After every Edinburgh Fringe, there is a blame game played about how the experience was awful and the Fringe is deteriorating. Usually, this revolves around the spiralling cost of accommodation and/or the physical and/or organisational chaos. But, for performers, mostly it’s the cost of the venue hire and/or the accommodation.
For beginners, here is a simple guide.
The locals blame the Council or the number of performers; the performers blame the venues and the Fringe Office; the venues blame the Council and the University (who temporarily rent a lot of buildings to venues); the Council blames the Fringe as an overall event and tries to appear to support the ratepayers; the Fringe Office tries to hide; the landlords, the shops, the Council and the University take the money gratefully.
I used to have a beard for 25 years, then cut it off. I think I am going to grow one again but have not yet figured how I can explain this as anything other than laziness.
And I may spend one day without wearing my spectacles.
A couple of hours after I posted yesterday’s blog mentioning Lewis Schaffer, I inevitably bumped into him. He kissed me on the head and launched into his new schtick where he tries to persuade anyone wearing glasses to stop wearing them because it is simply a conspiracy by opticians to sell unnecessary spectacles and the eyes will re-adjust by themselves.
This is partly true, of course. Only partly. But I was always very long-sighted and maybe do only need specs for close-up reading. I might give it a try for a day.
The Rule of Three obliges me to do a third thing but, short of donating my stomach and man-boobs to Oxfam, I don’t yet know what that might be.
Edinburgh Fringe fever may have set in, as it does every year around the halfway point of the festival.
This morning, I received a long e-mail from Sean Thoburn comparing Lewis Schaffer to the dwarf planet Pluto and expounding a theory in which each of the planets orbiting the Sun can be compared to comedians orbiting Edinburgh in August while “reviewers are like one of those Voyager satellites sent up to send back pictures of undiscovered worlds and maybe comets represent those US comics who make a brief appearance at a particular Fringe and take years to return and get far more attention than their fleeting appearances deserve.”
The e-mail was sent at 09.12am, so I doubt if drink or drugs can be blamed.
It can only be Fringe fever.
A previous year’s poster for the toilet run
Yesterday, Paul Ricketts was supposed to be doing his long-planned toilet crawl of Edinburgh – Now Wash Your Hands – Again – in which comedy was to be performed in the toilets at each of the Big Four venues at the Fringe, starting with the Pleasance Courtyard venue. I have asked Paul for a first-hand report of what happened. I could not go because his 3.30pm start time clashed with my Grouchy Club show (3.45pm-4.45pm at the Counting House).
On Day 3 of The Grouchy Club yesterday, audience figures rose again to those of Day One with half the audience being normal Fringe-going punters. This is interesting because the show has only been promoted through social media. There are no posters, no flyers and it does not appear in the main Fringe Programme. It only appears in the Free Festival programme and on the What’s On Where posters in the venue itself. So people appear to be returning to the true spirit of the Fringe and randomly going to shows simply because of the time slot, not because they have any idea what the show actually is.
The What’s On Where posters and signage in The Counting House is fairly good, which is not standard at the Fringe.
The Cowgatehead venue – fought over and proudly won by the PBH Free Fringe – is a disaster. The tiny doorway onto the street is barely visible and not even clearly identified as the Cowgatehead. Once inside, there is a vast bar and music area unrelated to the Free Fringe rooms and you have to spot that you have to double back, go down steps and then turn corners and go up stairs to get to the upper storeys which have venue spaces called things like UP2L. Even if you get vaguely near the rooms, the pieces of paper with their identification numbers/letters tend to be on the outside of the doors of the rooms so that, near performance times when doors are left open, they are hidden from sight.
Seagulls in the streets are more visible than shows in venues
This policy of putting names on the outside of doors which, when open, are completely invisible seems also to have been followed by C Venues at their Nova building – and probably in their other buildings, as C Venues have always been notable for appallingly bad or non-existent signage within their buildings. There are giant bleedin’ signs outside proclaiming what the venue is. Good. But, once inside, you have to guess, explore and try to find someone who knows which floor or room a show is in. There ARE some small notices, but hidden on walls amid an overwhelming visual patchwork of brightly-coloured show posters.
There should be a prize (perhaps there will be) for worst signage at the Fringe. Just the Tonic might win. As of last night, there appear to be no signs of any kind to any performance rooms in their Mash House venue. And the interior of their Caves venues – particularly for the shows they admirably ‘saved’ from the Cowgatehead debacle – are utterly incomprehensible. I half expect to find a Minotaur in there.
Yes. You need signs to get people inside a building from the street.
But… Surprise! Surprise! You also need to have clear signs to which shows are in which rooms inside the venue. Otherwise punters will be pissed-off with both the guilty venue and the innocent act and, after a shit user experience, the punters may well only go to the venue once.
There also appeared to be no signage inside the Frankenstein’s venue yesterday, where comedy magician Stu Turner was trying out his interesting Haven’t a Clue! format in which six comics play a version of charades in which you can speak.
Later, Sara Mason got a good audience, despite being in the Mash House venue, for her show Burt Lancaster Pierced My Hymen (When I Was 11) – one of the few Fringe shows to live up to an OTT title.
Luca Cupani has the good fortune to perform his show Still Falling on Bob Slayer’s double decker BlundaBus – you can hardly miss a double-decker bus painted in bright colours and it only has one top deck.
Visibility is everything in Edinburgh. Something performers understand but venue runners too often think only applies to the exterior not the interior of their venues.
Visibility is everything at Edinburgh Fringe – A life-size poster of Tanyalee Davis by the BlundaBus
The Edinburgh Fringe venues in August are already guaranteed to be a mess with the Cowgatehead debacle (subject of already too many earlier blogs) meaning many ‘free’ shows will be in the wrong venues and/or at the wrong times or will not exist at all.
Now I have discovered even some ‘pay’ venues will be slightly confusing.
I met Juliette Burton at King’s Cross station to talk about her updated Look at Me show which is being previewed at the Leicester Square Theatre tomorrow night and Thursday night.
“I’ve been adding extra bits to it because of recent newsworthy events,” she told me.
“All that hoo-hah about the ‘beach ready’ ads?” I asked.
“I’m impressed,” I told Juliette, “that you are not mentioning the product name. The yellow thing we don’t name so they don’t get unnecessary publicity. You wrote about it in Standard Issue and the Huffington Post.
“Yes,” said Juliette. “And it highlights the issues that are brought up in Look at Me. I’ve also been adding in jokes and making it more about me.”
“And,” I said, “you’re taking it back to the Gilded Balloon venue at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.”
“Yes. I’m doing it at the Gilded Balloon for six days, but the Pleasance Dome is housing me and a couple of other people.”
“What?” I said. “You are not actually in the Gilded Balloon building itself?”
Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon and Anthony Alderson of the Pleasance venues – civilised, amiable Fringe competitors
The Gilded Balloon and the Pleasance are two competing venues at the Edinburgh Fringe. As far as I understand it, the Gilded Balloon’s old press office was going to be turned into a venue this year, but there were problems and the Pleasance venue next door helped out by providing space.
“I’m just happy it’s all so amicable,” Juliette told me. “It’s nice when people work together to overcome obstacles.”
“Yes it is,” I said. “Is that all you’re doing in Edinburgh this year, apart from competing in the annual Russian Egg Roulette Championships at the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show on 28th August?”
(The Edinburgh Fringe is all about blatant promotion.)
“Why are you appearing with Abnormally Funny People?” I asked. “You’re not disabled.”
“Because I’ve got mental health problems.”
“Surely that doesn’t count?’
“It’s a disability,” said Juliette. “There are lots of disabilities that are invisible. I always used to feel quite nervous about classing it as a disability.
“I’ve also been nominated for the National Diversity Awards 2015. I’ve been nominated by somebody else, but I have to put together evidence that I am, in fact, a role model for diversity.”
“Diversity” I asked, “is what?”
“It’s about breaking down barriers and encouraging people to embrace everybody, no matter what they look like or what they’ve been through.”
“If you want to embrace everybody, you should team up with Patrick Monahan,” I suggested. “So why are you diverse?”
“Because I’m a nutter. But I’m keen to be less of a campaigner and more of a comedy person now. I’m nominated for the Funny Women Awards on 23rd June. And my videos from MCM ComicCon are coming out soon.”
“You were dressed as your short film character SuperMum, weren’t you?” I asked
Juliette – also available in different costumes, including cow
“The SuperMum screening was at MCM ComicCon,” said Juliette, “but I was running round dressed as lots of different characters – Wonder Woman, Poison Ivy, a cow…”
“A cow?” I asked.
“I was running round ComicCon interviewing people for VidFest UK.”
“A cow?” I repeated.
“A cow,” confirmed Juliette.
“A cow normally requires two people,“ I pointed out to her.
“I am two people,” she said. “I give you two for the price of one. I was the whole cow. Actually, weirdly, that was the costume I felt most at home in.”
“Your udder-worldly character?” I asked.
“Very good,” said Juliette, unconvincingly. “My milk shake brought all the boys to the yard… I’m recording another audio book for the RNIB in July.”
Cowgatehead in Edinburgh, scene of the ‘Free’ power tussle
The last couple of days, this blog has been devoted to – mesmerised by – one topic.
Welcome to Day Three.
There can only be two sensible explanations for the wild madness of the current Cowgatehead venue debacle in Edinburgh.
One is that it is an astonishingly intricate attempt to win an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt at the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe.
The other is that it is all some fly-on-the-wall pilot for an upcoming TV comedy series.
Those are the only two sensible explanations but, of course, any sort of sense has long since been thrown out the window in this ongoing debacle involving an Edinburgh Fringe venue apparently owned and run by three members of the same family, all of whom are called Kenny Waugh and one of whom was the chairman of Hibernian Football Club.
You can do your own Googling and there are more recent articles, but a piece in the Edinburgh Evening News in 2006 described one of the Kenny Waughs (the Lord only knows how you define which) thus:
The son of former Hibs chairman Kenny Waugh Jnr, 44, is now the owner of Festival Inns – the operator that owns numerous city bars and clubs including The Three Sisters, Beluga and Cargo.
Initially working part time in the pubs run by his father, the former joiner developed a feel for what was required to cut the mustard in Edinburgh’s bar scene.
He went on to form his own public house business, Thistle Inns, in 1990 with his cousin, pub operator Billy Lowe. In 1997 they sold out to brewing giant Scottish & Newcastle for £20 million. “Billy was a pub operator and it seemed an ideal partnership where I could find and build the pubs and he would run them,” Waugh has said.
He then set up Festival Inns, which now owns bars and clubs in Edinburgh, Bridge of Allan, St Andrews and Aberdeen, and has an annual turnover of £25 million.
In a recent survey from The Publican magazine, Mr Waugh was positioned 63rd in the 100 richest people involved in Britain’s licensed trade, with wealth estimated at £13.3 million.
Now back to the current Edinburgh Fringe debacle.
Yesterday afternoon, the Freestival issued a press release. It read:
Freestival board member Jools Constant met with the licensee of Cowgatehead, Kenny Waugh, this afternoon and has hammered out a compromise agreement under which Freestival would retain the lower 3 floors which are already booked in. Under this arrangement no Freestival acts would be required to move, and all existing time slots would be honoured. PBH would take the upper floors and would have ample space for the 6 rooms he has proposed and would be able to book those as he sees fit. A meeting to discuss this is arranged for next week. Freestival and the Licensee have already confirmed attendance. All that remains is for Peter and the Free Fringe board to sit down with us and work out the details.
We have sent an e-mail to Peter requesting that he meet with us in the spirit of cooperation and in the best interests of the acts.
One might have thought this was an ideal outcome.
Both sides – the Free Fringe and the Freestival – claim to have the welfare of the performers at heart.
This proposed compromise would mean the already booked Freestival shows could go ahead as planned, as paid for and as listed in the Fringe Programme. And the Free Fringe could book in extra shows not printed in the main Fringe Programme (which comes out next week).
Then the Free Fringe posted this as a message on the closed Free Fringe Facebook page. It refers to PBHFF, which means PBH Free Fringe. PBH is Peter Buckley Hill, the man who originated and still controls the Free Fringe organisation:
Performer Doug Segal’s take on the Cowgatehead debacle
As most of you know since 2010 I have been assisting Peter and the PBHFF Artistic Directors with venue sourcing, negotiating, retention etc amongst other voluntary duties that we all get involved with.
Whilst, understandably, people are looking for information regarding the Venue Cowgatehead, I feel it only right that our own members be given the facts so that we can put a stop to the speculation that PBHFF are somehow to blame for Freestival’s predicament.
To alleviate any doubt, I can confirm that PBH Free Fringe have agreed terms and exchanged signed venue contractual agreements to provide performers at Cowgatehead & Cowshed during Edinburgh Fringe 2015. This information was passed to the fringe office on Thursday 21st May 2015. Copies will be sent to the relevant bodies only.
One thing that most of you weren’t aware of is there were several parties interested in leasing the Cowgatehead space this year, at least four including a bid from Freestival in conjunction with a new sponsor to operate the bars.
When I spoke with the owners during Feb/March this year I expressed our interest in using the Cowgatehead spaces during Edfringe 2015. I was informed by the owners that several bids had already been submitted to lease the entire building and that they were presently considering their options on either leasing as one unit or whether to split into two units. I was also asked if they split into two would PBHFF be interested in also using the top floor levels (George IV Bridge) again as we did in 2014, obviously I said yes and that I would discuss the terms with our license operators and get them to discuss further with the owners and their agents. During my discussions with the license operators I was informed that Freestival had also approached them with an interest in using the entire building.
At this point PBH informed the fringe office that PBHFF may be using the building this year and that no other promoters have confirmation from the owners or lessors to use CGH. PBH also advised the fringe office that they should be wary of accepting adverts from any performers until the licensees and promoters status was confirmed. I also know this information was relayed to Freestival as they had informed the fringe office that they have confirmed use of the spaces for 2015.
As you now know PBH was contacted by the newly announced lessor of the building and asked if he would promote the venue this year. When PBH informed him that we had discussed providing the entertainment with one of the other interested parties he said he already knew this. When we also told him that Freestival had already informed the fringe office that they were using the venue and that they had already booked acts, the lessor was furious and stated that he did not nor would he be giving them permission. He also stated that he couldn’t have given such permission anyway as he had not yet secured the lease himself.
As we had already received an indication from the owners that PBHFF, to at least some degree, would be operating as the venue promoters this year we put on standby several performers for the venue. However, we decided not to declare this until we had 100% confirmation and a signed contractual agreement.
Having further discussed the offer to promote the venue with our Artistic Directors we met with the lessor the following day and signed the agreement contracts.
With regards to St John’s (Bar Bados) the lessor informed us that it was decided last year that no shows would be programmed into the venue for 2015 should the venue be made available to him. The reason being sound pollution from the bar was interfering with the performances and the performers were asking that the bar area be kept quiet or not be used during all performances. As a result bar taking suffered. The lessor also confirmed that no agreement is/was in place with Freestival to use the venue this year and we also have a signed venue contractual agreements to provide suitable musical acts this year.
With regards to Tron Kirk we also have a signed venue contractual agreements to promote all acts during the fringe and our Artistic Directors for music and cabaret have been informed.
Whilst the allocations and booking of acts has absolutely nothing to do with me, I have been assured that every consideration will be given to the performers affected and that PBH and the Artistic Directors are presently working on the list.
There also seems to be some discussion about the number of available spaces/stages within CGH this year. We have discussed this with the lessor and it is totally impractical to put 9 stages in the available floors. We are presently discussing options for the best usage of possible additional space within the building and hope to announce the details in a few days.
This has been an extremely busy time for all the team at PBHFF, not withstanding looking after 40+ Venues with 60+ stages this year, whilst trying to accommodate a backlog of 100’s of performance applications over and above those that were promised slots by Freestival.
It is now disappointing to see that some people are going on the attack without first knowing the circumstances. However it is even more disappointing to read the statements made by Freestival basically accusing PBH of stealing their venue out of spite.
For the record, when I spoke to the parties that were involved in tendering for the CGH space they informed me that Freestival were never promised use of the venue. From what I now read they are saying that negotiations was with their sponsors it was their sponsor that negotiated the agreement due to their involvement with the building. That statement is inaccurate as their sponsors have no connection with CGH and are/were not in a position to give any assurances that Freestival would be the venue promoters no matter who were the licensees.
I also find it extremely disturbing that Freestival claim to have entered into discussions with two of the parties that were tendering for the site and agreed with them to provide all their entertainment, a claim that is denied by the parties, and then go directly to the property owner and submit their own bid to lease the site and run the bars along with another new sponsor they had approached.
PBHFF have now had to suffer a backlash of derogatory comments in the press and on social media about how the PBHFF team operates. Let me assure you that we are not smarting over this situation and completely sympathise with the performers that have been let down due to the mismanagement of their promoters. We have conducted ourselves in a professional and ethical manner during our negotiations with all parties involved. However, we will not accept unjustified criticism from the people that caused this situation just to try and save face.
PBHFF will continue with the same ethos to promote the true free non for profit model that was put together by most of the performers involved in these discussions. We do not accept sponsorship or grants, we work in harmony with the goodwill of our venue owners and performers to offer a totally free platform for the performers. We don’t pay for venues, we don’t charge our performers a registration fees or take advanced audience bookings to watch a free show for £5.
The PBHFF model has worked for the last 20 years and we hope for it to continue for the foreseeable future.
I trust this explains the situation thus far, well from my perspective anyway. Let’s hope that, given the opportunity, the performers issues can be resolved amicably and we all have a really good Edinburgh Fringe 2015 and beyond!
UPDATE: The PBHFF team are working extremely hard to resolve the situation for the Freestival acts. Having just now discussed the situation with the licensee, in light of recent Freestival claims, PBH will remain as venue promoter for Cowgatehead & Cowshed. A further planned meeting has been arranged for later this week and all performers will be updated.
Call me old-fashioned, but the phrase “completely sympathise with the performers” used in the above does seem tailor-made for any proposed TV sitcom based on all these shenanigans.
I am merely a bemused observer, but all this seems to me to be more about controlling a venue and not about the welfare of and financial consequences to the performers. A classic case of the road to Hell being paved with long-forgotten good intentions.
There was a sentence in there that said: “Let’s hope that, given the opportunity, the performers issues can be resolved amicably.”
It seems to me that a possible opportunity arose and was rejected.
Copstick and me, both bemused, at the Grouchy Club Podcast
Yesterday, between the issuing of the Freestival press release and the Free Fringe Facebook posting, comedy critic Kate Copstick and I recorded our weekly Grouchy Club Podcast.
Now overtaken by events, it may still be of interest. It discusses, among other things, the Cowgatehead chaos, Copstick’s admiration for Peter Buckley Hill and Scottish law under which (unlike English law) an oral agreement is legally binding.
Peter Buckley Hill (PBH) of theFree Fringe claims that his organisation and not the breakaway Freestival organisation has the rights to stage shows at Cowgatehead.
He told acts who had already booked with Freestival, paid the Edinburgh Fringe for a listing in the Programme (it’s out next week) and possibly paid to have flyers and posters designed:
“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.”
In a Chortle comedy website opinion piece, editor Steve Bennett clarified the catch in this offer:
“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.”
That seems – in the context of this labyrinthine mess – fairly simple.
If an act believes the Free Fringe may have rights to the Cowgatehead venue and the Freestival may not, then that act can unlink itself from the Freestival. But the Free Fringe insists it is an either/or situation.
Of course, inevitably, it is more complicated than that.
Yesterday promoter Bob Slayer, who runs the Heroes organisation, pointed out to me something which he says has been overlooked.
“The main dilemma,” he told me, “is not about acts denouncing Freestival – who won’t take that personally.
“There are acts that are involved in a second show with one of the other free promoters or us that cannot transfer their Cowgatehead show to PBH unless they cancel their other show.”
So, for example, an act may have had one free show booked into Cowgatehead with Freestival AND a separate free show booked in at a Laughing Horse Free Festival venue or at one of Bob’s Heroes venues.
In those circumstances, the act could not simply cancel their Cowgatehead booking with Freestival and transfer to a Cowgatehead booking via the Free Fringe. They would also have to cancel their entirely separate show with the other promoter.
Bob tells me: “I am not sure how many this acts this effects but I know for sure Phil Kay is one act that PBH has rejected transferring because of this! Crazy!”
I have to agree with him and to lament that PBH – a man with originally good intentions – has paved the road leading to this Hellish situation. If you apply to the Free Fringe you cannot apply to any other venue operator whom PBH perceives as a rival. Like Chortle, I am aware of no other venue operator at the Edinburgh Fringe who imposes this draconian condition on applicants.
This blatant restriction of trade and limitation on acts’ freedom to perform has always been more than a little surprising coming from an organisation originally set up with the genuine intention of helping acts: an intention now apparently superseded by personal vendettas in which acts’ welfare is of secondary or no consideration.
At the end of yesterday’s blog, I drew attention to the fact that, under Scottish Law, an oral agreement constitutes a legally-binding contract and that, if the Cowgatehead people made any oral agreement with the Freestival, it would invalidate any subsequent agreement with PBH.
In a comment on my Facebook page yesterday, comedy critic Kate Copstick (who trained as a Scottish lawyer) added: “And it would seem that, legally speaking, the intervening actions and bookings etc will constitiute a homologation of the Freestival contract”
For those of us who did not train in Scottish Law, the Collins English Dictionary currently defines ‘homologate’ as:
(mainly Scots law) to approve or ratify (a deed or contract)
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:
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.
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.
I captioned a photo of Bob Slayer with the words: Comic Bob Slayer has some issues with Harry Deansway, triggering this comment from Bob himself:
I have issues with this line “Comic Bob Slayer has some issues with Harry Deansway”. I don’t have any real issues with Harry.
He puts across a perfectly valid opinion – the pay-to-play venues suit some acts and some shows perfectly and Harry obviously had a thoroughly lovely time at the Fringe…
I feel that in the past the large venues tried to marginalise independent venues – but we have successfully redressed the balance and now there is a place for everyone at the Fringe. I think the big venues will need to offer small productions and comedy better deals and they will increasingly move into big production and theatre where their deals have more justification. But Tom Binns, who is possibly the smartest man at the Fringe, had a show with the Pleasance (Ian D Montfort) and a show with us (Ivan Brackenbury and others) – This worked really well for both shows helping each other out. We coordinated the promotion campaigns and Tom had a wonderful Fringe with literally the best of both worlds.
As for Harry’s rudeness which some people have pointed out, well that is just an exaggerated stance as part of his Harry character act. It’s beautiful really and maybe he is the funniest thing in comedy.
Sonny Hayes triggered an unexpected response
When performer Sonny Hayes then commented on the blog: Gotta say, Bob Slayer wins the debate hands down, Bob replied:
Thank you Sonny but I don’t really want to win this debate… See what Harry is doing for whatever reason is attempting to polarise the debate. It’s them or us. This is divisive, negative and dated.
The Independent Fringe doesn’t need defending anymore – a couple of years ago I was very frustrated that the industry, media and acts believed the line that you had to be in one of the big venues to get noticed – However this year has really proved that is not the case. OK, some people still don’t get this but that is fine.
There is a place for everyone now and we can leave discussion about bad deals and pay-to-play to go on in the board rooms of the big venues and agents who need to decide if they want to offer better deals for low production shows and comedians OR if they want to continue to move into higher production and theatre shows where their deals have more justification.
Now that we have an extremely viable independent set up it doesn’t really matter what other people are up to – we can just carry on and have fun. There are more than enough acts who want to join us in this now and we can continue to explore smart ways to make the Fringe and comedy industry work.
Meanwhile, over on Facebook, comedian Mandy Dassa commented:
Mandy Dassa was a bit shocked by the ego one-upmanship
Aside from all the ego one-upmanship, which clouded the actual point of this debate, we need to thank Bob Slayer for creating hype for the free/pay what you want Fringe and giving it the creditability it deserves.
We do need ‘the Big 4’ with its advertising and big purple cows and the like (if anything just to decorate the city of Edinburgh in bright colours) but, let’s put this straight right now, unless you are a massive comic you are being taken for a ride financially (if not by a venue then by your promoter pushing you to spend) – It’s not fair to cash in on people’s dreams so shamelessly.
Maybe all this debate and ranting may shake the big venues to lower their prices for acts and give the Fringe a bit of unity with its ticket prices. All I heard all summer was good things about Heroes (Bob Slayer’s venues) – We should be glad someone is expanding on the already genius idea of Free Fringe. Pay what you want/cheap tickets in advance was always going to be the natural move and well done Bob for making that happen.
Harry, I love ur ass, I laughed and laughed when I saw your show, but not all of us can afford to lose thousands of pounds in the name of performing in a venue like the Pleasance and people like Bob have given us broke comics a platform to bring our goods to Edinburgh without having to sell our grandmas!
There was another comment on Facebook – from Adrienne Truscott who, at this year’s Fringe, won both the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality and the panel prize from what used to be the Perrier Awards for her show staged at Bob Slayer’s Bookshop venue. Now back in New York, she wrote:
Adrienne Truscott’s multi-award winning show: Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!
Thanks for keeping this most necessary conversation alive. And to Bob Slayer for trying something new that seemed to work very well. Everyone I shared our venue with seemed genuinely happy and supported not only by our venue people, Bob and Miss Behave, but also by the model, the press and one another.
It’s hard to imagine any artist being angry about new models and paradigms emerging, fiscal or otherwise, for presenting art. Of the many Fringes I’ve done with many houses (3 of the Big 4), this was by far my most successful by any stick you use to measure.
Choosing Bob’s Bookshop and this model allowed me to bring a new and rough-around-the edges show to the Fringe to work on it in terms I could live with, without pretending that I was presenting a completely finished show to a paying audience and without the stress of paying more than I can afford at the top or thinking of my audience in terms of money made back, but rather as interested parties whose presence and energy every night helped change and improve my show, which is the main reason I brought it to the Fringe.
As it became popular and hard to get in to, the Heroes model swung into full effect and worked organically the way ‘the free market’ as I understand it says it will. Also, when it became successful I did not have a vulture of a venue runner suddenly laying claim to it as it suited him, but rather a supporter and friend who continued to evolve ideas about how to do things as the season went along. I reckon entertaining new models can make you sharper about how and why you make your own art too. It may depend on what kind of show you’re doing and what kind of audience you are after and, for some, the Big 4 may be an appropriate fit.
I knew for my show I needed to be able to retain control over how it was presented, how the room felt etc. and I was allowed that freedom. It would be hard to argue that going with the costs and demands of one of the Big 4 would allow an independent artist to bring a new work to the Fringe without getting gutted financially. Also, this conversation doesn’t even dip in to the longstanding problem of some of those bigger houses failing to pay, on time or indeed at all, the artists that have filled their houses working every single night, a far dodgier conversation…
Harry suggested I shoot him next to a rubbish bin in Soho
On Facebook over the last couple of days, there was a bit of a mini-ding-dong… between Harry Deansway (former editor of comedy magazine The Fix turned stand-up comic) and stand-up comic turned promoter Bob Slayer.
It started when Harry wrote an online piece giving his thoughts about this year’s Edinburgh Fringe which, he said, were written “to generate discussion about issues that will affect the future of the Fringe.” He added: “I’m not trying to piss anyone off, that is apart from Bob Slayer,” whom he called a “fanatic self publicist and cheap Fringe zealot.”
Below are edited highlights of the spat from Facebook. Who knows what the copyright is on such things? In my opinion, on Facebook, everything is either in the public domain or possibly owned either by Facebook or by the NSA and GCHQ.
Comic Bob Slayer has some issues with Harry Deansway
To explain some background… At the Edinburgh Fringe, audiences pay to see some shows. Others come under the banner of either the PBH Free Fringe or the Free Festival and, this year, Bob Slayer added an extra ‘pay-what-you-want’ layer where, at his two Heroes of Fringe venues (which were included in the Free Festival), you could either turn up for shows and get in free if there were seats available OR pay £5 in advance to guarantee a seat.
Harry Deansway’s piece basically pushed the line that:
“Ultimately giving shows away ‘free’ is damaging the long term sustainability of the Fringe… First of all, it is not free either for the performer or the audience. For the performer, both Free Fringe and Free Festival have administration fees in some form or another. For the audience, it is not free, as a bucket is forced in your face at the end of the show for you to donate money to the performer. Maybe a better name, not in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act, would be the Cheap Fringe? As a result, Fringe acts on the paid Fringe can’t compete.”
Below is some of the to-and-fro on Facebook in reaction to Harry’s piece:
BOB SLAYER: You have got your facts wrong in the first sentence – Adrienne Truscott was not in the Free Fringe in either sense – i.e. the PBH Free Fringe – or the wider ‘Free shows at the Fringe’. She was of course part of Heroes’ pay what you want or buy a ticket in advance – the show was hot and so if you didn’t buy a ticket after the first couple of days you wouldn’t get in. I had several journalists interview me and ask if they could call it Free Fringe as it would suit their agenda – and I said No, call it what it is.
HARRY DEANSWAY: Yes Bob you are part of the “Cheap Fringe”. I state this quite clearly in the second paragraph. You and your journalist friends can call it the Free Fringe, Heroes or Pay What You Want, however you want to market it.
BOB SLAYER: It’s terribly written! I mean I agree with much of what you are saying Mr Harry but you have let the fact that I enjoy mocking you at every opportunity cloud your judgement – you have totally failed to understand that it is not a case of Paid Fringe v Free Fringe (or Cheap Fringe as you quite rightly call it) – we moved on from that debate 2 Fringe Festivals ago.
The important consideration (which you do discuss but miss where the change is coming from) is Good Deals v Bad deals. Pay-to-Play is a terrible basis for a deal. 60/40 is also a shitty deal – add them together and you have a really terrible shitty deal – all it does is push up ticket prices as shows have to charge more to even stand a chance of breaking even.
The Free Fringe is a symptom of the shitty Pay-to-Play not a cure – shows and punters demanding a cheaper, more creative alternative – the Pay-to-Play reaction to this has not been to offer better deals but to offer worse and worse deals – this has created a gaping void between both models and is increasingly driving the new and more innovative comedians towards the Free model. They know it is not ideal and so these independent thinking acts have explored other ways around the problem.
At this year’s Fringe, Heroes launched a new model that bridges the gap between paid and free. (The Edinburgh Fringe is a unique scenario where we needed to innovate to compete with the big venues and their bad deals)
We called it Pay What You Want – ‘Free’ shows that you can buy tickets for to guarantee entry.
This means ‘hot’ shows sell out and quickly become paid shows. But shows that are still finding their audience can let people in on a Pay What You Want on the way out basis so there are few empty shows.
Our Pay What You Want model is simply a more honest version of both models. Free shows are not really Free – and most paid shows have to give away tickets to find an audience – so why not admit this? Because once you do admit it then you get huge benefits: the risks associated with promoting a show reduce drastically, the amount of unnecessary marketing spend you need reduces drastically. In short, the economics of the Fringe change drastically in favour of the artist.
All our shows made money at the Fringe, (there are only two other promoters – both independent – who can claim this). Also some shows made significant money – something I am very proud of and will continue to develop… Now if the Pay-to-Play venues would adopt this model the Fringe would be full of spirit once more…
HARRY DEANSWAY: Bob. Have you thought about re-branding Heroes as Bob’s Discount Fringe? I think you would come across really well in one of those late night cheap infomercials. Happy to continue this discussion when you (a) stop misusing the term Pay to Play and (b) actually state the facts of what deals the big four operate not the deals you make up to promote your own agenda.
BOB SLAYER: Nice one Mr Harry – but again terribly written! It doesn’t matter how much the tickets cost – but how much the artist sees – We were selling tickets for £5 and our acts saw all of that if they were producing the shows themselves or 70% if we produced the shows. Shows in Pay-to-Play venues actually see 60% of fuck all because they never cover their costs. Oh one of our shows on Heroes was £500 per ticket – the most expensive on the Fringe – and sold out all 4 shows – they sold 100% of that.
OK so we all know you got a better deal than most at the Pleasance – super – acts should not accept shitty deals and so well done for setting a good example… But whatever deal you got it was because they needed to fill a slot created by an act dropping out after the registration deadline. They simply needed to fill the slot – fortunately they got the best man for the job…
But the fact remains that the basic deals at these venues are appalling – and demands that acts need to pay money before the Fringe starts… £3,000, £5,000, £8,000 depending on what size room that they go into. The details of how they work out guarantees are public on their websites.
Of course extras and marketing costs are extra and can vary greatly – There are many acts who have given the facts of their deals. Tiernan Douieb didn’t go up this year – but his deal last year meant if he sold out all his tickets he would only lose £4,500.
The big venues have sold these shitty deals by pedalling the myth that you have to be in one of the big venues to get noticed. This year proved that was completely wrong. In fact you were less likely to get noticed in a big venue this year. How many reviewers did you get Harry? How many awards? It’s hard isn’t it and now that reviewers and awards are no longer giving preference to the Pay-to-Play venues (because the quality in independent venues is so high) it is equally hard for everyone – unless you are really good – like what (award-winning) Adrienne Truscott and John Kearns both were.
You know this. But it seems that you enjoy preaching to the ignorant by telling them what they want to hear. You are still banging that out-of-tune drum promoting the emperors new clothes after most people have seen that he is naked. Which makes you like a hilariously coiffeured TV evangelist.
HARRY DEANSWAY: Bob. I’m not going to enter into a discussion when you keep making things up and misusing the phrase Pay to Play. It’s pointless.
BOB SLAYER: Would you like to debate what Pay to Play is then? Here is how I see it:
Pay to Play is when a venue or promoter takes money off an act prior to them performing – usually with some system where they might be able to make that money back through people through the door / ticket sales. Underbelly, Pleasance, Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Just The Tonic all charge acts various amounts (in the thousands) to play in their venues for the month of August – and then offer the acts a shitty deal (60/40 at best) on trying to cover those charges – which few of them do.
Anyway sorry that you had such a shitty Fringe Mr Harry – I hope you come around and see that there is a much more fun and interesting way to do the Fringe – come and join the spirit of the Fringe x
HARRY DEANSWAY: What do you think the “big four” spend the 40% they take on?
BOB SLAYER: You tell me what they spend it on? Building huge temporary bars that make them the real cash? Promoting mixed bill shows that also make them cash and suck tickets from their real shows? Sending their kids to Eton?
What I can tell you is that it is not necessary for them to charge such shitty deals – and what is more – as more and more acts find alternatives elsewhere and leave the Pay-to-Play venues – then they will be forced to change how they operate / what they offer.
They will either be forced to offer comedians and other low production acts better deals.
Or, as we have already seen them doing, they will move out of comedy into shows requiring larger production where these deals originated and have more justification. I suspect we will see both happening
It’s all very exciting watching the Fringe move towards a more interesting place – something that independent promoters such as the Free Fringe(s) and now Heroes have made happen.
HARRY DEANSWAY: You had a bar in Bob’s Bookshop. Did the acts you promoted get a cut of that or did you get it all on top of the 30% you were already taking from them as a promoter? Sounds like what you would call Pay to Play to me.
Also you are going on about your deal like it’s amazingly better, it’s 10% better and considering your venue was so tiny and were only charging £5, relative to your interpretation of the Big Four’s deal yours really is not that great. In fact relatively speaking it’s probably worse than the Big Four’s.
Also can I just clarify your ticketing policy. You charge if a show becomes successful ? But the unsuccessful ones are “free?” Why do you not charge for all shows, do you think some are lesser quality than others?
I don’t know what they spend the 40% on but at a guess I would say maintaining the infrastructure of the venues to make it the best it can be for performers and audience alike.
BOB SLAYER: As you know you are looking at the percentages all wrong in order to add confusion where it doesn’t need to be… We price our tickets so that they sell without huge inefficient marketing costs (This year we went with a fixed price of £5)
That means the acts that we produced on a 70/30 split saw 70% of their ticket income = £3.50 per ticket pretty much from the first ticket – We also offered acts the option to self produce their shows and take 100% of their ticket = £5 per ticket – the majority of our acts opted for self production
Whereas the costs are set so high on the pay-to-play venues that the 60/40 split hardly come into play and so acts in their venues see roughly the square root of fuck all from each ticket sold.
HARRY DEANSWAY: I think you’ve had quite enough airtime now Bob and as usual it’s all been spent promoting yourself. The article is about the Fringe in general not Bob Slayer or for that matter Harry Deansway. Your opinions are laid out in detail in these comments so anyone who can be bothered reading this thread can make their own mind up now.
BOB SLAYER: Hey Mr Harry – so you do want a discussion? And now you don’t want a discussion? If you weren’t so accidentally funny then it would really hurt my feelings x
SALLY WESTERN: I am confused as to why Bob has to justify himself to Harry Deansway.. ? I’m scared..
BOB SLAYER: Ha ha – it was a nice exercise – I am currently writing up a piece about the Fringe – and ‘justifying to Harry Deansway made me realise that I need to simplify the intro somewhat in order to explain it to those that are ignorant of Fringe ways… Or in case of Harry, those that just like to be contrary and blindly support the underdog.
Harry has quite rightly spotted that the independent is no longer the dog that is regularly kicked and so he has withdrawn his support of it in favour of the poor folks behind the beleaguered Pay-to-Play venues… He is a noble and charitable man.
HARRY DEANSWAY: Congratulations on learning to write Bob! If you could just add reading to the pantheon of your abilities which include getting your penis out on stage and getting dressed in the morning I might start to take what you say seriously.
I’m glad that something I wrote honed into perspective what it is you are doing, it reminds me of the time when I told you to drop alternative from your marketing materials. Best of luck with the Cheap Fringe. (You can have that name for free, £5 if it becomes popular)
BOB SLAYER: But Harry isn’t it lovely that we both are thinking similar things about “cheaper Fringe”… www.cheaperfringe.co.uk
OK your idea is cynical and negative and has come on the back of what seems to have been quite a tough and challenging experience for you at the Fringe. And my “cheaperfringe” experience has been something I have been involved in for a couple of years and is about getting the Fringe to give something back to local residents and making the Fringe a more positive and happy place – but it is uncanny how we think alike x
HARRY DEANSWAY: Not at all, I had a great Fringe. My show sold out, had some lovely audiences, made some money and I wrote and performed a show I was really proud of. I even got a five star review. My article is objective, you should try and write something objectively. All you do is talk about yourself.
BOB SLAYER: I also talk about you Harry – with everyone I meet – I know your comments about me are merely joshing and I love you with an intensity that knows no limits x
Last year, The Scotsman newspaper asked comedian and Edinburgh Fringe venue runnerBob 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.
(This blog appeared on Chortle, the UK comedy industry website)
I went to the Edinburgh Fringe Roadshow in London on Saturday and a couple of people asked my advice because they have decided to perform on the Fringe for the first time this year. Then, on Monday morning, a non-performer who appeared briefly as a guest at last year’s Fringe e-mailed me about the possibility of staging a full show throughout this year’s Fringe in August. On Tuesday morning, an established comedy act phoned me about returning to the Fringe after a gap of several years. And, yesterday afternoon, I got Skyped by someone who lives in mainland Europe about coming to the UK and playing the Fringe for the first time.
On Saturday, I asked about the long-and-widely-quoted statistics that the average Fringe show audience comprises six people and the average Fringe-goer is only in the city for three days. The Fringe Office told me both were urban myths.
Fringe Chief Executive Kath Mainland, in fact, told me that 50% of Fringe audiences come from Edinburgh (ie the EH postcodes). And that does not include the large numbers of Glaswegians who commute to Edinburgh Fringe shows. If true, it would mean that over half the audience is coming from lowland Scotland and performers should perhaps tailor their shows more towards Scots audiences if they want to get bums on seats.
Like all Fringe statistics, of course, even that one should be treated with a pinch of salt. The only way of knowing who goes to the Fringe is if punters buy tickets in advance and give their postcodes. The vast numbers who buy tickets with cash at the venue on the day don’t do that. And all Fringe statistics are mightily skewed by the fact no-one does nor can know how many punters attend the increasing number of free shows – let alone where they come from.
So, as always, performing at the Fringe is like juggling spaghetti in the dark and, when you get there, like standing in a cold shower tearing up £50 notes. This year, the uncertainties are even greater – not because of the recession but because of the rapidly changing nature of the Fringe – especially the crumbling of the box office for middle-ranking comedy shows. It happened last year and is likely to happen even moreso this year.
On Saturday, the gloriously entertaining Peter Buckley Hill of the PBH Free Fringe (a notable former Malcolm Hardee Award nominee) said he has had an 85% increase in applications for the PBH Free Fringe this year.
This is not surprising.
Paid-for show tickets are usually around £10 each – that means £20 if you are a couple and, if you see three shows in one day (which is not uncommon), that is going to set you back £60. For that amount of money and with limited time and vast numbers of shows on offer, you want to make sure you are not throwing your money away. So you pay to see ‘safe’ acts you have seen on TV or, at least, very long-established Biggish Name acts with a known track record.
People used to go to the Fringe and ‘take a punt’ on a show which sounded like it might be good… though it might be shit. That was what the Fringe was about. The excitement of the unexpected and the chance of stumbling on future stars.
What is increasingly happening now is that audiences are prepared to pay for the TV names they know. And they are prepared to take a risk by visiting several free shows. But excellent, experienced comedy acts playing paid-for venues who have not had TV exposure are seeing their audiences fall year-on-year. I know of at least three top-notch comedians who are not going to the Fringe this year because the potential on the paid-for Fringe in major venues is increasingly risky – they will still make a profit but the profit-to-hassle ratio has changed – and they cannot be seen to play free shows because it would lower their professional reputation with reviewers and the media.
It can cost £7,500+ to stage a good comedy show in a major venue at the Fringe.
The Fringe is alive and well for Fringe-goers who want to take a free punt with a high risk of seeing shit… and for Fringe-goers who want to pay to see re-heated TV acts of known quality. But the Fringe is increasingly difficult to financially justify for excellent, experienced live comedians with no TV exposure.
Another factor this year will be the death of the Fringe in the new town.
Edinburgh is two cities – the ‘new town’ (Georgian) and the ‘old town’ (medieval).
With the move this year (for at least three years) of the major Assembly venue from George Street in the new town to George Square in the old town, all the Big Four venues will now be clustered around Bristo Square, George Square and the Cowgate.
People may decide to go to a specific show in the new town, but the four places where punters will come to vaguely sit down and only then decide which show to see will be the Pleasance Courtyard, the Udderbelly Pasture in Bristo Square, the Pleasance Dome in Bristo Square and the George Square gardens which will have, I understand, two new Assembly venues in them. So street flyerers will get more passing trade and bums-on-seats potential in or near Bristo Square/George Square/Cowgate (as well as in the traditional maelstrom of the High Street on the Royal Mile). If someone flyers in the new town near a venue, they will be flyering in isolation and not picking up other shows’ punters.
This August will be particularly interesting to see and particularly uncertain for performers, yet the lure of the Fringe is still almost irresistible. There is that 85% increase in people applying to perform at PBH Free Fringe venues.
Uncertainty is almost an aphrodisiac for performers, but the financial repercussions are incalculable and go on and on.
What will happen next year when the end of the London Olympics overlaps with the beginning of the Edinburgh Fringe? Who knows?
For years, I have tried to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti for one minute and have always been unable to find anyone. But I have blind faith success may be possible. In that respect, I suppose I am much like Fringe performers going to Edinburgh.
The Fringe is an ongoing Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times.
(NOTE TO READERS IN THE USA: The British English phrase “bums-on-seats” means something more financially sustainable than it does in American English)