on my Alternative Fringe (now called Heroes of Fringe) at least broke even last year and most of them made money…
“This is because we offer acts proper deals.
“If, as an act, you put all your efforts into being ‘discovered’, then you are embarking on a ‘shit or bust’ path and – even if someone does come along and gives you your big break – they are the ones who are going to decide the terms and conditions. But, if you strive to be self-sufficient and build your own sustainable audience, then the industry will hear about you and seek you out. Then they will have to offer you what you want or you will simply carry on doing what you are already successfully doing.
“Dr Brown was ignored by the industry for three Fringe Festivals, but he was slowly growing an audience so that, when he was picked up and produced by Soho Theatre and Underbelly, they supported what he was doing.
“Heroes of Fringe has lost a show to Underbelly this year. It was one that had become a word-of-mouth hit at our Hive venue last year – John Robertson’s The Dark Room. The show is amazing. It should have been nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Award last year! Underbelly had to offer John a bloody good deal in order for him to move on. He won’t lose money and – with a bit of luck and the proper support of the Underbelly – he will be a major hit at the Fringe this year.”
So there can be silver linings to the inevitable clouds at Edinburgh. But the clouds are still there.
Performers always have to add in to the Fringe experience the eye-watering cost of accommodation and of some Pay-To-Play venues, plus the factors of some financially rapacious promoters, some management agencies wantonly ripping off their own acts and some occasional… erm… highly dubious behaviour.
In The Scotsman last year, journalist Claire Smith wrote a piece on the financing of the Edinburgh Fringe and the fact that she was threatened, during her research, both by a prominent, very long-established venue owner and by a prominent British comedian.
And, just to clarify…
That was NOT one of the Big Four venue owners…
And nor was it Bob Slayer!
He just gets grumpy occasionally.
Performing at the Edinburgh Fringe can be like juggling jelly on quicksand while dog-sized mosquitoes attack you… in the rain. But, perhaps fortunately, most newcomers are too drunk, drugged or sex-crazed to notice until they get home and recover…
… and then they decide to go back for another year…
Edinburgh is addictive.