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Has the Edinburgh Free Fringe split apart again? Is it comedy Christianity?

I once had to write an encyclopaedia entry on Christianity in (as far as I remember) 23 lines. This was a nightmare. Almost as soon as it started, Christianity started to splinter apart into sects, sub-sects and competing sub-sub-sects.

Peter Buckley Hill started it all in Edinburgh

Peter Buckley Hill  started it all in Edinburgh

It is becoming a bit that way with the ‘free’ shows at the annual Edinburgh Fringe – which was, itself, an offshoot of the continuing Edinburgh International Festival.

In Fringe terms, a ‘free’ show is one at which the audience pays nothing to go in but can, if they like, donate money on the way out.

As far as organising free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe is concerned, first there was the Free Fringe conceived by Peter Buckley Hill (affectionately called PBH).

Then, splitting from that, was the Free Festival. So, for several years now, we have had the rival or complementary (depending on your viewpoint) PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

This year, Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe operation started promoting the idea of Pay What You Want shows where you can get free entry to shows or – to guarantee a seat – you can buy a £5 ticket in advance. Bob’s Heroes venues, though separate, amicably co-existed with the Free Festival and were listed in their programme.

Then, a couple of months ago, I blogged about what seemed to be a split within the Free Fringe. PBH’s reaction to his critics from within and what he perceived to be their ‘ultimatum’ was:

Rather than have people trying to take over and change the principles, I will cancel the whole event and wind up the Free Fringe Ltd… I presume the people behind this ultimatum will now want to form their own organisation and start charging for membership so they can pay themselves for their own work, just as they propose in the ultimatum. And in order to do that they’ll capture as many Free Fringe venues as they can. If I consider it worthwhile, I may decide to continue the Free Fringe with the venues that are left to us.  But I do not have to… I’ll carry on if there’s support for the real principles of the Free Fringe. Venues may be difficult, as I already said they would be.  If there is insufficient support, then I shall wind the Company up.

On Tuesday this week, unknown to me, Ian Fox – author of the book How To Produce, Perform and Write an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show – asked on the Facebook Comedy Forum:

What was the outcome of all the disagreement that John Fleming was writing about in October?

Peter Buckley Hill replied:

The important thing is that the Free Fringe has been accepting applications since November 1st and is going ahead at full strength, as if anybody would seriously doubt that, especially after the success of 2013. The ethos and conditions have not changed in principle.

and staunch Free Fringe supporter Kate Smurthwaite replied:

I don’t think there was an outcome. I don’t even know if anyone’s actually left (though of course many people leave and join the Free Fringe every year). And I’d hardly call it a disagreement. Free Fringe members are welcome to come and go and express opinions as they like. I don’t know why anyone bothers to write about it.

The Free Festival (not to be confused with the Freestival) broke away from the Free Fringe

The Laughing Horse Free Festival (not to be confused with the new Freestival) broke away from the original PBH Free Fringe

As of yesterday, though, the non-disagreement appears to have given birth to yet another free show operation currently possibly called the Freestival (not to be confused with the FreeFestival).

A single page website headed Project Free has appeared, following an e-mail yesterday which was not sent to me but which I have seen. It said:

You may have heard that there has been a problem within the ranks of PBH’s Free Fringe. It is true and we have been forced to start a new organisation and we would like you to be a part of it.

Briefly, PBH’s executive board, of which I was a member, collectively wrote a private email to him suggesting changes to improve the organisation. His response was to go public and call us all cunts and black list us. The Free Fringe is a collective where everyone is expected to chip in. In reality, it has been like a building site where there are 20 people standing around drinking tea watching one guy with a shovel. We are the people with the shovels. Our group includes the man who gets all the venues, the fund raisers, the brochure designer, the venue programmers etc. 

Having been forced out of the organisation we loved we decided to start a new one. We would like you to join us. We have most of the best central venues on Cowgate, Nidry St, Blair St and will have the Tron Kirk, the big church at the corner of the Royal Mile and North/South Bridge, as our main hub.

When I saw this e-mail, I asked Peter Buckley Hill if he would like to comment in a response which would be unedited by me.

He replied:

There can be no “rival Free Fringe organisation”; the name Free Fringe belongs to The Free Fringe Ltd.  Whatever any other organisations may wish to call themselves, they are not The Free Fringe.

Someone loyal to (but not a spokesperson for) the PBH Free Fringe (and NB not PBH himself) suggested to me that the breakaway group from the Free Fringe did not actually have agreement to use the venues.

The new Freestival or Project Free’s ‘Mission Statement’ includes these words:

The possible

New breakaway group’s ‘Mission Statement’

We operate an open door policy to all groups and performers. We are happy to have our performers appearing on other Fringe platforms… A non-refundable show registration fee of approximately £80 may be necessary, depending on sponsorship, to pay for equipment and professional services, such as advertising and marketing. Shows will be free to enter using a bucket and/or Paypal for donations with other possible advanced paid reservation options still under review…

Sponsorship and support from local companies will pay for a quality brochure print which is distributed to every house in Edinburgh and handed out at train stations and bus stations during the fringe. Acts will be able to advertise their own shows in the brochure. A dedicated communications officer and an efficiently managed, regularly updated social media presence will both be on hand to publicise your shows and further the brand. The brand will be extensively marketed around Edinburgh and in the press before and during the Festival. We are also investigating potential partnerships with external PR companies to get performers discounts on PR management and production.

The Festival Fringe is not part of the Edinburgh International Festival

Festival Fringe – not part of Edinburgh International Festival

Some of this seems a little ambitious for a free shows promoter but it does seem likely there will now be four organisations offering free shows at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe.

This morning, I woke up to a message from PBH – sent at 3.43am – saying:

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. We have responded to our members and applicants via our Facebook page.

This message was posted on the Free Fringe’s Facebook page overnight:

The Free Fringe, popularly known as PBH’s Free Fringe, remains the largest single entity at The Edinburgh Fringe and has so far had over 200 applications from performers for 2014. We have already secured our key venues for next year, including – despite what their email states – the Tron Kirk. Our committee and programming team are looking forward to 2014 and we are looking forward to some brilliant new venues, and performers joining

As should be expected with an organisation of our size, there are those within it who think it should be run differently. They are welcome to that view, and no-one has been barred from the organisation following the ultimatum sent to us by the breakaway group, despite what they claim. If people wish to leave and start their own organisation that again is not a problem, although of course we would expect them to find new venues of their own.

We live in interesting times.

That could either be a good thing, offering more choice to punters keen to see a wide variety of shows – or it could be a Chinese curse on already confused Fringe-goers.

* * * * *

Since posting this blog, someone has asked me if I have any connection with the PBH Free Fringe.

In the past I have staged other people’s shows under the PBH Free Fringe banner. The last was in 2010.

My own annual Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Shows were initially staged at the Gilded Balloon pay venue but, for the last few years, have been part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

My 2011 chat shows were part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

My 2013 chat shows came under Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe outfit.

As I understand it, under PBH Free Fringe rules, because I have staged shows in the Laughing Horse Free Festival (and will do so again in 2014) I am banned from staging shows at the PBH Free Fringe.

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Comedian Phil Kay’s crowdfunded anarchic autobiography was inspired by rock bands and British holiday camps

You could be forgiven for thinking that being the creator of new Edinburgh Fringe venue Bob’s Bookshop must have gone to comedian Bob Slayer’s head.

Yesterday, he began a Kickstarter crowdfinding campaign to publish comedian Phil Kay’s autobiography.

There are 17 levels of pledges running from £5 (for which you get an eBook of the opus) through £25 (you get a signed, numbered  and personalised hardback copy with a doodle and note from Phil in the front and your name printed in the book itself) up to £1,001 (for which you can get pretty much whatever you want to get).

The Kickstarter campaign aims to raise £3,333 and will run until 7.00pm UK time on 7th July – that is, 7 on the 7th of the 7th.

The book will be published on 1st August and be on sale in Bob’s Bookshop in Edinburgh and elsewhere

“So,” I said to Bob when I met him, “Phil Kay’s never written a book and you know nothing about publishing.”

“Well,” said Bob “you COULD start from that angle. But I do know about putting out records and we are working with Nick Awde who you blogged about a few days ago and who does know a lot about publishing through his Desert Hearts and Bennett & Bloom publishing companies.”

“So Phil Kay’s book will be published by…?” I asked.

Bob Slayer aims to get a head in publishing

Bob Slayer – He aims to get a head in publishing

“We will do it as a Heroes imprint because our stage shows are promoted as Heroes of Comedy/Heroes of Fringe,” Bob told me. “Part of the inspiration for doing the Heroes shows was that, in 2009, I saw Phil Kay’s show at the Fringe.”

“When last heard of,” I pointed out, “you were writing your own book about your exploits in Australia last year with Gary The Goat.”

“I was trying to finish my books,” said Bob, “but I got very busy doing other things and happened to mention to Phil Kay that I was chatting to Nick Awde about putting out books by comedians and he said Funny you should say that; I’ve just sacked my literary agent because they looked at what I’d done and asked if I could make it more coherent. What the agent was really saying was could Phil follow the agent’s idea of coherence.”

In the Kickstarter pitch, Phil Kay says: “Books are expressions of newness, of self. I am doing what I consider coherent.”

This is not normal - it is Phil Kay

Book is not normal. Nor is its author. Wholly Viable Phil Kay

“This is not a normal biography,” Bob told me. “It’s a collection of wonderful stories with Phil’s life philosophy in it. Like he says: “Imagine what you’d get up to if your job was telling tales of what you’d been getting up to… What would a man do with the blessing to do anything and be paid to retell it..?

“In the book, he talks about how, if he’s on the way to any gig, it has the potential to be the best gig in the world.

“If you stick to a script, you can only be as good as that script is. You are saving yourself from being worse than that script is; you will give an adequate performance. But, if you have a fluidity in what you are performing, you have got the potential for that gig to be the best gig in the world, because there’s no upper limit.”

A Phil Kay show - blink and you’ll miss something

A Phil Kay show – blink and you’ll very likely miss something

“Well, Phil’s gigs are never less than unique and very interesting,” I said.

“Everyone has a story about Phil,” enthused Bob. “The follow-up book might be a compilation of all the people who have wonderful Phil Kay stories. Quite a bit of the book was written when Phil Kay was sharing accommodation with Phil Nichol.”

“Bloody hell!” I said. “That must have been an interesting slice of life.”

“Doing books this way – independently,” explained Bob, “is like my Heroes venue at the Edinburgh Fringe. We cut out the middle man and put out things which are truly creative and original. It’s more like a collective.

“I used to work in the music industry and saw it go through a massive change – and change was an opportunity for different people to come along and do things differently.

“A friend of mine was a roadie for Marillion, a then long-forgotten band who were still touring, still putting out albums and selling maybe 100,000 copies and they, really, were the first band to do crowdfunding. Their record sales were going down, but they still had this hardcore fanbase who would organise themselves on a messageboard.

Marillion in 2007

Marillion in 2007 owed some of their renewed success to fans

“There were a bunch of American fans saying: Why don’t you come to America? Marillion told them: We can’t get the tour support. We can’t afford to. And the fans said: Well, if we can cover the cost, would you come? And Marillion went: Well, yes, of course, but…

“So these fans emailed round their usergroup – remember this is back around 1999 or 2000 – and they raised enough money to fly the band over. The tour got put together and the band decided to record a live album during the tour to give to all the people who had paid in advance. That was the start of Marillion crowdfunding and the fans said: What can we do to help you next?

“So Marillion said: Right. Instead of haggling with a record label over budgets, will you help to fund our next album?

“I certainly know that, with their second crowdfunded album, they raised half a million pounds and a single from the album went Top Ten in the UK charts.

“They now run Marillion weekenders at Pontins Holiday Camps. They take them over completely and it becomes Marillion’s holiday camp for the weekend. They play entire albums live and do requests.

All Tomorrow’s Parties were the first people to do that: to realise what a great place to do a festival a holiday camp is, with everybody totally into the same thing.

“With Marillion, it wasn’t just about getting money. It was about finding people who went: Wow! We’ve given ourselves the chance to see Marillion live!

“That lead to crowdfunding for other bands and Amanda Palmer and so on and Radiohead doing their own thing.

Bob Slayer managed Electric Eel Shock

Bob Slayer managed Electric Eel Shock

“I suggested crowdfunding to a Japanese band I was managing – Electric Eel Shock – and they said: Oh, it’s OK for Marillion: they’ve already got a fanbase. But then their record label started to really mess us about and I needed to raise £10,000 in two weeks to get us out of this record deal and I just emailed the fans, told them why we needed the money and I said: I need 100 fans to give £100 and you’ll be on the Electric Eel Shock guestlist for life. And we got the money straight away.

“After that, I did other crowdfunding and advised on Public Enemy’s crowdfunding.

“In comedy, we’ve seen similar things with Louis CK and Bo Burnham. Look what Paul Foot’s doing now.

Paul Foot shares secret gigs with his fans

Paul Foot shares secret gigs with his fans

“He’s doing his Secret Gigs, which is wonderful for just connecting with his audience, because you can only go to the gigs if you’ve already been to a previous Paul Foot gig. He says: We don’t want people in here unless they are confirmed Paul Foot fans. It takes half an hour to get into the venue because Paul chats to everybody and processes them for five minutes and then seats them and asks them what they’ve been up to. And fans get to know each other: Oh. How many times have you seen him? Those things are three hours of Paul Foot: they are the equivalent of the Marillion weekender.

“When we put Electric Eel Shock fans on the guestlist for life, the motivation was just to get immediate money, but the result was much more than that. Instead of coming to see them once, when they did a ten-day gig of the UK, people would say to each other: How many gigs have you been to? How many COUNTRIES have you been to to see them?

“Their Ichiban Fan – Number One Fan – was the first fan to see them on four continents and he eventually became their tour manager.”

“And the title of Phil Kay’s book?” I asked.

The Wholly Viable,” said Bob. “And I know from experience that it is.”

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Comedian Bob Slayer has a big rant at me about the Edinburgh Fringe shows

Bob Slayer is not a man to mess with

Bob Slayer occasionally gets grumpy

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.”

In 2011 I presented Bob with his Malcolm Hardee Award

I presented Bob with his Malcolm Hardee Award in 2011

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.

Bob Slayer in Leicester last Friday

The public will pay to see Bob Slayer like this

“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.

An Edinburgh street during the Fringe

An Edinburgh street just off the Royal Mile during the Fringe

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.

John Robertson (left) and Bob Slayer

John Robertson (left) negotiates with Bob

“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.

Bob with Claire Smith of The Scotsman at the 2012 Fringe

Butch Bob and Claire Smith of The Scotsman at Fringe 2012

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.

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