How the Fringe could compete with the Olympics

Ben Morgan says tickets are too pricey

The Olympics have finally begun and after witnessing the glorious opening ceremony our apathetic nation can now settle down and watch every single minute of action whilst frantically tweeting a strange mixture of disdain and pride.

Even if the downpours return and the Olympics turn out to be a rain-sodden affair, they will still dominate TV and social media. Which means the Games may affect audience numbers during the 12 days it clashes with the Edinburgh Fringe.

But is that only factor?

Could high ticket prices be a factor too?

At the Fringe there are two options for the comedy loving public – Watch gratis shows at the Free Fringe and/or at the similar sounding Free Festival, which I shall collectively call the ‘Free Fringstival’, or shell out quite a few quid to watch the best acts in comedy at a Pleasence / Gilded Balloon / Assembly / Underbelly venue. Do you take the chance on a free show or pay through the nose for a top act? Most punters do a bit of both.

For £15 – the average maximum Fringe ticket price for a weekend show, not including booking fee – people can see an hour of their favourite comedian alongside a couple of hundred other paying customers, who have been squeezed onto uncomfortable plastic seating into an already hot room that has no air conditioning.

If the public were more savvy they could get a much better deal by waiting a few months for their favourite comedian (plus support act) to go on tour and visit their hometown, with a show that’s twice as long, in a large and well ventilated room, on cushioned seats, for an average price of… £15!

I’m not implying that Fringe performers set their ticket prices, I’m sure the organisers have a bigger say. We often hear about comedians losing money from their Edinburgh run, but the cost to the consumer is less often discussed. Here are the weekend ticket prices for some of the most popular Fringe acts:

Richard Herring (£16), Stewart Lee (£15), Rhod Gilbert (£20, only doing ten dates), Russell Kane (£15), Mark Watson (£15), and Simon Munnery (£13.50 for 40 minutes).

Michael McIntyre has been ‘blasted’ for charging £31 for his warm-up shows. It will be polished material as his tour is about to begin, but still, £31?!?! Al Murray is charging £14 max for his warm-up shows. And Reginald D Hunter has a flat-rate of £13 for his work in progress gigs, which feature support from John Gordillo.

All of the acts mentioned above will play to sold out audiences for the majority of the run, so despite the high prices this Fringe business model isn’t unsustainable. Daniel Kitson (£12) sold out his entire run in 43mins.

It’s common sense that great acts charge a premium to see their shows, they've earned that right and have a fan base – and although that rules out skint performers like myself from attending their Edinburgh shows at least I’ll get to see them on tour for a similar price. But what about the fate of shows from lesser-known acts, who charge up to £10 on average?

There’s a raft of less famous pro and semi-pro comedians who are well known to comedy connoisseurs but less so to the regular man in the street. Can these acts really justify charging a tenner for their weekend shows, and just a few quid less on weekdays?

If the streets are crammed with potential customers, they could get a decent sized audience, but what if this year’s crowds chose to watch poster girl Jessica Ennis competing in the Heptathlon instead? Or the tennis final, the 100m final, and countless other highlights

Will competition from the Olympics, skint punters, folk who are desperate to see funny people from the TV funny, and the ever expanding Free Fringstival, mean that 2012 will be a grim year for these performers?

I think £5 is the maximum price one should pay to see a relatively unknown act at the Fringe. A few years ago the ‘Five Pound Fringe’ project had the same vision but failed as it was poorly promoted. But the Pleasance (who can generate huge publicity) could easily set maximum ticket prices for their lesser known comics' shows at £5 for weekdays, which could see sold-out audiences at the majority of these performances.

But as these Fringe venues are driven by profit I doubt this will ever happen. So some of their performers’ shows may only attract half-full audiences on weekdays, or when major Olympic events takes place.

We’re told that a successful festival for pay-to-watch comics is one where they break even. High venue, marketing and running costs mean they barely ever make a profit despite the high ticket prices.

So if you’re an act who isn’t on TV or without a huge fan base, lower your ticket prices to get more punters in. The worst that can happen from a sold-out audience (that have only paid a fiver each), is you make the same amount of money overall as you always have (fuck all), but you have the joy of playing to packed crowds everyday.

And make sure pay-to-watch gigs are air-conditioned please. Do venue owners at the Gilded Balloon, Underbelly, Stand and Pleasance not think that a comfortable audience is a happier audience who are more likely to take more in and laugh more, and then rave about the show afterwards?

Some of those audience members might be reviewers. If they spent more time writing praise instead of mopping sweat from their brows it may result in another star being added to the review. Put that on your posters.

Can the 2012 Fringe take on tight-arsed amateur comedians, cash strapped punters, athletes, slick television coverage, national pride, national disappointment, Boris’s silly sound-bites, and so many glorious opportunities to tweet? Maybe, but they will have to do it without Danny Boyle’s help.

Good luck!

  • Ben Morgan is in Austerity Pleasures, 12:00 Laughing Horse @ Finnegans Wake (13 to 25 only) and Always Be Comedy, 21:20 Laughing Horse @ Jekyll & Hyde (12 to 26 only)

Published: 31 Jul 2012

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