Why 'free' means 'worthless'

Denis Krasnov on the Fringe expansion

I was walking down Fleet Street the other day and there were two guys dressed as clowns giving away something. ‘Take one, it’s absolutely free,’ one of them was shouting, but the crowd was shunting away. ‘Check it out, it doesn't cost you a thing’, but there weren’t many takers.

Why? Because it's NOT free. It's a trick. Free phone cards, free vacations—no one falls for it any more. We learned it very well by now that ‘free’ costs you dearly. Still, this summer, the Free Fringe and the Free Festival will be offering hundreds of ‘free’ shows to the public in Edinburgh in August and, despite many years of learning from their own mistakes, people will come – and be disappointed. Is it really different from any other ‘free’ offer? No.

When you hear ‘free show’, you should run – and I’ll tell you why. But you have probably done it many times already, when a friend invited you to an amateur night and you thought to yourself, ‘I'd rather pay couple of quid, and go to a show I enjoy!’

So who performs these free shows? Mostly the people who shouldn't have come to the Fringe, people who are not ready for it, people who wouldn't have come if there wasn't this ‘free’ scheme going around. In the same way it's sold to punters, it's sold to amateur acts – as a way of getting something, an Edinburgh show, for nothing.

Free Fringe and Free Festival are the two major players here. They have their differences. The original Free Fringe was created in 1996 by Peter Buckley Hill with clearly good motives—free for everyone, creative freedom for the artist etc. This utopian dream has long since gone, swallowed by mass production. The Free Festival behemoth is a recent copycat and its methods of recruiting acts are simply bizarre.

Here is a Facebook message by Free Festival's creator Alex Petty: ‘Less than 48hrs until the Edinburgh Fringe programme deadline, and still squeezing shows in... Anyone for fire dancing? A few more Scottish comedians? Theatre from Mumbai? ‘Inspirational"’ Dance from Wolverhampton (apparently)? Still got a couple of early afternoon gaps if anyone wants to do a show/2nd show this August!’

Do you want to waste your time watching a show that someone decided to do in the last 48 hours just because it doesn't cost them anything? Choose any show from the ‘normal’ Fringe and you're guaranteed, that at least its creators put a lot of time and money (and in most cases all of their heart, soul and talent, too) in to its production. Of course there are talented people who decided to do a free show this year, but they have made a big mistake, because they have thrown their lot with those who decided to do a show on a whim. And punters have little way of finding out who is who.

This is a slap in the face for the audience. I’ve heard new and inexperienced acts talking about ‘getting 3 weeks of practice’. Please don't. Respect the audience, we need them! Don't abuse and exploit them! If you're not ready, not polished, didn't practice, if you think of getting better after couple of weeks of performing, if from now till August you have to write the show, if for you it's a dare – have mercy to the people and wait another year. Please. It would be better for everyone.

Let's face it, there are too many bad shows at the Fringe, even without Free Fringe and the Free Festival recruiting them. That's what worries the punters the most, no one wants to spend their time watching bad or mediocre shows. And most will end up doing so, at least once. So do your instincts tell you, stay away from the "free".

If you are hit by the credit crunch, there’s always the Five Pound Fringe, 2-for-1s, and free previews, and Friends of the Fringe, and Half-Price Hut and plenty of other offers and ways to get cheaper tickets.

Showbusiness is about risk-taking. Any producer can lose money. That's why they are very careful about investing in new acts, and that's why it takes such a long time for the new acts to establish themselves on the circuit. Here the Fringe comes in: if the artist believes in himself, he can risk his own money and produce a show and that might help him move up the ladder faster.

The whole idea of the Fringe is that there's no boss, no one to answer to but the audience. Put a show that punters want to see and you'll get noticed. Free Fringe and the Free Festival deny that idea by appointing themselves as the kings of the ‘free’. If you want a good slot you have to please one of them— that is, by nature, anti-fringe.

This is very different from the showcases produced by big production companies like Avalon and Good Sense of Humor. They put a lot of money and effort into finding the best talent. The competition is very strong, but, if you get chosen, you get the stamp of approval and a chance to perform a 15-minute slot at one of a best-produced shows in one of best venues.

If you’re not up to it, you can instead perform up to three hour-long shows (and some acts do perform several free shows daily) in one of dozens of unsupervised and often unsuitable free venues. Why do we allow the quality to fall that low?

Producing a good show is an art in itself. Good producers are rare and they are respected. I see shows falling apart because of producer's lack of experience all the time. Even the top acts will have difficulties delivering his best at a show that isn't well produced. That's the way it’s been for decades: good producers book good acts and good acts perform at good venues. Producing a show takes a lot of work, that's why good producers only run one or two room at a time.

Free Festival boasts 20 venues and PBH another 19. That's a slap in the face of all the people who put their hearts into producing quality shows.

Don't get me wrong, I don't want in any way to play down the genius of free-for-everyone creators. They are very talented... businessmen. Their winning formula is simple: replace quality with quantity, use cheap ingredients, and sell it as free.

The only ones it’s truly free for are the organisers themselves! The acts will be losing financially and artistically: they might lose a chance to produce a good show, or lose a bit of their soul. The punters will be losing time and good spirit: you might lose a chance to see a good show, or a chance to have a pint in a good company, or you might lose the trust that there might be funny shows at the Fringe. But those behind the free sector avoid almost all responsibility.

But responsibility is what's holding it all together. We artists feel responsible for your feeling comfortable and enjoying our shows; we want you to feel that you've got the value for your money. And you have the responsibility to judge us and help the good acts get noticed. So, choose the shows you want to see wisely and then leave feedback, spread the word and help others to make the right choices. Enjoy, have fun and get involved - it's all in your hands – and that's the real spirit of the Fringe!

Published: 15 Jun 2009

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