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The future of the Fringe? Think smaller

Chortle editor Steve Bennett speculates...

So – officially – it wasn’t as bad as everyone feared. A post-Olympic rally meant Fringe ticket sales were just one per cent down on last year, albeit spread over six per cent more shows.

As always, that’s a snapshot that covers all range of experiences. The Boy With Tape On His Face had such packed-out houses that surely very few of his 17,000 or so tickets would have gone unsold; Stewart Lee sold 12,000 seats, but others played to an audience of largely empty chairs.

Newish comedians who fail to capture a buzz have always struggled to sell tickets in Edinburgh – even more so now the free venues offer a no-risk way of taking a punt on an unknown. What struck me, though, especially on weekdays in the first half of the festival, was the number of established performers playing to half-full rooms.

Josie Long, Mark Watson and Richard Herring were among those who faced struggles at the box office you – and presumably they – might not have expected.

Even before this year’s festival began, there was a feeling that a sea-change is afoot in the economics of the Fringe, and it could be acts of this standing who’ll be instrumental in achieving that.

What these acts have in common is that they have largely built their fan base through their own endeavours – using podcasts, 24-hour shows, indie comedy club nights and the internet to build a community audience.

Assume an act of this standing could fill a room of, say, 200 people at the Fringe through that established audience combined with some well-targeted ads and flyers. That’s a decent number of tickets over the Fringe, and if presuming they can be pretty sure of that level of popularity don’t need to splurge thousands on PR and giant posters to try to push up into a 300-500 seat room.

There once was the idea that all this promotion was something of a status symbol, with promoters and agents showing what a must-see their star clients are with the acreage of rain forest destroyed for their billboards. Yet nothing undermines that expensively-bought image more than flyerers in Bristo Square every day barking ‘2-for-1’ on a show.

So if these acts downsized their room, and their poster spending, they could budget based on a decent proportion of seats sold, make a modest profit and not have the daily stress of checking ticket sales. Plus they would be playing to their audience, so can relax and experiment more, not fearing that if word got out about one routine that doesn’t work, it could be ruinous.

This year, Stephen K Amos took that route: playing a gig advertised as work in progress in the medium-sized Stand 3, which he could be sure to sell out. He seemed to be having a whale of a time with the reduced pressure.

Perhaps the same will apply to people in smaller rooms, too. Many industry types put great store on ‘progression’: that if you played a 50-seater this year, you must play a 70-seater next year, even if you only sold out on one Saturday of the run. Why? Why not stick to the size of room you know you can fill – as much as anyone can know these things – rather that immediately seeking a step up? Isn’t it better to sell 50 seats in a 50-seater than 55 in a 70?

Bigger acts downsizing would also benefit the mid-level acts, thanks to the trickle-down effects. If audiences show up without booking in advance and see the big names sold out, they’re very likely to take a punt on something else.

All this coincides with the free festival and free fringe becoming a more viable option – plus a general resurgance in the alternative, indie, do-it-yourself comedy mentality. Financially free venues (which are free to performers as well as audiences) always been a more attractive prospect if you have limited technical needs, as most stand-ups do. But increasingly free shows are being taken seriously by the industry, too.

Unknowns are very unlikely to be reviewed by the national press, no matter what venue they are in. The vastly-expanding plethora of Fringe publications will see everything, no matter what venue they are in. And those in the middle, such as Chortle, The Scotsman and the List, are increasingly and actively seeking shows on the free circuit. I certainly aimed to average at least one free show a day, and The Scotsman’s chief comedy critic, Kate Copstick, has also gone on record as saying she wanted to seek out more free and independently-produced shows.

In a different sort of downsizing, established names such as Nick Doody, Christian Reilly, Phil Walker and Thom Tuck all had free shows. Luisa Omeilan, Austentatious, Yianni Agisilaou, Pattie Brewster and best newcomer nominee Sam Fletcher were among those who all had a great year in free rooms. There’s still some dross that’s free – but that’s true of the paid venues too, but it feels easier to walk out if you haven’t paid – and the more comics who know what they are doing seek free spaces, the more hopeless may be squeezed out… or the free circuit will simply grow further to accommodate more.

And the more people know they can see decent shows for donations only, the less the Fringe will lose its stigma of being an expensive place to visit; and visitor numbers will rise again – even if all those pound counts and fivers dropped in buckets don’t show up in the official box office figures.

Some comedians and producers looking at their settlements in the weeks to come might not agree, but the struggle for audiences at this year’s festival could force people to think differently, and ultimately prove a boon for the Fringe.

Posted: 28 Aug 2012

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