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'Comics should avoid the Edinburgh Fringe spending binge' – Doc Brown

Monday, August 20 2012

This year more than ever, the cost of performing at one of the main Edinburgh Fringe venues is being questioned. Why should the festival's talent carry the cost burden? Is it worth it for them? Comic/rapper Doc Brown moved into comedy from the music business – and says comedians could learn a few things from musicians

Doc Brown

“Most performers will consider themselves very lucky if they break even, lots of them won’t make any money at all. They do it for the opportunities that performing at the Edinburgh Fringe gives them.”
- Neil MacKinnon, Head of External Affairs at the Edinburgh Festival, speaking to the BBC, August 2011

How many times have you heard that phrase in the business of comedy, or in fact, entertainment in general? “You wont get paid, but it’ll be a fantastic opportunity!” At the Olympics this summer, hundreds of musicians complained because they were expected to work for free on the basis that they should be honoured to be a part of history.

Mmm. I wonder if security, emergency services, journalists and TV executives were told the same thing: “Hey, come on Mr Lineker, it’s a magical moment in your career and great exposure too – you don’t need paying!”

Now imagine instead of doing a five-minute link between sports footage or sitting in a booth waving pedestrians into a stadium, you are performing an hour of stand-up to an unforgiving crowd, every single night for a month. Oh and you’re not just not getting paid, you’re paying for the pleasure. And I mean REALLY paying.

“£15,000 is a ball park [figure]” MacKinnon told the BBC last year on the eve of the 2011 fringe. But of course, it’s all worth it right? Who knows? You might land a lunch with a 21-year-old junior development worker from BBC4Extra to talk about maybe getting you to perhaps write up an idea maybe for a late night digital-only show that perhaps doesn’t exist yet but could – it really maybe could!

Meanwhile with understandable glee, MacKinnon informs us that £142m is generated from the Fringe alone for the Edinburgh economy (that doesn’t include Edinburgh’s coinciding international arts, TV, film or book festivals which generate another £103m combined, according to MacKinnon’s external affairs report from 2009).

One hundred and forty two million pounds. Where does that money go do you reckon? Let’s break down the obvious ones: Tickets. Booze. Food. Venue staff. Security. Showpromoters. Fringe marketing.

Now let’s break it down again, just for the comedians reading this:
Tickets: for your show.
Booze: for people watching your show.
Food: enjoyed by people discussing your show before or after your show.
Venue staff: working at your show.
Security: manning the doors at your show.
Show promoters: promoting your show.
Fringe marketing: guess what they’re advertising? Yep! Your show.

Call me pedantic if you wish, or call me the guy who says, “wait a minute – what exactly is the Fringe without the comedians?” Everybody’s getting paid as a direct result of our presence, yet we go home in debt. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in my own talent – as we all should – but are you 15k-in-the-hole talented? Speculate to accumulate, sure, but let’s not lose our house in the hope of a five-minute Comedy Blap on Channel 4. Come on now.

Maybe it’s because I spent so long in the music business, but if I was on tour doing live music with the kind of entourage even average comics have in Edinburgh (PR, show promoter, street teams), for as long as the average Edinburgh comic (26 nights or more), we would collectively be looking to make as much money on door splits alone as possible, let alone merchandise (which it is bizarrely frowned upon to sell after gigs in the comedy world, by the way). The exposure of live performance is of course invaluable, but let’s not forget, no matter how much you enjoy yourself up there – YOU ARE WORKING, and you deserve some shitting recompense.

And herein lies our problem my comic brothers and sisters: we love what we do. We love it and we’d do anything to feel that love requited through the laughter and attention of our audiences. It’s addictive. We all know that.

Guess who else knows that? Your promoter, your venue, your marketing, bookers – everyone. They know you’ll do anything for the love of your art. And every time I turn down a gig with a “lovely knowledgeable crowd”, “great exposure” or “really nice venue” because it will cost me more than I make, they also know there’ll be some other funny talking sucker who will take my place.

Of course, if you are a brand new, green-as-grass comic, you do what you gotta do to get noticed and best of luck to you. My first year was crammed full of unpaid gigs and horrendous overheads. It’s part of our journey.

But all of you who’ve been in the game for a while? Come on man. We don’t have to give away our talent AND line their pockets at the same time. There are other ways. I played the Pleasance in 2010, cost an arm and a leg, barely broke even, but I didn’t personally lose a penny because I sought sponsorship before I left. If you think you’re talented, why not get ballsy with it and approach some DVD companies or big brands like I did – tell em you’re gonna be the next big thing and give them the right to slap their brand all over your show if you have to.

Fuck it – next year you’ll have a new show and a fanbase. Don’t look at it as "selling out", think of it as a necessary evil. Pardon the pun but for once let’s stand up for our fucking selves! We are the reason that ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY TWO MILLION QUID comes to Edinburgh each year. Let’s start showing the world that we mean business.

Until then, we shall all continue to have our bottoms rigorously penetrated and gingerly wander back up the Royal Mile to our £2,000-a-month flat, tentatively reaching behind us to see what might be left of our anuses.

Enjoy the rest of the fest.
Doc Brown


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