Why the ‘free’ shows at the Edinburgh Fringe are not free and why I prefer to see cheap comedy shows by unknowns

The Royal Mile during Edinburgh Fringe, 2008

The Royal Mile, Edinburgh, where rambling rivals this blog

Yesterday, I talked to writer Nick Awde for my blog while he interviewed me for a book he is writing.

In lieu of anything better, here are some of the things I told him for his book. His book will be better. We started talking about the Free Fringe and the Free Festival at Edinburgh and the whole concept of ‘free’ and I started rambling…


I’m old enough to remember the 1960s and, as a callow youth, I worked in the Free Bookshop in Earls Court. It was just someone’s garage. You brought along your old unwanted books to the Free Bookshop; other people came along, picked them up and went away and everything was free.

You can’t do that on a large scale. It’s OK to do hippy-type free on a small scale or in a village atmosphere, but I don’t think it could work on a large scale in a large community.

I don’t know much about Saudi Arabia but I think it’s quite generous to its own citizens – not to immigrant workers, but to its own citizens – so, if you’re a Saudi Arabian, you get lots of things given to you by the government for free. But the reason they can do that is because they’re making squillions of dollars out of the oil. You need money to make it go round.

Without some form of money – or method of valuing things and exchanging things on the basis of value – ‘free’ will not work.

‘Free’ will only work if there is money involved in ‘free’ – or some other reward equivalent to money.

The Stones in the Park

1969: The Stones in the Park

I think. if it’s a free model – and if you are not making money out of it – then it has to be based on getting publicity from it. The free concerts I went to in Hyde Park in the 1960s had acts like Pink Floyd and Fairport Convention. They weren’t getting money, but they were getting publicity. And the free concerts only worked when they were on a small scale. After the Rolling Stones played one of the free concerts in Hyde Park, the gigs staggered on for a bit but soon ended.

‘Free’ works fine in a small village-type atmosphere but, once you hit mass volume, it can’t be sustained. The overheads of doing ‘free’ are too great.

In Edinburgh, the Free Fringe and the Free Festival are not actually free: you don’t pay in advance, you pay at the end of the performance if you want to.

Now Bob Slayer has come up with the phrase ‘Pay What You Want’ – which is a much better description of what is actually happening at the free shows in Edinburgh.

I don’t know the politics in detail but basically, as I see it, Peter Buckley Hill of the PBH Free Fringe is very idealistic and wants to be a hippy and everything is Hey-Hey Yo! Free, man! but, in fact, it isn’t free because there’s lots of fund-raising up-front from money-raising shows.

Alex Petty of the Free Festival, I think, wants to build his version as a more economically viable proposition – not making large profits, but being more business-like about it. So he charges small amounts to cover the cost of the production of the booklet, for example.

PBH says, Oh, no! Everything is free! but, in fact, he’s covering that cost up-front with fund-raising gigs before the Fringe starts. So they’re both covering their costs. They’re just covering them in different ways.

The ‘free’ show model is demonstrably exportable because Lewis Schaffer has been using the same principle for his Free Until Famous Soho shows in London over maybe the last three years. I don’t know how long he has been doing it, but he is performing his 400th ‘free’ Soho show tomorrow night. So the concept is economically sustainable. And other performers have been using the same format of the bucket-at-the-end.

But it is not a new idea: it is simply indoor busking. You attract an audience and you do your performance. At the end, you do a pitch of Hey! If you’ve liked the performance, give me some money. Outdoors, the audience throw money into the busker’s hat. At the ‘free’ shows, they throw money into a bucket at the end.

Edinburgh: pretty but with great big potential storm clouds

Edinburgh: only the weather is free in the Athens of the North

The Free Fringe and the Free Festival have been very good for the Edinburgh Fringe, because they are a throwback to the way the Fringe used to be: you can take a chance on seeing a show on a whim and if it’s rubbish it’s rubbish. You’ve wasted an hour of your time, but you haven’t wasted your money really because, at the end of a ‘free’ show, you can pay £5 or 20p or nothing, depending on what you thought the show was worth.

In olden days, you went along to the Edinburgh Fringe to see new, original, experimental performances which might or might not work and you would take a risk when choosing shows.

Now, if you are paying £10-£12 per ticket at the ‘paid’ venues, you don’t want to see experimental things – and the performers can’t risk doing experimental things if the punters are paying for £10-£12 tickets.

If you are playing the Pleasance Grand – a 700 seater – at £10 per ticket, neither the audience nor the performer can take a risk.

On the other hand, it is a free show, the need to justify the cost of the ticket doesn’t exist, the expectations of the audience are lower and the restrictions on the performers are less… so there’s more chance of something original coming out of it.

Even if you are a fairly high-profile comedian performing at a ‘paid’ venue, you may well lose £10,000 because of the cost of accommodation, the PR, the print and publicity, the cost of the venue and your manager and agent probably screwing you rigid on the profit and the VAT.

Whereas, if you play ‘free’ shows, you can live in a scummy flat or hostel and don’t even necessarily need to print flyers though you do still have to pay £400 to be listed in the main Fringe Programme. If you’re lucky, you may get £3 per head from your audience of ten or twenty punters each day for maybe 26 days. You might make a slight profit at the end whereas, if you were playing the ‘real’ Fringe, you might lose £8,000.

For audiences watching free shows, the attraction is being the first. You may see a brilliant act two years before he or she appears on TV and becomes famous. You get the thrill of ‘discovering’ that performer, which boosts your self-esteem.

But both sides – audience and performer – accept it might be shit.

Michael McIntyre, much-admired

My much admired Michael McIntyre

I admire Michael McIntyre. He is absolutely brilliant. I was watching him on TV last night. Absolutely brilliant. But, if it’s a choice between me seeing a costly Michael McIntyre type stage show at the Fringe and a show by someone who’s not famous who might be original and funny, I would choose to see the unknown person, because I know that Michael McIntyre will deliver a 100% flawless, homogenous show.

I’m more interested in Alpine-like comics performing a show with troughs and peaks.

There was a now well-known comic whose act used to be 40% rubbish, 40% passably OK, 15% good and 5% genius. He was worth sitting through the 95% of other stuff to see the 5% of genius, because those performing peaks were wonderful.

If you see a brilliant, top-of-the-range TV name who’s made millions, he (or she) is not going to have peaks like that. It’s all going to be beautifully slick and professional but have no unexpected creative peaks.

The more expensive a show is, the more likely it is to be homogenous – or, to use another word ‘bland’.

I suppose the difference between ‘free’ and ‘paid’ at the Fringe is that ‘paid’ is always going to tend towards the bland, whereas ‘free’ very often will tend towards the interesting.

Might be good; might be shit; but, even if it’s shit, it might be interesting.

Also, in free shows, you are more likely to get knob gags, which is always a good thing.


Filed under 1960s, Comedy, Edinburgh

2 responses to “Why the ‘free’ shows at the Edinburgh Fringe are not free and why I prefer to see cheap comedy shows by unknowns

  1. Free shows on Saturdays which are not really free as you mention are a big threat to the whole comedy industry in London .Its sad that acts that paid £400 on a comedy course, to now discover there is now very little money to pay them these days from tickets sales.This is a very uncomfortable new development as a result of the free shows .

  2. Harry

    The free shows in London are certainly a weird development. In Edinburgh there was this idea that Free would bust apart a system that wasn’t working – Performers would sell out shows but still lose thousands and Audiences paid through the nose for 50 minute shows. In London the system is pretty much working, lots of performers earn a good living driven by audiences paying a fair ticket price, anywhere from £5/£10/£15 for two and half hours comedy from amazing comics at the top of their game. So it’s very strange that you get spoilt rich kids (or possibly dumb poor kids) subsidising free shows with professional acts. Don’t get me wrong free shows which advertise as non-professional new material nights just add to the mix in London, but the whole free but advertised as pro-acts I just don’t get.

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