Why free is the future of the Fringe | ...and 7 more ways to improve the festival, by Luke Toulson

Why free is the future of the Fringe

...and 7 more ways to improve the festival, by Luke Toulson

For the last eight years I have been one of the hundreds of unknown comedians migrating to the Edinburgh Fringe, and performed at two of the major venues: the Pleasance and the Underbelly.

Last year, by most standards, I had ‘a good Edinburgh’. Audience numbers were good, and those who came to see my show seemed to enjoy themselves, but I lost £6,828 putting it on. (All figures in this article are exclusive of VAT). It has been almost a year since I was told that figure, and I have still not fully come to terms with it. I am only glad that my kids are appalling readers, because I would hate for them to find out about this. What is even more alarming is that that figure is pretty much the average.

There has been a cold war escalation of costs associated with taking a show to the Fringe over the past decade. If someone else has a flyering team, then you need a flyering team, for which last year I paid £1,361. If you have posters plastered all over town (£1,006), then everyone else has to. Last year I was advised that I had to have an advert in the Fringe brochure (£1,200) just to be taken seriously. And all comedians desperately want to be taken seriously.

Add to this, venue costs (£2,136), production fees (£1,000), registration and brochure fees (£746), poster/flyer design and printing (£882), accommodation (£600 – this is very cheap, by the wat), someone to do your sound/lighting (£365), and you are struggling to find anything Mastercard would describe as priceless.

You could argue that if paying close to £7,000 guaranteed you sell-out crowds, loads of reviews and being seen by agents and TV producers, it would be a price worth paying. It would be a rubbish argument, but you could still make it.

In practice this money guarantees you nothing. Industry attention often feels focused on a small number of predetermined ‘buzz’ comedians, venues are commonly half empty, and reviews are hard to come by.

For example, my show last year received just six reviews, and with the exception of Chortle, they were from mostly lesser-known publications (Broadway Baby, Fest, Fringe Guru, One4Review, and Cream of the Fringe), for which I paid a PR person £1,925. Still that was two more reviews than I received for my previous show in 2010, when £1,800 generated just four reviews (All The Festivals, Chortle, Hairline, and The List).

Equally worrying is the ever-increasing ticket prices audiences are being asked to pay. I fell in love with the Fringe performing in weird student shit back in the mid Nineties, when tickets were often around £5, and you could happily take a punt on an unknown show, as I did in 1997 when I saw a play called The Act, written and performed by a pre-fame pairing of Ed Byrne and Brendon Burns. Today, with tickets regularly in excess of £10, you are less likely to take that gamble, and everybody loses.

Fringe veteran Richard Herring blogged during last year’s Fringe that he ‘got a respectable 158 in tonight, but that is half the number that came to see me last year and my lowest Friday night Edinburgh audience since 2005 (and only because the room that year only held 150). It’s very hard not to let your head drop as you think about the financial implications. I was hoping to make some money this year, but that does not look very likely.’

If a critically acclaimed, vastly experienced, hugely respected stand-up like Richard Herring isn’t expecting to make money from the current deal, then it would appear to be an entirely unsustainable arrangement.

Unnoticed by most, back in 1996, an eccentric comedy-performer by the name of Peter Buckley Hill (PBH) started putting on shows for free. Seventeen years later and PBH’s Free Fringe has mushroomed to now include hundreds of free shows by a variety of performers. Free for the performer to put on, and even more amazingly, free for the audience to watch. In 2007 a rival free organization was launched with the confusingly similar name, Free Festival. Relations between the two camps are sour to say the least, due to what can be most quickly explained as ‘a messy divorce’.

In the past it was felt by some that if you took a free show to the Fringe you were forfeiting your chance of being a hit show, but rising stars Imran Yusuf and Cariad Lloyd have both been nominated for the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Award while performing free shows. My favourite non-Daniel Kitson show at last year’s Fringe was the free show Trodd en Bratt, who have subsequently been commissioned to make a series for Radio 4.

Would the undeniably talented Luisa Omielan have created quite such a huge buzz at last year’s Fringe if she had been selling tickets at £10, rather than turning hoards of people away every day from her filled to capacity free show? And with respected comedians such as Phill Jupitus, Addy Van Der Borgh, Ben Norris, Alistair Barrie and Alexis Dubus all performing for free at PBH venues this year, it would appear that a tipping-point is being reached.

I think a show I have spent a year writing is worth something, but if the choice is between performing it for free or losing £7,000, then even my kids could do the maths. And believe me that is saying something, you should see their school reports.

So this year I will be performing my show Luke Toulson: I Don’t Know How I Feel About My Kids every night at 7:35pm, on PBH’s Free Fringe at The Cabaret Voltaire, and it won’t cost you, or me, a penny.

Seven ways to improve the Edinburgh Fringe

1. Reviewers to follow The Scotsman critic Kate Copstick’s lead and review as many non-PRed shows as possible. Reviewers, you are not just observers of the Fringe, but participants in shaping its future, and the crippling losses incurred by those you review should be of concern to you.

2. Someone clever to decide who are the respected Fringe publications/websites, and only reviews and star-ratings from those publications/websites to be put up on posters. Anyone who puts up reviews or star-ratings from a publication/website not on this list, will be widely regarded as a dick. There are so many people reviewing at the Fringe these days, many with dubious credentials, that virtually every show can get a four or five star review to stick up on their poster, rendering the who process meaningless.

3. Hostilities to end between PBH’s Free Fringe and the Free Festival. The general public does not understand that there is a difference, and the conflicting noise just confuses people. If the Pleasance, Underbelly, Assembly and Gilded Balloon can set aside their differences and work together, so can all free shows.

4. If your venue is uncomfortably hot for audience members, don’t charge both the performer and the audience to be in it.

5. Have designated ‘Flyerer-Free Zones’. Some festival-goers feel genuinely harassed by the current ‘Flyerer-War Zone’ system in operation.

6. Stand-up comics to join Equity, the union for performers. A lot of the problems stand-up comics face at the Fringe, and on the comedy circuit as a whole, such as incredibly late payment for some gigs, and a general downward pressure on fees, could at the very least be contested if a union was involved. It would also be a shot in the arm for Equity.

7. We all have a responsibility to make sure comedy does not finally kill off the other arts at the Fringe, which it has slowly been doing since the Nineties. They enrich the Fringe as a whole, and every comic should make the effort to see at least one piece of theatre, dance, or weird student shit.

• You can follow Luke Toulson tweets at @luketoulson.

Published: 4 Aug 2013

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