(This was also published in the Huffington Post and, in part, on the Chortle comedy industry website)
A lot of performers at the Edinburgh Fringe are there simply to get publicity, not to get big audiences. Getting bums-on-seats is a secondary, though still important, aim.
They (quite rightly) assume they will not make any profit. They want to gather review quotes and/or, with extreme luck, get talent-spotted by the media – especially by radio and TV people – and/or by promoters/producers/agents.
For the last few years, the Fringe has comprised two types of show – especially in comedy.
One is the traditional theatrical ‘business model’ in which people pay to buy tickets and then go see the show. These are the so-called ‘paid’ shows.
The other, newer model is the one pursued by the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival, in which the audience does not pay in advance to see shows. Instead, after the show, there is a bucket or similar financial receptacle and the audience members throw into it what they think the show was worth – or they can pay nothing. These ‘free’ shows have the same ‘business model’ as busking in the street.
I only really became aware last year of a problem for Free shows who want to get reviewed in the media or head-hunted by talent scouts.
I have reviewed comedy shows at the Fringe. I have attended shows as a researcher/producer for TV programmes. For publishers, even! And I currently organise the annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards (which have no outside sponsor providing financial backing).
If I go to a ‘paid’ show as a reviewer, as a media person, as a promoter or as an awards judge, I get a free ticket from the Fringe Office/venue/producers. I hand that ticket in at the door to see the show. Everybody is happy.
If I go to a free show, there are no tickets. So I go into the show without a ticket.
I just walk in and, at the end of the show, the performer usually stands at the door to collect money in a bucket.
If I put nothing at all in the bucket, I feel like a schmuck and/or the performer looks miffed or both. After days of this constantly happening, it wears you down. It is less embarrassing simply to see only paid-for shows – or certainly to see far fewer free shows.
Yes, you could put money in every bucket. But having access to free tickets means you can take a bigger chance on going to see less high-profile shows which may or may not turn out to be utterly appalling. Having to pay for shows potentially means less risk-taking.
This holds true for promoters, would-be stage producers, and radio & TV researchers/producers. They, of course, have budgets, but…
Another fact to take into consideration is that many reviewers for Fringe free-sheets, websites and magazines are not paid.
As a reviewer, you may see 5 shows a day over 25 days. That is 125 shows. If only a third of those are free shows and if you put only £1 in each show’s bucket, that means forking out around £40. It is far easier – and cheaper – not to see free shows. There is no shortage of higher-profile, probably-very-good paid-for shows.
I do not know what the solution to this is.
It would probably be too expensive for the shoe-string free show organisers to start printing/administering press passes.
I suppose media people could drop into the bucket their business cards or bits of paper with their details on. But few reviewers have business cards and the last thing you really want is performers hassling you after seeing a show (which may have been crap).
I asked the opinion of Alex Petty who organises the Laughing Horse Free Festival; and Peter Buckley Hill who started the free show concept in Edinburgh and runs the original PBH Free Fringe shows.
Alex’s response was: “I hadn’t thought that it may be like that for reviewers. We certainly seem to have got our fair share of reviews but, if it’s putting people off, it’s something to look at, definitely.”
Peter Buckley Hill’s response on behalf of the PBH Free Fringe was a little more complicated and surprising. He replied:
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This is not something that concerns me greatly.
Traditionally, performers have been desperate to gain the attention of the press, and many people have exploited that desperation. Even now, many performers are briefed that they ought to be desperate for press attention, and ought to value the opinions of one reviewer more than those of hundreds of audience members.
The consequences have been obvious and deplorable. A number of publications exist merely for the purpose of reviewing Fringe shows, and young people are recruited by these publications, sometimes without knowledge or appreciation of the genres they are sent to review.
The result is a climate of over-deference to reviewers, leading to a culture in which entertaining the audience is not given first priority. When a reviewer is known to be coming, many comedians pack the audience with their friends, on free tickets and with instructions to laugh particularly hard. These are stupid games.
When a man (as it would have been in those olden days) worked hard in the shipyards or mines six days a week, and spent his hard-earned money taking his family to the theatre or music hall on a Saturday, there was some merit in reviews which helped him choose his entertainment; his shillings would not be wasted on inferior shows.
These conditions were not present at the Edinburgh Fringe until recently, when ticket prices started exceeding £10 for a one-hour show. With or without reviews, these prices are too high.
At the Free Fringe, no hard-earned money is wasted. If you don’t like the show, you don’t give (and often you sneak out early, thus leaving an audience who is on the wavelength of the show). If you do like the show, you don’t have to give either. Some don’t. Most do. The choice to give or not is always theirs.
And in choosing shows, the audience is free to be guided by its own instincts, not the second-hand views of others. They can experiment without financial penalty. And experimenting — watching something without recommendation, almost at random — is the essence of a festival calling itself Fringe. Among our achievements has been the restoration of the Fringe to the people of its host city.
Our policy has always been that entry to shows is first come first served. Reviewers queue with the rest and there is no special treatment. There are no tickets and there never will be. In situations of particularly high demand we have issued tokens to the queue, thus allowing it to wait in more comfort and not stand for an hour; this is still first come first served.
In our world, the interests of audiences come first and those of performers second, followed by the legitimate need of our venues to profit from having our shows.
Our performers are strongly advised to concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame. The former leads to satisfaction in a job well done; the latter to frustration and the sort of nervous breakdown behaviour often associated with Fringe performers. The danger of the latter, however, is greater when the performer has poured £5000-£15000 of his/her own money into the show, as he/she does not have to with the Free Fringe.
If reviewers are commissioned by publications, in my view they should be paid for that work. But it is nothing to me if they are not. That is between them and their employers. What happens at paid shows is nothing to me either. But in my view, both (the employers of) reviewers and competition judges should pay for their show tickets. Otherwise, this is money taken from the pockets of performers. When restaurants are reviewed by most reputable publications, the reviewers remain anonymous and pay for their meals.
Our shows get audiences with or without reviews. I am not convinced that the public read them anyway. Certainly the additional numbers that came to my show in 2009 following its five-star review in The Scotsman had not read the review itself; they merely followed the stars like the three kings of legend. If there are to be reviews, abolition of star ratings would be a very positive step. It would at least make people read something about the show itself, and teach them that excellence is subjective.
The Free Fringe is not a ‘business model’. It is a model for the liberation of performers from the chains imposed on them by others making profit on their labour. Thus, we must be a non-profit organisation. The Free Fringe is free in many senses. Among those freedoms is freedom from the (perceived, not real) need for reviews.
We will continue to do what we do.
It is right.
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(There was reaction to this in later blogs here and here.)