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Edinburgh Fringe venue calls me a liar

FringeLogo_Red[1]Beyond people being two-faced, there is one thing guaranteed to get up my nose. Someone calling me a liar.

That last one happened yesterday.

In my blog yesterday morning, I wrote:

“I was told The Stand venue at the Edinburgh Fringe will not issue any tickets to any Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award judges this year – although it has done that without any problem for the past six years – both via the main Fringe Office and via The Stand’s own Press Office.”

In response, I got a message from Tommy Sheppard, owner of The Stand, saying:

“No-one in our press office has ever said that there’s a blanket ban on Malcolm Hardee award judges coming to our shows… try not to tell lies about us – it doesn’t help anyone.”

Well, I never said anyone in The Stand’s Press office had told me anything.

What I had done was the same as I had done since 2007 without any problem. I applied for tickets to the shows I wanted to see by sending the standard form to the Fringe’s Arts Industry office, where I am accredited as “John Fleming, Malcolm Hardee Awards”.

The Fringe Office either issue tickets reserved for Arts Industry accreditees or they ask the venue who normally ask the relevant act if it is OK.

For most of the shows I asked about, I was given tickets yesterday. Four requests were “pending” – which I presume means that the acts or their PR people are being asked if it is OK to give tickets.

The single ticket I asked for at The Stand was ‘Declined’ with the written explanation:

“On request of the venue, there is no complimentary ticket allocation for Fringe Award Judges. Tickets can be purchased for this show subject to availability.”

Call me unable to understand the English language, but this seems to me to say there is a blanket ban on Malcolm Hardee award judges coming to shows at The Stand in the standard way that has happened without problem over the last six years. Perhaps there was ongoing incompetence at The Stand over the last six years? Who knows?

In the last six years, I saw several shows at The Stand using an Arts Industry pass issued to the Malcolm Hardee Awards. Mostly I applied for tickets through the Fringe Office (which is standard procedure) though occasionally I got tickets direct from The Stand’s press office showing the Arts Industry Pass bearing the words “Malcolm Hardee Awards” as identification.

EdFringe2011PassB

The Malcolm Hardee Awards Show pass

EdFringe2011PassA

…acceptable to the venue in years past

For example, in one week in 2011, I saw four shows at The Stand, using printed tickets issued to me as a representative of the Malcolm Hardee Awards. Admittedly, on one of those four occasions, I was refused admittance to the venue.

When I arrived at The Stand (after rushing across town) with the printed ticket issued to the Malcolm Hardee Awards and collected by me from the Press Office, I was told at the door: “Oh, we’ve sold all the seats,” and I was turned away.

I was told by a journalist that this had also happened to him at another Stand show. Having been given a press ticket, he was turned away at the door because all the seats had been, in the meantime, sold to paying punters. As a result, he did not review the show.

The Stand has, for several years, claimed it ‘does not believe’ in competitions – that you cannot judge between comedians. Who can say one act is better than or even comparable with another? So they have refused to give tickets to judges for what used to be called the Perrier Award.

Yesterday, Tommy Sheppard of The Stand told me: “If a act wants to get you in on a comp they can. All you have to do is have the courtesy to ask – which of course you can do through us – just contact Dave or Sarah. It would be nice if you would pay for your ticket – since at The Stand that money goes to the acts.”

This seems a little simplified.

At any of the normal pay-to-enter venues, if you buy a ticket, the money goes to the acts… and to the venue. I am unaware of any change at The Stand which means that 100% of all box office receipts goes to the act. If that has suddenly become the case, then presumably The Stand must be making 100% of its money by venue hire to the acts and by bar sales.

I presume that, in fact, The Stand takes a cut of the door take.

So, if a journalist enters the venue on a press pass, The Stand loses that profit on the ticket (but there is a high chance of a resultant review publicising the show). If an awards judge enters the venue on a pass, only one act/show out of all those seen can win an award, so there is much less likelihood of The Stand getting publicity for itself and the show.

Someone defending The Stand on my Facebook page yesterday wrote:

“As I understand it, they don’t approve of competitions so it would make sense that they wouldn’t give away free tickets to someone running a competition, as it makes more sense for them to have those tickets paid for and the money in the pockets of the venue and the acts… It is a point of principle. But why give away a ticket to something that you don’t agree with when you can sell it instead.”

I replied:

“From what you say, then, it’s a money thing, not a point of principle. They don’t mind the act ‘losing’ money but not them…”

Venues allow acts a certain number of complementary tickets which they can give away to friends/contacts.

There are also normally a certain number of press and industry tickets held back until the last moment. If they are not taken up, they are sold to paying customers. In the case of The Stand, they allow press tickets but have an alleged (except for the last six years, it seems) ban on giving tickets to Awards judges. However, they do not tell the acts that judges want tickets (I have been told this by an act) and simply tell the judges they cannot have any: that they have to pay.

As my Facebook friend said: “it would make sense that they wouldn’t give away free tickets to someone running a competition, as it makes more sense for them to have those tickets paid for and the money in the pockets of the venue… It seems that if someone wants to buy a ticket then they are welcomed as a paying customer. If that person then wants to include the acts they’ve seen in a competition, it’s up to them. If an act wins a competition it’s up to the act if they choose to accept it. I don’t see where there is a loss of principle, they just don’t want to give away tickets for free for something they don’t agree with. In terms of losing career advancement… acts don’t have to play The Stand if they don’t want to.”

That seems to put it more clearly.

It is good to see capitalism at work.

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Exclusively revealed here: plans for an Alternative Edinburgh Fringe in 2012

(A version of this blog was published later the same day by the Huffington Post)

The Edinburgh Fringe does not happen until August, but performers – and especially comedians – start planning for it now – in late-December.

The big problem, of course, is the cost. I have reckoned for the last few years that, to stage a professionally-promoted show at the Fringe, costs a performer around £7,000 to £8,000 and you have to assume a 100% loss.

I may be out-of-date, though.

Comedy whirlwind Bob Slayer, formerly in the music business, reckons it now costs £12,000+ to run a show over the Fringe’s three-and-a-half weeks in a ‘paid’ venue. That means the performer pays to hire the venue and the audience pay to see the show.

This week, on the Chortle comedy industry website, he wrote about the opportunities for building a comedy career in a new way.

Now he has gone further.

“The Edinburgh Fringe is a wonderful thing,” he tells me, “but few punters realise the extent to which it is bankrolled by the performers themselves. The vast majority of so-called ‘promoters’ at the Fringe rent rooms to performers just like a landlord. And they sell marketing packages like an agency. What they do not do is take the same financial risks that a real promoter does.”

It is even worse than that. The major venues, in effect, force performers to pay around £500 to be included in their own printed programmes on top of the £295-£393 all performers pay to be included in the main Fringe programme. And then there are unavoidable PR and ticket-handling costs.

“By passing the actual financial risk on to the performer, they are effectively making the performer act as the promoter with a limited upside,” says Bob. “In the music industry this would be called Pay-To-Play and something that you only really find at the lowest level. What performers need at the Fringe is the opportunity to put on shows without risking ridiculous amounts of money.”

For this reason, the last few years has seen a gigantic increase in the number of free Fringe shows, with the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival.

The performers do not pay any money to hire a free venue and the audience do not pay for tickets. At the end of the show, they can give as much or as little (or no) money to the performer as they feel the show has been worth. In effect, it is like busking.

American comic Lewis Schaffer – as I mentioned in a recent blog – has brought this ‘free’ performance concept to London with his Free Until Famous show – it is now the longest-running one-man comedy show in the West End and he is taking this free show on a mini-tour of UK arts centres in 2012.

“The huge growth of free shows,” says Bob Slayer, “highlights the increasing demand for an alternative to shelling out so much money to put on a Fringe show. These shows are becoming the place where acts can grow an audience without getting into debt. But there remains a huge gap between the free and paid shows.”

That gap is mainly the gigantic advance cost of paying venue hire. The traditional paid-for Fringe venues charge the performers to hire their venues and also take a percentage of the box office returns (usually split 60/40 in the artist’s favour). The free venues, on the other hand, charge no rental fee and take no percentage of the voluntary donations that punters put in the performer’s bucket.

A couple of years ago, there was hope that the so-called ‘£5 Fringe’ could bridge the gigantic gap between traditional and free venues, but it could not be made to work economically.

Bob reckons he has another model, though, halfway between the free and paid models.

“If a venue did not charge performers rent, had a fair deal based on a profit split, did not waste money on poster sites and set reasonable ticket prices, it could succeed. That is why, during the 2012 Fringe, my Heroes of Alternative Comedy company is linking up with Laughing Horse (who run the Free Festival) at The Hive venue in Edinburgh. We will co-promote paid shows that do not charge artists rent to hire their venues.

“I will be booking four paid shows in the prime evening slots (hourly 6pm to 10pm) in the main room of The Hive.

“They will run alongside free shows during the day and in the second room. All income from the first ticket sold will be split 70/30 in the artist’s favour. As well as shows running throughout the three-and-a-half weeks of the Fringe, we can also accommodate second shows and shorter runs of one or two weeks.”

At The Hive, both the free and the paid shows will run under the banner of The Alternative Fringe, with listings in both the main Fringe Programme and the Free Festival programme.

It is an interesting idea and might, indeed work.

Performers will have a box office income related to the number of people they can attract with a guaranteed payment per-bum-on-seat. But they will not have to pay the standard up-front costs at all: in particular, no venue hire and no enforced publicity charges.

There is also a problem, of course, with rapacious agent/management companies. I was told a story this week about an Edinburgh Fringe show several years ago which took £33,000 at the box office. I believe the pre-arranged box office deal was the standard 60/40 split in the performer’s favour. After deductions – and several months later – the performer received a cheque for £400 as his split of the profits.

But that, as they say, is another story.

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