The Edinburgh Fringe is the real pay-to-play scandal

Which is why Bob Slayer is working on an alternative...

The Funny Women pay-to-play issue has reared its head again. It doesn’t really affect me too much as I am neither funny (according to Steve Bennett’s reviews on Chortle) or a woman (also according to Steve Bennett reviews).

However I do wonder if the entire Edinburgh Fringe industry winces a little when they see this hit the news? They surely must be concerned that their much larger Pay To Play scheme is going to be exposed next.

Most punters just don’t realise that the hundreds of posters and billboards plastered all over Edinburgh in August are paid for by the acts themselves. On top of this venues charge performers rent or daily guarantees and supposedly ‘essential’ marketing fees and expenses in order to perform. It is these often prohibitive ‘pay-to-play’ costs that put many acts in debt and also leads directly to the ridiculously high ticket prices at the Fringe.

My main problem with the current pay-to-play Fringe is not so much that it exists, as there will always be a commercial pop end to the comedy industry. However it is a shame that there is such a lack of alternatives.

I don't blame the venues or promoters, as it is a great business model for them. Why should they risk their own money when they can get the artists to guarantee the costs for them? But who is advising artists to enter into these deals? Their agents and managers. Why aren't they demanding better?

I worked in the music industry for years as a promoter, manager, agent, tour manager and more. No one in the supposedly evil music industry would recommend that their artists risk pur themselves into such ridiculous debt. Pay to play has been hounded out of the music industry for good reason, and it has no place in comedy either.

How can you expect a comedian to be happy and entertain when they have a potential £12,000 invoice looming over them? There is evidence that acts and the smarter agents, particularly of developing acts, are getting wise to these deals and are increasingly looking for alternatives.

The growth of the free shows offering comedians an alternative to this huge expense is proof of this. Also in 2012 The Stand, who keep their costs down so that they can offer good deals for artists based on profit splits and cheap tickets for punters, will be expanding as it takes over the Assembly Rooms building.

But why haven't more venues picked up this baton? Just the Tonic, C Venues, Zoo etc are all great venues but why do they offer the same artist-crippling deals as the Big Four? And why do artists accept this? Come and join the good guys!

In five years time the Fringe will have turned upside-down, just like the music industry has over the last few years.

The Big Four – Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly – will increasingly become the X Factor / Pop Idol commercial end of comedy. Fame-seeking aspiring acts will continue to pay to play at their venues hoping to get noticed. Many acts that take this route will continue to run into debt and fall by the wayside, but the lucky few will be put on the industry conveyor belt and groomed for the increasingly bland TV that by now will potentially be fighting a losing battle against online innovations.

As an alternative to this, there will continue to be a rise in the number of independent venues, promoters and agents offering artists sustainable deals that help them find and build their own audience in a more cost-effective way.

This type of promotion has to consider the needs of the artist and what the punter wants to see instead of simply force-feeding them more of what they already have got. It will also enable artists to really connect with their own audience and mean that they will see a higher proportion of box-office receipts.

This year, I’m involved in the Alternative Fringe experiment. Instead of sniping at the current system from the sidelines we are doing something ourselves. We are making a statement. We want to see a more sustainable system for artists and punters. An alternative to the fame academy that the Fringe is increasingly becoming. An alternative to pay-to-play venue deals that put artists in debt and directly leads to ridiculous ticket prices.

We do not charge artists rent, there are no guarantees or hidden costs. We simply take a fee of £1 per ticket sold. We keep our costs down so that we can offer punters the best ticket deals in Edinburgh. Alternative Fringe Shows will be just £5 per ticket, with membership and other discounts.

Edinburgh Fringe has become the largest arts festival in the world, attracting huge stars and TV names, it has grown beyond a fringe and become a commercial festival. Alternative Fringe is aiming to put the excitement back into Edinburgh! Let the Big Four have their commercial festival, but let's reclaim the Fringe!

Published: 23 Mar 2012

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