Venue chaos at the Edinburgh Fringe (yet again). What have they said so far?

The Cowgate acts programmed by Freestival and potentially by the chaos

Acts programmed by Freestival and potentially affected by the chaos.

There has been a bit of chaos in the last few days about who has the right to programme shows at a couple of venues at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. As there has been so much verbiage flying around, it may be worth just putting the key parts together.

Just for the record – and because it will remain interesting to read in the future, looking back – below are the main to-and-froings so far.

The background to this is that Peter Buckley Hill (known as PBH) started Free Fringe shows in which performers pay nothing to hire their venues and audiences pay no entry fee. Instead, on a voluntary basis, members of the audience can donate money on the way out, having seen the show. In effect, it is the long-established system of street busking moved indoors.

PBH’s Free Fringe then combined with Alex Petty’s Laughing Horse outfit to run the Free Fringe. But that soon fell apart due to ‘creative differences’.

Alex Petty then formed the Free Festival as a rival to the Free Fringe (the view of PBH) or as a complement to it (Alex’s view). The same format of ‘indoor busking’ with no entry fee applied.

The Free Festival then became, in PBH’s eyes, The Great Satan (my phrase).

This (in my view) one-sided feud went on until last year, when a group of Free Fringe organisers also broke away from PBH over ‘creative differences’ to form The Freestival which was another rival to the Free Fringe (the view of PBH) or a complement to it (Alex Petty and the new Freestival people’s view). The same format of ‘indoor busking’ with no entry fee applied.

The Freestival then became, in PBH’s eyes The Great Satan (my phrase).

The final deadline for shows to be included in this year’s official Fringe Programme was 8th April. the Programme itself is published on 4th June (next week).

Now read on…

On Thursday last week, Peter Buckley Hill posted this on the Chortle comedy industry website’s Fringe Forum:


COWGATEHEAD 2015.
READ THIS IF YOU THINK YOU HAVE A SHOW

This post is addressed to all shows who believe they have a Fringe slot in Cowgatehead organised by Freestival.

I regret to have to tell you that Freestival never had permission in 2015 to book shows into Cowgatehead. The slot you think you have is not real.

We have a confirmation from both the owner and the licensee of Cowgatehead. Freestival’s bookings never had their approval, and these bookings are null and void.

I appreciate this will come as a shock to many of you. You will have proceeded on the basis that you had a confirmed performance slot. But you do not.

Even if you have paid Freestival, even if you have paid to be in the Fringe Programme, you do not have a slot.

Your first reaction will be not to believe this message. But it is true.

The licensee has recently approached us, the Free Fringe, to book this space, and has explicitly stated that Freestival has no right to make such bookings. We, The Free Fringe, are now authorised to book all performance spaces at Cowgatehead. No bookings other than those made by us are valid, and none will be honoured, whatever the circumstances.

I appreciate that many of you will be taken aback by this, and most of you will have acted in good faith in applying to Freestival. You are not to be blamed. Freestival, however, is to be blamed for taking bookings into a space which they were not entitled to book.

You could, of course, pretend this is not happening and turn up in August expecting to do a show. But you will not be able to.

The Free Fringe will entertain applications from you. You will have to accept the Free Fringe Ethos and Conditions.

These conditions stipulate that you should not be an applicant to any other provider of free-admission shows. This means that you should dissociate from Freestival forthwith.

By applying to the Free Fringe, there is a chance that your slot, or something close to it, may be given back to you. It depends on your application itself and the speed with which you make it.

We will look upon such applications as sympathetically as we can. You will need to mention the slot you thought you had and the length of the run you thought you had.

I have no doubt that Freestival, having been caught doing something they should never have done, will attempt to spin the situation in any way they think might exonerate them. But at the end of the day, they cannot deliver the slot they have promised you, and they have never been able to deliver that slot.

We are also informed that bookings at St John’s are equally invalid, but in that case we have no power to rectify this. Such shows are also welcome to apply to the Free Fringe, but we cannot give you space at St John’s. That is all the information we have about St John’s.

We deplore the actions of Freestival. To run free shows, thus emancipating performers at a Fringe in which many organisations seek to exploit performers, one must be honest. It is difficult enough even if one is fully honest. But to promise you something that they cannot deliver, and to charge you for it, is in our eyes deplorable.

We do not know who you are. But we do know that (according to Freestival’s web site) 171 shows have been promised space by them. The overwhelming majority of these applications are invalid. We urge you to spread this post so that all such shows can be reached.

No doubt they will call this venue poaching on our part. It is not. They never had the venue for 2015. Nothing has been poached. We, the Free Fringe, were contacted by the licensee and asked to programme Cowgatehead for 2015, as the sole programmers. If you thought otherwise, you have been deceived. We will help to the extent we can, giving weight also to our own unallocated applicants.

Free shows need to be honest. Even so, mistakes happen and are difficult enough. I regret that some of you have been the victims of what appears to be dishonesty on the part of Freestival.


That same day, Chortle ran a news item.
I have edited the below to remove repetition:


CHAOS AT THE FRINGE

It’s fast becoming a Fringe tradition – and today the annual row between rival free Edinburgh show promoters flared up in earnest.

The dispute centres on the Cowgatehead performance spaces, which newcomers Freestival operated last year. They have again been programming the space for 2015, with many comedy shows now locked into the official programme.

However Free Fringe founder Peter Buckley Hill has today claimed Freestival had no permission to book shows into the venues, saying that his organisation has the deal to programme the space.

The news would throw dozens of shows into chaos, as it comes after the programme has gone to press. Acts lined up to appear in Cowgatehead include Adam Vincent, Birthday Girls, Christian Steel, Katia Kvinge and Alison Thea-Skot.

However Freestival say the have ‘no idea’ why Buckley Hill – universally known as PBH – had made his statement and reassured acts that their slots were secure.

Alex Petty of Laughing Horse said: ‘Hoping this is bullshit, as whatever games that are be being played here, it only affects performers who will have already paid a considerable sum to be in Edinburgh already.

’However, If any performer has lost a performance space as part of this, and they need to find somewhere, I have gained three additional spaces today, at the Jekyll & Hyde & Meadow Bar, both of which I wasn’t expecting to be running this year.’

Online, the consensus among comedians was that if the PBH Free Fringe was running Cowgatehead, they should honour all the slots offered by Freestival so as not to punish acts who had made considerable outlay to be there.

The Cowgatehead venue was at the centre of a similar row last year, when PBH again claimed that Freestival had no right to run shows there – although in the end they did.

Confusion reigns as the site is effectively controlled by three generations of the Waugh family – all called Kenny. PBH said it was Kenny II promised him the use of the space in 2014, and again this year.

Last year’s deal with PBH fell through after an email was sent from Waugh Taverns Ltd, of which Kenny I is director, which stated that the venue would be programmed by Freestival and stating: ‘Last year we worked with Mr Peter Hill, due to irreconcilable differences we regret we will not be renewing our agreement with him for this coming year.’

Chortle has not yet been able to contact Kenny II about this year’s dispute.

But until it is resolved, at least 90 shows have been thrown into limbo. Currently 67 shows are programmed into Cowgatehead and 23 into St John’s.


Yesterday, Saturday, the Freestival issued a press release:


Performers in 150 Edinburgh Fringe shows fear they have been left without venues after Peter Buckley Hill, ex Fringe Society director and principal controller of  ‘The Free Fringe Ltd’ claimed that an Edinburgh venue manager is planning to switch the management of his spaces to the Free Fringe from another Fringe promoter without warning.

The performers have already paid £360 a piece to register their shows in the Fringe Programme, have designed promotional materials and many have also booked and paid for accommodation in August.

In a statement on Facebook and other public forums, Mr Buckley Hill, announced he had, on 21st May,  signed a contract with the Licensee of Freestival’s Cowgatehead venue, which has already been fully programmed with the consent of the licensee and owner. The statement also sought to imply Freestival did not have the use of the St Johns venue. The licensee of that venue has since refuted this, stating that it remains a Freestival venue.

Freestival organisers, Jools Constant, Alex Marion and Dan Adams say:

“This has devastated people who are hoping to perform at the 2015 Fringe. We have spent the last two days dealing with distraught phone calls from people who fear their shows will not be able to go ahead.

Our greatest concern is the acts, who have put their trust in us and have already invested time, energy and money in bringing shows to the Fringe. We are appalled that their shows have been thrown into doubt by this senseless and unwarranted action. If the situation cannot be resolved and it is true that the licensee has reneged on his agreement with us, we will do our utmost to work with Peter Buckley Hill to ensure that the performers are disrupted as little as possible. We will do our best to ease their transition to PBH or another provider if they wish.

We are taking advice from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society and hope they can help us find a way to intervene and find definitive answers to a number of outstanding questions including:

How is this able to happen after acts have paid to register and advertise with the Fringe Brochure?

Why would PBH agree to sign the deal so late in the year without first speaking with us, in full knowledge of the commitments already made by ourselves and the performers?

What has prompted the licensee to switch over to PBH after Freestival has been dealing constantly with both him and the building owners regarding the venue since the end of the 2014 Fringe? This included booking performers into the venue at the request of the licensee (and of the only other party originally bidding for the venue’s lease earlier in the year), ongoing discussions about building new rooms to complement those we built in July last year and about improvements to facilities, all with no indication that any other provider was in the running.

Why, when the Licensee has a full 9 room programme in place, would he switch to PBH and a smaller offering of only 6 rooms with smaller capacity?

Why did PBH wrongly include St John’s in his statement, adding needlessly to the number of acts suffering distress?

As no confirmation of the switch has been received by us from the licensee or PBH despite our attempts to obtain clarification, we are not in a position to answer these questions or even to confirm the truth of PBH’s statement.

The welfare of our acts and their shows is our first and only priority. If an act wishes to move to The Free Fringe to keep their allocated slot at Cowgatehead, anything Freestival can do to assist the moving process will be done. As a contingency against the possible loss of the Cowgatehead venue, we are sourcing alternative premises to mitigate any damage that may be caused. We are also in discussions with other promoters to ensure alternative spaces should the news be true and PBH refuses to house affected acts, although we hope PBH will reconsider and agree to transfer the show programme in its entirety. Alex Petty of Laughing Horse has kindly reached out to us and we thank him for his proactive and constructive approach in an uncertain and difficult time. Any of the Cowgatehead performers affected by this who wish to join another organisation will receive a without prejudice Freestival subscription refund.

We firmly refute all allegations of dishonesty or misconduct contained within the PBH statement and in follow up comments from individuals and related parties.

Freestival will not engage in further discussion regarding these; a public social media court is not the correct forum for such matters, given how important it is to ensure our performers interests and commitments are safe guarded and respected. We are hugely sad – given Peter Buckley Hill’s long standing commitment to supporting fringe performers – that he should choose to cast so much doubt over our acts so publicly.

We reiterate our commitment to a fair multi promoter Fringe that works for the good of performers and audiences – those performers who know us understand this and we thank all those who have expressed public support for us in this uncertain distressing time. We will be contacting all the acts affected by this situation on email with proposed alternatives and information updates over the next 48 hours.”


On Friday, Chortle editor Steve Bennett penned an opinion piece:


CAN WE END THIS BRUTAL FRINGE FREE-FOR-ALL

Free shows have been THE success story of the Edinburgh Fringe.

It has transformed the festival, opening it up to more performances and audiences than ever before, built on the excellent, simple principle of no risk on either side. If as a punter you hate the show, leave having paid nothing, if you like it, you pay what it’s worth. And as a comedian, you don’t need to commit thousands for your performance space.

Yet despite the shared basic principles, the main players in the game seem riven by bitter factional in-fighting. It’s often said that in politics the left spend more time fighting themselves than fighting the right, and it’s the same here.

The latest flashpoint over the Cowgatehead venues shows how deep those divisions are. Both Peter Buckley Hill, the founder of the entire movement and still kingpin of the Free Fringe faction, and upstarts Freestival believe they have rights to programme the spaces, right in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Freestival had already put together a full programme for the venue, with acts paying up to £393 to get listed in the official Fringe brochure – more if they took an advert.

Now, after that has gone to print, PBH has publicly told all the comedians who were happy in the knowledge their space had been secured that their deals are worthless, as his Free Fringe will be programming shows there. Freestival cry bullshit.

No doubt both sides sincerely believe they are right. The building is owned by three generations of the same family who don’t always seem to be on the same page, to say the least. But the way this has become a conflict – part of a wider, antagonistic land-grab for as many venues as possible – has caused huge anxiety for the nearly 70 performers already, allegedly, booked into Cowgatehead.

The movement that was supposed to let them concentrate on their show and relieve some of the stresses of Edinburgh has done the exact opposite.

There are only two possibilities here.

One, that PBH is wrong, and that Freestival have the right to the Room – in which case this is needless scaremongering, and will have done severe damage to his reputation as one of the good guys.

The second is that he is right and they don’t. In which case PBH should honour every booking that Freestival made so as not to mess up a single performer. He has said his organisation ‘will look upon such applications as sympathetically as we can’ but also, less encouragingly only that ‘there is a chance that your slot, or something close to it, may be given back to you’.

Performers who want to be part of the PBH Free Fringe have to sign up to a 3,600-word ‘conditions and ethos’ statement – a key part of which is that if you apply to the Free Fringe you cannot apply to any rival. This is the only operator – including the supposedly evil paid venues – to impose this draconian condition on applicants.

PBH stressed this clause in his Facebook post, putting comedians in an impossible situation. They cannot hedge their bets and apply to PBH in case he’s right, while keeping their Freestival slots open. He’s forcing them to quit Freestival and go with him in a situation, frankly, where no one knows for sure what’s happening.

The only thing that’s clear is that this is unclear. The two fringe organisations, and the owners of the site,  are using the divisions on either side for some power games that the performers should not be troubled by. PBH should at least allow performers to apply to both organisations and guarantee their slots should the Freestival deal be built on sand, as he believes. If he’s right, he will be their saviour and none of the comedians will trust Freestival again… he need not use the prohibitive, anti-competitive stick of the contract to win them over.

Differences between the free organisations are minor and, when it comes to the greater good, should be put aside, even – maybe especially – on such a troublesome venue to lock down.

Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly put their decades-old differences aside to publish a joint venues programme. How much more powerful would the free movement be if they could issue a similar comprehensive brochure advertising all their offerings? But until they can put their sectarian feuds to one side, it’ll never happen.


In response to that Chortle piece, the Freestival issued this:


To answer both your questions:

(1) Are you conceding that PBH will be running Cowgatehead? – we are not, for the simple reason that neither the licensee nor PBH have contacted us regarding this, or responded to our attempts to communicate with them. As things stand the only information available is PBH’s statement. We have asked him to end speculation by producing a contract. So far we have received no response. However we are putting in place contingency plans to protect our acts as best as possible, including offering to work with PBH to place our performers in the slots they have legitimately been offered and accepted. We have also acted to ensure that any acts who cannot, or do not want to, move to PBH  are taken care of, by opening discussions with Alex Petty, who has been hugely constructive in his support, and by starting to source alternative venues. Bear in mind it’s only May – last year we sourced 2 new venues with less than 48 hours to go and got audiences into them. We have no doubt we can find quality alternative venues.

(2)  Do you have any written deal with the venue? – we do not. What we do have is a good faith agreement based on the following facts:

– Acting on our behalf our sponsors secured an agreement with the building owners that we would provide entertainment in Cowgatehead, regardless of who had the license to provide bars

– there were 2 parties bidding to be licensees, including the current operator. We had verbal agreements with both parties that we would provide entertainment at Cowgatehead, and had been requested by both to provide a programme. We then entered into discussions with both, not about whether we would provide a programme, but the particulars of how a programme that had already been agreed would be provided, including disposition of stages, installation of toilets and improvements to access and signage. In other words, we had oral agreements with not just one but 4 parties (owners, sponsors and both potential licensees). It’s worth pointing out that under Scottish Law an oral agreement constitutes a contract.

– the issue of who would be the licensee was not resolved until a little over 2 weeks ago, long after the deadline for brochure entries and even longer after all parties involved had assured us we would be providing a programme of events in Cowgatehead.

– 3 days after the licensee signed a deal with the building owners we sent a draft agreement to the licensee, which we assumed would be discussed, amended and signed.

– On 21st May PBH posted his statement. Up until this point no other potential provider had ever been mentioned and PBH had programmed no acts into the venue.

– In light of all this we have no doubt that we have acted appropriately and in good faith throughout this process and were justified in doing so in legal, moral and practical terms.

Now we have a question for you:

(3) Why do you keep describing this as in fighting between us and PBH?

There is no fight. We are not, and never have, fought. What there has been, consistently, since the moment we suggested working with PBH to improve the Free Fringe, is attacks, by PBH and his team, against us. Let’s be absolutely clear, we have never openly criticised PBH or the Free Fringe, we have never engaged with the attacks against us and we have never sought hostility. In fact we have put our admiration of Peter’s pioneering work in founding the Free Fringe on record, and we have welcomed, indeed encouraged, Free Fringe acts to share Freestival stages whenever they wished (although some preferred not to appear in the publicity for fear of reprisals).

Not only that, in January we were offered 2 PBH venues, Whistlebinkies and the Globe, but we turned them down because we believe in a healthy free sector and we don’t want to damage Peter’s offering. Beyond that we have done all this because frankly we are not interested in somebody else’s vendetta. We are only interested in providing the best experience possible for our acts and audiences and for that reason, because now he has caused unforgivable anxiety and distress for the acts we have worked so closely with for months, just for today, we are going to break that rule.

Peter’s behaviour in this matter has been reprehensible. He cannot pretend that he did not know his actions would lead to at best deep distress and at worst the destruction of dreams for dozens of performers, exactly the people who he has always claimed to champion. He cannot claim that his actions have been in anyone’s best interests – he has acted purely in pursuance of an imagined feud with us, people who have never set out to do anything to him. He must know that he doesn’t have enough acts to fill even the down sized 6 room venue he is planning, and that he is in danger of throwing acts onto the street so that his spite, selfishness and thoughtless cruelty can play itself out in empty rooms.

The truth is, as anyone but his most ardent supporters (who by the way have verged on the libellous in their social media comments – we are considering taking legal advice) must realise, that Peter should have said no. He should have said, in the interests of the acts, “I won’t do this – look me up next year”. But he didn’t because he could not resist the opportunity to attack us, and he didn’t care about the collateral damage. After all, they’re just people, with dreams and as the Free Fringe ethos states: “Abandon your dreams. It’s not going to happen.”

Of course, the same ethos says repeatedly: “Don’t be a dick”. Clearly a case of do as I say, not as I do.

That’s it. We will return now to what we have always done – looking after our acts.


In my view, the key sentence in that last statement is:

“It’s worth pointing out that under Scottish Law an oral agreement constitutes a contract.”

If the Cowgatehead people made any verbal agreement with the Freestival, it would invalidate any subsequent agreement with PBH. 

As far as I am aware, the Free Fringe has, as yet, programmed no shows into the Cowgatehead venue.

The magician Stu Turner has made a parody video which is not irrelevant to all this the chaos. It is on YouTube.

7 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Edinburgh, Legal system

7 responses to “Venue chaos at the Edinburgh Fringe (yet again). What have they said so far?

  1. Charles Pamment

    Free or not to be!! – just a thought, not for publication….

    Crumbs, sounds like a right old set-too. A shame, I’m guessing it will sort itself out.

    Suppose the one point to remember for the ‘free fringe’ is that many venues require the audience to buy at least a drink – £4+ a pint, probably two = £8 a show, so in essence its a clever old gimmick but who is it really free for?? free to see (assuming you were spending a tenner anyway), free to perform (assuming you feel good about that and don’t expect a return for all your hard work) but….it’s £££ in the pot for the pub / brewery…….maybe daytime drinking has never been so popular!!

    The average ticket for the paid fringe is £6.40. – you can buy a beer, but you don’t have too. And you are guaranteed the artiste sees a fair chunk of your spend too.

    C

    • I’m just a punter but have never been required to buy a drink at any free fringe show. In fact, on occasion the opposite is the case – the atmosphere of the room is dragged down by the 10 students sharing half-a-lager between them and moaning they’re not getting acts like Stewart Lee or Daniel Kitson for the money they’ve not paid. But there are many shows (eg Birthday Girls at Cowgatehead last year) that are so popular if I’d stopped to buy a pint I wouldn’t have got in at all!

    • RonB

      You must have been attending a different Free Fringe to me. I have been to dozens of shows and never buy a drink (as I’m a small-time reviewer and that would slow my show-rate down). I always put money in the bucket though, but the amount depends on the performance.

    • No, that’s lap-dancing not Free Fringe, easy mistake to make I grant you 😉

  2. James Smith

    I’m not based in the U.K but I have been involved with the fringe in the past and it seems to me incredibly foolish to tell anyone they have a venue without a signed contract from the venue owners. Especially considering this has all happened before. It all seems a bit negligent and entirely foreseeable to me. Your .jpg of effected acts is far to small to read.

  3. Alex Marion

    Charles, where did that happen? First of all I declare an interest, I am a director of Freestival. I can tell you no Freestival venues require anyone to buy a drink, and I’ve never seen that happen in all the years I’ve been attending gigs under any other free organisation (Laughing Horse, PBH and Bob’s Heroes).

  4. Charles, that’s just not the case, certainly for Free Festival. Like Freestival no venue require a drink to see a show, and show donations are voluntary (though clearly encouraged unless you can’t afford it). And as for in paid venues “You are guaranteed the artiste sees a fair chunk of your spend too.”, Sadly those acts are the one’s loosing thousands of pounds a year, sometimes into five figures. Your money goes to venues, Edinburgh landlords, advertising firms and PR Executives.

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