Last year, The Scotsman newspaper asked comedian and Edinburgh Fringe venue runner Bob Slayer to write a piece about the way the Fringe is financed. They read it and told him it would be published in a week’s time in their 4th August 2012 issue.
On 3rd August, they told him they had decided not to publish it. He was not told why.
So I published it in my blog on 4th August 2012.
The Scotsman DID publish an excellent piece on Fringe financing last year – on 25th August 2012 – written by their own much-admired (by me and anyone who knows her) Claire Smith. In it, she wrote that, while researching her article, she had been threatened with legal action by a major Big Name comedian and by the owner of a major Fringe venue (NOT one of the Big Four).
Claire wrote in her 2012 article: “I have never seen so much paranoia as I have this year. The Fringe is changing, as it always does. The dynamics are changing. But a Fringe where journalists who ask questions about money get threatened with legal action?”
In the fortnight leading up to this year’s Fringe, there was (and continues to be) a renewed surge of hits on Bob Slayer’s original article published in my blog a year ago. In one day alone – 23rd July this year – Bob’s year-old article got 6,433 hits.
According to strangely-reliable Wikipedia, The Scotsman’s circulation is currently around 28,500.
The moral is clear. If you want to get your ideas read consistently over long periods, suck up to me and get in my blog, sunshine.
Yesterday, I got an e-mail from Bob Slayer. It said:
“The Scotsman have done it again – They commissioned me to write an article and then (after saying they were going to publish it) pulled it. Why? Who knows?”
Bob currently runs two venues at the Edinburgh Fringe – The Hive and Bob’s Bookshop. I presume that was the reason The Scotsman commissioned him to give his inevitably highly personal view of Fringe financing in 2013.
Below is the article The Scotsman commissioned, decided to publish then, at the last minute, decided not to publish. The opinions, obviously, are Bob Slayer’s.
At the heart of the Edinburgh Fringe is an open access, ‘all performers are equal’ philosophy that was developed by a group of passionate theatre groups when they were excluded from the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1947. They decided instead to seek out their own model with more creative ideals and the Fringe was born.
Ever since this noble start people have been attempting to pull the Fringe off balance with attempts to ensure that ‘some performers are more equal than others’.
In 2008, the year I first came to the Fringe, the ‘big four’ venues of Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly chose to launch ‘The Edinburgh Comedy Festival’.
This is a marketing initiative that prints thousands of brochures which, despite excluding all shows in independent venues, still purports to be the complete guide to Comedy at the Fringe. It is clearly designed to sell tickets by marginalising shows that are not in their venues… It seems that some shows are ‘more equal than others’.
These are the same venues that are directly responsible for driving up ticket prices. The average venue and marketing charges imposed on performers to put on a show in one of these venues is £14,000. This gives the shows little alternative but to raise prices in an effort to cover their costs.
The big names and the shows produced by the venues themselves are largely shielded from this, but the vast majority of acts in these venues leave Edinburgh in debt.
I spoke to Tiernan Douieb, who is taking a break from the Fringe this year for the first time in seven years.
He told me that, if he sold out all his tickets last year then he would have only been £4,500 in debt.
He thought he actually had a good deal and – in comparison with many others – he probably did. However, it is hardly in line with the egalitarian ideals laid down by the original Fringe Board over sixty years ago.
This combination of modern day exclusion and a one-sided financial model, set up to serve everyone except the artist, is the primary reason why so many performers and punters have again looked for a new, more creative Fringe model.
Free shows were 10% of the Fringe in 2008 but have significantly grown to become 25% this year… Quality has also accompanied the quantity.
In recent years, free shows have won awards, received widespread media acclaim and have been picked up outside of the Fringe. It would be fair to say free shows have achieved all the things that paid shows have done. They have become a really viable fringe of the Fringe that will continue to grow..
I suspect that the mainstream commercial venues will always be a part of the Fringe: the glamour of big marketing spend and shiny, over-priced bars attracts punters and performers. But the increasing strength and innovation of the free shows provides a healthy alternative that will keep the pay-to-play venues in check.
If these pay-to-play venues do not want to respond to what is happening by offering punters better ticket prices and performers fairer deals, then the flow of quality acts moving over to free and independent shows is only going to grow.
Free shows are a symptom of the commercial venues but they are not in themselves a complete answer and we are in very real danger of the Fringe splitting into two opposing factions, perhaps irreversibly.
Of course, any change presents an opportunity.
The £5 Fringe attempted to bridge this gap with cheap tickets. Unfortunately, its model was still based on pay-to-play. The performers paid the promoter to use the space and then tried to make that money back with ticket sales. However, with their ticket price capped at £5 they struggled even more than other paid shows to break even. The failure of the £5 Fringe just shows that the pay-to-play model demands higher ticket prices.
Heroes of Fringe, the comedy collective and Fringe venue promoter which I set up, is now in its third year.
We aim to bridge the gap between paid and free shows by finding a place where commercial interests are in balance with creative ones. We asked ourselves the question: What if we could take the best of both worlds and actually create a new model that more suits the unique requirements of punters and performers at the Fringe?
We think that, maybe, we may have come up with the answer.
This year, all Heroes of Fringe shows are adopting a third way.
Our shows are:
FREE, pay what you want on exit
OR you can buy a ticket in advance to guarantee entry…
We have created Free shows that can sell tickets. It seems to be working and, despite some scepticism, tickets are selling. In fact, shows such as Phil Kay’s and Ivan Brackenbury’s are close to selling out some weekend dates.
And, in our smaller venue Heroes @ Bob’s Bookshop, dates already have sold out. Including the amazing Adrienne Truscott’s show.
The model also means that less known shows or quiet days still have all the advantages of being able to let audiences in for free, impress them and then pass the hat around.
The real beauty is that, because we do not have the same risks as paid shows, we can keep the pre-sale ticket price low at £5,
We also do not need to charge performers rent / high venue fees or insist on high marketing budgets and, due to the pre-sales, there is more money to go around than free shows. Audience levels are more predictable.
This helps us to kit out the venues properly and enables us to give proper support to the performers in our venues. Of course, the most important part of all of this is that performers will see more money than on either free or pay-to-play shows.
If we can make this work then we will create a happy creative environment, a perfect home for some of the most exciting shows on the Fringe. It is also a model that could be adopted by both sides of the current divide.
We really believe that the Fringe can return to being somewhere where punters can see affordable shows and where acts do not have to accept losing money and getting into huge debt. A place where shows can support themselves with their own creativity and develop at their own pace.
When this happens then the real ‘Spirit of the Fringe’ will return.
I have to declare an interest, in that my Edinburgh Fringe chat show is at one of Bob’s venues in the final week of the Fringe.