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Edinburgh Fringe round-up II – will 2012 be a turning point?

Thursday, August 30 2012
Pleasance Courtyard
















One of the running themes of the Edinburgh Fringe is the (I think perfectly legitimate) whinge that performers underwrite the whole thing – a cost that is then passed onto the punters. Comic/rapper Doc Brown pointed out on LiF how absurd it is that the bars, restaurants, venues, agents, PRs, journalists, flyerers – basically everyone – makes money off the back of the shows, except for the people actually performing the blooming things.

Like I say, this debate is an annual event, like the Queen's speech or my beloved Gillingham FC's late-season sulk. However this year – and this is anecdotal rather than scientific – dissatisfaction with the Fringe model seemed to be particularly profound and widespread.

Will anything actually change? Will 2012 be a turning point in the Fringe's history? Well I foresee no revolutions, but I suspect over the next 3-5 years the landscape will change in reaction to the costs. Of course, for some comics, the full Fringe package of plum venue, PR and promotion will be a no-brainer (either they're rich/desperate enough to risk the money, or have industry backing). And for many others, doing a free show will be a no-brainer, particularly for newer comics.

But what about all those in the middle? That's where I think the sands are shifting. The idea of going "all-in" is increasingly being questioned.

So what changes may occur? Firstly, more comics may simply stay away. The number of Fringe shows every year increases – that can't go on forever. A correction may be imminent. Comics may decide that gigging harder for the rest of the year would mitigate missing out on the accelerator that the Fringe undoubtedly is. There are also more comedy festivals than ever across the UK, which means more options not just for the performers but for punters as well, who can often see the same shows for less, just at different times of the year.

Should one of those festivals seize the opportunity to expand to become a genuine "mini-Edinburgh", rungs could be climbed at a fraction of the cost. Leicester Comedy Festival has already forced its way onto the comedy landscape, but I think it would take an ambitious Manchester or Leeds to take a bite out of Edinburgh.

Morph

Edinburgh is institutionalised, though, and comics pathologically find it hard to turn down a gig, so the Fringe is far more likely to morph than shrivel up. It may be that the free part of the Fringe expands even more. The free shows now receive recognition by not only the awards, but by TV and radio talent-spotters too. Audience numbers aren't necessarily any lower than in paid shows, and often the free rooms are at least as good as the expensive ones. Pride is an issue though – how many comics hell-bent on success will want to perform in a pub rather than a "proper" comedy venue?

It may be that more comics double-up and do a paid show and a free show, with the latter helping to pay for the former. Thom Tuck, Josie Long and Phill Jupitus did this this year (not necessarily as an insurance plan, but that's what it could be to others). This might appeal to comics and punters alike, although it may strangle some of the new talent out of the free shows if established acts nab too many of the slots.

I think the Fringe will become even more fragmented away from the "big 4" venues. As more comics try and find their own way, and as more companies crane to find a free teet on to the comedy cash cow, it may be that new mini-festivals spring up.

Barry Ferns and Gareth Morinan kind of made themselves into one-man festivals this year, with all the shows they put on and given their conspicuous presence in the Fringe brochure. Other comics may well do the same. Further to that, a comic (or a group of comics) may prefer to have a venue to themselves, or seek sponsorship – as the Alternative Fringe has done on both counts with the Hive pub and Scottish Borders Brewery. Comics have to find a way of standing out, and away from the big 4 there is plenty of individual enterprise, and I think that's going to become increasingly evident.

I also wouldn't be surprised if someone had another stab at a £5 Fringe (2009-2010) whose demise wasn't necessarily due to a lack of business model. Again, the Alternative Fringe has something in that region, as it offers a mix of free and £5 shows, taking £1 from each ticket sold.

A more fragmented Fringe may not be discernible to comedy-goers. For all the different factions and brandings, I think they just see names and prices. Perhaps it will wrest a little control from the big 4 and the machine, man, and force a lot of people to reassess their desired profit margins. More likely is that the Fringe will become even more divided between the main venues and everyone else. Comics may cross the divide, but punters less so, creating almost two Fringes that operate independently of each other. One for the curious, one for the uncurious.

The BBC is exacerbating this. It's been pointed out that the Beeb has effectively made the big 4 into a big 5 by stepping up its Fringe operations (something which led to this protest during its BBC3 Comedy Marathon). While I agree it's ethically unsound that a publicly funded corporation should have such a large presence when hundreds of individuals are fighting for audiences every day, I think it's accelerating a trend rather than creating new problems. The idea that large numbers of Fringe-goers only watch comedy at the Pleasance Courtyard or Bristo Square, and nowhere else, pre-dates this year.

Things may be about to get messy.

Discussion

#1
August 31 2012, 4.49pm
bobslayer
Interesting

What I am most proud of about The Alternative Fringe is that we introduced the term Pay-to-Play as a more accurate alternative to describe the big four - This moved the debate away from paid v free to a debate about fair deals v deals where the artist stands all the risk and has little or no up side. It also importantly begins to spread public awareness on why ticket price are so high for punters

One reason why Agents and Managers advise artists to put themselves in debt with the Pay-to-Play venues is because they have a vested interest in this. As more and more Artists get wise to this they will begin to look for other options to put on paid shows: That is with The Stand, Alternative Fringe and other new Promoters. I think we will see more Free venues also putting on one or two paid shows as well as other small paid venues popping up

Oh and just as a note about the £5 fringe - This failed because as laudable as its aims were it was still a pay-to-play model but with the disadvantage of having less income to support it. There were still many cases of acts who were destined to lose money even if they sold all their tickets... Alternative Fringe is not fixed on £5 tickets. In fact with Phil Kay easily selling out his run this year we prob should have charged a little more!
#2
August 31 2012, 4.50pm
bobslayer
How The Fringe is Financed
(The most read blog post of the Fringe)
http://thejohnfleming.wordpress.com/2012/08/04/how-the-edinburgh-fringe-is-financed-the-article-which-you-cannot-read-in-this-mornings-edition-of-the-scotsman/

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